The well-worn adage goes “History is written by the victors”. That is, the nation that wins a war provides the facts that compose the history books. But the Vietnam War is an exception. In this case the loser, the United States, provides posterity with most of the information about the 1964-1975 conflict that cost 56,000 American and 1.5 million Vietnamese lives.
Marking the 40th anniversary of the War’s end, PBS recently featured a catalog of interviews by the era’s prominent talk-show host, Dick Cavett, highlighting divergent opinions about the “first television war”. Cavett wrote a companion piece in the New York Times, with judgments about who was proven right and wrong by events, essentially his view of the War’s heroes and villains.
For villains, Cavett rounded up the usual suspects: Lyndon Johnson (“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America”), Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger (“a sense of absent concern for the human cost”), Richard Nixon and General William Westmoreland (“The General Who Lost Vietnam”).
The assessment of these historical personages is basically not in dispute, generally accepted by both sides. In 1964, assured by his brilliant but arrogant Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, President Johnson launched a military defense of South Vietnam far more difficult and costly than the American public was led to believe. Five years later, Richard Nixon was elected president on a platform to end the war. Instead, with the backing of his brilliant but arrogant Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Nixon executed a failed aerial bombing escalation of Southeast Asia. The strategy and tactics devised by Westmoreland, the overall field commander, will go down as among the most inept in the annals of American military history, virtually assuring unnecessary casualties for scant strategic advantage. These men will be forever accountable to those who served in Vietnam, their families, and the Vietnamese and American public.
But history is rarely pure and never simple, and among Dick Cavett’s heroes is Jane Fonda, pilloried for her antiwar activism then, but lionized in many circles today. Cavett writes of Fonda, “gorgeous and infuriating to hordes of her life-threateners, but, who, as it turned out, happened to be right about the war. I’m a friend of Jane’s. She can never satisfy some of her durable bloodthirsty critics, of course, but she has impressively described and tearfully apologized for what she came to see as her own deep foolishness in certain appalling actions at the time. She has admitted she will never live down her shame at some of her — as they’re called in acting — “bad choices.”
For some, “bad acting choices” might mean reading for the part of Melanie rather than Scarlett when Gone With the Wind was cast.
What Cavett was really referring to was not a casting choice, but Fonda’s notorious 1972 trip to Hanoi, when she posed helmeted on an antiaircraft gun turret, marched with North Vietnamese soldiers, and broadcast for Hanoi Radio. She has since apologized for the gun turret pose claiming emotional exhaustion. Whatever the case, her smiling countenance was cleverly exploited by the North Vietnamese, well-versed in propaganda.
Moreover, this took place only a short distance from the Hanoi Hilton, the infamous prison holding American pilots. Fonda steadfastly maintained North Vietnamese policy was not to torture American pilots. However, especially before 1968, torture was well-documented. One pilot, Jeremiah Denton, paraded before international journalists in 1966, actually blinked out the word “torture” in Morse Code for the cameras. According to Alvin Townley, author of the book Defiant, American pilots went through brutal torture. It made whatever happened at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib look like third-rate amateurism. One can only imagine how Denton’s captors treated him after they realized his subterfuge.
Jane Fonda’s antiwar sentiments were constitutionally protected and shared by millions, but was she “right about the war”? After returning from Hanoi she extolled the virtues of North Vietnamese socialism in a speech at Berkeley. Unfortunately, her war views (and apparently Cavett’s as well) ended when the Americans left Vietnam in April 1975. What happened after that?
When the Vietnamese communists overran the South, it is estimated they executed as many as 65,000 “collaborators” and sent one million more to prison/reeducation camps, where another 150,000 may have died. One million Vietnamese refugees fled and up to 250,000 who tried escaping the country in small fishing boats - the Boat People - may have drowned, were killed by pirates, or were sold into slavery or prostitution. These are history’s best casualty estimates – there are no “facts” because the “winners” have never mentioned them.
Of course the worst atrocity was the Cambodian Killing Fields of 1975-1979. After the Americans departed, the North Vietnamese provided support to their Marxist brethren in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge. While the North Vietnamese watched from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), only 250 miles away, the Khmer Rouge slaughtered nearly 2 million of Cambodia’s 7 million people, one of the worst genocides in the history of man.
By then, Southeast Asian socialism had lost its allure for Jane Fonda. Never mentioning the Cambodian Killing Fields 8000 miles away, she made “good acting choices” in Hollywood, filming such fare as Fun With Dick and Jane and California Suite (tagline –”the best two-hour vacation in town!”).
In the final accounting of the Vietnam War, Jane Fonda and others were no more right than McNamara, Kissinger or Nixon. Ultimately, Dick Cavett’s verdict on who was right is simply a willingness to turn a blind eye to even more deaths than those who were responsible for the War caused.
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