- Historic Sites
The Obsequious Bow
The Story Behind the Picture That Shocked America
August/September 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 5
“[The French Delegate General’s attaché] was there and he was appalled, really taken aback. The Canadians were cynical about the whole war, cynical about both sides, and I never really could trust what they had to say. They didn’t have much to say about this when I talked with them. The Cubans were divided. They all thought it was a terrible scene but some of them were trying to find explanations which would, you know, square it somehow. And the others, particularly my friend Bobby Salas, couldn’t find any way to explain it. It stunk, and they knew it.”
“Well, Dum Dum says to me as he pushes me back into my cell, you did not bow prettily as I asked you to. And I figured, well, I’m going to have a session on that one so Fd better figure out what happened. I think it over, and sure enough, they call me in about 19:30 [7:30 P.M. ] and sit me down and say, uh, why did you bow the way you bowed? Major Bui wants to know. The best thing I could come up with, which they bought, was I’m afraid of cameras. ‘You told me it was going to be a group of intellectuals—a small group of intellectuals. It obviously was a press conference. I don’t like the press. There were cameras there rushing up the aisle, and in my fright I must have reverted back to my ancient Catholic custom of bowing ninety-degrees.’ They all knew about Catholics and allowed as how they’d told me it would be a small group. So, they bought it. They said, okay, the guy was just scared.”
Stratton’s day was not over. Someone who had attended the press conference that afternoon requested a copy of his “confession” in the pilot’s own handwriting. (The transcripts passed out by the Vietnamese were typewritten.) Stratton refused to write it all out.
“They brought in two armed guards and they ‘thumped’ me, beat on me to write the ‘confession’ down in my own handwriting.
“[The Rabbit was] very careful. There were a couple of grammatical and technical errors they had made and they were very careful to make sure those mistakes were exactly duplicated in my handwriting.… [The copying] took all night, what with all the delaying tactics, thumpings, fooling around to screw it up somehow, and the recopying. So it was about six o’clock the next morning before there was a copy … in my own handwriting.”
That he could write at all was a wonder. His wrists were not strong enough to carry anything, and still hurt severely. Writing itself was hard, but he made a last attempt to discredit the “confession” by changing the shape of certain letters on the theory that anyone comparing the script with his normal handwriting would notice something amiss.
The humiliation of Richard Allen Stratton was a quintessential blunder. The American’s performance shocked the diplomatic and press communities in Hanoi, and correspondents wasted no time in filing dispatches about his “confession.”
Lee Lockwood was appalled. Nothing has prepared him for what he had witnessed. Few persons or organizations in early 1967 seemed aware that North Vietnam was brutalizing its American captives. If such was suspected, it was a suspicion kept silent. American Naval Intelligence knew, however. In April, 1966, a Japanese television reporter had interviewed then-Commander Jeremiah A. Denton, Jr. Even as Major Bui, the Rabbit, and others monitored his performance, Denton’s eyes continually blinked T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse Code. The videotape had left Hanoi virtually unedited, had been purchased by American network news and broadcast nationally. An intelligence officer had picked up the message. But Washington did not go public with the information. That was the policy then.
The full impact of Stratton’s performance hit with the publication of Lockwood’s photographs and article in Life . Lockwood’s chilling description of the incident and full-page photograph of the seemingly mesmerized flier created an international furor. Life also included an emotional reaction to the Stratton incident from then-Ambassador-at-Large Averell Harriman: “Prom the photographs, videotapes and descriptions by eyewitnesses that I have seen of the so-called ‘news’ conference at which Commmander Stratton was exhibited, it would appear that the North Vietnamese authorities are using mental or physical pressure on American prisoners of war. We all remember the ugly record of ‘brainwashing’ during the Korean War. It would be a matter of grave concern if North Vietnam were using similar means against the prisoners.
“Hanoi has said its policy is to treat prisoners humanely. However, it has refused to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross … to visit the prisoners, a right required by the Geneva Convention to which Hanoi has adhered. Without such independent verification, North Vietnam’s professions of ‘humane treatment’ cannot be accepted.”
Stratton had accomplished his goal, though in March, 1967, he was not immediately aware of it; in hindsight he conceded he probably saved his own life. When the war was over, Hanoi had to produce him no matter how battered he was, no matter how many scars he bore.