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Jeremiah Denton: Defiant

[CRC’s Dr. Steven J. Allen first came to Washington 33 years ago to serve as press secretary to Jeremiah Denton, who died last week at age 89. This is Dr. Allen’s tribute to Denton, an American hero.]

What makes someone a quintessentially American sort of hero? – not just a hero, but a hero in the tradition of George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.

Heroes come in many varieties, from the soldier who runs into a hail of gunfire to rescue a fallen comrade, to the whistleblower who endangers her career to call attention to wrongdoing, to the citizen who protests peacefully in the face of a very real threat of violence.

As I see it, one characteristic above others is associated with American-style heroism. That is defiance – defiance when the adversary has the odds stacked in his favor – defiance when one’s life and honor and at stake, when one has little to gain for oneself, when everything is at risk, and when most men and women would meekly acquiesce – defiance grounded in a motto attributed to Franklin and adopted by Jefferson: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”

Just as a person can be American in spirit without being an American literally (Alexis de Tocqueville, Margaret Thatcher), U.S. citizenship is not necessary for a person to be an American-style hero.  Think of the man who stood in front of a column of tanks during the Tiananmen Square protest.  Or the man who refused to join the crowd in giving the Nazi salute at the 1936 launch of a naval training vessel. (Believed to be a fellow named August Landmesser, he’s featured in posters with the caption “Be this guy!”)

There’s a reason so many of the world’s dimwits ridicule Americans as cowboys: We do the things for which they don’t have the, uh, brazenness.

In my life, I have known some great men and women; I have known heroes; but the most quintessentially American hero I have known is a man named Jeremiah Denton.

On July 18, 1965, Navy Commander Denton’s plane was catapulted from the deck of the carrier Independence in the Gulf of Tonkin.  This was during the Vietnam War, in which communist North Vietnam, with the aid of the Soviet Empire, invaded (and eventually conquered) South Vietnam.

The U.S. had come to the aid of South Vietnam, and Denton’s mission was to lead 28 aircraft in an attack on enemy installations.  As his bombs fell, his plane was hit, and he ended up, severely injured, in the Ma River.  He was captured and would spend the next seven years and seven months as a Prisoner of War – four years of that in solitary confinement.  He slept on a concrete bed and was tortured almost beyond human endurance.

One torture he endured, as described by another POW, was this: “[T]hey tightly bind your wrists and elbows behind your back with nylon straps, then take the strap and pull the arms up, up your back, to the back of your head. . . . both arms tied tight together, elbow to elbow, wrist to wrist, and then using the leverage of [the torturer’s] feet planted between your shoulder blades, with both hands, he pulls with all his might ’til your arms are up and back over your head, forcing your head down between your feet, where your legs are between iron bars. . . . [Y]ou are tied up so tight that your windpipe becomes pinched, and you breathe in gasps.”

Over time, the number of American POWs in North Vietnam increased. “The prisoners kept their sanity and their pride in themselves and their country by defying their captors,” as Joy Hakim wrote in the History of US series.

For years, the fact that the POWs were being tortured was kept secret with the help of activists like the actress Jane Fonda and journalists like Wilfred Burchett.  (Burchett, an Australian, was an open supporter of Soviet imperialism and violence, and was so respected by so-called mainstream journalists that the distinguished Harrison Salisbury of The New York Times wrote the introduction to his autobiography.)  Stuart Rochester, author of Honor Bound: American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia 1961-1973, noted that Burchett was “writing pieces around the world about how terrific the Vietnamese were and how evil and imperialistic the POWs and the American military [were].”

Leftwing activists and journalists would conduct propaganda interviews with the POWs that created the impression that the prisoners were being treated well.  The POWs would try subtly to undermine the propaganda effort; one, forced to read a statement over the radio, pronounced Wilfred Burchett’s name as something like “well-fed bull***t.”  But getting the word out about the torture – that presented a dilemma.

Referring to activists David Dellinger and Tom Hayden,[1] author Stuart Rochester said in a 1999 interview:

Usually, when the Dellingers or the Haydens would come over there, the prisoners, on the one hand, would often be trotted out with trays of cookies and in a fairly nice circumstance, or might get a break in terms of some decent food and a break from monotony. But, at the same time, they were being exploited for the purposes of showing the humane and lenient side of the Vietnamese, and the Haydens and the others would go back to the United States and then say that these guys were being treated fine, there’s no reason for concern.

So the effect of them being over there was to really enhance the propaganda campaign of the North Vietnamese. And it angered the POWs tremendously.

Also, when they would hear Jane Fonda or Hayden on the radio spouting about the American imperialists and the Vietnamese being so humane and lenient in the treatment of their prisoners, giving the wrong impression.

Denton’s captors put together an interview with a Japanese journalist – an interview to be attended by Burchett and Communist Party officials from several countries.  Prior to the interview, Denton was tortured and threatened with more torture and instructed to “respond properly and politely.”  During the interview, he was asked about U.S. “war atrocities” and responded, “I don’t know what is happening now in Vietnam, because the only news sources I have are North Vietnamese, but whatever the position of my government is, I believe in it, I support it, and I will support it as long as I live.”

It seemed, during the interview, that Denton was having a hard time adjusting to the harsh lighting.  He was blinking incessantly.

The Japanese journalist got the interview out and sold it to ABC, and the interview was broadcast around the world.

The blinking, it turned out, was deliberate.

Denton had been blinking in code, repeatedly spelling out one word: “T-O-R-T-U-R-E.”

The next torture session was the worst he had suffered.  The guards were brought to tears.

Stuart Rochester said later that “Denton had a reputation . . . as being one of the strictest in terms of his adherence to the [U.S. military’s POW] Code of Conduct and requiring that the others adhere to it. . . . Denton was one of the toughest resisters.  He was certainly one of the most admired POWs.”

As the American POWs returned home in 1973, it was Denton who spoke for his fellows.  Standing on the tarmac at Clark Air Base, he said, “We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our commander in chief and to our nation for this day.” He added, with emotion: “God bless America!”

Promoted to admiral, he served three and a half years as commandant of the Armed Forces Staff College.  In 1980, after he retired from the Navy, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, becoming the first Republican senator from Alabama in more than a century.  He was the first Catholic elected to statewide office in a state where anti-Catholic sentiment once ran strong, and the first admiral elected to the U.S. Senate.

In the Senate, he promoted legislation to protect the First Amendment by prohibiting discrimination against religious organizations in the use of school property.  He worked for abstinence education and for adoption as an alternative to abortion.  As a critic of the taxpayer-funded abortion industry, he was constantly under attack by anti-taxpayer groups such as Planned Parenthood.

As chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Security and Terrorism, he launched some of the earliest official investigations into the international network that fosters terrorism.  For his effort to expose this network, he earned the ridicule of The New York Times and other establishment media, which, except during a brief period following 9/11, downplayed the threat.  It was Denton’s work that shone a light on the Soviet role in the shooting of Pope John Paul II and on Soviet influence over supposedly mainstream “peace” organizations.

For his political efforts, he was hated by segregationist Democrats and the Washington establishment and the Far Left. The Left targeted him for ridicule. Planned Parenthood put up billboards showing a Denton lookalike in bed between a husband and wife, and he was attacked in such publications as The Washington Post and Penthouse Forum. For his efforts to expose extremism and hate, he was called the “new [Joe] McCarthy.” The Soviets funneled at least $2 million into efforts to defeat him, and he lost reelection narrowly in 1986, with lots of vote fraud. (Ironically, the man who defeated him, union-backed Democrat Richard Shelby, would become a conservative Republican in 1994.)

As late as 2004, California legislators blocked him from speaking on the Assembly floor for an Independence Day commemoration. (In the end, the event was held in Governor Schwarzenegger’s meeting room). But over time his heroism became the stuff of legend and pop culture, and many people forgot why they were supposed to hate him. His code-blinking was referenced subtly in the film Wag the Dog and the TV series Homeland. The National Archives in 2008 listed him as one of 25 key eyewitnesses to American history. And when he died last week, 27 years after leaving the Senate, he was hailed for his heroism in Vietnam even on the nightly network newscasts, and his obituary, which was mostly favorable, made the front page of The Washington Post.

My first job in Washington was as Senator Denton’s press secretary.  Some people found it hard to work for him; he could be more stubborn than any mule, as his captors had learned.  But that stubbornness helped make him the ultimate non-politician.  He meant what he said and said was he meant, never mind the political consequences.  (Yes, being his press secretary sometimes felt a little like being a flag bearer at Gettysburg.) He was exactly the kind of senator that Alabama and our country needed.  He was the kind of leader that, if we are to restore American greatness, we must have in positions ranging from President of the United States to county school board member.

Every day, people who fight for freedom are told that our efforts are in vain.  It’s too late, we’re told by pessimistic friends and gloating foes.  Get used to it, they say.  ObamaWorld is the New Normal.  America is in decline. Our children and grandchildren will be citizens of the world, and second-class citizens at that.

Oh yeah??

As signatures were being affixed to the Declaration of Independence, there were more British troops in New York, a couple of days’ march away, than there were people in the city of Philadelphia.  The chance of winning the war for Independence was far less than the chance that the Founders would be hanged.  Signing the Declaration – that was defiance.

What Jeremiah Denton did – that was defiance.

Our challenges are as nothing compared to the challenges faced by the Founders or by the American POWs in the Vietnam War.  We must live by their example.  We must be ever-defiant.

The people who created the current national crisis, and those who stood by and did nothing as the crisis developed, tell us that the nation’s problems are unsolvable.  They say that all our work as freedom fighters is doomed to failure.

Defy them.  Do it anyway.



[1] David Dellinger was a former Socialist Party official who became famous as a member of the Chicago Seven, protesters who disrupted the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Hayden was a leftwing activist, a co-founder of the radical group known as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). He would soon marry Jane Fonda, and they would have a son whom they named Troy after Nguyen Van Troi, the attempted assassin of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and former GOP vice presidential nominee Henry Cabot Lodge.  (Under the name Troy Garity, Hayden and Fonda’s son is now a movie and TV actor.)

When SDS members disagreed among themselves over the use of violence, the pro-terrorism wing split off to form the Weather Underground.  Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn declared war on the United States and conducted a bombing campaign while on the lam, then escaped jail on a technicality and went on to sponsor the careers of likeminded activists such as a young Barack Obama. – SJA