On Colonel Risner

In Chapter XIX of The Passing of the Night, Colonel Risner describes a meeting with me in the Hanoi camp called the Plantation. This was on April 1, 1968—the day the bombing stopped over most of North Vietnam. I have spoken of the meeting in my book Hanoi. Two captured pilots were brought into a living-room to talk to me, one after the other. Risner was the first. In my text I said “the second prisoner,” but that referred to the order in which I took them up: I started my account with quotations from the other pilot, much younger than Risner and eager to know how the Chicago Cubs were doing. He was a rather nice ordinary boy from an Irish Catholic background.

I did not identify either by name and was chary of telling too much, because of their prisoner status—they were not free to answer any adverse comments I might make on their attitudes and might even be harmed in some way. In the case of the younger pilot, because he was likable, I had fewer inhibitions. Hence I gave him fuller treatment than I gave the then Lieutenant Colonel Risner. All I said specifically of Risner was that he was “a gaunt, squirrel-faced older man” who “had not changed his cultural spots” but claimed to like Vietnamese candy.

Hanoi is now about to be republished in a collection of my Vietnam writings, and this spring, after the release of the POWs, while revising the manuscript, I appended a footnote. Here it is.

*This was Robinson (“Robbie”) Risner, today a widely admired hard-liner and Nixon zealot. From my notes: “tight lined face, wilted eyes, somewhat squirrely. Fawns on Vietnamese officer. Servile. Zealot. Has seen error of ways. Looks at bananas. Grateful. ‘Oh, gee, bananas too?’ Speaks of his ‘sweet tooth.’ Loves the Vietnamese candy. Effusive about it. Perhaps ostracized by his fellow-prisoners. Speaks English slowly, like a Vietnamese practicing the language. Stereotyped language.”

Now that I have seen Risner’s book, I have searched my memory for further particulars of that meeting, looked through my notebook again, and studied a photograph of him that was taken during the conversation. Since I was the only American, outside of his fellow-prisoners, he saw in Vietnam, it is in the general interest, I think, to check his memory of that interview, as he records it, against mine. It is the unique passage in the book where somebody not a North Vietnamese jailer nor a US military hard-liner was present during a scene he describes. My notes, I suppose, were written the same day, in the afternoon during the “rest period,” or in the evening.

What stands out in my recollections is the contrast between the two prisoners and the paradoxical impression that made on me. On the one hand, Risner claiming to feel deep repentance for his acts against the North Vietnamese people; on the other, the boy showing no remorse, seeming untouched, really, by his experience. As…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.