I rarely think about the Vietnam War anymore. I didn’t think about it when, at 18 years old, I entered the Air Force in the mid 1960’s. Even when our Bomb Wing was sent to Guam to fly missions over Vietnam, I didn’t think much about it… at first.
That changed. The boy I was, the one who enlisted, vanished during my years in the military. I began to think about World War II - my father’s war, the one author Studs Terkel wrote of in his classic memoir “The Good War.”
Terkel's war, my father's war, was unfettered by moral ambiguity. My war was defined by it.
By the time I left the Air Force, I was disgusted. Within a few months, I was ensconced in the anti-war movement. I first worked with Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), and in the autumn of that year, I entered college, and continued my anti-war activities with Students for a Democratic Society… the SDS.
In the late spring of 1970 I had been studying for finals all weekend. On Monday morning, I left Cleveland and drove south to participate in the demonstrations Kent State University in Ohio.
The date was May 4.
A group of us in a house close to the university began the five minute walk to the campus when we heard what I would have immediately recognized as gunfire. That reality never had a chance to register at first. But in minutes, demonstrators were running towards us, shouting that the National Guard was firing on protestors with live ammunition.
Within hours, the world knew what happened.
The Ohio National Guard had murdered Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Knox Schroeder. One of the nine others who were wounded sustained a back wound, fracturing the vertebrae, permanently paralyzed him from the chest down.
Schroeder and Scheuer, not even bystanders at the demonstration, were walking to class when they were gunned down.
Schroeder was a member of the campus ROTC program.When the Vietnam War finally ended, I was burned out. Emotional exhaustion set in. A survival instinct kept me buried in college studies, and from dwelling on what this war had done to our nation and theirs. More importantly, it allowed for a life unfettered by thoughts of the Kent State massacre.
Furthermore, I encountered so many emotionally disturbed Vietnam vets, I knew it would be in my best interest to stop thinking about it at all. So the ‘house’ in which I store thoughts of the past, I deposited memories of military service and anti-war activism in the most inaccessible corner of the attic.
I am now in my sixties. The only time I think about the War is when someone asks me about it. When this happens, I try to respond with answers so terse, there is little opportunity for going into depth. If there is any chance a question or two might morph into a discussion, I demur.
This changed recently when some friends emailed me a letter that resurrected memories of the Vietnam War and my subsequent involvement in the anti-war movement.
The author of the letter is none other than Barbara Walters. The subject of the letter is Jane Fonda.
Walters described details of Fonda’s 1968 trip to North Vietnam and her conduct while she was there. In the letter Walters explains why President Obama should change his mind about honoring Fonda as one of the “100 Women of the Century.”
Walters’ letter includes eyewitness accounts from former POW’s. They describe being forced to meet with the actress, and how Fonda was responsible for some of them being tortured and even murdered.
Walters wrote, “Unfortunately, many have forgotten and still countless others have never known how Ms. Fonda betrayed not only the idea of our country, but specific men who served and sacrificed during Vietnam.”
To buttress this, Walters’ letter shared the following:
The first part of this is from an F-4E pilot. The pilot's name is Jerry Driscoll, a River Rat.
In 1968, the former Commandant of the USAF Survival School was a POW in Ho Lo Prison the ' Hanoi Hilton.'
Dragged from a stinking cesspit of a cell, cleaned, fed, and dressed in clean PJ's, he was ordered to describe for a visiting American 'Peace Activist' the 'lenient and humane treatment' he'd received.
He spat at Ms. Fonda, was clubbed, and was dragged away. During the subsequent beating, he fell forward on to the camp Commandant’s feet, which sent that officer berserk.
In 1978, the Air Force Colonel still suffered from double vision (which permanently ended his flying career) from the Commandant's frenzied application of a wooden baton.
If this wasn’t enough, Walters shared the recollections of this former F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber pilot:
From 1963-65, Col. Larry Carrigan was in the 47FW/DO (F-4E's). He spent 6 years in the ' Hanoi Hilton,' the first three of which his family only knew he was 'missing in action'.
His wife lived on faith that he was still alive. His group, too, got the cleaned-up, fed and clothed routine in preparation for a 'peace delegation' visit.
They, however, had time and devised a plan to get word to the world that they were alive and still survived. Each man secreted a tiny piece of paper, with his Social Security Number on it, in the palm of his hand.
When paraded before Ms. Fonda and a cameraman, she walked the line, shaking each man's hand and asking little encouraging snippets like: 'Aren't you sorry you bombed babies?' and 'Are you grateful for the humane treatment from your benevolent captors?'
Believing this HAD to be an act, they each palmed her[?] their sliver of paper.
She took them all without missing a beat... At the end of the line and once the camera stopped rolling, to the shocked disbelief of the POWs, she turned to the officer in charge and handed him all the little pieces of paper...
Three men died from the subsequent beatings. Colonel Carrigan was almost number four but he survived, which is the only reason we know of her actions that day.
Walters ends her letter with "PLEASE HELP BY SENDING THIS TO EVERYONE IN YOUR ADDRESS BOOK. IF ENOUGH PEOPLE SEE THIS, MAYBE HER STATUS WILL CHANGE."
After reading the letter, even the most hardcore anti-war activist would have issues with Fonda’s conduct in North Vietnam.
Still, I did not forward it to anyone, because there is a catch.
Barbara Walters never wrote the letter, or would write such a letter. It is a forgery, something I realized in an instant.
I remembered that Fonda did not visit North Vietnam until 1972; four years after these POW’s claimed they met her.
Also, U.S. military personnel never used Social Security numbers for identification at the time. We were assigned service numbers, which were unconnected to and entirely distinct from one’s S.S. number.
The military so successfully drummed into service personnel the importance of this number that 43 years after I left the Air Force, I still remember mine.
This forgery, edited to always suit the times, first began making the email rounds toward the end of September, 1999. The claim that Fonda betrayed POWs by turning over slips of paper they gave her to their captors, and that POWs were beaten and died as a result is false, not to mention implausible.
Writer David Emery, who investigated this “Hanoi Jane” chain letter, reached Ret. Col. Larry Carrigan by phone at his home in Arizona. Carrigan told Emery, “It's a figment of somebody's imagination." Carrigan, who was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967, told Emery he has no idea why this story was attributed to him. "I never met Jane Fonda."
Obviously Carrigan never handed her a secret message.
However, Carrigan recalled seeing Jane Fonda once while he was a POW… on film.
The occasion was a night when Carrigan and the other 80 or so men he was interned with were called out into the prison courtyard.
He told Emery, "It was the first time we'd been outside under the stars in 5 or 6 years."
As the men stood there wondering what was in store for them, a movie projector began whirring behind them. Their captors were showing them footage of Fonda's 1972 visit to Hanoi.
The claim that a POW was brutally beaten because he spat at Fonda is also false.
And the claim that Barack Obama was honoring Fonda? That was spun from the "100 Women of the Century" project of the Ladies Home Journal and a TV special hosted by Barbara Walters. Jane Fonda was one of the 100. It aired on April 30, 1999.
Furthermore, Barbara Walters and Jane Fonda have been close friends for decades.
In light of all this, it is disquieting that this urban myth has endured for nearly 12 years, and that enough people either fell for it, or so firmly hold a grudge against Fonda that they are willing to overlook the letter's obvious inconsistencies.
There's no disputing the fact that Fonda toured North Vietnam in 1972, engaged in what amounted to a propaganda campaign on behalf of the Communists, and participated in an orchestrated press conference, distorting the truth about the treatment of American POWs.
It is also true that she defamed the POWs by calling them “liars” when they later spoke out about their plight.
As a Vietnam veteran, one might assume that I care – or should care - how other Americans responded to the War.
But I don’t. How could I judge how any young American reacted to what became one of the greatest gashes in the moral fabric of American history?
As such, it doesn’t matter to me if someone served, or didn’t. I do not care if someone attended college, went to Canada or went ‘underground’ to avoid the draft. I do not care if someone went into the National Guard to avoid active duty. (Unlike today, joining the National Guard was an effective way to shelter oneself from the storm of the Vietnam War. As such, openings in the National Guard during the Vietnam War quickly filled up.)
I don’t even care if someone's family influence manipulated the National Guard to create a slot that didn’t exist for those less connected. Such was the case with George W. Bush and his 'vacation in uniform,' when he briefly played pilot in the Texas Air National Guard.
Still, the Barbara Walters forgery got me to thinking about this for the first time in decades. And I discovered three exceptions to my indifference.
The first would be those Americans who gave aid and comfort to ‘the enemy.’ Rightly or wrongly, Fonda, to many Americans, became and remains the pin-up girl for this.
Secondly, the anti-war movement was peppered with individuals and organizations who directed their rage against the war at those young men and women who were serving in the military. For them, the young men and women who fought the war became morally indistinguishable from those who planned, promoted and perpetuated it.
The third exception to my indifference is that pack of young American men who supported the Vietnam War, yet found ways to avoid serving in the military themselves. Such men have come to be known as “war wimps” or more popularly “chicken hawks.” Their stand on the war is partly responsible for some of the names etched on the Vietnam War Memorial – the “Wall.”
The list of famous chicken hawks reads like a “Who’s Who" in Republican Politics. Members of this Hall of Shame include Mitch McConnell, Trent Lott, Jon Kyl, John Cornyn, John Ensign, John Boehner, Roy Blunt, Adam Putnam, Thaddeus McCotter, Tom Cole, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Dick Armey, Tom Delay and Bill Frist.
Then there's Rick Santorum, George F. Allen (former Republican Senator from Virginia - a supporter of Nixon and the Vietnam war), George W. Bush (who figured that a six-year Air National Guard commitment really means four years. Still, Bush says he's "been to war."), Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, Jeb Bush, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, and Phil Gramm.
Finally, there are all those politicians of the era who thought spending ten years in Vietnam to spill an ocean of American and Vietnamese blood and squander more than $650 billion was something we ought to do.
As for Jane Fonda, in a 1988 interview on ABC’s “20/20” - with Barbara Walters - Fonda talked about her Vietnam visit and said, "I would like to say something, not just to Vietnam veterans in New England, but to men who were in Vietnam, who I hurt, or whose pain I caused to deepen because of the things that I said or did.
"I was trying to help end the killing and the war, but there were times when I was thoughtless and careless about it and I'm...very sorry that I hurt them. And I want to apologize to them and their families."
Although the claims in the Barbara Walters email forgery are false, there is enough left of Fonda’s actual antiwar conduct to ask yourself if she should be forgiven.
Before you address the question, ask yourself if you forgive Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and all the other government nabobs who sent nearly 59,000 Americans to their deaths. (More than 11,000 were younger than 20 years old.)
When you peruse the roster of people who planned, promoted and perpetuated the Vietnam War, take note that Fonda is not on that list. Considering the outlandish nature of the war itself, it's bewildering that there weren't more who did what she did.
Those anti-war activists who held young people in uniform as responsible as the war's instigators are older, wiser and, as such, cured by time of the moral indignation that drove them to such a perspective. I am also older and hopefully wiser. As such, I forgive them.
As for those Vietnam-era chicken hawks, the only Americans morally qualified to forgive them are the 59,000 listed on two walls sunk into the ground in Constitution Gardens adjacent to the National Mall in Washington DC.
And they're not talking.