Former P.O.W. James Stockdale Has a New Mission: Instructing Others in His Proven Survival Philosophy
03/07/1983 at 01:00 AM EST
Ten years ago last month James Bond Stockdale reentered the world. It was on Feb. 12, 1973 that he and 115 other American POWs—the first group released—walked out of the Hanoi prison where he had spent most of seven and a half years following the downing of his A-4 jet over North Vietnam. When his family met him in San Diego, the 49-year-old Navy captain was an emaciated shell. Even now he vividly recalls being astonished just by "how noisy" ordinary life seemed after 2,714 days of confinement.
Today the retired three-star admiral seems a different man. At 59, he is vigorous and trim; the only sign of his ordeal is his stiff left leg, badly broken in a beating when he was captured. Clearly the past holds no terrors for the Navy's most decorated Vietnam veteran. Far from trying to forget his imprisonment, he relives it constantly.
Since January Stockdale has been teaching a twice-weekly, 90-minute sophomore seminar at Stanford University called Combating Coercion and Manipulation. Though he says it deals with "the power of the human spirit and the human mind under deprived and hazardous conditions," the course isn't grim or preachy. Besides his life at the Hoa Lo (Fiery Furnace) prison—the "Hanoi Hilton"—Stockdale draws on readings from Solzhenitsyn, Koestler, Dostoevski, Marx, Plato, Aristotle and the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who wrote a favorite Stockdale maxim: "It were better to die in hunger, exempt from guilt and fear, than to live in affluence with perturbation." The 10 students—75 applied, but Stanford keeps such seminars small—listen raptly as he tells how the POWs handled their captors ("You had to be able to say no—you did not have to be nasty, but aloof and enigmatic"), how they tapped out messages to one another, how they would signal "I love you" when one of them was led away to be tortured. Says 20-year-old Sandra Bodovitz, who aims at a history major: "He teaches us to know what to lean on when you need it. We don't have many heroes these days. He's someone we can look up to." Many ex-POWs agree. Ex-Air Force pilot Sam Johnson, a six-year veteran of Hoa Lo, says Stockdale "probably took more punishment than the rest of us, but he kept us on an even keel."
Stockdale's inner discipline was shaped from his youth when he was steered to Annapolis by his father, an ex-Navy CPO who ran a pottery firm in Abingdon, III. He graduated 130th (Jimmy Carter was 60th) in the class of '47, won his wings, and later took test pilot training with John Glenn. He began reading Epictetus in the early '60s at Stanford, where he got an M.A. in political science. Perhaps because of his much-tested stoicism, his post-prison transition was smooth. Says his eldest son, James Jr., 32, a Tampa prep school teacher: "He was a pretty straightforward man before, and he was the same way when he returned."
Stockdale does recall "seeing all the shopping malls and highways back in the U.S. and being a bit frightened by them, but I didn't think, 'Wow, how the world has changed.' " In some ways his experience was tougher on his wife, Sybil, 58. She founded an organization of POW and MIA families in 1970, and lobbied so hard for the cause she got briefings from Henry Kissinger. But the cost was high: She had nervous breakdowns in 1970 and 1972.
Today the Stockdales live like any prospering, middle-aged couple with "a garden-variety happy marriage," as he puts it. They have a condo at Stanford and a larger home near San Diego. She teaches preteen boys with learning disabilities; he heads his condo's homeowners' association. He swims every morning ("I can't run, but I have a compulsion to exercise"). They go to parties and movies.
Stockdale's mission now is to teach. "I love it," he says. Both his and Sybil's mothers taught school, as do James Jr. and Sid Stockdale, 28 (the two younger sons are in college). Post-Vietnam duty included heading the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. before he retired in 1979. Then he became president of the Citadel, the South Carolina military academy, but quit when its board balked at Stockdale's plans for such reforms as limiting freshman hazing. In 1981 he was asked to be a fellow at the Hoover Institution, the conservative research center at Stanford. The seminar was his idea.
Republican Stockdale likes Ronald Reagan ("a good man") but is cool about his old Annapolis classmate's policy. The Carter tactic of dealing softly with Iran in the hostage crisis "rang hollow to me," he says. "The North Vietnamese were the nicest to us when the U.S. was doing the heaviest bombing." When B-52s hit Hanoi in 1972, he recalls, his jailers "began to bring us coffee for the first time."
The ex-POWs have an organization that meets every five years, but Stockdale keeps in much closer touch with the 10 survivors of the Alcatraz gang, a group of POWs, among them Alabama Sen. Jeremiah Denton, who were punished severely for leading prison resistance. They write and call often.
Stockdale and his wife are now writing a book about the POW years, which he discusses at length with his friend Herman (The Winds of War) Wouk. Of his students, he says, "They are smart. They seem more open than kids were when I went to school." He thinks his course can help them "find the strength they will need. I want them to know when people are trying to manipulate them." And if they can't learn that from Stockdale, it probably can't be taught.