You can add another compelling piece of Vietnam War storytelling to a fall season that was dominated by the release of the epic Ken Burns TV series about the intractable conflict.
But this second story has a decidedly co-op angle.
Poles, Wires and War: The Remarkable Untold Story of Rural Electrification and the Vietnam War details the little-known efforts of President Lyndon B. Johnson and Clyde T. Ellis, NRECA’s first general manager, to use electricity to capture the “hearts and minds” of South Vietnamese villagers and win the battle against Communism.
The historical page-turner is the latest effort from Ted Case, executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association. It’s Case’s second published work on the history of electric co-ops. His first, Power Plays, examines how co-ops have worked with U.S. presidents over the decades.
It’s well known that President Johnson was passionate about rural electrification. He helped form Pedernales Electric Co-op in Johnson City as a campaign promise while running for a House seat in the Texas Hill Country in the late 1930s.
But few may know about the bond between the president and Ellis and how the relationship of these “kindred spirits” led to a plan to light up the South Vietnamese countryside.
Friends since the 1930s, they “were inextricably linked by shared history, personal friendship, and old-fashioned political backscratching,” Case writes.
Poles, Wires and War begins in 1965, as 20 top-notch rural electrification specialists were dispatched to South Vietnam to help create three co-ops with some 30,000 connections.
One consultant was Louie Sansing, a 39-year-old manager at Ashley-Chicot Electric Cooperative in southeast Arkansas. With an interpreter, “Sansing walked the hamlets like a Fuller Brush man. He went everywhere, from the opulent home of a prominent pig farmer in the Ham Hai hamlet to a woman who sold firewood in the local market and lived in a house made of mud and straw. The villagers offered Sansing food and drink until his stomach churned. No matter where he went, Sansing conveyed the same message. ‘We’re going to get something started.’”
But as the situation worsens in Vietnam, reality sinks in. Tools, poles, and crews were scarce, if available at all. Expectations were sky-high, specialists were up against a five-year deadline, and “Johnson’s fears that the Communists could seize the electric co-ops turned out to be true.”
Like most historical treatments of Vietnam, Case says the story’s ending left him conflicted.
“But I thought it was appropriate to pay homage to those who had helped pave the way for current rural electrification efforts in Vietnam,” he says. “They turned the lights on and demonstrated that the villagers would even fight for their co-op when the Communist Army was at their gates.”