Lessons on the New Left from the Hanoi Hilton

A POW's memories of communist torture camp collaborators Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda.

[](/sites/default/files/uploads/2014/02/fondapic1.jpg)C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb recently interviewed Lee Ellis, author of Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton. The book is a valuable primer on history that many Americans have forgotten or know only in part. Leading with Honor is also an introduction to characters all Americans should get to know better, such as Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda. Ellis came to know the pair under different circumstances.

In November of 1967 Ellis was shot down on a mission to destroy the guns that protected the Quang Khe ferry that supplied the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In the Hoa Lao prison, which POWs dubbed the Hanoi Hilton, Ellis learned firsthand about North Vietnam and its systematic torture of American POWs. As the author notes, the North Vietnamese tortured more than 95 percent of American POWs including eight tortured to death. Ellis describes the “Pretzel,” one of the regime’s favorite tortures:

After the prisoner’s legs were tied together, his arms were laced tightly behind his back until the elbows touched and the shoulders were virtually pulled out of joint. Then the torturer would push the bound arms up and over the head, while applying pressure with a knee to the victim’s back. During the torture, the circulation is cut off and the limbs to go sleep but the joint pain continues to increase as the ligaments and muscles tear. When the ropes are finally removed, circulation surges back into the “dead” limbs, causing excruciating pain.

POW Mike McGrath provides a sketch of the practice. The North Vietnamese also used handcuffs that could be ratcheted down tighter until they cut off circulation, even cut into the muscle and on some men, “deep enough to expose bone.” But the torture wasn’t all physical.

The captors piped in propaganda and, Ellis explains, “the afternoon broadcasts were especially disheartening because they featured Americans spouting words that could have been written for them in Moscow and Hanoi.” American Tom Hayden “was a regular speaker,” later joined by his wife “film star Jane Fonda.” For this pair, the American POWs were war criminals and their reports of torture were lies.

Ellis charitably calls Fonda an “anti-war activist,” but she and Hayden were not against war in general. They only opposed American participation in a war against the North Vietnamese regime they served as propagandists. Hayden was their voice in the cells of the Hanoi Hilton and Fonda partied it up with a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft squad. But unlike “Axis Sally,” Mildred Gillars, who served jail time for broadcasting Nazi propaganda, “Hanoi Jane” suffered not at all. Her money and prestige helped Hayden gain public office in California.

The war in Vietnam continued after the United States pulled out in 1973 and in 1975 South Vietnam fell to the Communists.  Hayden and Fonda celebrated the victory and remained uncritical of a Stalinist regime more repressive than its Soviet sponsors. Fonda even sought to slam the door on the “boat people” who fled the regime. Hayden called their defenders, such as Joan Baez, tools of the CIA.

Meanwhile, one of Tom Hayden’s comrades, John Froines, was recently the subject of a glowing profile in the Sacramento Bee describing him as a “social justice and civil rights advocate” but a stickler for facts and completely impartial.

Froines was a minor Zelig-like figure in the New Left but achieved a measure of fame for disrupting the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He was acquitted on rioting charges and, armed with a PhD in chemistry from Yale, went on to work for the federal government. He later landed in California, where his Scientific Review Panel on Toxic Air Contaminants used suspect data to impose an onerous regulatory regime that punishes California workers

Froines’ panel championed a study by Hien Tran of the California Air Resources Board, who claimed to have a PhD from UC Davis. Actually, Tran bought his degree from a diploma mill in a New York UPS office. Froines also fought epidemiologist James Enstrom of the UCLA School of Public Health, who exposed Tran’s fakery and pointed out problems in his study.

Even so, Froines was duly reappointed to the panel by Assembly Speaker John Perez who claimed to have earned a degree from UC Berkeley, a claim backed by state officials and federal Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. But that too was wrong. Perez, a “Chicano Studies” major, did not earn a degree at UC Berkeley. In politically correct California, a virtual one-party state, the falsehood hurt him not at all.

The California Environmental Protection Agency honored John Froines in a private ceremony and the Italian city of Capri gave him the prestigious Ramazzini Award as a “public health hero.” New Left hero Tom Hayden went on to teach at UCLA and Occidental College. And Jane Fonda of course remains a Big Star.

To find out how Tom and Jane came across from the cells of the Hanoi Hilton, and to learn what kind of regime they defended, readers might consult Leading with Honor by Lee Ellis. Yes, there’s a lesson or two in there somewhere.

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