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 eight 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 harm's 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
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 hard-core senior officers, torture stopped late in 1969, t wo 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 40 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 two-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 two-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.)