Jerry Lembcke holds a unique—and controversial—spot in the historiography of the Vietnam War. Lembcke, who served as a draftee Army chaplain’s assistant in Vietnam and today is a sociology professor at Holy Cross College, is best known for his 1998 book, The Spitting Image, an examination of Vietnam veterans who literally were spat upon when they came home from the war. Lembcke’s surprising (and polarizing) conclusion: that there were very few such incidences, and that the image of the spat-upon veteran morphed into an urban legend. Or, as he puts it in his new book, the image of Vietnam veterans being the targets of sputum from antiwar protesters at airports (most often female hippies) “persists as an icon through which many people remember the loss of the war, the centerpiece of a betrayal narrative that understands the war to have been lost because of treason at home.”
That also is the central point Lembcke tries to make in Hanoi Jane, a book that is certain to bring down the wrath of those who lashed out at Lembcke for what he says in Spitting Image. In Hanoi Jane, Lembcke claims that a myth has grown up about Jane Fonda’s 1972 visit to North Vietnam; to wit, that she committed treasonous acts in Hanoi by making a radio broadcast urging GIs to desert, and that she betrayed the POWs held by North Vietnam by turning over their service numbers to the enemy, after which the men were beaten and several killed.
These stories, Lembcke claims, took hold in large part for the same reason that the spat-upon veteran trope did: they were cynically promulgated by those who saw the war as an honorable good cause betrayed by the liberal antiwar movement (personified by Jane Fonda), abetted by the U.S. news media. As Lembcke puts it in Hanoi Jane: The “creation of Hanoi Jane as a betrayal figure may derive less from anything the real Jane Fonda did in Hanoi than from the needs of those who constructed the image and kept it alive.”
The myth that Fonda actually betrayed the POWs also has to do with, Lembcke writes, a false image of the POWs themselves. It is, he says, “really about Americans needing to believe that the men held there were loyal to the storyteller’s idealized notion of masculinity and [their] own sense of Americanism. Without Hanoi Jane, the so-called official story of the POWs’ heroic sacrifice loses some of its luster.”
Does Lembcke prove his points? He seems to have thoroughly researched his subject. He looks at the media coverage of Fonda’s 1972 visit to North Vietnam at the time and finds that the outrage did not form until well after the fact. According to Lembcke, not much was made of the visit at the time, either in the media or among the American populace. It was only later that some American veterans and far-right groups such as the John Birch Society popularized the traitorous Hanoi Jane story. Plus, he points out, Fonda was but one of hundreds of Americans who visited North Vietnam during the war.
Lembcke is on shaky ground, however, when he minimizes the plight of the American POWs, including challenging the well-documented fact that many were severely tortured. Plus, his regular lapses into academic jargon (“post hoc cultural construct,” “crisis of masculinity,” “amniotic existence of fore-life,” “gendered logic,” “post-imperial economic contraction,” et al.) do little to illuminate or buttress his arguments. Nor does Lembcke’s all-but-Marxist interpretation of the American war in Vietnam as an “act of aggression” that we pursued for our “own economic and political interests.”
Still, Hanoi Jane provides much food for thought on how—and why—the story (or in Lembcke’s words, the myth or legend) of the Jane Fonda “betrayal” has gained so much currency among so many Americans.
University of Massachusetts Press, 2010
This review appeared in the April 2010 issue of Vietnam magazine.