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We've Been Here Before: The Tiger Cages of Vietnam

My best friend was tortured to death in 1970. Nguyen Ngoc Phuong was a gentle person. But he hated the war and the destruction of his country. He was arrested by the U.S.- sponsored Saigon police in one of his many anti-government demonstrations. After three days of continuous interrogation and torture, he died."He was tortured by the (Saigon) police but Americans stood by and offered suggestions," said one of the men who was in prison with him.

Perhaps this is the biggest single difference between Viet Nam and Abu Ghraib. In Viet Nam, the U.S. primarily taught and paid the Saigon police and military to do their bidding. In Abu Ghraib and Iraq, the U.S. military is carrying out the torture themselves. There were, however, many Vietnamese who were tortured by Americans before being turned over to their Saigon allies and put into jail. Reports of suspected Viet Cong being thrown out of helicopters, peasant farm people tied to stakes in the hot sun, and young men led off to execution by U.S. soldiers are well-documented by U.S. soldiers and journalists.

The U.S. paid the salaries of the torturers, taught them new methods, and turned suspects over to the police. The U.S. authorities were all aware of the torture.

The Tiger Cages

In 1970, President Nixon sent a delegation of ten Congressmen to Viet Nam to investigate pacification. A part of their mandate included a visit to a prison in South Viet Nam as a way to be allowed to visit a prison where U.S. POWs were held in the North.

Tom Harkin, then an aide to the congressional group, convinced two of the Congressmen to investigate stories of torture in the Tiger Cages off the coast of Viet Nam (the French built them in 1939 to hold political opponents; similar ones in French Guinea became famous in the movie Papillion, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman). The congressman requisitioned a plane for the 200-mile trip to Con Son Island. I was asked to go as an interpreter and specialist in Vietnamese prisons. At that time I was working for the World Council of Churches.

On the way out Frank Walton, the U.S. prison advisor, described Con Son as being like"a Boy Scout Recreational Camp." It was, he said,"the largest prison in the Free World."

We saw a very different scene when we got to the prison. Using maps drawn by a former Tiger Cage prisoner, we diverted from the planned tour and hurried down an alleyway between two prison buildings. We found the tiny door that led to the cages between the prison walls. A guard inside heard the commotion outside and opened the door. We walked in.

The faces of the prisoners in the cages below are still etched indelibly in my mind: the man with three fingers cut off; the man (soon to die) from Quang Tri province whose skull was split open; and the Buddhist monk form Hue who spoke intensely about the repression of the Buddhists. I remember clearly the terrible stench from diarrhea and the open sores where shackles cut into the prisoners' ankles."Donnez-moi de l'eau" (Give me water), they begged. They sent us scurrying between cells to check on other prisoners' health and continued to ask for water.

The photos that Harkin, today a U.S. Senator from Iowa, took were printed in Life Magazine (July 17, 1970). The international protest which resulted brought about the transfer of the 180 men and 300 women from the Cages. Some were sent to other prisons. Some were sent to mental institutions.

Grace Paley described the prison life of one of the 300 women who were incarcerated in the Tiger Cages in her 1998 book, Just As I Thought:

In prison, Thieu Thi Tao was beaten on the head with truncheons. Her head was locked between two steel bars. Water was forced down her throat. She was suspended above the ground. Then, on November 20, 1968, she was transferred to national police headquarters. The Vietnamese Catholic priest, Father Chan Tin, in a plea for international concern about her case, wrote that she was"further beaten and subjected to electric shock.""She's become insane," Father Tin wrote,"unable to sleep for fifteen days, believing herself to be a pampered dog that could only eat bread and milk. Not being given these, she refused to eat and became so weak she couldn't talk. When the wind blew she wanted to fly.

Late in 1969 Tao was transferred to the Tiger Cages of Con Son. She was there for a year and transferred to the Bien Hoa Insane Asylum. For several days, she was hung from an iron hook. Her spine was damaged by this torture and she still wears a neck brace.

"You saved our lives," Tao later wrote."I still remember the strange foreign voices when you came. In the cages, we wondered what new indignities were to be visited upon us. But a foreigner [myself] who spoke Vietnamese with a heavy accent told us it was a U.S. congressional investigation. We had prayed for such an inquiry and took the chance to speak of the tortures. We begged for water and food. We were dying you know."

Tao was a 16-year high school student then. She was put in cages because she would not salute the flag. She was obstinate, the prison director said at the time. The oldest prisoner in the Cages was Ba Sau. She was blinded by the caustic lime that was thrown onto prisoners as a disciplinary measure."I was a Communist," she says."But the others were only student protestors, Buddhists and writers."

Today, behind the five foot by nine-foot cages is a cemetery for the 20,000 people who died in Con Son prison. Most graves are unmarked. The prisoners at Con Son didn't even have numbers. When the survivors return, they bring flowers, pray and softly sing the songs that were whispered in the cages some 35 years ago.

Soon after the expose in Life, Congressman Philip Crane (R, Illinois) visited Con Son and declared"the Tiger Cages are cleaner than the average Vietnamese home." He could not understand afterward why even the most pro-American of Vietnamese newspapers condemned him strongly and even hinted that his remarks were racist.

Similar to contemporary events in Iraq and the so-called War on Terror, in 1971 the Department of Navy gave a contract to the company Raymond, Morrison, Knutson-Brown Root and Jones to build new cages even smaller than the original ones. The money for the new cages came from the U.S. Food for Peace program. Ironically, part of the construction consortium, Brown and Root, is today the Halliburton subsidiary that built the"isolation cells" in Guantánamo, Cuba for imprisonment of Afghan and Iraqi suspects. (For a copy of the contract, see Hostages of War by Holmes Brown and Don Luce.)

U.S. Policy in Viet Nam and Iraq

Torture was certainly an integral part of U.S. policy in the Viet Nam war. We paid for it through our"Public Safety" program. Our advisors taught"better methods" and were often present helping with"suggestions" during the torture. But as a general policy, our soldiers turned their prisoners over to the Vietnamese police for torture. Just as with U.S. policy-makers on Iraq, the U.S. developed rationale to claim that the prisoners we took were not covered by the Geneva Convention (the U.S. authorities claimed they were all" criminal prisoners").

Where Are They Now?

For 35 years I have followed the lives of the Tiger Cage inmates who are still alive. Many are doing very well. Loi runs an embroidery business. Tao is an agricultural engineer and runs a large shrimp farm. Lap is a high official in the Tourist Bureau. Tan runs an interior design business and Thieu is a prominent lawyer. They are all reminders that the people imprisoned for political reasons during a war are most often the leaders of a country after the war. The people who were in the Tiger Cages also have a have a special attachment to the Americans who worked so hard for their freedom.

Final Note:

"I read the books about the survivors of Auschwitz and Dachau," one of the former Tiger Cage inmates told me."They are like us. Each has a special memory of someone who was there for them at a crucial moment. Someone who gave them a crust of bread or a few drops of water. Moments of kindness are seared in our minds. There is no way we can forget Mr. Harkin and his group."

This article was first published by Historians Against the War.