As Ken Burns’ new Vietnam War documentary airs on PBS, the re-examination of the decades-long conflict continues in another compelling piece of storytelling—this one with a co-op pedigree.
“Poles, Wires and War: The Remarkable Untold Story of Rural Electrification and the Vietnam War,” is a new book written by Ted Case, executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Its release coincides with the PBS series and is his second book on the unsung history of electric co-ops and their understated influence on the White House.
The book begins in 1965 when the war was escalating and President Lyndon B. Johnson endorsed a plan, floated by “kindred spirit” Clyde T. Ellis, first general manager of NRECA, to electrify the South Vietnamese countryside. Friends since the 1930s, both men believed electricity would win the “hearts and minds” of South Vietnamese villagers and stop communism.
Case chronicles the efforts of 20 top-notch rural electrification specialists who started three co-ops in South Vietnam from scratch with some 30,000 connections.
At first, there’s a sense of righteousness—perhaps similar to U.S. farmers during co-ops’ founding days in the 1930s—among the co-op specialists, that they’re building something rather than destroying it.
One consultant was Louie Sansing, then 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 at all available. Expectations were sky-high, red tape abounded, 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 about Vietnam, Case said 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,” said Case. “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.”
“Poles, Wires and War” can be purchased through Ted Case’s website.
Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer at NRECA.