Don Luce, activist who helped end the Vietnam War, dies at 88
BANGKOK — Don Luce, a persistent opponent of the Vietnam War whose activism led the last U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam to call him one of the main reasons the U.S. lost the war, has died November 17 in Niagara Falls, NY He was 88 years old.
Her death, which occurred at Niagara Falls Memorial Hospital after suffering sudden cardiac ischemia, was confirmed by her husband and sole survivor, Mark Bonacci.
Mr Luce, a civilian aid worker, was best known for denouncing the existence of “tiger cages”, where the South Vietnamese government imprisoned and tortured its opponents and critics in cramped cells.
In response, the Vietnamese and American governments turned against him and he was expelled by South Vietnam in 1971.
Reporting his expulsion, Time magazine said, “Don Luce is to the South Vietnamese government what Ralph Nader is to General Motors.”
Back in the United States, Mr. Luce, along with other former members of his aid mission, established the Indochina Mobile Education Project, affiliated with the Indochina Resource Center, and traveled the United States to spread an anti -war.
The project was part of a larger anti-war movement that Ambassador Graham Martin blamed for America’s defeat in Vietnam in April 1975, turning the public against the war and leading to cuts in congressional funding.
“The main organization, I think, is the Indochina Resource Center”, he said in a congressional hearing in 1976, “and I really think another main element would be the multifaceted activities of Mr. Don Luce.”
Calling the anti-war movement “one of the best propaganda and lobbying campaigns the world has ever seen”, he added, “These individuals deserve enormous credit for a very effective performance.”
Mr. Luce had lived and worked in Vietnam since 1958, first as an agricultural specialist and then as national director of International Voluntary Services, a church-supported precursor to the Peace Corps. He was fluent in Vietnamese and was sensitive to the country’s culture.
People who knew him then described him as always calm and discreet.
“His manners were always calm, his humor lively,” said IVS colleague Thomas Fox in an email. “He was a shy person, in that sense ill-equipped to play the role of prophet that he came to endure.
“Don had no rough edges. His strength – and it was enormous – came from his ability to hold on to a truth and speak it clearly. He was always very passionate when he spoke on behalf of those who had never had this opportunity.
His experiences among Vietnamese people suffering from the devastation and dislocations of war transformed him from a supporter to a critic to an increasingly outspoken opponent of the war.
In 1967, Mr. Luce and three other senior IVS executives resigned in protest and wrote a widely published five-page open letter to President Lyndon Johnson, signed by 49 members of the agency, detailing their reviews and recommendations.
“We are finding it increasingly difficult to quietly pursue our main objective: to help the Vietnamese people,” the letter said. “The war as it is now being waged is doomed to failure.”
After his resignation, Mr. Luce returned to the United States, where he spent a year as a research associate at the Center for International Studies at Cornell University.
In 1969, with IVS colleague John Sommer, he published “Vietnam: The Unheard Voices”, in which they recounted their disillusionment with the American conduct of the war which they said was perversely aiding the Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese-backed guerrillas in South Vietnam.
“Because American understanding of the people has been so limited, tactics designed to help them have been either ineffective or counterproductive,” the authors wrote. “They served to create more Viet Cong than they destroyed.”
Mr. Luce then returned to Vietnam, accredited as a journalist for the World Council of Churches and, thanks to his fluency in the language and his local contacts, he served as a source for American journalists.
One of his concerns in Vietnam was the treatment of political prisoners, and in 1970 he guided members of a congressional delegation to uncover the brutality of a prison on Con Son Island that housed thousands of people.
Some 500 were political prisoners – government opponents, underground communists, protesting students and militant Buddhist monks – held in tiny cells called “tiger cages” in a hidden, walled-in section.
Tom Harkin, a staff aide to the delegation who later became a congressman, arranged for two of the 12 members to split up to travel with Mr Luce to the prison.
Mr. Luce had a hand-drawn map that led to a secret door behind which visitors found hundreds of starving and brutalized men and women crammed into cages under gratings in a walkway.
“I clearly remember the terrible stench of diarrhea and the open wounds where chains cut prisoners’ ankles,” Mr Luce wrote in an account of the visit. “’Give me some water,’ they begged. They sent us running between cells to check the health of other prisoners and kept asking for water.
Clandestine photographs of Mr. Harkins were published in a photographic feature in the July 17, 1970, issue of Life magazine which drew international condemnation and led to the transfer of the prisoners.
Donald Sanders Luce was born September 20, 1934 in East Calais, Vermont to Collins and Margaret (Sanders) Luce. Her father operated a dairy farm and her mother was a teacher.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in agricultural development from Cornell before heading to Vietnam with IVS
After the war, he moved to Washington, DC, where he joined IVS and served as its director until 1997.
He then embarked on a quiet life in upstate New York with his husband, Dr. Bonacci, a professor at Niagara County Community College in Sanborn, NY.
For two years, he taught sociology at the same school, then became public relations director for Community Missions of Niagara Frontier, which provides a range of social services, including a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen. He has also led study groups in Vietnam and accompanied journalists on reporting trips to Vietnam and Cambodia.
Community Missions’ work was a step forward, if not in idealistic ambition, Mr. Luce told Ted Lieverman, documentary photographer and freelance writer, for an article published online in 2017.
In his 30s and 40s, Mr. Luce said, he had tried to change national policies. “Now I’m trying to focus on helping a few people have an easier life,” he said, and looking at the world “from the perspective of the Niagara Falls soup kitchen. “.