Rural Missouri - January 2018 - 32
photo courtesy NRECA
Ted Case speaks about electric co-op history at the NRECA Annual Meeting in 2017. He recently published a book about the co-op's role in Vietnam.
Lighting a war zone
The audacious story of electric co-ops in Vietnam
by Paul Wessland | firstname.lastname@example.org
uring one of the hardest chapters in American history, electric co-ops
volunteered to win the war in Vietnam.
They didn't win the war, but in his new book "Poles, Wires and War,
The Remarkable Untold Story of Rural Electriﬁcation and the Vietnam
War," author Ted Case tells a riveting story of how they tried. He argues that
the success electric co-ops had in the conﬂict that divided our nation just might
have helped that southeast Asian nation recover more quickly by demonstrating
the value of bringing electricity to the countryside.
Ted brings authority to the book as executive director of the Oregon Rural
Electric Cooperative Association. But he also makes good use of his master's
degree in ﬁction writing to tell a compelling story of an audacious offer from Clyde
Ellis, the head of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA),
to President Lyndon Johnson. "Give the South Vietnamese electricity," said
Ellis, "and you'll win their hearts and minds in the ﬁght against communism."
What followed was a battle of enormous personalities, political and military
maneuvering, and a determined people who brought electricity to the American
countryside, ﬁghting the odds to bring light to a war zone halfway around the
He creates a fast-paced narrative as the crews race the collapsing war to
pass bylaws, organize the co-ops and tangle with corruption, bureaucracy,
in-ﬁghting and Viet Cong soldiers determined to destroy what they were
creating. In less than four years, three electric co-ops brought electricity to
more than 8,000 members.
It was a service the South Vietnamese villagers valued and
owned. They even felt strong enough to literally ﬁght for it in
a doomed battle against an assault from Viet Cong armored
Ted creates a highly readable account of overcoming the
highest of hurdles to show people how they could bring power
to themselves; ﬁrst in America, and then to the world.
This isn't his ﬁrst book about electric co-ops. He spent
several years diving deeply into unexplored parts of electric
co-op history. He described how co-ops have affected national
policy since the 1930s in his ﬁrst book, "Power Plays: The U.S.
Presidency, Electric Cooperatives, and the Transformation of
Rural America." Ted recently talked about what the history of
electric co-ops means for its member-owners.
Question: How did you end up writing about electric co-ops
in the Vietnam War?
Ted Case: It came out of my ﬁrst book and the chapter on
President Lyndon Johnson. In 1965, he received a letter from
the general manager of the National Rural Electric Cooperative
Association, Clyde Ellis, saying that NRECA could help win the
RURAL MISSOURI | JANUARY 2018
war by putting electric co-ops in Vietnam. I was intrigued by that bold claim.
Since Johnson was such an early and strong supporter of rural electriﬁcation
in Texas, he embraced Ellis's proposal fully. Learning about that story led me
on this quest to track down some of the men and women who had worked on it.
Question: Did NRECA start co-ops in Vietnam?
Ted: It was a really good effort. Just 20 men went over there in a ﬁve-year
period. These were the most difﬁcult co-ops to establish in the history of the
electric co-op program. The Viet Cong soldiers that were ﬁghting against the
South Vietnamese tried to cut down the co-op lines and chop down their poles
and blow up their dams and they did all those things. The people trying to
start the co-ops faced rampant corruption and an inability to get poles and
other materials. They got three co-ops up and running and brought light to
thousands of villagers. But the program ended and they had to leave and the
communists overtook the country.
Question: What lessons did you learn from researching the book?
Ted: The support the U.S. co-op workers got from the Vietnamese villagers
was not unlike the support from the farmers who started electric co-ops in
the United States in the 1930s. The Vietnamese villagers wanted a radio.
They wanted an iron and lights to read. Toward the end of the war, when the
communists were rolling through the country in 1975, they came to a town that
was one of the co-ops' headquarters. The militia in the town rose up and fought
against the communists in one of the most heroic battles of the war. They were
ﬁghting for their electricity. They were ﬁghting for what they had built.
Question: Has researching these books changed your view of electric co-ops?
Ted: I have a greater appreciation. Our heritage is so much a part of who
we are, and there's not many people who remember when
the lights came on anymore, so that's different. But the core
values of what co-ops do are the same as in 1936 when the
Rural Electriﬁcation Act became law.
Question: What are those values?
Ted: I think of one particular co-op, about medium-sized
and close to an urban area. It has several thousand people
who come to the ofﬁce to pay their bills. They don't need
to do that - it's a lot easier to just toss the bill in the mail
or pay online. But they go in because the co-op has this
value beyond just electric service. It really is the center of
everything in the town and an economic driver. That sums
up how the co-op is not just not a power company. It's the
center of their world.
Paul Wesslund lives in Louisville, Kentucky and writes on
cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative
Association. He is the former editor of Kentucky Living
You can order either of Ted's books online at www.
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Rural Missouri - January 2018
Rural Missouri - January 2018 - Intro
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