Operation Barbarella

Rick Perlstein

  • Jane Fonda’s War: A Political Biography of an Anti-war Icon by Mary Hershberger
    New Press, 228 pp, £13.99, September 2005, ISBN 1 56584 988 4

You don’t know America if you don’t know the Jane Fonda cult. Or rather, the anti-Fonda cult. At places where soldiers or former soldiers congregate, there’ll be stickers of her likeness on the urinals; one is an invitation to symbolic rape: Fonda in her 1980s ‘work-out’ costume, her legs splayed, pudenda at the bulls-eye. Every night at lights-out midshipmen at the US Naval Academy cry out ‘Goodnight, bitch!’ in her honour. They’ve learned, Carol Burke writes in her study of military folklore, Camp All-American, Hanoi Jane and the High-and-Tight, what you learn at all the service academies: ‘that being a real warrior and hating Jane Fonda are synonymous.’[*] When Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial was built on the Washington Mall, well-organised veterans who criticised it as the ‘gook monument’ – Lin is Chinese-American – were allowed to open their own kiosks nearby. These became the cult’s temples, the places to buy its sacraments and phylacteries; bumper stickers, for example, saying ‘Jane Fonda: John Kerry with Tits’. Phyllis Schlafly and Tom Wolfe have both described the memorial wall as a ‘monument to Jane Fonda’.

A set of urban legends has sprung up around her visit to Hanoi in the summer of 1972: a prisoner of war, ordered by his captors to describe his ‘lenient and humane’ treatment to the visiting actress, spat on her instead and was beaten almost into blindness; prisoners secretly gave her their social security numbers to prove their existence to the outside world – Fonda turned the numbers over to their captors and men were supposed to have died from the beatings that followed. The reliability of such tales is suggested by a piece that appeared in the Washington Times, a right-wing daily, in 1989: a former pow, Air Force Major Fred Cherry, recalled Fonda’s voice ringing out over the prison public address system during an ‘extended torture siege’ in 1967. Fonda didn’t speak out against the war until 1970.

The cult matured in the 1980s when America finally began to accept that it had lost a war which hadn’t been worth fighting in the first place. This was around the time Ronald Reagan observed: ‘Boy, I saw Rambo last night. Now I know what to do next time this happens.’ The moment had come to fix the blame where it properly belonged: not on Lyndon Johnson, not on Richard Nixon, but, as Burke points out, on the oldest story in the world, ‘the seductive woman who turns out to be a snake’.

Last year, the Fonda cult allowed thousands, even millions of anguished veterans and their sympathisers to hold onto their shaky faith in American innocence, while acting as the conduit for the character assassination of the Democratic presidential candidate. ‘They’re the men who served with John Kerry in Vietnam,’ the announcer said in the notorious TV commercial produced by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. ‘And they’re the men who spent years in North Vietnamese prison camps. Tortured for refusing to confess what John Kerry accused them of … of being war criminals.’ The tropes come straight from the Fonda mythology. A doctored photograph was circulated (it showed up in several newspapers) showing Kerry on a speakers’ platform with Fonda. The picture was found to be a fake, but the association had already been planted. ‘John Kerry with Tits’: five syllables full of implications for the politics of gender, power and anxiety in America.

In Jane Fonda’s War Mary Hershberger does a good job of describing how this state of affairs came about. The story begins with an apolitical young woman whose anti-Communist convictions were so conventional that in 1959 she accepted the ceremonial title of ‘Miss Army Recruiter’. A budding Method-trained actress, the daughter of an American icon, she fell in love with Roger Vadim, the Nouvelle Vague’s ‘pope of hedonism’, and assumed the particularly confining public role of sexually liberated woman. Thanks to Vadim’s productions, her naked image was consumed like no other American actress’s – in one case eight storeys high, on a billboard over a Broadway theatre promoting 1964’s Circle of Love. Barbarella (1968), starring Fonda as an instantly available space nymph, was pornography in all but name. The poster, the New York Times Saigon bureau chief A.J. Langguth later recalled, ‘was a favourite GI pin-up’.

In 1965 the pin-up shot a movie in Louisiana, during which the (racially mixed) cast received death threats. She saw the 1967 Pentagon protest on TV while living in Paris: ‘I watched women walking up to the bayonets that were surrounding the Pentagon and they were not afraid. It was the soldiers who were afraid. I will never forget that experience. It completely changed me.’ She watched the Tet Offensive unfold, and like many Americans, finally understood how badly she’d been lied to about Vietnam. She read. She gave birth to Vadim’s child, then separated from him and returned to the US to make They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? She decided to stay. By the spring of 1969 – they called it ‘finding yourself’ back then – she took off for a Wanderjahr around the country, and made university campuses and anti-war GI coffee houses the bases of her itinerary.

Hershberger writes in detail about these early months of Fonda’s anti-war activism. She never pulled rank as a celebrity. She sat on the floor of student lounges when she visited universities – listening, mostly. She was drawn to anti-war GIs and former GIs, not revolutionary ideologists: the most working-class part of the movement, the unglamorous, empirical witnesses. She gave her first formal speech only when begged to do so, under the pressure of events, after four students were shot dead at Kent State in Ohio on 4 May 1970. She would appear anywhere she was asked, no matter how small; she stuffed envelopes, manned phone banks, moved to grey Detroit when that was what it took to get the 1971 ‘Winter Soldier’ hearings off the ground, in which a procession of veterans described the atrocities they had seen or committed. ‘I was a little surprised by her manner – no dramatics, no hip slang, no affectation,’ a journalist is quoted as saying. ‘She conveyed optimism and faith in the democratic process. She got a standing ovation.’ Hershberger’s Fonda is not particularly radical, determinedly non-chic.

Another important detail: opposing the war, at this particular time, was not a radical thing to do. Vietnam was widely recognised across the political spectrum as a disaster. In one of her rare forays into cultural criticism, Hershberger usefully characterises They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which was showing in the spring of 1970, as an allegory of American perceptions of the war. Fonda plays a contestant in a Depression-era marathon dance contest. ‘The marathon dancers are told that they can survive their ordeal by dancing to “victory” … The bodies of the downed dancers are like fallen soldiers on the battlefield, with doctors and nurses on the sidelines ready to patch them up and send them back to the dance floor, where they wear the glassy-eyed stare of the shell-shocked soldier.’

The security establishment began its battle against Fonda almost as soon as she started speaking out. Teams of FBI informants reported her every word, combed her speeches for violations of the 1917 Espionage Act, which criminalises incitement to ‘insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny or refusal of duty in the military’, and ‘disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language about the form of government of the United States’. She proved a disappointment. Profanity was not her style. As for incitement, we learn from one informant – a chaplain’s assistant – that she thought it ‘would not help the cause of peace’. He added that nothing she said ‘could be construed to be undermining the US government’.

The government got desperate. At Cleveland airport the FBI arranged for her to be stopped at customs. During her interrogation she pushed aside agents who refused her access to the bathroom, so they arrested her for assaulting an officer. She had in her possession mysterious pills marked B, L and D, so they also charged her with narcotics smuggling – for carrying vitamins to be taken with breakfast, lunch and dinner. Her daughter was followed to kindergarten. (America needed to know: did her school teach ‘an anti-law enforcement attitude’?) They investigated her bank accounts. They tapped their network of friendly media propagandists, like the future Senator Jesse Helms, then a TV editorialist, who supplied an invented quotation that still circulates as part of the Fonda cult’s liturgy. Supposedly asked – it isn’t clear where or by whom – how far America should go to the left, she said, according to Helms: ‘If everyone knew what it meant, we would all be on our knees praying that we would, as soon as possible, be able to live under … within a Communist structure.’ A death threat against her was sent to Henry Fonda’s house with a demand for $50,000. He took the letter to the same FBI office that was directing the campaign against his daughter. ‘The FBI files reveal no effort to find the sender of the letter,’ Hershberger remarks.

The campaign appears to have been co-ordinated with the White House, and underway long before Fonda went to Hanoi. Hershberger is an assiduous researcher, but she could have got a better idea of the extent of this co-ordination by studying the Nixon Oval Office tapes at the National Archives. On 2 May 1970, Nixon told his aides that protesters were to be accused of ‘giving aid and comfort to the enemy’. On 9 May, Nixon’s enforcer Chuck Colson told the FBI to send its Fonda files directly to the White House. ‘What Brezhnev and Jane Fonda said got about the same treatment,’ an aide later recalled.

Why the obsession? What threat did a pin-up pose? Timing is one clue. May 1970 was when Nixon, having won the presidency promising to draw down the war, expanded it into Cambodia instead. It was a massively unpopular move. Fonda popped up at a moment of maximum political danger, just when the president needed to isolate and destroy his critics.

Another thing to take into account is Fonda’s public image. It’s easy to lose sight now of the time when she was seen as all apple-cheeked patriotism and plain-spoken idealism – almost like Henry Fonda himself. There was a pattern: the first anti-war figure to become the object of excessive government attention was Dr Spock, whose massively popular child-rearing manual was read and trusted by millions of American mothers. American GIs associated Jane Fonda with their first blush of innocent adolescent sexuality – think of those Barbarella posters. It was through figures like them, not through mad bombers of the far left, that ordinary Americans might come to the dangerous conviction that their government was not innocent. They were the ones that had to go.

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.

Most Americans opposed the war by the time Nixon started running for re-election; every candidate in 1972, including the dozen or so contenders for the wide-open Democratic nomination (among them Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, the neo-conservative hero), was promising to end it. Most citizens, even if they didn’t fully admit it to themselves, knew that America was losing. But there was something else: the nagging feeling that it was the inability of Americans to get behind the war mission that was causing America to lose. In other words, by 1972, a significant number of Americans – perhaps enough to elect a president – were full of doubts as to whether the imminent humiliation of the United States was partially their own fault. ‘The country’s behind you – 50 per cent,’ Bob Hope told soldiers in South-East Asia. It was funny because it was true. But he stopped telling the joke when it got too true: when more and more GIs counted themselves as members of the other 50 per cent. Soldiers were not a separate species of American; most of them were conscripts. You had to be a pretty dumb dogface not to understand at some level that this was different from the wars you’d been raised on: that it was morally and militarily useless, and that your team was losing – for the first time in American history. And if you were a soldier who suspected the war was wrong, you eventually found yourself wrestling with anger at having stabbed yourself in the back.

Hershberger doesn’t delve much into these matters, but her careful, straightforward account helps us put together the pieces to understand them. Nixon saw a way to bend American rage to his own ends. The pawns he used were people like Fonda, and American prisoners of war. The lot of American prisoners in Hanoi was in many ways worse than that of other pows in the 20th century. The enemy, pointing to America’s refusal to declare war, declared themselves outside the requirements of the Geneva Conventions. They tortured prisoners, at least until 1970, when, most experts agree, international pressure brought such treatment to an end. The lot of those incarcerated in the prisons of America’s South Vietnamese allies, however, was demonstrably worse. They were kept in ‘tiger cages’ that turned them, year by year (according to Time magazine, a reliably pro-Saigon organ, on their release in 1973), into ‘grotesque sculptures of scarred flesh and gnarled limbs … skittering across the floor on buttocks and palms’.

The tiger cages were exposed by the anti-war movement in 1969, the first year of Nixon’s presidency. Shortly afterwards, the Vietcong released two American prisoners. The Pentagon sent them on tour after briefing them to tell stories of torture that journalists demonstrated could not have been true. Lieutenant Robert Frishman said he’d been starved, for example, but he weighed the same after 18 months in the US as he did when he left captivity. Melvin Laird, the defense secretary, told stories of unmitigated horror. Seymour Hersh uncovered a Pentagon letter to pow families reassuring them that this was only a stratagem: ‘We are certain that you will not become unduly concerned over the briefing if you keep in mind the purpose for which it was tailored.’ Hersh also quoted something about Lieutenant Frishman that is key to understanding the Fonda cult as it emerged. An official suggested why Frishman was so useful to the government: ‘He played ball the most’ with his captors, ‘and therefore was the most torn.’ He’d stabbed himself in the back, and was ready to do his penance.

By the time Fonda visited pows in Hanoi in 1972, many more were ‘playing ball’. Using the evidence of their senses, they had turned against the war – especially the bombing war that they, as captured pilots, had themselves prosecuted. Hershberger argues convincingly that ‘by 1971, as many as half of the officers in Hanoi were openly disillusioned about the war.’ Two months before Fonda went to Hanoi, and weeks after the most brutal bombing raids on North Vietnam since the spring of 1968, a group of pows sent a letter to ‘the United States Congress and to all Americans’ demanding a negotiated settlement to end the war. Stockholm Syndrome? Perhaps to some extent. Certainly not torture. These were college-educated, accomplished men, leaders, in a unique position to evaluate the assumptions of the American bombing strategy on its own terms – which were that it would destroy the will of the enemy and make possible an orderly American retreat. ‘No bombing of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam serves to make the withdrawal of American forces any safer,’ they wrote: ‘it only makes it more likely that they cannot be withdrawn at all’ and ‘risks the death and capture of many more Americans, as well as endangering the lives of those already held captive’.

The message was devastating to Nixon’s political goals. Massive bombing of North Vietnam, enough to keep the Communists from overrunning Saigon until after the American election, was the only way Nixon would be able to sell what he was calling ‘peace with honour’. ‘Vietnamisation’ was also calculated to shut down the momentum of the anti-war movement – and, to a certain extent, it did. Stalwarts like Fonda made themselves especially dangerous to Nixon by urging that American policy was now more evil, not less. It ‘removed the war from our minds while it is being inflicted on the bodies of others’, she said, asking: ‘Will the American people say “right on,” our hands are clean because our men aren’t being killed?’

This was the reason for Fonda’s trip. Again, the timing was devastating. She arrived as US bombers appeared to be making preliminary strikes against North Vietnam’s system of dikes, which if breached would destroy farmland and starve the population. The Pentagon denied the raids. At a press conference in Paris Fonda presented film proving that they had taken place. That same day, the State Department cancelled its scheduled rebuttal. One of the diplomats laid low by the humiliation was America’s UN envoy, George H.W. Bush. ‘I think that the best thing I can do on the subject is to shut up,’ he told the press, after promising them evidence of American innocence. No wonder Nixon was keen to attack Fonda.

Her visit to the pows provided the occasion. Fonda, who was carrying 200 letters from the pows’ families, was asked if she would like to meet any prisoners personally. All the captives she met were volunteers, all openly critical of the war. Of course this was the opposite of what the urban legends suppose: that they were tortured into seeing her. But that is the reason the urban legends exist. They are a prophylactic against the anxiety that these pows, the symbolic stand-ins for American innocence, had stabbed themselves in the back.

America was no longer fighting for anything palpable – let alone to contain China, the superpower with which Nixon had just, with great fanfare, established a friendship. The new rationale was entirely circular: we were fighting in order to protect those pows the war was creating. ‘Following the president’s lead,’ Jonathan Schell has written, ‘people began to speak as though the North Vietnamese had kidnapped 400 Americans and the United States had gone to war to retrieve them.’ The Eden this scenario presented to a guilty American conscience was too tempting to pass up – children began wearing bracelets with the names of pows stamped on them. Fonda was the Eve that threatened it.

The anti-war movement, Hershberger demonstrates, was good for pows. Sometimes it secured their early release. It also kept them in touch with their families, something the US government proved unwilling or unable to do: the government accommodated their needs mostly to the extent that they were useful. In one case, on learning that the Vietcong had released a prisoner, the Pentagon hurriedly sent his family a letter he had written two years earlier – two years during which his now enraged family presumed he’d been dead. The government claimed it had been studying the letter for ‘propaganda context’.

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. One, Abel Kavanaugh, facing a court martial, shot himself. Another, David Wesley Hoffman, had been one of the pows who volunteered to meet with Fonda. He hoped to remain in the military. He met with Pentagon officials on his release; then, on 13 April 1973, all three television networks covered a news conference in which he said he’d been hung from a hook by his broken arm until he agreed to meet with her. He may also have been threatened with court martial. To this day he refuses all requests for interviews. George Wald, a Nobel Prize winner in medicine, proved his claim was physiologically impossible. Senator William Fulbright demanded an investigation. The Pentagon refused.

In 1973, the Maryland Legislature pr0posed what would have been the first bill of attainder in its history to ban Fonda from the state and grant the government power to seize all money made from her films. ‘I wouldn’t go so far as to execute her, but I think we should cut her tongue off,’ one legislator argued. The floodgates had been opened. The urinal stickers would not be far behind. Every time Nixon ratcheted down the US commitment to the war, he launched an attack on the people who called on him to ratchet down the commitment. Che Guevara spoke of creating a New Socialist Man. The president’s upright vanguardists in the Operation Homecoming travelling circus did a much more effective job of inventing a new sort of capitalist subject: New Republican Man, willing to believe anything to preserve some semblance of faith in American innocence.

The problem with Jane Fonda’s War is that in place of the hegemonic legend of Jane Fonda as the mother of all sins, Hershberger represents her as St Joan, the perfect martyr: the American addiction to narratives of innocence infects those who would deconstruct them as well. Hershberger sets up the burden of her study right away: ‘The allegations that Fonda betrayed her country and caused harm to American pows in Hanoi are false.’ She nails the case only in its legalistic sense. Beyond that, she is on shaky ground. Hershberger’s Fonda is ever gentle, Quakerish, all hearts and flowers – a figure of absolute innocence. The portrait is undercut by her extensive quotations from Fonda’s broadcasts over Radio Hanoi, intended for the ears of American fliers. They were not seditious. They were, however, simple-minded. ‘These are peasants,’ Fonda said. ‘They grow rice and they rear pigs … Perhaps your grandmothers and grandfathers would not be so different from these peasants.’ ‘Are these people so different from our own children, our own mothers, or grandmothers?’ she asked, and answered: ‘They have a surer sense of why they are living and for what they are willing to die.’

Hershberger claims to be shocked that Vietnam veterans wouldn’t grant Fonda unconditional absolution. ‘If the Vietnamese could see the American people as potential friends, Fonda believed, Americans might also see the Vietnamese as such,’ she concludes. ‘She never told the pilots – or any of the GIs she met, for that matter – what to do. She only asked them to think.’ Anyone familiar with the films of Henry Fonda will recognise this way of thinking. Pauline Kael called it ‘liberal masochism’ – the fantasy of perfectly reasonable liberals, besieged on all sides by perfectly bigoted conservatives. Its purest form is the redemption narrative in which the pure-hearted liberal converts the bigots by the sheer force of reason – as in Twelve Angry Men. ‘I just want to talk!’ Henry Fonda’s character says, beginning the five or six reels of patient reasoning-through that eventually proves the accused boy couldn’t have committed the crime, as the right-wing jurors slink away in shame.

Jane – Henry once called her his ‘alleged daughter’ and said he would be the first to turn her in if she turned out to be a Communist – was her father’s daughter, or at least deeply desired to be her father’s daughter. ‘Marx said that shame is the only revolutionary sentiment,’ she says in her memoir.[†] She actually gets the quotation wrong. Marx said shame was a revolutionary emotion. In fact, the ideology for which shame is the only revolutionary emotion is the kind of sentimental liberalism that Hershberger, the characters played by Henry and the daughter played by Jane seem to share: the assumption that, if only the dialogue is open and honest enough, you can transcend the septic tanks of subconscious rage. If only.

In 1988, shortly after the release of a film called The Hanoi Hilton, which portrayed a bubble-headed actress performing a Manchurian Candidate-like turn at an enemy pow camp, and did much to cement the maximalist version of the anti-Fonda cult, Fonda travelled to Waterbury, Connecticut to shoot a movie. She was hanged in effigy from a local tree. ‘I knew in my heart I had never felt anything but compassion for the soldiers in Vietnam,’ she writes in her memoir, so she arranged to meet with the local veterans:

I wasn’t sure I would be able to communicate this to all of them, but I was confident that, at least for some, this face-to-face would have a positive effect … Some of them were in uniform. A few wore buttons and hats reading HANOI JANE and TRAITOR … Rich Roland wore a camouflage jacket and had an ace of spades in his pocket, the ‘death card’ … ‘I intended to throw the card in your face if I wasn’t happy with what happened in the meeting,’ Rich told me later, in 2003.

I took my place in the circle and suggested we go around the room and each tell our story … It was raw, angry and emotional … Instead of throwing his ace of spades in my face, Rich went out and threw it in the trash. ‘That was the beginning of my healing,’ he said.

They just wanted to talk, is the implication, and Fonda left behind in Waterbury truth and absolution where before there’d been only lies and recrimination. No more angry men. But it isn’t quite so simple: the vets in Waterbury still put on an annual display of tiger cages with GIs locked inside.

[*] Beacon, 288 pp., $18, May, 0 8070 4659 0.

[†] My Life So Far by Jane Fonda (Ebury, 601 pp., £18.99, May, 0 09 190610 5).