Happy Memorial Day, Jane Fonda

Happy Memorial Day

For Memorial Day, I’ve decided to rewrite and repost an item that was initially inspired by attacks from the self-righteous right on Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and Jane Fonda. This concerns the war. Which war? Well, pretty much any war. All wars are unjust, even the just ones. But mainly this is about the Viet Nam War.

This photo is a hoax

Where was I during the Viet Nam War? Too young to serve or not serve. I missed required registration by literally a few days, but the war was over by then anyway.

But from a very young age I was politically active. I worked for Ted Kennedy during one of his bids for president. I worked for both McGovern campaigns. I led an organization of high schoolers called “Impeach Nixon Now” (as well as the not very famous “Nature Conservation Club”…whose third member to join was Pete Seger! I wonder whether he still has his membership card).

There were a few reasons for my political activism (aside from the obvious need for political activism!). One was coming from a politically active family, both in traditional politics (my parents’ generation) and as anti-war activists (my older siblings, especially my sister Elizabeth). Also, I went to a school where the middle ground was fairly radical (Milne, now defunct) and from there transferred to a different school that was very very strict…in its sustained radicalism (The Albany Community School, one of the brainchildren of terrorist professor Bill Ayers).

I also had another kind of engagement with the war, besides the politics and activism against it. When I was just a teenager, I got a job that I kept for several years, working for a city agency funded entirely by the Comprehensive Employment Training Act. This was, at the time, a make-work federal program for returning Viet Nam-era vets. The agency I worked for was divided into two parts: the guys who “worked” in the attic of City Hall–they were mainly heroin addicts who slept most of the day except for the occasional trip to the hood to get a fix–and the rest of us, who had our own offices in a separate building. We were archaeologists and historians, and we were very productive and active.

So during much of my teenage years, I spent hours every day working with a group of people that included several vets. There was a core group that ran the place and a constant stream of vets who would come into the agency then move on. Our boss was a professional soldier who had been in Viet Nam at the very beginning…one of Kennedy’s “advisors”…and subsequently for a couple of tours of duty, as well as other parts of the world as a soldier of fortune. He and I became very good friends and remain so today. A few of these guys were “Viet Nam era” but had not been in combat, or even near Viet Nam, but most were wizened and wounded, both physically and mentally. It got crazy now and then (now and then meaning about once a week) and was an amazing learning experience for me.

I remember a few years after all of this watching the movie Platoon. Most likely I saw the movie a couple of years after it was out, because that has been my life-long pattern. I can count the number of movies I’ve seen on opening day on one hand. Anyway, Platoon as I remember it was a series of vignettes of bad things happening in Viet Nam, each and every one of which I had heard about already from the guys I worked with. Every one of them. In fact, one of the guys I worked with was at Khe Sanh with the Marines under siege, and another guy was with one of the relief and clean-up units. My point is, there was very little of what happened in Viet Nam and experienced by the US soldiers there that was not somehow connected to the many different men I met and sometimes got to know well during that period. I got to experience the Viet Nam war vicariously, which, I’m sure, was a LOT better than experiencing it in real life.

Some years later I was the editor of a monthly newspaper published by a vet (whom I had known for many years). His story was interesting. On his return to the US, getting off the bus at the local bus station, he found himself encountering a group of anti-war protesters. He went over to them, talked to them for a few minutes, took off his medals and joined them. He has been with them (in a certain sense) ever since.

What is the point of all of this? I am a person who was against the Viet Nam War but who during the last days of the war counted among my friends many Viet Nam War vets. I never for a moment considered the possibility of blaming these men for the war. I don’t recall anyone I knew at the time doing this. Sure, it may have happened, but I think this was probably a hyped-up media scam promoted by war hawks at the time, or a post hoc reconstruction fostered (festered?) by the right wing. Many, many of the people I worked with in various organizations against the war were vets, many former officers. This view that it was the protesters against the vets is nothing I ever saw or heard of at the time.

The question has been brought up, “What effect did the protests have on the execution of the war?” That is pretty clear. One president, who had been escalating involvement in the war, chose to not run again even though he was eligible to do so. Johnson bowed out of the election because of protests against him and his presidency due to his role in the war. Nixon was elected president under the pretense of having a “secret plan” to end the war, which was a position that was forced by the widespread (and getting more common) anti-war protests. When Nixon was president, he continued the war despite these protests, but there was de-escalation. Finally, in the the later parts of the war, the Nixon administration realized that they had to either win this war or get out. So they started to formulate plans to kick the shit out of the North Vietnamese, even considering nuclear weapons to do this.

In the end, the Nixon administration chose to not follow through with this large final push to win, and one of the main reasons they chose this course was because of the growing strength of the protest. This is well documented.

Forms of protest included things like what my father, a civil servant with a moderately high profile, did. He let his sideburns grow long. Other protests included peaceful marches and candlelight vigils. That was nice. The occasional one day student strike put an edge on it for the campuses. But the protests also included near riots, full-scale riots, occupation of college or government buildings, burning the occasional police car, and Jane Fonda visiting Hanoi.

It was this more extreme end that got Johnson and Nixon’s attention. Nixon was literally afraid of open revolution. It was not the fashion statements or the silent vigils that ended the war. It was burning flags, breaking some windows, and threatening to do more. That was what it required, that was what we did, and that was what worked. It was not the choice of the protesters to be “extreme.” It was the choice of the hawks in power to force the citizenry into something that verged on open revolt.

In this more genteel age of “code pink” and non-violent marches down at the college library, let us not forget that there have been times when our government needed to be threatened to do the right thing.

Go, Jane.

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4 Responses to “Happy Memorial Day, Jane Fonda”

  1. May 20th, 2009 at 7:54 am

    John says:

    Is this where the SWINE FLU started with Hanoi Jane?

  2. May 20th, 2009 at 11:19 am

    chezjake says:

    Jane (and Tom Hayden) came to Albany for a protest once, and also held a meeting with local protest groups at the 8th Step. It was fun meeting her. Of course, Jane was familiar with the Capital District, having gone to school across the river at Emma Willard in Troy.

  3. May 21st, 2009 at 6:24 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Actually, I did run into people who hated the returning vets. I gave a homeless vet in San Francisco a couple of dollars one day and the person I was with was really upset that I was sympathetic to a baby-killer. I was angry with her, because the way I saw it the military had taken a clean-cut kid and made a killer out of him. Then when the “police action” was over he was disposable.

  4. May 25th, 2009 at 1:38 am

    William Carlton says:

    I am with Stephanie on wishing a Happy Memorial Day to fallen “culture warriors”. The key word is “fallen”. They died. They gave, in Lincoln’s words, “the last full measure of devotion” to their cause. I’m not sure what Jane Fonda has ever sacrificed on behalf of her activism apart from the good graces of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, et al.

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