Friday, July 3, 2020
July 3, 2020: Patriotism’s Contested Histories: Vietnam, Spitting Protesters, and Jane Fonda
[Later this year, my next book, Of Thee I Sing: The Contested History of American Patriotism, will be published in Rowman & Littlefield’s American Ways series. So this year’s July 4th series, I wanted to highlight a few of the contested histories of American patriotism that project includes. Leading up to a special weekend post on the book itself!]
For this post, I’m gonna share a few paragraphs from my Chapter 7, “The 1960s: Love It, Leave It, or Change It”:
“Complementing and extending such governmental and legal attacks on anti-war protesters were broader cultural myths that depicted the movement as fundamentally opposed to American ideals, ideals that were often directly linked to military service. Perhaps the most telling, as well as the most constructed, of those myths is the story that protesters spit on returning Vietnam War veterans in airports and other public settings. In his book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (1998), Vietnam vet and sociologist Jerry Lembcke traces at length the development and persistence of that myth, despite what Lembcke notes is a thoroughgoing absence of documentation or journalistic evidence for such actions from protesters. Indeed, the only consistent source for this myth is the kind of anecdotal evidence illustrated by Lembcke’s first epigraph, from Vietnam vet Barry Streeter: “My flight came in at San Francisco airport and I was spat upon three times: by hippies, by a man in a leisure suit, and by a sweet little old lady who informed me I was an ‘Army Asshole.’” While individual testimonies like Streeter’s can’t be discounted, they are not only the sole form of evidence for this myth, but are themselves countered by the testimonies of numerous other veterans, including Lembcke himself. Yet the spitting story has not only endured but become a central element to collective memories of the Vietnam War era and its anti-war movement, a testament to the power of such myths depicting protesters and veterans as contrasting and hostile forces within 1960s American society; rather than positioning them as potential allies, an idea for which Lembcke argues throughout his book.
Those myths of anti-war Americans reached their peak with the hostility directed at actress and activist Jane Fonda. Fonda had been involved with the anti-war movement since the late 1960s, and in 1970 along with author Fred Gardner and actor Donald Sutherland formed the group “Free the Army” (FTA), which toured the U.S. speaking to military members about their prospective wartime service. But it was after her July 1972 trip to North Vietnam to see first-hand the war’s effects, and specifically after she was photographed sitting on an anti-aircraft gun in the course of those travels, that she became the target of sustained attacks that depicted her as nothing short of a traitor. Indeed, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) called for Fonda, now nicknamed “Hanoi Jane” by such antagonistic voices, to be put on trial for treason, and some lawmakers took the request seriously; the Maryland state legislature, for example, debated whether to ban Fonda’s films and the actress herself from their state. These attacks also associated Fonda with the spitting myth: at the time, as unsubstantiated rumors circulated that Fonda had spit upon U.S. prisoners of war during her time in North Vietnam, a charge that both she and POWs have thoroughly debunked; and in the decades since, as when veteran Michael Smith spit on Fonda during a 2005 book signing for her autobiography My Life So Far and told reporters, “she spit in our faces for 37 years…There are a lot of veterans who would love to do what I did.” These connections of Fonda’s individual case to the broader myths of spitting protesters makes clear how much those latter myths depend on definitions of the anti-war movement as fundamentally un-American and even treasonous to the nation’s identity and ideals.
Given those myths, it’s worth noting one particularly striking detail of how Fonda has herself told the story of the anti-aircraft gun moment, linking it to her critical patriotism as an American. In a 2011 piece entitled “The Truth about My Trip to Hanoi,” she writes, “The translator told me that the soldiers wanted to sing me a song. He translated as they sung. It was a song about the day ‘Uncle Ho’ declared their country's independence in Hanoi's Ba Dinh Square. I heard these words: ‘All men are created equal; they are given certain rights; among these are life, Liberty and Happiness.’ These are the words Ho pronounced at the historic ceremony. I began to cry and clap. ‘These young men should not be our enemy. They celebrate the same words Americans do.’” This moment certainly represented its own form of mythic patriotism from the North Vietnamese, both about their newly independent nation’s histories and about its fraught relationship with the United States. But Fonda’s effort to bridge the gap between the two competing views and nations reflects, as did all of her anti-war activism, a challenge not just to the ongoing Vietnam War, but to precisely the kinds of mythic patriotisms that depict such anti-war efforts as antithetical to—as spitting in the face of—the nation’s ideals.”
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other moments or stories of patriotism you’d highlight?