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On January 16, 2015, Jane Fonda spoke before a group in Frederick, Maryland at the Weinberg Center for the Arts. A spokesperson for the arts center stated that Fonda had been asked to speak because of her success in several roles ranging from acclaimed actress to writer and fitness guru. But that’s not what brought about fifty demonstrators to the center to protest Fonda’s appearance. They were there because of Fonda’s antiwar activism during the Vietnam War that included a trip in 1972 to the capital of North Vietnam, Hanoi, in protest of the U.S. war against the North that had raged for 8 years (The trip included the inspection of dikes bombed during the U.S. air war against the North). Most notable about her appearance in the North was the picture taken of her sitting on top of an anti-aircraft gun that was used by the North in response to the air attacks. Fonda has never recanted her antiwar activism, but in a kind of ritual, she has repeated a nearly endless apology to the veterans of that war, which she called a “huge, huge mistake” at the time of her Maryland speech.
Jane Fonda in North Vietnam.
The U.S. air war against Vietnam dropped more bomb tonnage in what was called Operation Rolling Thunder than all of the bombs that had been dropped during World War II. Three million (probably a significantly higher number when the killing in Laos and Cambodia is taken into account) Vietnamese died in the war, as did 58,000 Americans. North and South Vietnam were reunited in 1975 following the North’s rout of South Vietnamese forces. That victory accomplished what the Geneva Accords (separating North from South Vietnam in 1954 with the promise of future elections that never took place) could not do because of successive puppet governments installed by the West following World War II and the failed French war in Vietnam. U.S. forces left Vietnam in 1975 following its unsuccessful war there.
What was most notable about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam was its brutality. Words and places such as My Lai, Tiger Force, strategic hamlets, carpet-bombing, free-fire zones, and napalm all have been well-documented by U.S. soldiers who took part in the war and were seared into the memory of those involved and by those who opposed it. That the Vietnamese people were reduced to the racist term “gook” is further evidence of the degradation of that war. The Winter Soldier Investigation, sponsored by the organization Vietnam Veterans Against The War, held in January-February 1971 in Detroit, Michigan, was perhaps the most significant compilation of individuals’ testimonies of the viciousness and brutality of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The testimony of atrocities by the U.S. was so compelling that the Fulbright Hearings were convened in the U.S. Senate in April-May 1971 to further investigate the allegations. Most soldiers who served in Vietnam did not commit atrocities, but a small minority did and those actions were supported at the highest levels of government, punished by what amounted to a slap on the wrist, or ignored by the government.
In May 1970, the war came home to Kent State University in Ohio and Jackson State College in Mississippi, when National Guard troops and police (at Jackson State) killed and wounded U.S. students. In fact, the war had come home in many, many ways years earlier. The latter was best documented by Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic in his memoir of the war, Born On The Fourth Of July (1976), that eloquently and powerfully depicts the family and community battles and tensions across this nation that were brought to the surface by the specter of fighting communism in Southeast Asia and a generation that was coming of age to new realizations of how the world could be seen in ways not limited by ideology.
Some of the veterans in Maryland who protested Fonda’s presence called her a traitor because of her appearance in North Vietnam during the war. However, Fonda served the peace movement well during the war and her years of agonizing over her role in the antiwar movement and apologizing to vets has outlived any useful purpose.
The anger of pro-war veterans was used cynically by former President Ronald Reagan who rewrote history and labelled the war a “noble cause” to facilitate his own wars of the 1980s and to put an end to the Vietnam Syndrome (the hesitancy of people in the U.S. to support war following the debacle of Vietnam).
Vietnam represented superpower Machiavellian realpolitik further poisoned with Cold War unthinking anticommunism. Millions lay dead in its lethal wake. And the adversary of the U.S. was a weak nation struggling to reunite after the bloodbath of World War II. Some “noble cause.”
The Vietnam War was the first televised war and its nightly appearance on the 3 television networks that existed at that time was a contributing factor to “hasten” the war’s end. Ordinary people were sickened by what they saw on the nightly news and it did not take an in-depth knowledge of the international laws of war or history to know exactly what the U.S. and its allies got right (and soon forgot during the Cold War) following World War II. What history got right was enshrined in the Geneva Conventions, the Charter of the United Nations, and the Nuremberg Principles. Article VI of the Principles got it exactly right when it forbid aggression by nations, the ill-treatment and murder of civilians, and the “wanton” destruction of towns, villages, and cities, all hallmarks of the U.S. war in Vietnam. And what is most remarkable in the Principles is that it vested responsibility in both governments and individual soldiers for acts that would become so common during Vietnam. The majority of the antiwar movement in the U.S. was all about pushing back against the notions of the hubris and self-righteousness of war.
In April 1967, exactly one year before being assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his most famous antiwar speech at Riverside Church in New York City. He said, “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam.’”
When war has come to be accepted as the norm as it has been since 2001 by the endless wars that are now fought in our name; when a vibrant antiwar movement is nowhere to be found; when militarism is second-nature in our society; when military spending (currently $637 billion…almost twice the 2001 figure) goes unquestioned while this society is more unequal by way of income distribution than it has been in decades; and when the reporting of war is done by only the few and at great personal risk, then the example of those who spoke up against war when it was unpopular to do so must be held up as noble and not ridiculed or apologized for.
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is a Vietnam-era veteran and was a war resister and activist during that war.