Celebrity, War, and Presidential Elections

On May 30, 1979, a letter appeared in 5 major newspapers in the US assailing the human rights record of Vietnam, a nation where the US killed about 3 million people and where about 58,000 of its own soldiers died. In bordering Cambodia, where the US war has spread besides a vicious air war over Laos, millions more died, including those massacred in the Cambodian holocaust.

The letter, co-signed by other luminaries from the Vietnam antiwar movement contained 4 major bulleted points regarding the government of Vietnam: “The jails are overflowing with thousands upon thousands of “detainees,” “People disappear and never return,” “People are shipped to re-education centers, fed a starvation diet of stale rice, forced to squat bound wrist to ankle, suffocated in ‘connex’ boxes,” and “People are used as human mine detectors, clearing live mine fields with their hands and feet.”

Among those from the antiwar movement who did not sign the alleged indictment of human rights violations in Vietnam were Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Philip Berrigan, William Kunstler, Daniel Ellsberg, and Leonard Weinglass.

The letter contained a clip and send section with appeals to the secretary general of the UN, the president of Vietnam, and Humanitas International, a group founded by Baez.

Around the time that the letter appeared in major newspapers, a debate raged among those who had opposed the war about the inferences of the letter that may have led to conclusions that supported anti-communism. The communists had been victorious in Vietnam’s civil war. I vaguely remember the controversy that the letter caused, as I was in-between having secured a discharge from the military that was granted “under honorable conditions,” and fighting the Veterans Administration for recognition of the medical and moral issues involved in my protest against the Vietnam War both in and out of the military (I would lose the latter battle as so many others would).

What I object to about the letter is that the Vietnamese people had fought a decades-long civil war that cost its people millions of deaths and millions of injuries. The communist economic system that functioned in Vietnam did have human rights violations. However, the US, the great so-called bastion of democracy, had killed millions in Southeast Asia and had its own glaring human rights issues implicit in its expansion of empire. Mass incarceration of huge segments of the US population had already begun within the globalized economy. That Vietnam had intervened in the Cambodian genocide and put an end to it seems also worthy of comment. Vietnam’s own regional interests need to be factored into that intervention.

The US involvement in Cambodia during the Vietnam War was a major factor in precipitating the instability of the government in Phnom Penh that helped set the stage for genocide. Why no celebrity letter about that human rights disaster?

Where were calls in letters from celebrities to pay reparations to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos? Where were calls to develop and implement programs to remove antipersonnel weapons such as land mines? Where were funds to help with the cleanup and effects of Agent Orange?

The point here is not to fight old and forgotten battles or criticize any group of people. Around the time of the appearance of the letter, a disagreement between Joan Baez and Jane Fonda took place, and that issue captured the interest of both the national and left press. Dissent carried a commentary about that disagreement.

Celebrity has accompanied electoral and especially presidential elections for decades. Celebrity accompanied mass “culture.” While working in the John Kerry campaign for president in 2004 in Florida, I waited in a public space in West Palm Beach for hours to hear the former senator and later secretary of state address the crowd. In the lead-up to Kerry’s appearance at the rally, actor Kirsten Dunst took the stage to support the senator.

This writing is not a criticism of those celebrities who come out for candidates, as I was at the Florida rally as a campaign worker and supporter of Kerry. I had fallen into the better than Bush scenario that always leads to the lesser of two evils choice that ends up being no choice at all because of the nearly seamless agreement between the right-wing and neoliberal strands of electoral politics in the US. Ultimately the differences among candidates are often only widow dressing for the oligarchs and plutocrats who pull and control the strings of their electoral marionettes.

I don’t know if celebrity benefits from its support of candidates, but logic points to the fact that exposure in mass culture must have some kinds of benefits. I don’t know. Perhaps there are those selfless celebrities who do it (electoral politics) because they believe in what they’re doing and want to use their celebrity toward perceived good ends.

What I know is that the Biden-Harris campaign will have a bandwagon of celebrities endorsing their campaign and appearing at campaign rallies (probably virtually because of Covid-19), etc., and we the electorate will again get candidates for office who fill the linear space between the neoliberal and extreme right wing of US politics. Ground wars have now been expanded into drone wars, proxy wars, embargoes, sanctions, and coup d’états. These nuanced wars play much better for the electorate and celebrities.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).