Rehabilitating the Truth

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Review of 'Vietnam and Other American Fantasies', H Bruce Franklin, University of Massachusetts Press £15.95

Over the Xmas of 1972, with an agreement between North Vietnam and the US imminent, Richard Nixon ordered an all-out aerial assault on the North, with B-52s flying over 700 sorties in 12 days. The response to this stepping up of the war was a strike by those working at the secret 6990th air force security service base on Okinawa. The strikers cheered every time news came through that a B-52 had been shot down. At the same time four aircraft carriers, Ranger, Forrestal, Coral Sea and Kitty Hawk, were incapacitated by sabotage and mutiny, unable to play their part in the bombardment. This brings home the part the anti-war and anti-imperialist movement within the US army, navy and air force played in the defeat of the US in Vietnam.

H Bruce Franklin's marvellous book is a cultural history of the movement against the war, and of the way it was subsequently written out of history. He chronicles the movement's increasing radicalism, a radicalisation in which he actively participated. He was victimised by Stanford University in 1972 and sacked from his professorship for his incorrigible belief that the US was an imperialist state controlled by the big corporations. He was, the university authorities judged, 'incapable of rehabilitation'. They were absolutely right.

Franklin identifies the anti-war movement as a major cultural phenomenon, telling the truth about the war when the official media was little better than a lie machine. In two superb chapters he examines the impact of the war on US science fiction, with major writers such as Ursula Le Guin and Kate Wilhelm coming out strongly against the war, and Vietnam veteran Joe Haldeman producing his classic anti-war novel, 'The Forever War'. At the same time, other science fiction writers rallied to the war. As Franklin shows, one of the architects of the murderous Phoenix programme, Roy Prosterman, actually published a science fiction short story in 1973 advocating 'a global Operation Phoenix' whereby the US assumed the right to intervene anywhere in the world--a chilling blueprint for US policy today.

But what happened to the anti-war movement? Franklin identifies the 'missing in action' (MIA) phenomenon as the strategic fulcrum of the right wing's ideological counter-offensive. In 1969, with Nixon's encouragement, Ross Perot launched his MIA campaign, a determined campaign to recast the US as the victim in the conflict. This was to become, and remains, a significant movement that has successfully defied all the arguments and evidence against it. There are, for example, still 78,794 US MIAs from the Second World War and 8,100 from the Korean War, but only 2,020 from the Vietnam War, the lowest proportion from any war in US history. Some bodies are never recovered from the battlefield, but in Vietnam the right took this up as an ideological club. State after state passed MIA laws, over 10 million MIA bracelets were sold, the MIA flag flew over public buildings and the White House, 135 million MIA stamps were sold, and Hollywood made some of the worst films in its history.

Over the years since the end of the Vietnam War the MIA campaign has been crucial to establishment efforts to exorcise the anti-war movement, to purge it from memory. The war was apparently fought to rescue US POWs who were being tortured and enslaved by the fiendish Vietnamese. As Franklin shows, comics, television programmes and films have all conspired to reverse the images of the war, so that when he shows his students newsreel footage of General Loan shooting a manacled Vietcong prisoner in cold blood during the Tet Offensive they assume it is a Communist executing a South Vietnamese soldier.

Franklin is relentlessly honest in confronting the success of the US ruling class in rewriting the history of the Vietnam War for most Americans but, as he shows, this has to be weighed against the success of an anti-war movement that helped bring the most powerful war machine in the world to its knees.