There’s a fascinating (and really quite unsettling) review by Rick Perlstein, in the latest LRB, of Jane Fonda’s War: A Political Biography of an Anti-war Icon by Mary Hershberger.
While critical of Hershberger’s sunny Oprah-style conclusions, he’s impressed by her research and that of other historians, delving into the corruption and cynicism of the Pentagon and the Nixon White House during the Vietnam War.
Perlstein outlines the ways in which Fonda’s reputation as some kind of anti-American harpy was consciously created by the White House in order to camouflage its own unraveling war planning, and to counteract the growing disillusion over the war.
Opposing the war, at this particular time, was not a radical thing to do, writes Perlstein. Vietnam was widely recognised across the political spectrum as a disaster… 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 was promising to end it. Most citizens, even if they didn’t fully admit it to themselves, knew that America was losing.
This view was held by many GIs, including those POWs Fonda famously visited in prison in Hanoi. So Nixon struck back. It’s since been proven that some claims that POWs were tortured because of Fonda’s visit were blatant lies. Yet she faced death threats, abuse – veterans still spit at her – and it’s no wonder she turned to aerobics.
Fonda arrived in Hanoi, says Perlstein:
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.
You can read the full review at London Review of Books.