Viet-Nam Replayed: ‘Hanoi Jane’ and Me

The Washington Post jumped on Ken Burns’ Viet-Nam remembrance band wagon yesterday with a front-page piece about “Hanoi Jane” Fonda.

For the forgetful (old) and very young, Fonda was an actress from a well-known acting family (viz. her father Henry Fonda and brother Peter Fonda) who became the face of radical opposition to the Viet-Nam War in the late 1960s and the early ’70s.

She traveled to North Viet-Nam in July 1972 and was photographed at the controls of an anti-aircraft gun used to shoot down U.S. war planes. It did not make her popular with anyone, that I recall.

What you don’t know about the incident is that I was the first Western journalist to interview her after her trip. I was trying to earn a living as a journalist in Laos when her plane from Hanoi landed in Vientiane, the Laotian administrative capital. I met her on the tarmac, and my buddy, Don Ronk, snapped several pictures of me interviewing her on the run.

Here’s my recollection from my unpublished memoir of that time, HOTEL CONSTELLATION: Notes from America’s Secret War in Laos.

At the end of July, I experienced the high point of my journalistic career in Laos. Jane Fonda, the movie actress and anti-war activist, landed at Wattay Airport on the weekly flight from Hanoi. She had spent two weeks in North Viet-Nam posing for propaganda photos and was en route to Paris on her way back to the U.S. I met her on the tarmac as she stepped off the Soviet Aeroflot aircraft and dogged her steps into the terminal during the flight layover. She wore a three-quarter length sleeved Lao top and black peasant pajama bottoms and sandals. Even without makeup, she was Hollywood beautiful, her blonde hair blowing freely in the wind. While Ronk photographed us, I pestered her with question after question about her activities in the North, including a photo taken of her sitting at an anti-aircraft gun. She politely refused to answer every question. She said she was holding an international press conference in Paris; I understood that no AP stringer in Laos was going to scoop that.

I didn’t care. I had met someone famous, and I was going to write about it. My brief story probably served to alert AP that she had left the country and was bound for France. This is the text of my entire cable:

“presse

“associated tokyo

“haase 01945 vientiane 22/7

 “jane fonda cma american actress etantiwar activist cma late saturday afternoon left hanoi etarrived vientianes wattay airport for thirty minute stopover on first leg of long trip back to united states via moscow et paris para miss fonda cma wearing black silk vietnamese trousers cma refused to comment on her trip to north vietnam saying she will hold press conference in paris para an outspoken opponent of vietnam war miss fonda has been accused of treason by american congessman for her activities in north vietnam during last two weeks endit

“David L. Haase

“carte de presse 274

“hotel constellation”

That turned out to be one of the last cables I ever wrote from Laos.

Here is a screen grab from the photo section of the manuscript. Notes the pen and pad in my shirt pocket, and stop staring at the sideburns.

Jane Fonda and me

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Ken Burns’ Vietnam: Episode 1

I watched the start of Ken Burns’ 18-hour retelling of the Viet-Nam* saga last night with my wife and daughter.

I found the material even-handed, and I know a lot about the material, but the back and forth between the French Indo-China history and the late 1960s American combat scenes confused more than enlightened.Hotel Constellation_Reader Final

And while I did not understand the use of Tim O’Brien at the end of the episode, I certainly identified with his statement to the effect that just taking a step in Viet-Nam was an act of courage.

The experience got me thinking, or I should confess, my wife telling me it was time to self-publish my memoir of my Viet-Nam and Laos experience got me thinking. I’m still thinking.

But here is my version of how America’s Viet-Nam experience came about from HOTEL CONSTELLATION: Notes from America’s Secret War in Laos.

 

In the Beginning

1945 – 1970

“If we lose Laos, we will probably lose Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. We will have demonstrated to the world that we cannot or will not stand when challenged.”

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke

December 31, 1960

 

Between 1954 and 1975, the United States waged war in lands on the western edge of the Pacific Ocean. The nations where Americans fought and died – Viet-Nam, Laos, and Cambodia – never attacked or threatened our homeland. Americans died by the tens of thousands on foreign soil.

Rather, America’s leaders from President Dwight D. Eisenhower through Richard Nixon treated the war as a crusade against an un-American ideology: International communism. The leading proponent of communism, the Soviet Union, had been an uneasy ally of the U.S. during World War II.

After the battles against Nazi Germany and militaristic Japan were fought and won, the U.S. and its democratic, capitalist allies – Britain and Western Europe – slid into a new type of “Cold War” against the Soviet Union, its satellite countries in Eastern Europe, and China, which fell to the communists in 1949. This Cold War was fought by proxy in developing countries all over the world. The Soviet Union – a communist empire built around today’s Russia – and China supported and supplied the communist factions while the U.S. and allies backed any political party, movement, or strongman opposed to communism. Both sides wanted to avoid a “hot” war because the major adversaries had in their arsenals nuclear weapons capable of destroying Earth and everyone on it.

The Cold War blazed into a shooting war in 1950 on the Korean Peninsula when the communist government of North Korea invaded the South. Non-communist forces under the aegis of the United Nations, but dominated by the U.S., jumped in to prevent the takeover of the South. After two years of carnage, Korea reverted to the pre-1950 status quo, formally divided along the 38th parallel; the frightening and costly contest between communism and capitalism chilled again and shifted focus south along the coast of China to the former French colonies of Indochina.

The French had colonized Indochina in the mid-1800s and created three artificial countries whose boundaries were drawn around the three predominant ethnic groups of the region – the Vietnamese, the Khmer of Cambodia, and the lowland Laotians. After World War II, when colonies throughout Asia and Africa were claiming their independence, Vietnamese nationalists led by Ho Chi Minh’s communists defeated France and forced it to give up its Indochina colonies.

Among the three new nations, Viet-Nam was by far the largest, most developed, and aggressive. In fact, French intervention had halted Vietnamese expansion into both Laos and Cambodia in the 1800s. The French recognized the assertiveness of the Vietnamese character and used Vietnamese to fill the ranks of the colonial bureaucracy in all three countries.

After the Korea experience, however, successive U.S. government administrations saw not assertive Vietnamese, but aggressive Vietnamese communists seeking new territories to conquer. In particular, policymakers feared for Thailand just across the Mekong River from Laos and Cambodia.

A hallmark of the Cold War was the wink-wink, nod-nod complicity of all parties in keeping their Cold War activities secret from their own people as well as the rest of the world. The Soviets, Chinese and Americans pretty much knew what the others were doing; they kept it quiet (except when they could score a propaganda victory) because they were doing similar things.

In this atmosphere, the U.S. tiptoed into Laos and South Viet-Nam in 1954, using small teams of military advisors, CIA operatives and a secretive airline, Air America, to contain the Vietnamese communists.

A decade into the fight, most Americans had still never heard of Viet-Nam, Cambodia, and Laos. During the mid-1960s, however, television started to bring the growing war in Viet-Nam into living rooms across America with an impact far surpassing anything that newspapers and magazines could ever hope to achieve. As American involvement grew, so did casualties, from 416 dead in the nine years between 1956 and 1964, to 1,928 in 1965 alone.

As the casualties mounted, and more and more Americans knew someone whose family had lost a son, America started to tear itself apart over the war, split along generational lines, political lines, even geographic lines, riven by opinions about why we were fighting so far from home and whether we should use military conscription (“the draft”) to fill the ranks of the armed services.

America had instituted a draft of fighting-age (18-26) men as the danger of World War II lurked on the horizon. After the victory was won in 1945, the military downsized but the draft remained in place. As the U.S. shifted from advising the South Vietnamese to fighting battles for them, the administration of President Lyndon Johnson relied on the draft to fill the military’s needs. Overnight, military service went from a relatively safe career option to a potential death sentence.

In 1966, American casualties in Viet-Nam tripled from the previous year to more than 6,000 dead; they almost doubled again in 1967 to more than 11,000. In 1968, the number of dead rose to almost 17,000 young men – 325 a week, almost 50 per day. The three TV networks – their half-hour evening newscasts a dominant source of news in a pre-cable TV, pre-Internet information environment – broadcast the deaths in living color to Americans as they ate their evening meals.

Suddenly, every American male faced an enormous, life-changing decision as his 18th birthday approached: What to do about the draft?

It was no simple decision, this question of the draft. The Selective Service System, as the draft was formally known, was full of loopholes and ruled by an alphabet soup of more than 30 categories of risk. A noisy few chose defiance, refusing to register for the draft and risking jail for doing so; others quietly slipped into Canada or fled to Sweden, beyond the reach of American law but also far from their families and friends.

Most tried to game the system. College students could be deferred from the draft from year to year as long as they remained enrolled or until they turned 24; college classrooms swelled with young men rated as 2-S deferred students. Married men and ministers were exempt altogether, and the ranks of young marrieds and divinity schools swelled. The unlucky majority – overpopulated by poor and working class kids who could not afford college – were classified 1-A, an open invitation to join the military.

I grew up during those years of the anti-communist crusade, but I didn’t understand how they had shaped me and my country.

And so my story begins.

It seems so long ago — both the experience and the writing about it.

 

* Burns spells the country name as one word; I follow the Vietnamese spelling of hyphenating the two words.

Where Have I Been?

Damned if I can remember.

Shoved a full-flown memoir of my two years in Southeast Asia during the Viet-Nam War — “HOTEL CONSTELLATION: Notes from America’s Secret War in Laos” — to the family and a few very close (tolerant) friends.

Finished a supernatural adventure novel called “The Mark of the Spider” and sent it out to beta readers last spring. Still awaiting feedback, so that’s not promising.

Rewriting a straight sci-fi called “PSNGR” — formerly “The Passenger”? — seemingly forever. Instead of tackling chapter 28 today, I’m doing this.

I first wrote PSNGR as a long short story; then as a graphic novel when I had a comic book publisher willing to take a look at it. Now trying to finish it as a potential indie publishing project.

Bailed on my writer’s group for personal reasons having nothing to do with the calibre of their kind feedback.

Journeys, which is what this writing process was intended to be, can be tortuous. Witness The Odyssey. Which is not to say my journey has been nearly as exciting, or even interesting.

And the point is …

But I digress from my intent today, which is to point out links to two stories that struck my fancy.

Ten Books that Were Written on a Bet — From the terse Dr. Seuss to the loquacious James Fennimore Cooper and C.S. Lewis, I’ll be dipping into this list in future.

Publishers Are Now Shedding Best-Selling Authors — So … what’s the point?

Bottom line

keepcalm