I grew up during World War II. My childhood was influenced by the roles my father played in his movies. Whether Abraham Lincoln or Tom Joad in the Grapes of Wrath, his characters communicated certain values which I try to carry with me to this day. I remember saying goodbye to my father the night he left to join the Navy. He didn’t have to. He was older than other servicemen and had a family to support but he wanted to be a part of the fight against fascism, not just make movies about it. I admired this about him. I grew up with a deep belief that wherever our troops fought, they were on the side of the angels.

For the first 8 years of the Vietnam War I lived in France. I was married to the French film director, Roger Vadim and had my first child. The French had been defeated in their own war against Vietnam a decade before our country went to war there, so when I heard, over and over, French people criticizing our country for our Vietnam War I hated it. I viewed it as sour grapes. I refused to believe we could be doing anything wrong there.

It wasn’t until I began to meet American servicemen who had been in Vietnam and had come to Paris as resisters that I realized I needed to learn more. I took every chance I could to meet with U.S. soldiers. I talked with them and read the books they gave me about the war. I decided I needed to return to my country and join with them—active duty soldiers and Vietnam Veterans in particular—to try and end the war. I drove around the country visiting military bases, spending time in the G.I. Coffee houses that had sprung up outside many bases –places where G.I.s could gather. I met with Army psychiatrists who were concerned about the type of training our men were receiving…quite different, they said, from the trainings during WWII and Korea. The doctors felt this training was having a damaging effect on the psyches of the young men, effects they might not recover from. I raised money and hired a former Green Beret, Donald Duncan, to open and run the G.I. Office in Washington D.C. to try and get legal and congressional help for soldiers who were being denied their rights under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I talked for hours with U.S. pilots about their training, and what they were told about Vietnam. I met with the wives of servicemen. I visited V.A. hospitals. Later in 1978, wanting to share with other Americans some of what I had learned about the experiences of returning soldiers and their families, I made the movie Coming Home. I was the one who would be asked to speak at large anti-war rallies to tell people that the men in uniform were not the enemy, that they did not start the war, that they were, in growing numbers our allies. I knew as much about military law as any layperson. I knew more than most civilians about the realities on the ground for men in combat. I lived and breathed this stuff for two years before I went to North Vietnam. I cared deeply for the men and boys who had been put in harms way. I wanted to stop the killing and bring our servicemen home. I was infuriated as I learned just how much our soldiers were being lied to about why we were fighting in Vietnam and I was anguished each time I would be with a young man who was traumatized by his experiences. Some boys shook constantly and were unable to speak above a whisper.

It is unconscionable that extremist groups circulate letters which accuse me of horrific things, saying that I am a traitor, that POWs in Hanoi were tied up and in chains and marched passed me while I spat at them and called them ‘baby killers. These letters also say that when the POWs were brought into the room for a meeting I had with them, we shook hands and they passed me tiny slips of paper on which they had written their social security numbers. Supposedly, this was so that I could bring back proof to the U.S. military that they were alive. The story goes on to say that I handed these slips of paper over to the North Vietnamese guards and, as a result, at least one of the men was tortured to death. That these stories could be given credence shows how little people know of the realities in North Vietnam prisons at the time. The U.S. government and the POW families didn’t need me to tell them who the prisoners were. They had all their names. Moreover, according to even the most hardcore senior officers, torture stopped late in 1969, two and a half years before I got there. And, most importantly, I would never say such things to our servicemen, whom I respect, whether or not I agree with the mission they have been sent to perform, which is not of their choosing.

But these lies have circulated for almost forty years, continually reopening the wound of the Vietnam War and causing pain to families of American servicemen. The lies distort the truth of why I went to North Vietnam and they perpetuate the myth that being anti-war means being anti-soldier.

Little known is the fact that almost 300 Americans—journalists, diplomats, peace activists, professors, religious leaders and Vietnam Veterans themselves—had been traveling to North Vietnam over a number of years in an effort to try and find ways to end the war (By the way, those trips generated little if any media attention.) I brought with me to Hanoi a thick package of letters from families of POWs. Since 1969, mail for the POWs had been brought in and out of North Vietnam every month by American visitors. The Committee of Liaison With Families coordinated this effort. I took the letters to the POWs and brought a packet of letters from them back to their families.

The Photo of Me on the Gun Site.

There is one thing that happened while in North Vietnam that I will regret to my dying day— I allowed myself to be photographed on a Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun. I want to, once again, explain how that came about. I have talked about this numerous times on national television and in my memoirs, My Life So Far, but clearly, it needs to be repeated.

It happened on my last day in Hanoi. I was exhausted and an emotional wreck after the 2-week visit. It was not unusual for Americans who visited North Vietnam to be taken to see Vietnamese military installations and when they did, they were always required to wear a helmet like the kind I was told to wear during the numerous air raids I had experienced. When we arrived at the site of the anti-aircraft installation (somewhere on the outskirts of Hanoi), there was a group of about a dozen young soldiers in uniform who greeted me. There were also many photographers (and perhaps journalists) gathered about, many more than I had seen all in one place in Hanoi. This should have been a red flag.

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.

The soldiers asked me to sing for them in return. As it turned out I was prepared for just such a moment: before leaving the United States, I memorized a song called Day Ma Di, written by anti-war South Vietnamese students. I knew I was slaughtering it, but everyone seemed delighted that I was making the attempt. I finished. Everyone was laughing and clapping, including me, overcome on this, my last day, with all that I had experienced during my 2 week visit. What happened next was something I have turned over and over in my mind countless times. Here is my best, honest recollection of what happened: someone (I don’t remember who) led me towards the gun, and I sat down, still laughing, still applauding. It all had nothing to do with where I was sitting. I hardly even thought about where I was sitting. The cameras flashed. I got up, and as I started to walk back to the car with the translator, the implication of what had just happened hit me. “Oh my God. It’s going to look like I was trying to shoot down U.S. planes.” I pleaded with him, “You have to be sure those photographs are not published. Please, you can’t let them be published.” I was assured it would be taken care of. I didn’t know what else to do. (I didn’t know yet that among the photographers there were some Japanese.)

It is possible that it was a set up, that the Vietnamese had it all planned. I will never know. But if they did I can’t blame them. The buck stops here. If I was used, I allowed it to happen. It was my mistake and I have paid and continue to pay a heavy price for it. Had I brought a politically more experienced traveling companion with me they would have kept me from taking that terrible seat. I would have known two minutes before sitting down what I didn’t realize until two minutes afterwards; a two-minute lapse of sanity that will haunt me forever. The gun was inactive, there were no planes overhead, I simply wasn’t thinking about what I was doing, only about what I was feeling, innocent of what the photo implies. But the photo exists, delivering its message regardless of what I was doing or feeling. I carry this heavy in my heart. I have apologized numerous times for any pain I may have caused servicemen and their families because of this photograph. It was never my intention to cause harm. It is certainly painful for me that I, who had spent so much time talking to soldiers, trying to help soldiers and veterans, helping the anti-war movement to not blame the soldiers, now would be seen as being against our soldiers!

So Why I Did I Go?

On May 8th, 1972, President Nixon had ordered underwater, explosive mines to be placed in Haiphong Harbor, something that had been rejected by previous administrations. Later that same month, reports began to come in from European scientists and diplomats that the dikes of the Red River Delta in North Vietnam were being targeted by U.S. planes. The Swedish ambassador to Vietnam reported to an American delegation in Hanoi that he had at first believed the bombing was accidental, but now, having seen the dikes with his own eyes, he was convinced it was deliberate.

I might have missed the significance of these reports had Tom Hayden, whom I was dating, not shown me what the recently released Pentagon Papers had to say on the subject: in 1966, Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton, searching for some new means to bring Hanoi to its knees, had proposed destroying North Vietnam’s system of dams and dikes, which, he said, “If handled right- might…offer promise…such destruction does not kill or drown people. By shallow-flooding the rice, it leads after a time to widespread starvation (more than a million?) unless food is provided—which we could offer to do at the conference table.”[1] President Johnson, to his credit, had not acted upon this option.

Now, six years later, Richard Nixon appeared to have given orders to target the dikes—whether to actually destroy them[2] or to demonstrate the threat of destruction, no one knew.

It is important to understand that the Red River is the largest river in North Vietnam. Like Holland, its delta is below sea level. Over centuries, the Vietnamese people have constructed –by hand!– an intricate network of earthen dikes and dams to hold back the sea, a network two thousand five hundred miles long! The stability of these dikes becomes especially critical as monsoon season approaches, and requires an all-out effort on the part of citizens to repair any damage from burrowing animals or from normal wear and tear. Now it was June, but this was no ‘normal wear and tear’ they were facing. The Red River would begin to rise in July and August. Should there be flooding, the mining of Haiphong Harbor would prevent any food from being imported; the bombing showed no signs of letting up; and there was little press coverage of the impending disaster should the dikes be weakened by the bombing and give way. Something drastic had to be done.

The Nixon Administration and its US Ambassador to the United Nations, George Bush (the father), would vehemently deny what was happening, but the following are excerpts from the April-May 1972 transcripts of conversations between President Nixon and top administration officials.

April 25th 1972

Nixon: “We’ve got to be thinking in terms of an all-out bombing attack [of North Vietnam}…Now, by all-out bombing attack, I am thinking about things that go far beyond…I'm thinking of the dikes, I'm thinking of the railroad, I'm thinking, of course, of the docks."

Kissinger: "I agree with you."

President Nixon: "And I still think we ought to take the dikes out now. Will that drown people?"

Kissinger: "About two hundred thousand people."

President Nixon: "No, no, no…I'd rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?

Kissinger: "That, I think, would just be too much."

President Nixon: "The nuclear bomb, does that bother you?…I just want to think big, Henry, for Christsakes."

May 4, 1972.[3]

John B. Connally (Secretary of the Treasury):…”bomb for seriousness, not just as a signal. Railroads, ports, power stations, communication lines…and don’t worry about killing civilians. Go ahead and kill ‘em….People think you are [killing civilians] now. So go ahead and give ‘em some.”

Richard Nixon: “That’s right.”

[Later in same conversation]

Richard Nixon: “We need to win the goddamned war…and…what that fella [?] said about taking out the goddamned dikes, all right, we’ll take out the goddamned dikes….If Henry’s for that, I’m for it all the way.”

The administration wanted the American public to believe Nixon was winding down the war because he was bringing our ground troops home. (At the time I went to Hanoi, there were only approximately 25,000 troops left in South Vietnam from a high of 540,000 in early 1969) In fact, the war was escalating…from the air. And, as I said, monsoon season was approaching. Something drastic had to be done.

That May, I received an invitation from the North Vietnamese in Paris to make the trip to Hanoi. Many had gone before me but perhaps it would take a different sort of celebrity to get people’s attention. Heightened public attention was what was needed to confront the impending crisis with the dikes. I would take a camera and bring back photographic evidence (if such was to be found) of the bomb damage of the dikes we’d been hearing about.

I arranged the trip’s logistics through the Vietnamese delegation at the Paris Peace talks, bought myself a round trip ticket and stopped in New York to pick up letters for the POWs.

Frankly, the trip felt like a call to service. It was a humanitarian mission, not a political trip. My goal was to expose and try to halt the bombing of the dikes. (The bombing of the dikes ended a month after my return from Hanoi)

The only problem was that I went alone. Had I been with a more experienced, clear-headed, traveling companion, I would not have allowed myself to get into a situation where I was photographed on an anti-aircraft gun.

The Spin

My trip to North Vietnam never became a big story in the Summer/Fall of 1972–nothing on television, one small article in the New York Times. The majority of the American public, Congress, and the media were opposed to the war by then and they didn’t seem to take much notice of my trip. After all, as I said, almost three hundred Americans had gone to Hanoi before me. There had been more than eighty broadcasts by Americans over Radio Hanoi before I made mine. I had decided to do the broadcasts because I was so horrified by the bombing of civilian targets and I wanted to speak to U.S. pilots as I had done on so many occasions during my visits to U.S. military bases and at G.I. Coffee houses. I never asked pilots to desert. I wanted to tell them what I was seeing as an American on the ground there. The Nixon Justice Department poured over the transcripts of my broadcasts trying to find a way to put me on trial for treason but they could find none. A. William Olson, a representative of the Justice Department, [4] said after studying the transcripts, that I had asked the military “to do nothing other than to think.”

But from the Nixon Administration’s point of view, something had to be done. If the government couldn’t prosecute me in court because, in reality, I had broken no laws, then the pro-war advocates would make sure I was prosecuted in the court of public opinion.

The myth making about my being responsible for POW torture began seven months after I returned from North Vietnam, and several months after the war had ended, and the U.S. POWs had returned home. “Operation Homecoming,” in February 1973, was planned by the Pentagon and orchestrated by the White House. It was unprecedented in its lavishness. I was outraged that there had been no homecoming celebrations for the 10s of 1000s of men who had done combat. But from 1969 until their release in 1973, Nixon had made sure that the central issue of the war for many Americans was about the torture of American POWs (the very same years when the torture had stopped!). He had to seize the opportunity to create something that resembled victory. It was as close as he would come, and the POWs were the perfect vehicles to deflect the nation’s attention away from what our government had done in Vietnam, how they had broken faith with our servicemen.

I became a target the government could use, to suggest that some POWs who had met with me while I was in Hanoi had been tortured into pretending they were anti-war. The same thing was done to try and frame former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, whose trip to North Vietnam followed mine.

According to Seymour Hersh, author and journalist who uncovered the My Lai massacre and, later, the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal, when American families of POWs became alarmed at the news that there was torture in North Vietnam prisons, they received letters from the Pentagon saying: “We are certain that you will not become unduly concerned over the [torture] briefing if you keep in mind the purpose for which it was tailored.”[5]

But, according to what the POWs wrote in their books, conditions in the POW camps improved in the four years preceding their release—that is, from 1969 until 1973. Upon their release, Newsweek magazine wrote, “the [torture] stories seemed incongruent with the men telling them – a trim, trig [note: this is actually the word used in the article] lot who, given a few pounds more flesh, might have stepped right out of a recruiting poster.”[6]

Once the POWs were home, the Pentagon and White House handpicked a group of the highest ranking POWs–senior officers, to travel the national media circuit, some of them telling of torture. A handwritten note from President Nixon to H.R. Haldeman says that “the POW’s need to have the worst quotes of R. Clark and Fonda” to use in their TV appearances, but this information shouldn’t come from the White House.[7] These media stories were allowed to become the official narrative, the universal “POW Story,” giving the impression that all the men had been subjected to systematic torture—right up to the end–and that torture was the policy of the North Vietnamese government. The POWs who said there was no torture in their camps were never allowed access to the media.

Not that any torture is justified or that anyone who had been tortured should have been prevented from telling about it. But the Nixon White House orchestrated a distorted picture of what actually occurred.

In my anger at the torture story that was being allowed to spread, at how the entire situation was being manipulated, I made a mistake I deeply regret. I said that the POWs claiming torture were liars, hypocrites, and pawns.

I said, “I’m quite sure that there were incidents of torture…but the pilots who are saying it was the policy of the Vietnamese and that it was systematic, I believe that’s a lie.”[8]

What I didn’t know at the time was that although there had been no torture after 1969, before then there had been systematic torture of some POWS. One of the more hawkish of them, James Stockdale, wrote in his book, In Love and War, that no more than ten percent of the pilots received at least ninety percent of the punishment.[9] John Hubbell, in P.O.W.: A Definitive History of the American Prisoner-of-War Experience in Vietnam, agreed, and affirmed the fact that torture stopped in 1969.[10]

When the POWs came home, some who had been there longest told the press how they clogged up prison toilets and sewers, refused to come when ordered, or follow prison rules. One of the most famous, Jeremiah Denton, said, “We forced them [the guards] to be brutal to us.”[11] I relay this not to minimize the hardships that the POWs endured, nor to excuse it– but to attempt belatedly to restore a greater depth of insight into the entire POW experience with their captors.

Still, whether any torture was administered to certain, more recalcitrant POWs and not to others is unacceptable. Even though only a small percent of prisoners were tortured by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, it wasn’t right. According to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s standards, torturing prisoners to get information is justified. It isn’t. Not ever. All nations must adhere to the Geneva Convention’s rules of warfare.

As anyone who knew or worked with me in those years knows that my heart has always been with the soldiers. I should have been clearer that my anger back then was at the Nixon Administration. It was the administration, in its cynical determination to keep hostilities between the U.S. and Vietnam alive and to distract people from the administration’s mistakes, who tried to use the POWs as pawns.

Addressing The Internet lies

By the end of the Nineties, even more grotesque torture lies began to be circulated about me over the Internet—the ones that continue to this day.

Let me quote a former POW, Captain Mike McGrath (USN Retired), president of the POW-NAM Organization. In a letter to Roger Friedman, at the time a columnist for Fox411, on Friday, January 12, 2001 (he gave Friedman permission to make the letter public) McGrath wrote:

Yes, the Carrigan/Driscoll/strips of paper story is an Internet hoax. It has been around since Nov 1999 or so. To the best of my knowledge none of this ever happened. This is a hoax story placed on the Internet by unknown Fonda haters. No one knows who initiated the story. I have spoken with all the parties named: Carrigan, Driscoll, et al. They all state that this particular story is a hoax and wish to disassociate their names from the false story. They never made the statements attributed to them.

In his letter, McGrath also said to Friedman that by the time I went to Hanoi in 1972, treatment of the POWs was starting to improve and that I “did not bring torture or abuse to the POWs,” but that one man [Hoffman], the “senior ranking man in a room full of new guys,” was tortured (“hung by his broken arm”) to make him come to the meeting with me. McGrath wrote:

Why one man (name withheld by request) was picked out for torture of his broken arm is unknown…

The answer is, it never happened!

Will what I have written here stop the myths from continuing to be spread on the Internet and in mass mailings to conservative Republicans? I don’t know. Some people seem to need to hate and I make a convenient lightning rod. I think the lies and distortions serve some right-wing purpose—fundraising? Demonizing me so as to scare others from becoming out-spoken anti-war activists? Who knows? But at least here, on my blog (and in my memoirs), there is a place where people who are genuinely interested in the truth can find it.



[1] PP Vol. 1V, p. 43 (Italics in the original)

[2] As Hitler had done to the Netherlands during World War II. German High Commissioner Seyss-Inquart was condemned to death at Nuremberg for opening the dikes in Holland.

[3] Oval Office Conversation No. 719-22, May 4, 1972; Nixon White House Tapes; National Archives at College Park, College Park MD

[4] Hearings before the Committee on Internal Security, House of Representatives, 92 Congress, Second Session, Sept. 10 & 25th, 1972 (Washington: Government Printing Office): 7552

[5] Hersh, The P.O.W. Issue: A National Issue is Born, Dayton (Ohio) Journal-Herald, 13-18 Feb 1971

[6] Newsweek, 4/16/73

[7] Nixon Presidential Materials Staff, White House Special Files: Staff Mamber & Office Files: H.R. Haldeman: Box 47: Folder: H. Notes Jan-Feb-Mar 1973 National Archives

[8] NYT, 7 April 1973,11

[9] In Love and War, p.447

[10] P.O.W.: A Definitive History of the American Prisoner-of-War Experience in Vietnam, John G. Hubbell, 91,430

[11] New York Times, 30 April 1973.

 

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