You Gotta Love Her
The case of Jane Fonda reveals the double standards and hypocrisies afflicting our memories. In Tour of Duty, the Kerry historian Douglas Brinkley describes the 1971 winter soldier investigation, which Fonda supported and Kerry attended, where Vietnam veterans spilled their guts about "killing gooks for sport, sadistically torturing captured VC by cutting off ears and heads, raping women and burning villages." Brinkley then recounts how Kerry later told Meet the Press that "I committed the same kinds of atrocities as thousands of others," specifically taking responsibility for shooting in free-fire zones, search-and-destroy missions, and burning villages. Brinkley describes these testimonies in tepid and judicious terms, calling them "quite unsettling." By contrast, Brinkley condemns Fonda's 1972 visit to Hanoi as "unconscionable," without feeling any need for further explanation.
Why should American atrocities be merely unsettling, but a trip to Hanoi unconscionable?
In fact, Fonda was neither wrong nor unconscionable in what she said and did in North Vietnam. She told the New York Times in 1973, "I'm quite sure that there were incidents of torture...but the pilots who were saying it was the policy of the Vietnamese and that it was systematic, I believe that's a lie." Research by John Hubbell, as well as 1973 interviews with POWs, shows that Vietnamese behavior meeting any recognized definition of torture had ceased by 1969, three years before the Fonda visit. James Stockdale, the POW who emerged as Ross Perot's running mate in 1992, wrote that no more than 10 percent of the US pilots received at least 90 percent of the Vietnamese punishment, often for deliberate acts of resistance. Yet the legends of widespread, sinister Oriental torture have been accepted as fact by millions of Americans.
Erased from public memory is the fact that Fonda's purpose was to use her celebrity to put a spotlight on the possible bombing of Vietnam's system of dikes. Her charges were dismissed at the time by George H.W. Bush, then America's ambassador to the United Nations, who complained of a "carefully planned campaign by the North Vietnamese and their supporters to give worldwide circulation to this falsehood." But Fonda was right and Bush was lying, as revealed by the April-May 1972 White House transcripts of Richard Nixon talking to Henry Kissinger about "this shit-ass little country":
NIXON: We've got to be thinking in terms of an all-out bombing attack.... I'm thinking of the dikes.
KISSINGER: I agree with you.
NIXON: ...Will that drown people?
KISSINGER: About two hundred thousand people.
It was in order to try to avert this catastrophe that Fonda, whose popular "FTA" road show (either "Fun, Travel, Adventure" or "Fuck the Army") was blocked from access to military bases, gave interviews on Hanoi radio describing the human consequences of all-out bombing by B-52 pilots five miles above her. After her visit, the US bombing of the dike areas slowed down, "allowing the Vietnamese at last to repair damage and avert massive flooding," according to Mary Hershberger.
The now legendary Fonda photo shows her with diminutive Vietnamese women examining an antiaircraft weapon, implying in the rightist imagination that she relished the thought of killing those American pilots innocently flying overhead. To deconstruct this image and what it has come to represent, it might be helpful to look further back in our history.