BANGKOK — Don Luce, a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War whose activism led the last U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam to credit him as one of the main reasons the United States lost the war, died Nov. 17 in Niagara Falls , NY. He was 88 .
His death, at Niagara Falls Memorial Hospital from sudden cardiac ischemia, was confirmed by his husband and only survivor, Mark Bonacci.
Mr. Luce, a civilian aid worker, was best known for exposing the existence of “tiger cages,” where the South Vietnamese government imprisoned and tortured its opponents and critics in cramped cells.
In response, both the Vietnamese and US governments turned against him and he was expelled by South Vietnam in 1971.
In 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 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 wider anti-war movement that blamed Ambassador Graham Martin for the U.S. defeat in Vietnam in April 1975, which turned the public against the war and led to a reduction in Congressional funding.
“The most important organization, I think, is the Indochina Resource Center,” he told a congressional hearing in 1976, “and I really think another important element would be Mr. Don Luce’s multifaceted activities.”
Calling the anti-war movement “one of the best propaganda and pressure campaigns the world has ever seen,” he added, “These individuals deserve tremendous credit for a highly effective performance.”
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-sponsored forerunner of the Peace Corps. He was fluent in Vietnamese and sensitive to the culture of the country.
People who knew him at the time described him as consistently calm and demure.
“His demeanor was always calm, his humor sharp,” Thomas Fox, a colleague at IVS, said in an email. “He was a shy person, ill-equipped in that sense to play the role of a prophet that he had to endure.
“Don had no rough edges. His strength – and it was immense – came from his ability to hold on to a truth and speak it clearly. He was always very passionate when speaking on behalf of those who never had that opportunity.”
His experiences among Vietnamese suffering the devastation and disruptions of warfare transformed him from a supporter to a critic to an increasingly vociferous opponent of the war.
In 1967, Mr. Luce and three other senior IVS staffers 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 quietly pursue our primary goal of helping the people of Vietnam,” the letter said. “The war as it is currently being waged is a self-defeating approach.”
After his discharge, 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, he and an IVS colleague, John Sommer, published “Vietnam: The Unheard Voices,” in which they recounted their disenchantment with American warfare that, they said, perversely aided the Viet Cong in the North. Vietnam-backed guerrillas in South Vietnam.
“Because American understanding of the people is so limited, the tactics devised to help them are either ineffective or counterproductive,” the authors wrote. “They have served to create more Viet Cong than they have destroyed.”
Mr. Luce then returned to Vietnam, accredited as a journalist for the World Council of Churches, and with his fluency in the language and local contacts, he served as a source for American reporters.
One of his concerns in Vietnam was the treatment of political prisoners, and in 1970 he accompanied members of a congressional delegation to expose the brutality of a prison on Con Son Island that held thousands.
Some 500 were political prisoners—government opponents, underground communists, student protesters, and activist Buddhist monks—held in small cells known as “tiger cages” in a concealed, walled section.
Tom Harkin, a staff assistant on the delegation who later became a member of Congress, arranged for two of the 12 members to leave to travel to the prison with Mr. Luce.
Mr. Luce had a hand-drawn map that led to a secret door, beyond which visitors would find hundreds of starving and abused men and women crammed into cages under gratings in a walkway.
“I clearly remember the horrible stench of diarrhea and the open wounds where chains cut into the prisoners’ ankles,” wrote Mr. Luce in an account of the visit. “’Donnez-moi de l’eau’ (Give me water), they begged. They sent us between cells to check the health of other prisoners and kept asking for water.”
Mr. Harkins’ clandestine photographs were published in a photo essay in Life magazine on July 17, 1970, which provoked international condemnation 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 had a dairy farm and his mother was a teacher.
He received 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 rejoined IVS and served as a director until 1997.
He then began a quiet life in upstate New York with his husband, Dr. Bonacci, a professor at Niagara County Community College in Sanborn, NY.
He taught sociology at the same school for two years and then became public relations director for Community Missions of Niagara Frontier, which provides a range of social 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.
The Community Missions job was a step down in scale, if not in idealistic ambition, Mr. Luce told Ted Lieverman, a freelance documentary photographer and writer, for an article published online in 2017.
In his thirties and forties, Mr. Luce said, he had tried to change national policy. “Now I try to focus on helping a few people make life easier,” he said, looking at the world “from a soup kitchen perspective in Niagara Falls.”