The Hanoi Hilton: Burying the Painful Past

It is difficult to comprehend the use of torture against captured enemies in an effort to secure classified information. Despite such atrocities, I maintain my faith and occasionally see glimpses of healing, propitiation, and forgiveness. During my divinely timed exchange with a true American military hero—Congressman Sam Johnson—God gave me just one such glimpse.

During my presidency at New York Life, I often made visits to Washington to lobby issues of particular interest to the company and the insurance industry. These visits were typically intensely busy, with very few breaks. I’d arrive on an early-morning flight and meet first with the New York Life government affairs staff for a briefing on the day’s schedule and the most important issues on the legislative agenda. There followed multiple meetings with members of Congress in fifteen- to twenty-minute sessions throughout the remainder of the day. There was no break for lunch, and my last meeting finished just in time to hail a cab to the airport, where I caught a shuttle flight back to La Guardia.

In 1999 and 2000, New York Life was expanding its international operations and was eager to obtain licenses to sell its products in the huge, underpenetrated insurance markets of India and China. In exchange for China’s rapid consideration of our license application (which otherwise could take many years to process), we had agreed to lobby on their behalf in the United States for Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR), something that would facilitate their rapid acceptance into the World Trade Organization (WTO).

My visit to Washington this day in 2000 was to lobby in support of the PNTR bill for China, which was scheduled to come to a vote in the House of Representatives in May. The day began with several early meetings. Then, as I hurried to a late-morning appointment with Congressman Sam Johnson of Texas, a Vietnam vet and former POW, I received the usual mobile briefing from our on-site Washington government relations officer, Jessie Colgate. She told me about Congressman Johnson’s long history in the House, his voting record on similar issues, and the basic nature and characteristics of his constituents in Texas. We also talked about the market share of New York Life in his district and how we could best argue for support of the PNTR bill for China. It was as thorough as a briefing could be in a fast-paced twenty-minute walk from one building to another. But there was one more thing, and as we approached Sam Johnson’s office, Jessie got nervous. “Fred, you should know Sam was a prisoner of war at the infamous Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam for almost seven years,” she said.

China was an ally of North Vietnam during the war and provided military supplies and support to the North Vietnamese. “I’m afraid Sam harbors negative views of the Chinese,” she continued. “He’s likely to debate any proposal to support Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China.”

I knew atrocities sanctioned by national authorities can generate lasting feelings of enmity against an entire country—its people, its customs and even its cultural production. Evidently Sam’s long-standing hostility against his captors and torturers would likely extend to an entire nation of people who had little, or nothing to do with his pain and suffering more than thirty years earlier. We arrived a couple of minutes early to the meeting, so Jessie and I discussed what I might be able to say, and I became increasingly anxious. On one hand, I felt honored to be in the presence of a great American who had given so much for his country and had sacrificed so greatly. But on the other hand, I knew I was likely to face some strong and passionate resistance to my proposal.


(Later I read the following on his website about his service in Vietnam:
During his second tour of duty, Johnson flew his 25th combat mission on April 16, 1966. Shot down at dusk over North Vietnam, Johnson suffered a broke right arm, dislocated left shoulder, and a broken back. It was these injuries that the enemy captors would use in their constant efforts to glean information from Johnson.
Johnson spent nearly seven years as a prisoner of war, 42 months in solitary confinement. He was forced into solitary confinement when his captors labeled him a “die-hard.” While held in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, Johnson spent 72 days in leg stocks. A day after that torture ended, his captors forced him into leg irons for 2 1/2 years. Weighing 200 pounds when shot down, an emaciated Johnson got down to an estimated 120 pounds while barely surviving on the occasional “meal” of weeds from the river, pig fat, white rice, or pumpkin soup.
Fellow POW Captain James Mulligan, USN (ret.), recalled the day Johnson was allowed to return to a joint cell. He walked into the room with the two other detained American officers, “stood at attention with tears in his eyes, and said simply, ‘Lieutenant Colonel Sam Johnson reporting for duty . . . sir.’”)

As we sat down and exchanged pleasantries, my nervousness was somewhat replaced by gratitude. I thanked God for the opportunity to meet Sam and for my pride in America’s long history of courageous heroes.

Part 2

Taking a deep breath, I entered Sam’s office and announced my arrival to his receptionist, who asked me to take a seat in the typical congressional office waiting area: small and modest, with one couch and a chair; the walls were lined with photographs of the congressman posing with numerous political leaders. One that caught my eye was a nicely framed formal commendation from the House of Representatives that recognized Sam for his exemplary service in Vietnam. On the plaque was a quote from a North Vietnamese official saying that Sam Johnson was one captured American soldier they could not break.

What an astonishing statement. I was awed by the obvious loyalty and courage of this great American patriot. Would I have had the courage to withhold information under intense interrogation and torture?

As was usual for such meetings, I still didn’t know for sure if I’d be seeing Sam or a representative from his staff, and I’m embarrassed to say that for a moment I actually hoped he wouldn’t show up. But if he did, maybe I’d simply talk briefly about New York Life, thank him for his service to the country, and leave without ever raising the PNTR issue. How nervous I was as I sat in the waiting area . . . gradually and uncomfortably flooding with guilt, my normally low heart rate and blood pressure escalating.

It’s in moments like these that I believe God speaks to me through my emotional and sometimes physical reaction to my own thoughts. As my nervous system went into overdrive, I sensed that God was calling me a coward. Clearly, my plan to escape this confrontation was not worthy of the courage and dignity of the man I was about to meet. Certainly it would be uncomfortable to raise the PNTR issue with the congressman, but I suddenly realized that my discomfort couldn’t begin to compare to the torture he had endured for his country. I had to face the challenge. I had to step up to the task.

Finally I was escorted into Sam’s office and I was somewhat stunned and saddened as he slowly walked toward me with a noticeable limp—certainly related to the torture. And when I shook his big hand, I was equally moved by what felt more like a beanbag than a firm Texas handshake. The North Vietnamese probably broke the bones in his hands in their attempt to extract information.

Part 3

Following a ten-minute summary about New York Life and our important strategy of exporting our expertise to international markets as we expanded globally, I quoted some quick statistics that pointed to the tremendous opportunity in many Asian markets and then, as my nervousness returned, I began to go through my talking points in favor of PNTR for China.

Instantly, Sam stopped my pitch. “Why on earth would New York Life want to do business in that country?” he asked, frowning and squirming in his chair.

I explained about China’s massive market of more than a billion people, its rapidly growing economy, and the need for life insurance, which to date was not readily available to people in China.

Again he interrupted. “Do you really think this is an environment in which we could grow and sustain our business?” He pointed out the many well-publicized reports of difficulties other companies had recently experienced with the Chinese, alleging that in China there was little respect for intellectual property and an eagerness among their domestic companies (and even the government) to learn from and then apply foreign companies’ knowledge and expertise. He also alluded to the concerns of many Americans and others regarding China’s spotty record in the area of human rights.

I responded the best I could, increasingly frustrated as I realized my efforts were likely futile. Moreover, I didn’t want to offend or antagonize a man who had suffered so much at the hands of a military organization closely aligned with the Chinese. It was then that I believe that God entered the discourse by providing me with an instantaneous, unplanned inspiration and a way to touch Sam more personally.

“My daughter Dena recently spent a semester abroad in China,” I told him. “She is a devout Christian who attended Calvin College, a Christian school in Grand Rapids, Michigan. During her semester in China—you’re right—she witnessed censorship and oppression relative to religious worship, but she also made many friends and was able to share her faith.”

With courage that could have been inspired only by God, I suggested to Sam that if we as a country continued to avoid interactions with the Chinese, we would miss an opportunity to share our values and our faith. If we refused to open the dialogue, we would probably continue to see cultural misunderstandings and wouldn’t even have an opportunity to impact human rights. “But by providing permanent normal trade relations for China, we stand a far better chance of generating not only expanded trade and commerce, but also the exchange of cultural ideas and values,” I said.

Sam listened, then responded, his argumentative tone transformed into one that was more contemplative. I wasn’t sure if he was simply politely ending the debate or if he really was beginning to soften. Bidding him good-bye, I hoped and prayed that I had been duly respectful in my discussion and that, despite his painful memories, Sam would thoughtfully consider our position toward the China bill.

A few days later I enjoyed one of the most gratifying moments of my career when Jessie Colgate called me. “You’ll never believe this,” she said. “Congressman Sam Johnson voted in favor of the PNTR for China bill!” She congratulated me and asked how on earth I had managed to convince him.

I deserved none of the credit, I told her; it was God’s work in bringing us together, providing the words I uttered about my daughter’s experience and softening Sam’s heart to the current realities about a nation largely disconnected from his painful past. In God’s perfect timing, all things are indeed possible and good can overcome evil.