February 3, 2023

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Don Luce, activist who helped end the Vietnam War, dies aged 88

BANGKOK — Don Luce, a die-hard Vietnam War opponent whose activism led the last American ambassador to South Vietnam to cite him as one of the main reasons for United States war losses, died November 17 in Niagara Falls, NY. He was 88 years old.

His death at Niagara Falls Memorial Hospital from sudden cardiac ischemia was confirmed by his husband and sole survivor, Mark Bonacci.

Mr. Luce, a civilian worker, was best known for exposing the existence of “tiger cages” in which the South Vietnamese government imprisoned and tortured its opponents and critics in cramped cells.

In response, both the Vietnamese and American governments turned against him, and he was expelled from South Vietnam in 1971.

Time Magazine reported of his expulsion: “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 relief mission, founded the Indochina Mobile Education Project, affiliated with the Indochina Resource Center, and toured the United States spreading an anti-war message.

The project was part of a broader anti-war movement that blamed Ambassador Graham Martin for America’s defeat in Vietnam in April 1975, which angered the public against the war and led to a cut in funding from Congress.

“The most important organization, in my opinion, is the Indochina Resource Center,” he said at a congressional hearing in 1976, “and I truly believe that another major element would be the multifaceted activities of Mr. Don Luce.”

He called the anti-war movement “one of the finest propaganda and pressure campaigns the world has ever seen,” adding, “These individuals deserve tremendous credit for a very effective effort.”

Mr. Luce had lived and worked in Vietnam since 1958, first as an agricultural specialist and then as country director for International Volunteer Services, a church-backed precursor to the Peace Corps. He was fluent in Vietnamese and sensitive to the country’s culture.

People who knew him at the time described him as consistently quiet and reserved.

“His manner was always calm, his humor sharp,” said Thomas Fox, a colleague at IVS, in an email. “He was a shy person, ill-equipped in that sense to play the prophetic role that he had to endure.

“Don had no rough edges. His strength – and it was enormous – came from his ability to hold onto a truth and speak it clearly. He was always at his most passionate when speaking for those who were never given that opportunity.”

His experiences with Vietnamese suffering the ravages and dislocations of warfare propelled him from a supporter to a critic to an increasingly vocal opponent of the war.

In 1967, Mr. Luce and three other senior IVS staff resigned in protest and wrote a widely publicized five-page open letter to President Lyndon Johnson, signed by 49 members of the agency, detailing their criticisms and recommendations.

“We are finding it increasingly difficult to remain silent about our primary goal: to help the people of Vietnam,” the letter reads. “The war as it is being waged is self-destructive to some extent.”

After retiring, Mr. Luce returned to the United States, where he spent a year as a research associate at Cornell University’s Center for International Studies.

In 1969 he co-published “Vietnam: The Unheard Voices” with an IVS colleague, John Sommer, in which they recounted their disillusionment with American warfare, which they said perversely aided the Viet Cong, the North Of Vietnamese supported guerrillas in South Vietnam.

“Because American understanding of the people was so limited, the tactics devised to help them were either ineffective or counterproductive,” the authors wrote. “They served to create more Viet Cong than they destroyed.”

Mr. Luce then returned to Vietnam, was accredited as a journalist for the World Council of Churches and, with his fluency in language and local contacts, served as a source for American reporters.

One of his concerns in Vietnam was the treatment of political prisoners, and in 1970 he led members of a congressional delegation to expose the brutality of a prison on Con Son Island that housed thousands.

About 500 were political prisoners — government opponents, underground communists, student protesters and activist Buddhist monks — held in tiny cells known as “tiger cages” in a hidden, walled-in area.

Tom Harkin, a member of the delegation who later became a member of Congress, arranged for two of the 12 members to break out to travel to prison with Mr Luce.

Mr. Luce had a hand-drawn map that led to a secret door, beyond which visitors found hundreds of starving and abused men and women crammed in cages under bars on a sidewalk.

“I clearly remember the horrible stench of diarrhea and the open wounds where shackles cut into the prisoners’ ankles,” Mr Luce wrote in a report of the visit. “‘Donnez-moi de l’eau’ (Give me water) they asked. They sent us between cells to check the health of other prisoners and kept asking for water.”

The secret photos of Mr. Harkins were published in a photo essay in the July 17, 1970 issue of Life magazine, which was internationally condemned and led to the transfer of the prisoners.

Donald Sanders Luce was born on September 20, 1934 in East Calais, Vt. to Collins and Margaret (Sanders) Luce. His father ran a dairy farm and his 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 going to Vietnam with IVS

After the war he moved to Washington, DC where he rejoined IVS and served as director until 1997.

He then started with his husband Dr. Bonacci, a professor at Niagara County Community College in Sanborn, NY, lives a quiet life in upstate New York

He taught sociology at the same school for two years and then became the public relations director for Community Missions of Niagara Frontier, which runs a range of community services including a homeless shelter and soup kitchen. He also led study groups to Vietnam and accompanied journalists on reporting trips to Vietnam and Cambodia.

Community Missions’ job was a step down, if not in idealistic ambitions, Mr Luce told Ted Lieverman, a freelance documentary photographer and writer, for an article published online in 2017.

In his 30s and 40s, Mr Luce said he tried to change national politics. “Now I’m trying to focus on helping a few people live easier lives,” he said, looking at the world “from the perspective of a Niagara Falls soup kitchen.”