Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Jane Fonda's War
A whole generation of Americans knows Jane Fonda only as the former Mrs. Ted Turner, or the inventor of the celebrity workout video. You have to be a little bit older to remember her as one of Hollywood's A-list actresses--and if you remember that, you also remember her antiwar activist days. No one who spoke out against the Vietnam War is more reviled all these years later than Fonda. Millions of Americans have never forgiven her for her controversial trip to North Vietnam in 1972.

However, like a lot of what we think we remember--and like a lot of what gets used as political bludgeons by people on both the right and the left--we don't remember Fonda's antiwar activities or Vietnam visit accurately. They were a lot more nuanced than those "American traitor bitch" bumperstickers you still see now and then would make you believe. Author Mary Hershberger has written Jane Fonda's War: A Political Biography of an Anti-War Icon, and it's reviewed by Rick Perlstein in the London Review of Books.

There's a tremendous amount of stuff to absorb in Perlstein's review, but one of the most striking bits for me was this:
It’s remarkable how many things that we think of as permanent features of American culture can be traced back to specific political operations by the Nixon White House. We now take it as given, for example, that blue-collar voters have always been easy pickings for conservatives appealing to their cultural grievances. But Jefferson Cowie, among others, has shown the extent to which this was the result of a specific political strategy, worked out in response to a specific political problem. Without taking workers’ votes from the Democrats, Nixon would never have been able to achieve the ‘New Majority’ he dreamed of. But to do so by means of economic concessions – previously the only way politicians imagined working-class voters might be wooed – would threaten his business constituency. So Nixon ‘stood the problem on its head’, as Cowie says in Nixon’s Class Struggle (2002), ‘by making workers’ economic interests secondary to an appeal to their allegedly superior moral backbone and patriotic rectitude’. (One part of the strategy was arranging for members of the Teamsters to descend ‘spontaneously’ on protesters carrying Vietcong flags at Nixon appearances. Of course it’s quite possible that the protesters too were hired for the occasion.) It’s not that the potential for that sort of behaviour wasn’t always there. But Nixon had a gift for looking beneath social surfaces to see and exploit subterranean anxieties.
Many of the POWs Fonda visited in 1972 were openly against the war. Anti-war warriors meant political disaster for Nixon, both in terms of political support for the war, and for the broader project of peeling off those blue-collar voters. So the orchestrated reactions to Fonda's visit and to the return of Vietnam POWs about a year later were both intended to change the politics of war support.
The pows were released in the spring of 1973 with the signing of the Paris accord – the same negotiated settlement that the anti-war pows had called for. A carefully selected group of hard-line returnees was paraded around the country in a Pentagon-scripted pageant called Operation Homecoming. These hard-liners were an interesting group. They were older officers, mostly, captured in the early years of the conflict, at a time when its insanity wasn’t quite so obvious. They treated their captivity as an extension of the battlefield. And as the mission to which they had pledged their lives collapsed around their ears, their attitude hardened, their resistance to their captors’ authority becoming ‘a mark of their personal heroism and endurance’. While the nation had been busy losing the war, they were ‘almost desperate’, Steven Roberts, the New York Times reporter who covered the repatriation, wrote, to ‘believe the Vietnam War was worth it and that the president would, in fact, gain “peace with honour”’. They were uniformed prophets of national redemption, preaching, to honour-starved congregations in America’s Knights of Columbus halls and school cafeterias, the message people needed to hear: ‘I want you all to remember,’ they said, ‘that we walked out of Hanoi as winners.’

This made their younger comrades, the kind that met with the likes of Fonda, no better than VC sappers. They were charged with collaboration. The pows who wished to preserve their honour by maintaining that the war was wrong and that they had had a right to criticise it were cast as the agents of American defeat.
And that was where things stood as we moved into the '70s period of forgetting about Vietnam, which was followed by the 1980s, and Ronald Reagan's talk of Vietnam as a "noble cause," the rise of political conservatism, and the development of what Perlstein calls "the anti-Fonda cult." Twenty years later, the cult's virulence hasn't dimmed very much--for what were the swift-boat attacks on John Kerry last fall if not a manifestation of the kind of aid-and-comfort stuff people have been saying about Fonda since the 70s? Remember that photo --a fake--of the two of them together?

Why does this matter now? Well, we're losing another war at the moment, and the current administration, which is wedded to its continued prosecution no matter what, desperately wants to define the "patriotic" view of that war. And with ex-POW John McCain's likely involvement in the 2008 presidential race, the ever-malleable concept of "patriotism" will be a critical part of the debate. Which means that what Jane Fonda did--and didn't do--will be part of the debate once again.

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