Unforgiven

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How’s this for a story? North Vietnam, 1972,: Jane Fonda is in the midst of her visit when an N.V.A. officer gets an idea. He collects a group of American POWs from their septic dungeons, cleans them up, and has them mustered on parade to show his guest how well his embattled nation treats its prisoners. Fonda moves down the line, greeting each man with encouragements like “Aren’t you ashamed you killed babies?” as she shakes his hand. And, as she does, each POW palms her a scrap of paper with his Social Security number written on it. After all, she is an American; surely she’ll carry the message home to the families that their husband or son is alive.

Fonda shakes the last hand, then turns to the officer and gives him the fistful of messages. The POWs are beaten. Four die; one, Col. Larry Carrigan, survives—just barely, but it is he who tells about the incident.

After we published Peter Braunstein’s article on Jane Fonda in our July/August issue, perhaps 60 people sent me this story. It never happened. It’s folklore, but folklore of a curiously evolved sort. There was a real Colonel Carrigan, and he was a POW in Vietnam. But he never met Jane Fonda, and he has no idea how the maddening tale attached itself to him.

The story surfaced on the Internet in 1999, and my guess is that it will live there a long time. For a great many people, it’s not enough that Jane Fonda went to North Vietnam, offered encouragement to an army that was daily killing her countrymen, climbed up on that anti-aircraft gun, insisted that all American prisoners were well treated, and so on. She has to be a murderess too.

Why? Ramsey Clark went to Hanoi during the war. So did Joan Baez and William Sloane Coffin, Noam Chomsky and Pete Seeger, Rennie Davis and Judy Collins. Nobody remembers, nobody cares. Jane Fonda remains unforgiven.

Here’s how we saw the article we ran: It is a survey of the singular career of a woman who both drove and was driven by many of the largest social concerns of her era, and who came to embody some of them. And it’s about a woman who had a capacity for reinvention that, like Jay Gatsby’s, was the more effective for her whole-souled belief in what she devised. The chance to remake oneself is a universally acknowledged strength of this Republic, and the Republic itself has done it often enough. Peter Braunstein’s article speculated that Jane Fonda had this ability to a degree unique in modern times. The cover called her “Ms. America.” The Ms. , we thought, would signal a bit of ironic distance from the broad, ingenu- ous affection contained in “Miss America.”

It evidently didn’t. No article of ours gets hundreds of letters, but this one did, very few of them friendly. Almost all the messages said we had no business writing about Fonda because she was a “traitor.” We once published an admiring profile of Benedict Arnold—whose actions did the nation real damage in a way Fonda’s fulminations never could—and nobody made a peep. But Jane Fonda: “Cancel my subscription!”

In replying, I discovered that the Good Book notwithstanding, a soft answer turneth away wrath no more than zo percent of the time. One of the times it did, I’m happy to say, was with Keith Nolan, the author of several books on the war, most recently Ripcord , a superb account of the 101st Airborne in the conflict’s last great battle. He hadn’t liked the story but at least was willing to discuss it. I’d been getting pretty sour about the incensed patriots who would curse me and my family and confidently speak on behalf of all veterans living and dead, and the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress, to declare I was a disgrace to America for running that story—then conclude by smugly assuring me they would never read it. Mr. Nolan wrote something that helped me better understand the fury of this sort of reaction. “Jane didn’t make her infamous and idiotic trip to Hanoi until 1972. Nevertheless, there are Vietnam veterans out there who served in the war zone before 1969 who are convinced that Jane Fonda was in cahoots with the Commies during their own tours. I remember one retired lieutenant colonel describing a conversation he had with an angry trooper about the treasonous behavior of Jane Fonda in the midst of the 1968 Tet Offensive. In fact, when the Tet Offensive broke, Jane Fonda was the featured pinup girl in that month’s issue of Leatherneck , the official publication of the Marines.“

“Yeah,” said my stepdaughter, Jill, when I told her about this. “Imagine it’s the Battle of the Bulge and Betty Grable is up on top of a German tank saying the Yanks are fighting an evil war.” It’s not a preposterous analogy—not as far as the soldiers involved are concerned. They hadn’t been able to vote on the virtues of the conflict, and they found themselves in mortal peril in the midst of an ugly, painful ordeal that a lot of vocal people back home thought was a criminal enterprise. And here’s Cat Ballou, the beautiful daughter of Young Abe Lincoln, of Mister Roberts, beaming down from a machine designed to kill them. It’s more than being a “traitor”; millions of Americans felt treasonous during that war. It’s something very like the worst sort of lover’s betrayal, the deep wound that time itself often is powerless to heal.