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How white nationalists in Texas terrorized refugees after the Vietnam War


This is FRESH AIR. I am Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. If you'd been standing at the right point aside a harbor on the Texas Gulf Coast in 1981, you might have seen a shrimp trawler cruising by, sporting a Confederate flag. It's a deck swarming with men, some in army fatigues and many wearing Ku Klux Klan robes with a mannequin hanging in effigy from the vessel's outriggers. The display was intended to intimidate Vietnamese fishermen and residents of the coastal town who, just a few years before, had supported the American side in the Vietnam War.

Our guest writer, Kirk Wallace Johnson, has a new book about an intense conflict on the Texas coast between white fishermen and the Vietnamese newcomers. The locals blamed the Vietnamese for declining catches even though the bays were being increasingly poisoned by petrochemical plants and oil spills. As tensions escalated, there were cross burnings, death threats, arson attacks on boats and one home, and a violent encounter that led to the shooting death of a white fisherman.

Kirk Wallace Johnson's writing has appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times. He's the author of two previous books - "To Be A Friend Is Fatal" and "The Feather Thief." His latest is "The Fisherman And The Dragon: Fear, Greed, And A Fight For Justice On The Gulf Coast." Kirk Wallace Johnson, welcome to FRESH AIR.

KIRK WALLACE JOHNSON: Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: So set the scene for us. This is the late '70s, early '80s. This occurred in bays on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Tell us about the white fishermen and their families. What was going on?

JOHNSON: Sure. So by the late '70s, shrimping and fishing along the Texas coast was already in pretty rough straits. There was a gas crisis that was caused, in part, by the Iranian Revolution. There was inflation. And there was also a dwindling catch every year. And so, you know, things weren't great. There were, you know, increasing numbers of hurricanes that would scatter the catch. And all along these coastlines, the petrochemical industry was sort of metastasizing and setting up one sprawling plant after another. And all of these plants were receiving permits from the state government to discharge toxic chemicals into these bays. So this is not an idyllic picture here. This is, you know, a shrimping and fishing industry that was already in decline.

And then, of course, after the fall of Saigon, the United States started resettling hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees, and many of them began to relocate to the Gulf Coast because the climate was familiar to them. But also, many of them had been fishermen back home before the war intruded on their lives. And so now, without a country and sort of cast on our shores, they started rebuilding their lives as fishermen.

DAVIES: Right. You know, one little detail you drop in here is that the shrimping industry had expanded a lot years before because of the success of Red Lobster restaurants, which just drove demand. And so there was this expansion, and then there were all these problems including, as you mentioned, pollution from some of the industries. And there were some big oil spills around. There were declining catches. Did the fishermen notice other effects on the fish or shrimp that they caught - or crabs?

JOHNSON: Yes. I mean, you know, you mentioned that oil spill, which, I mean, I knew nothing about when I started researching. But there was - in 1979, there was a Mexican oil rig that exploded. They were doing a deep-sea well. And that kicked off the largest peacetime oil spill in world history, that is until the BP spill in 2010. And that took 10 months to cap that well. And there was so much oil that a slick the size of Manhattan drifted into Texas waters and began lapping at that coastline and tarring the beaches.

And lo and behold, shrimpers and crabbers and oystermen, you know, they started pulling up mutated specimens in their nets, just misshapen shrimp, crabs with shells that looked very bizarre. There were all kinds of accounts of fishermen seeing, you know, alligators rolling in zombie-like circles near the surface. There were mass dolphin die-offs in the bays. So something was fouling the water. There was a kind of reluctance to acknowledge just what it was, though.

DAVIES: You know, the white fishermen were saying that the Vietnamese didn't follow the rules and customs of the bay because, you know, there are ways that you respect the traps and routes or whatever of others. There was also rumors that they had gotten, you know, government loans, and they resented the fact that the government was treating, you know, these recent immigrants better than their long-term citizens. Was there anything to any of that?

JOHNSON: You know, it's such a - it's a fascinating question because this issue - I mean, I was down there 40 years after all of this happened. And many of those myths, which is what they are, still are held up as gospel. But there were no special loans for Vietnamese refugees when they got here. If anyone understands the U.S. refugee program, we're not like the Scandinavian countries. You basically get a tiny allowance of a few hundred bucks when you get here, and then you're on your own. We don't have a - you know, a welcome mat.

And so when they saw these Vietnamese shelling out cash for one of the boats that they were, you know, overcharging, they just assumed that there must be some secret government program. But the truth was that it was the Vietnamese community using this, you know - I don't know if it's considered ancient, but there's a system called the Hui, H-U-I, where it's a rotating loan club where all of the members will kick in their weekly paychecks to this club. And then you can draw from it whenever you want, but depending on when you draw from it, your interest rate will be higher or lower. So they were not getting any government largesse, but they were helping each other out at a time when most of these white fishermen are go-it-aloners (ph).

There aren't, you know, a lot of fishing co-ops along the Texas Gulf Coast because those were always seen as a communist, you know, plot, to form co-ops and unions and things like that. So, no, these - there were a lot of rumors about how the Vietnamese were succeeding, but there really is no truth to them.

DAVIES: This conflict led to a violent confrontation between some Vietnamese fishermen and a white fisherman named Billy Joe Aplin. Tell us what happened.

JOHNSON: So Billy Joe Aplin was out running his traps with his family one morning when there was a dispute with another Vietnamese crabber about where his traps were placed. And it got pretty heated. He smashed some of that Vietnamese crabber's traps up and very soon, was surrounded by several Vietnamese boats. Knives were drawn. Threats were issued to each other. But Billy Joe and his family rammed their way free and returned to town. And for the next month, you know, Billy Joe - it was like a switch flipped in him. Every single time he saw that young Vietnamese man, you know, he would warn him, he'd give him death threats. He slash his tires. He raised a rifle at one point.

And throughout all of this, the young Vietnamese man named Sau Van Nguyen got himself a pistol for self-defense because he just sensed that this was getting worse and worse. And it did culminate one night in a very violent struggle down by the docks where Billy Joe started pummeling Sau, drew a knife and slashed his chest, told Sau that he would kill him. Sau managed to escape with his brother. And they raced back to the trailer park where he got his pistol and returned to the waterfront because another brother of theirs was still there with the boat. And he was worried about what was going to happen. As soon as he gets back, Billy Joe Aplin starts assaulting him again, so Sau draws his pistol and shoots him dead. Now, that killing set off, quite literally, fires along the coast. That night, a posse of Seadrift residents, white Seadrifters, roamed the town and set fire to a Vietnamese home. And they torched three Vietnamese boats. Roughly 150 Vietnamese refugees were living in that town and working as fishermen and as crab pickers. And almost all of them fled town that night. Sau fled because he didn't trust the local police because he was worried that there might be Klansmen that had infiltrated the police force. And so he drove up a couple hundred miles up to Port Arthur, Texas, where he turned himself in to the police.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here, so let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Kirk Wallace Johnson. His new book is "The Fishermen And The Dragon: Fear, Greed, And A Fight For Justice On The Gulf Coast." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with writer Kirk Wallace Johnson. His new book is about a conflict on the Texas Gulf Coast in the late '70s and early '80s between white fishermen and Vietnam War refugees, who had resettled in the area.

You were just talking about an escalating conflict between a white fisherman named Billy Joe Aplin and some Vietnamese fishermen that led to one of these Vietnamese fishermen shooting and killing Billy Joe as Billy Joe was attacking him. I believe Billy Joe had actually cut him with a knife. The two Vietnamese fishermen who were involved here were eventually arrested and placed on trial, accused of murder. This was after some - a number of white fishermen had gone through and burned some Vietnamese boats and even a residence that had some Vietnamese people in them. They, fortunately, were able to escape without injury. The trial was moved to Seguin, which is a town a couple of hundred miles away. And a prominent defense lawyer came to defend the Vietnamese. What happened in the trial?

JOHNSON: Yeah. This was a really astonishing turn of events. So all of a sudden, this 18-year-old refugee has one of the most prominent lawyers in Texas history to represent them. But still, they're in a pretty conservative town of Seguin. And they're up against an all-white jury. And I've read the voir dire proceedings. And there were plenty of jurors who just could not, you know, afford them the benefit of the doubt or innocence until proven guilty. And they were ultimately drummed out. But in this trial, which many people expected to be open and shut, Pat Maloney did such an effective job of showing that this was a lawful killing, that this was, you know, self-defense.

He had Sau open his shirt up to reveal the scars that were left when Billy Joe had knifed him shortly before being killed. He held his hand up to the jury. It was still mangled because at one point, Billy Joe had stomped on it. And, you know, essentially, Pat Maloney, this attorney, demonstrated to this jury that this young Vietnamese refugee had every right to defend himself through lethal force. And so Sau and his younger brother were both acquitted. But it was very clear to all involved that they had no future in Texas, that they weren't going to be safe to return to Seadrift. And so they fled Texas that night and, to my understanding, never came back.

DAVIES: There was a lot of anger after that verdict, obviously. And then it emerged that the Ku Klux Klan, whose head, the grand dragon, lived not so terribly far away, decided they were going to come to town to investigate, to somehow try and redress this apparent wrong of the acquittal of these Vietnamese. The key guy was the grand dragon. His name was a guy named Louis Beam. Tell us about him.

JOHNSON: Louis Beam was a highly decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. He was a door gunner, which was probably the most dangerous role in the entire war. He received a Distinguished Flying Cross and a number of other medals. But upon his return to America, you know, he basically became radicalized by this sense that he was the first generation to lose a war. When he watched the fall of Saigon, he got a tattoo of - that said born to lose. And he joined the Ku Klux Klan and quickly climbed the ranks to become Grand Dragon of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Now, as you said, after the verdict, people were quite upset with it. They expected, you know, Sau to spend the rest of his life behind bars or worse.

And almost immediately, these conspiracies started circulating throughout town that evidence had been withheld and that there was some kind of conspiracy on the half - on behalf of the Vietnamese. But somebody from town went up to the Klan headquarters and invited Louis Beam down. And so he made an announcement that he was coming down for a fact-finding tour. And almost immediately, there was national news. This was - Walter Cronkite was covering this. And this tiny town was, you know, all of a sudden trying to figure out what to do because they didn't want the Klan to come. And so the entire town of a thousand people gathered into the school gymnasium and debated their options, which were few. But they ultimately passed a resolution telling the Klan to buzz off, effectively, and to stay away.

DAVIES: Right. So the Klan came to town anyway as the mayor of the town said, look, I can't prevent them from walking down the street. So the Grand Dragon came in for his so-called investigation, got a lot of news coverage. Nothing really happened of consequence from a legal perspective from that. But what was the fallout in this town from this whole thing, and what was the impact on the Vietnamese there?

JOHNSON: Well, shortly after that visit by Louis Beam - by the Grand Dragon - the Klan opened up a new chapter in town. There was a swearing-in ceremony on a dock owned by the Aplin family. But the Vietnamese sort of had cleared out of town that weekend during his visit. But then afterwards, they, you know, in time returned to town and started putting their lives back together again. You know, the widow of Billy Joe Aplin - I mean, it took me, I don't know, almost a year and a half to get her to be willing to speak. But she admitted to me that - you know, 'cause I had been asking her, why was the Klan so interested in what happened in Seadrift? Why did they care so much?

And she confessed to me that Billy Joe had been, himself, a Klansman, that they had joined a year or two prior. And this had - this has been a secret for decades in Seadrift and on the Texas coast. But - so the Klan really became involved because one of their own had been killed. And Billy Joe then became a sort of martyr along the Texas Gulf Coast, of, like, a - of a white fisherman that was done in by a Vietnamese refugee. And his cause then was sort of taken up in all of these other fishing towns up and down that coastline.

DAVIES: And when you talked to his widow decades later, what did she think of the whole thing? How did she reflect on the issues in this?

JOHNSON: Well, I mean, you know, this was a - I mean, this destroyed their life. You know, she was out on the boat that day that they had that initial confrontation, which was really - my conclusion is that it was - all of this was borne out of a terrible misunderstanding, that Billy Joe wasn't even, you know, chasing the right guy, even though he had no right to chase anyone in the first place. But they had to basically leave town after some time. Her children were taunted as Klan sympathizers. She was struggling to make ends meet.

But it really wasn't until 2016 that she told her own daughter about the Klan involvement. And her daughter remembered vaguely going to Klan rallies and things. But it wasn't until she saw the kind of reemergence of the white supremacist movement and this sort of rhetoric that she really started reflecting on what a mistake that was for them to have joined the Klan. They weren't - in her telling, they weren't ardent members or anything. But, you know, it's clear to her that this is why the Klan entered the fray after Billy Joe was killed.

DAVIES: And she regarded it as the wrong thing to have done?


DAVIES: And did she express sympathy with the Vietnamese to you?

JOHNSON: Yes. I don't - I think, for Sau, for the man that killed her husband, I don't think she'll ever go that far. But, you know, her own daughter has been on something of a mission where she's just last year issued a formal apology from her family to the Vietnamese community for how they had been treated. And this has now sort of split the extended Aplin family and pitted them against each other. So the widow and the daughter are now essentially ostracized because they've been standing against Billy Joe's former Klan membership.

DAVIES: Wow. The daughter - that's Beth. Is that right?

JOHNSON: Yes. That's right.

DAVIES: And she was on the boat when there was this confrontation with the Vietnamese fishermen that - in which knives were drawn. She saw that, too. Although she was pretty little at the time, I guess.

JOHNSON: That's right.

DAVIES: Let me take another break here. We are speaking with Kirk Wallace Johnson. His new book is "The Fishermen And The Dragon: Fear, Greed, And A Fight For Justice On The Gulf Coast." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with writer Kirk Wallace Johnson. His new book is about a conflict on the Texas Gulf Coast in the early 1980s between white fishermen and Vietnam War refugees who had resettled in the area and were also buying boats and trawling for shrimp. Locals blamed the Vietnamese for declining catches even though industrial pollution and oil spills in the bays were degrading the aquatic environment. The Ku Klux Klan got involved in efforts to drive out the newcomers. There were arsons, violent clashes and a federal lawsuit filed to prohibit the Klan and its allies from intimidating the Vietnamese. Kirk Wallace Johnson's book is "The Fisherman And The Dragon."

So we've been talking about this conflict in this little town of Seadrift, which led to this killing and this verdict and the Ku Klux Klan presence. A similar conflict erupted, I guess - what? - in the town of Seabrook, which is maybe 80 miles north on a different bay. There were tensions. There was a cross burning. There was a Klan rally. And a leader of the Vietnamese community emerged there. He was a former colonel in the South Vietnamese army. Tell us just a little bit about him and his role as this conflict flared there.

JOHNSON: Yeah, Col. Nam Van Nguyen. He's an amazing guy, but he had 22 years of combat before he left. As Saigon was falling, he was essentially pulled onto a boat by his family members, and they left. And a few years after arriving to the States, he bought himself a fishing boat and a fish house in this little town of Seabrook, which is different than Seadrift but it's on Galveston Bay. And he was really hoping for a simpler life. He didn't know anything, really, about this conflict between the Klan and the other Vietnamese shrimpers. He just wanted some peace and quiet.

But because of his stature within this community, as soon as he moved there, other Vietnamese started approaching him with problems, telling him about how they were being harassed out on the water. Vietnamese were having guns pointed at them. They were getting death threats. They were getting harassed out in the bays. And so Col. Nam formed something called the Vietnamese Fishermen's Association, which was meant to sort of advocate for their interests, just as another group had formed called the American Fishermen's Coalition, which was a group of white fishermen. And so he became the de facto leader of the Vietnamese. And as he said - I mean, this was a pressure cooker of a situation because there were a couple bad seasons of shrimping. The whites were furious at the mere presence of the Vietnamese in their bay.

And Louis Beam, the grand dragon of the Klan, had learned through the Seadrift experience that if he gets involved in this issue, he gets national press, which leads to new members, which leads to more dues into his organization. And so Louis Beam actively involved himself and the Ku Klux Klan in this conflict. There was a massive Klan rally on Valentine's Day, 1981, a thousand people chanting white power as they torched an effigy of a Vietnamese boat. And they burnt a cross, and they gave the Vietnamese 90 days to leave Galveston Bay or else there would be blood.

DAVIES: Right. And, you know, one other moment was when there was this shrimp trawler that went cruising through - I mentioned this introduction - where there was this boat with people aboard wearing Ku Klux Klan robes and an effigy hanging. It appeared that some of the Vietnamese, including Col. Nam, who had been their leader and who had tried to negotiate an agreement - actually had negotiated an agreement, which kind of fell apart, with some of the white fishermen. A lot of the Vietnamese were ready to give up, sell their boats, and leave. And then there was this development, which is that a wealthy lawyer from Alabama, Morris Dees, who would found the Southern Poverty Law Center, comes and gets involved. What does he do?

JOHNSON: Well, Morris Dees is an interesting fellow because he had, until that - you know, until just a few years prior, he was just a businessman who had made many millions of dollars through selling cookbooks and a whole assortment of different things. But he then retired at the ripe, young age of 32 to the practice of law where he started trying civil rights cases because he had essentially sat out the whole civil rights movement even though he had a law degree. And so I think this was a sort of penance for him, was to try to put it to good use. And he had recently founded the Southern Poverty Law Center and, only a couple years prior, had just - they had just tried their first case against the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama.

And so one morning, Morris opens up his paper, and he sees a photo of the Ku Klux Klan on this trawler, and they're harassing Vietnamese refugees. And he gets on his motorcycle and drives down from Montgomery to Galveston Bay. And he convinces Col. Nam, who, at that point, was ready to pull up stakes and leave - but he convinces Nam and the other Vietnamese to stand their ground and to sue the Klan. And he lays out his strategy. They're going to throw everything at them, the - you know, violating their civil rights, violating their economic rights, even through the Sherman Act, I think, of 1892. But he persuades the Vietnamese to file suit not just against the Klan, but against the Collinses whose ranch was used for the rally and others in town who were harassing them.

DAVIES: Yeah. So this was quite a remarkable case. This was a civil lawsuit targeting the Klan and certain named individuals. The goal was to get an injunction to say you can't intimidate people anymore. He also wanted to get a judge to order the Klan to disband this militia they had called the Texas Emergency Reserve. What did the judge rule?

JOHNSON: Well, the judge ultimately pointed to the fact that there's a category of speech called assaultative (ph) words where - you know, fighting words that are not protected. And so this wasn't simply a matter of free speech being curbed. And so she did issue an injunction against the Ku Klux Klan and their white fisherman allies that prevented them or banned them from harassing the Vietnamese, from even approaching them with weapons or in Klan robes. There were to be no more Klan boat patrols. And that injunction was to be posted in the Klan headquarters, translated into Vietnamese, and posted in businesses all along the Gulf Coast. She then subsequently did break apart the Texas Emergency Reserve, which, as you said, was a pretty, you know, well-trained militia that Louis Beam had started. They had secret training camps all over Texas and where they would - you know, training fishermen allegedly and how to kill, combat techniques, all of this stuff. And so that militia was broken apart. And shortly thereafter, Louis Beam fled the state. And he moved into the compound of the Aryan Nations in Idaho, where he began work on a book called "Essays Of A Klansman" and on an essay called "Leaderless Resistance" that basically, you know, galvanized the movement for the next generation. But where he basically said, look; we don't need to have big rallies anymore. You all know what you need to do, just go ahead and do it. And that - he is credited as the sort of - the godfather of the alt-right, but also for sort of spawning a generation of lone wolf attackers. And there - for years, people have been wondering whether even Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombings were in part inspired by that book. He, of course, will just claim that it's - they're just words and just ideas. But he became a hugely important figure in the white supremacist movement following this defeat in Galveston Bay.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Kirk Wallace Johnson. His new book is "The Fishermen And The Dragon: Fear, Greed, And A Fight For Justice On The Gulf Coast." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with writer Kirk Wallace Johnson. He has a new book about a dispute on the Texas Gulf Coast in the early 1980s between white fishermen and Vietnam War refugees, who resettled in the area and were also buying boats and trawling for shrimp. The dispute led to arsons, violent clashes and a federal lawsuit. His new book about it is called "The Fishermen And The Dragon."

I know that you went and talked to a lot of the people involved in this. This is in the acknowledgements section of your book at the end. And I was surprised how many of the people who were - you know, the whites involved in this, including the Klan people, spoke to you. And I'm wondering how - I mean, particularly David and Jody Collins, who were two of the people in Seabrook who were at the heart of all this. And then there was this guy named Richard Haight (ph), who we haven't talked about. But he was from the other town, Seadrift, and admitted to you that he was a guy who had set fire to this house where Vietnamese immigrants were living. Were they repentant? Did they feel bad about what they'd done? What did you hear from these folks?

JOHNSON: Boy, it's such a - you know, because you go into these interviews not knowing what to expect, not knowing if you're going to get kicked out in one or two minutes. But I had developed, I guess, enough of a rapport to do many five, six-hour long interviews. And I think I went in maybe hoping or searching for some sign of repentance. But, you know, I would say Richard Haight, who did torch the boats down in Seadrift, I think he really does feel remorse about what he did and has been trying to make amends for that.

DAVIES: Can I just interrupt you there? And we should note, by the way, that they won't be prosecuted because the statute of limitations for arson has expired, I believe. This is a long time ago. How is Richard Haight trying to make amends?

JOHNSON: He - you know, it's a complicated thing. But he told me about, you know, maybe a decade or so after setting fire, he was driving through town. And he saw some Vietnamese men trying to build a boat. But they just had, you know, a hand axe and a hammer and some simple tools. And when he first told me this story, he told me about driving an industrial saw over to give to them so that he could help them build their boats and how he's become close with that family. And every time he sees them now, they come out. And they give him, you know, shrimp and other good seafood.

It wasn't until the third or fourth interview that he mentioned that he recognized this family because they were the ones that bolted from the home that he set fire to. So I don't think that Vietnamese family knows that he was the arson or among the posse that set fire to their home. So you know, I don't want to paint an overly rosy picture here. But, you know, he told me he's spent a lot of time with a therapist and with a priest, who told him to write down all the bad things he'd done and put it in a bottle, and then set fire to the paper in that bottle. And that should be that, which I thought was a curious way of (laughter) absolving your sins, I guess.

DAVIES: Louis Beam the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan who was at the center of a lot of this, you did communicate with him as you were writing the book. He was still alive. What did you learn from him, I mean, a guy who had quite a history in white supremacist movements after that?

JOHNSON: Yes. That's right. And he's never really given an interview about this part of his life. And, you know, he was pretty tight-lipped with me. He now tried to profess that he's, you know, got many Vietnamese that he's close friends with and that it was never really about the Vietnamese. You know, this was something that I heard up and down the coast that, oh, you've got it wrong. This wasn't about racism. This was just about economics. This was about us versus the U.S. government. It wasn't really about the Vietnamese, and to which I would always say, you know, you guys were marching in robes and hoods under Confederate flags. Like, you're chanting white power. Like, you can't profess that this had nothing to do with race.

But Louis Beam, you know, he tried to suggest to me that he was the best friend that the Vietnamese ever had, and that he was part of a secret resistance that was going to go back to Vietnam to finish the job that the U.S. government failed. So there was some kind of - frankly, like, it sounded somewhat delusional to me. But, you know, Louis Beam's legacy stands for itself. It's a pretty sordid one. He also has the distinction of essentially recognizing the power of the internet. All the way back in 1984, he founded the first bulletin board system for white supremacists. He can say whatever he wants now about what his true motives were, but he said quite a bit back then that was all recorded and under oath and lawsuits and things like that that speak for themselves.

DAVIES: You know, when you talk to these people, these interviews were all done during the Donald Trump era when, you know, fear and resentment of immigrants was high. Did any of the people that you spoke to connect this conflict four decades earlier with the current immigration issue?

JOHNSON: Yes. I think there was a general sense that there was a conspiracy - that there continues to be a conspiracy by the U.S. government to drive these white people that have traditionally held sway over the industry - to drive them out and to replace them with cheaper labor. This is an important story because I think it's a kind of turning point where the Klan started taking on refugees. But I could not - I couldn't help but find connections to the current moment everywhere I looked. I mean, I spent more time than I ever hoped to reading the literature of the white supremacist movement - all of these newsletters.

And on the front pages of these, you know, Aryan Nations publications where they're, you know, griping about Vietnamese fishermen, they're also posting schematics of the American wall that needs to be built on the border and where there - how to string the electrical lines to make it - you know, so people will get electrocuted and moats and things like that. And this is 1981. And I guess, you know, I had some, I guess, personal connection to all of this because I spent almost 10 years of my life fighting to get refugees out - my former colleagues from Iraq. I was there during the war.

DAVIES: You know, since you mentioned your work getting refugees out of Iraq, particularly people who had worked for the United States government, I just - I have to put in a plug for - you wrote a book called "To Be A Friend Is Fatal" based on your experience doing this. And people, if they haven't, should listen to the 2013 episode of "This American Life," which is about you and this work - I think it's called "Taking Names" - in which you describe at first just wanting to get someone who was in trouble in Iraq and needed to get to the United States because he was in danger from militants there, and then discovered that there was really no effort, no organized way to do this.

And you ended up collecting names and talking to people in the government who said, stop doing this but then would take you aside and - could you help a friend of mine? This is an amazing story. The episode is gripping and galling. And if people haven't listened, you should look it up. This is still something very meaningful. You continue to do work on this, don't you?

JOHNSON: Yes. In fact, you know, last summer, I, you know, was sort of pulled out of retirement, so to speak, by the fall of Kabul because I had had a role in helping create the visas that Iraqis and Afghans were granted after working alongside our forces and alongside the U.S. government. And so I felt a kind of personal obligation to try to help as many people get out as I could. And so, actually, I - this is the first deadline I ever missed for a book was for this one. It was due the day that Kabul fell. But I basically spent a fairly manic month doing everything I could to help Afghans with U.S. affiliation - mostly young children whose parents had been killed because they worked for us as interpreters - to try to use my connections at the State Department and in the military and in the White House to get those gates opened to admit those kids.

But this is a - you know, all along the way, all of my mentors and advisers were Vietnam hands who were there as Saigon was falling. And so that war and the evacuation of those refugees has always shaped my work. And, you know, this is a kind of feature of all U.S. wars, that we don't seem to be able to fight them without triggering a huge refugee crisis. And every time, we approach it kicking and screaming, and we don't want to let these people in, even though they've only lost their country because of our misguided wars.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you so we can take another break here. We are speaking with Kirk Wallace Johnson. His new book is "The Fisherman And The Dragon: Fear, Greed And A Fight For Justice On The Gulf Coast." We'll continue our conversation after this break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with writer Kirk Wallace Johnson. His new book "The Fisherman And The Dragon" is about a conflict on the Texas Gulf Coast in the late '70s and early '80s between white fishermen and Vietnam War refugees who had resettled in the area.

I wanted to ask you one other personal question. I learned in the "This American Life" episode that you did in 2013 that when you got into the issue of getting people out of Iraq who had assisted the American effort there, you were actually kind of recovering from your own experience there. You were there working for the Agency for International Development for a while. And I don't know if you'd call it PTSD, but you were having nightmares. And at one point, in one of these nightmares, you actually walked out of a second-floor window and seriously injured yourself. Have those symptoms resolved themselves? Do you still suffer from these issues?

JOHNSON: Yeah, I would say so. You'd have to ask my wife, who, you know, has to deal with my constant struggles to fall asleep at night. You know, I had been an incredible sleeper for 25 years of my life. And then it turns out that if you sleepwalk out of a window and fall 20 feet to concrete and - I mean, I broke both my wrists, my jaw, my nose. I cracked my skull in a couple of places. I had 150 stitches or something in my face. The sort of contract I once had with sleep is now broken (laughter). So - but, no, I mean, I - you know, I think a big part of - you know, that accident happened, ironically, while I was on a vacation from Fallujah, where there had been all kinds of near-death experiences. And it kind of cut my work short. And so, so much of my efforts to help the refugees get out was, I guess, in some ways me trying to make up for not being able to go back and do something for it. But, you know, I think writing certainly helps.

DAVIES: You know, this is a really absorbing story, stuff that happened 40 years ago. Does it have lessons to teach or insights that are important for us about south Texas or what the country is going through today?

JOHNSON: You know, when I first started investigating, I thought that this was a story about an unknown episode of sort of white supremacy in America, which it is in part. But I very quickly realized that, you know, this is a turf war between two camps. And no one was paying attention to the turf itself, the industry that was - that they were fighting over. And so the way I look at this, you have a fishing industry on the coast that was, essentially, doomed. It's doomed by all of these petrochemical plants fouling the bay. It's doomed in part by climate change. I mean, Texas is going through a historic drought right now, the worst in 128 years. So there's very little freshwater that's even reaching those bays. We poured concrete over all the estuaries for highways and hotels and beach homes. So we killed off all of these estuaries where these fish and crab were growing.

And yet, in the face of all of these huge, structural, societal forces that were killing off this way of life, the whites at the center of my book looked at this tiny number of refugees, of Vietnamese refugees. And they pointed at them. And they said, let's get rid of them and everything will be great again. And they descended into this, frankly, shameful campaign of intimidation and harassment and violence. And they lost. They lost in court. They lost every which way you cut it. And guess what? The bays are all dead now. The Vietnamese didn't kill those bays. There's just no shrimp left there. And so, I mean, these are now among the most toxic waters in America. The residents that work in those plants and that live in these villages and these towns, they have 160 times the cancer rate the rest of the country. They call it the cancer belt.

And this is all because we traded our environment and natural resources for some short-term jobs that are ultimately killing the environment, but also killing the people that are taking those jobs. So in some ways, I feel like - to me, this is a story that - I mean, the reason why I gave the book the title it has is because I wanted it to signal a parable of sorts that this isn't - yes, there's a lot of Texas in this story. But if you zoom out a little bit, you can see where this applies to just about any town or industry in America where there are, you know, people working multiple jobs that can't pay the bills. And they don't know who to point the finger at. But I'm quite certain that refugees are not the cause of these people's problems.

DAVIES: Kirk Wallace Johnson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JOHNSON: Oh, pleasure's all mine. Thank you.

DAVIES: Kirk Wallace Johnson's new book is "The Fishermen And The Dragon: Fear, Greed, And A Fight For Justice On The Gulf Coast." On tomorrow's show, how the opioid industry resembled a drug cartel. We'll talk with Washington Post reporter Scott Higham, co-author of the new book "American Cartel." Based in part on formerly confidential documents, the book is filled with revelations about the major manufacturers, distributors, pill mills and pharmacies behind the opioid epidemic. I hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.