Hanoi Jane

As with most books, one must be wary of the misleading seduction of covers. Jerry Lembcke’s Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal is no exemption. Consisting of two  photos of Jane Fonda—one from her role as space-traveling vixen in Barbarella, the other from her trip to Hanoi in 1972– the cover lends itself to the feeling of a Fonda-centered biography.   Yet Lembcke has no interest in revealing “the behind the scenes” Jane Fonda.  Such an endeavor would be challenging in its own right, but the book takes on something more enigmatic.  Instead of writing about the person Jane Fonda, Lembcke’s work is much more a biography of her infamous persona, Hanoi Jane.

Yes, that’s right, it’s that Hanoi Jane, the traitor bitch, the commie slut, the threat to a nation, the woman with innumerable epithets—emblematic for losing the war–the book is about her. But more than Jane Fonda, it is about how and why she has come to be what she is, immortalized as the symbol of American treachery and betrayal and loss.

Contrary to the received wisdom, Lembcke insists it is not Fonda or her activism so much as American culture. It’s collective history, it’s social and political character–that is responsible for crafting her into the myth of America’s villainness responsible for losing the Vietnam war.

This cultural emphasis is what distinguishes Hanoi Jane as a truly unique book with a large vision. However, the reader may find that Lembcke’s meditations on his subject walk a thin line between the insightful and  the convoluted–and at least for this reviewer–at times the conspiratorial, and he occasionally insinuates the experience of one POW as symbolic of all.  Lembcke appears to insinuate that front line female NVA/VC were imagined or exaggerated by combat GIs.  However Lembcke notes the collaboration of Vietnam war POWs with the enemy to gain favored treatment.   This phenomenon is well known in Holocaust literature as identification with the aggressor and it is to Lembcke’s credit that he acknowledges these aspects of the POW experience are contrary to popular belief.

The book is adorned with anecdotes, frequent divergences into distant pockets of American history, literature, and mythology which, while often thought provoking, seems to  amass a lofty cosmology more revealing of the author than of his subject.  Further, the critical reader is given the impression that more than once Lembcke makes his multiple theories fit an agenda both factual and ideological. However, before diving into the  murky realms of the abstract, Lembcke wisely begins his book on a concrete historical foundation.

Readers are brought back to the scene of the crime, to the era where it all began, describing Fonda’s 1972 trip to Hanoi. Stripping the story from its usual conflation of fact and fiction, Lembcke informs us of how the trip was covered by the media, perceived by the public, and, how it fit into the larger scope of the peace movement altogether.  His references to the suppressed documentary FTA, in which Fonda and a troupe of vaudevillians (including Donald Southerland) visited US stateside and Pacific bases to the rousing cheers of anti-war GIs, is much appreciated.

To  Lembcke’s credit, his revised  history successfully demystifies Fonda, generating a more understated and humane image of her as a political figure. We discover that what Fonda did was noteworthy, but hardly unusual. She merely followed in the footsteps of three hundred activists who had made similar trips to Hanoi before her.  Lembcke artfully inspires in readers the right questions.  If Fonda’s actions were not exceptional, then why was she so bitterly contemned by veterans of Vietnam and by large segments of the public? Who are these aforementioned three hundred activists, what did they do, and why have their efforts slipped through the cracks of  memory?

Lembcke answers these questions by first detailing that Fonda’s vilification began several years after the war.  Secondly, this vilification helped to mask the efforts of the late Howard Zinn, Father Dan Berrigan, and peace activist delegations.  Lembcke offers their work, their struggles, and their impact, in Hanoi Jane–exposing as well as filling in a historical gap that may be empty to Americans of various strips.

In fact, the attention Lembcke gives to these peace activists may be one of the book’s greater strengths, in that it indicates a generational insight on behalf of the author. For many younger Americans, as with this reviewer, the history of the Vietnam War and the peace movement has been generally left an untouched mystery by America’s educational system.

One is tempted to say that because of these moments of historical reflection, Hanoi Jane  is accessible to multi-generational readers, and that it is a potential teaching tool. But the point of the book is not to address or rectify disparities in our sense of history.  Rather, such particulars are only a means to an end, a platform for Lembcke’s multiple, occasionally over-elaborate theories behind the endurance of the Hanoi Jane legacy.

And it is these theories, arriving in the  book in all shapes, sizes, degrees of clarity, plausibility and convolution, that both mar and grace the overall narrative, leaving the reader at times satisfied, at other moments bewildered or conflicted.

Lembcke, a sociologist at Holy Cross, dedicates a chapter to each of his concepts on the myth of Hanoi Jane.

Perhaps most troubling is the first, where commonalities between Vietnam POW narratives and early American captivity narratives, are connected  to reveal the American fear of the Other.  As well, Lembcke connects Fonda with  POWs’ fears of becoming the Other (i.e. the enemy), a further reason to hold her in low regard.  The principle of identification with the enemy is well known.

In a chapter critical to Lembcke’s use of mythology as a means to explain the enduring derision of Fonda one, we see  her through a tradition of female figures of wartime betrayal, starting from the ancient Greek drama, Lysistrata, to the Mexican legend of Malinche, the female spies Civil War, Mata Hari of WWI–all women who used their sexuality as a tool in political duplicity.  In essence, Fonda, as Lembcke would have it, fits an already present model of gender dynamics, one that equates duplicity with femininity.

In another chapter, it is Fonda’s rejection of traditional gender roles, casting off  Barbarella, and sliding into feminism and activism, that our patriarchal society was not prepared for.

Elsewhere, Lembcke asserts that the working class was resentful of Fonda’s class status, wealth and privilege in relation to her political activities.  Fonda’s economic independence, her ability to slide into various occupations, activist, actress, capitalist, created resentment amongst the those who subject to drafts, who had no cultural or monetary assets to liberate themselves from the fate society designated.

Perhaps most importantly Lembcke shows that Fonda’s demononizaiton was a part of a Right Wing effort to reconstruct history, to blame activists for the loss in Vietnam, to deter critical inquiry from incompetent military and elected leadership, and to try to uphold the ideals of America.

Hanoi Jane is an important book, though likely it will find its niche with historians and academics.  More precisely, Lembcke’s too often dry academic tone detracts from what is to this day a highly emotionally charged issue and thus limits its appeal.  In this regard, it is unfortunate that Lembcke leaves out the notion of war trauma as a significant force behind the reactions of Vietnam veterans to the (myth of) Hanoi Jane.  Additionally left out are the voices of Vietnam and Vietnamese combat veterans regarding their feelings (and the explanations of such) toward Fonda.  On the other hand  Lembcke includes the release of  Special Forces POWs due to the direct negotiations of Fonda and her then husband Tom Hayden with the government of North Vietnam.

In conclusion, this book is significant to our understanding of this time, but it is only one man’s insightful  perception; it further necessitates, through the case of Jane Fonda, and the Vietnam War, our need to continually reexamine how heroes and heroines in history are made.

ERIN McMANUS is a junior at Salem State College.  She can be reached at Erininish@gmail.com

First published by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Fall 2010 hard copy, The Veteran.