More than 30 years ago, H. Bruce Franklin resigned his Air Force commission, disillusioned when President Lyndon B. Johnson broke his campaign promise never to send American troops to Vietnam.
Some years later, as a well-published associate professor with tenure, he was fired by Stanford University for speaking out against the university's participation in the Vietnam War.
Today Franklin, the John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies on the Newark campus, has revisited that painful era in a wide-ranging
new book that explores the causes, meaning and continuing significance of the
conflict, which still looms large in America's collective memory.
He discusses the history of the antiwar movement, including his own
participation in a campaign against the use of napalm; examines soul-searching
literature produced by veterans; analyzes film and video treatments of the Vietnam War,
including its influence on "Star Trek" and other science fiction; and delves into
the origin and persistence of what he calls "the POW/MIA myth."
Images of Vietnam, some of which distort the reality of the war, continue to haunt the American imagination, says H. Bruce Franklin.
Photo by Roy Groething/
Jersey Pictures Inc.
The book, "Vietnam and Other American Fantasies" (University of
Massachusetts Press), came out in October, bracketed in time by the
presidential primary candidacy of former prisoner of war John McCain and the
more recent sojourn of Bill Clinton, the first American president to set foot in
Vietnam since the end of the war and the first ever to visit Hanoi. Clinton was
accompanied by an entourage of American businessmen, signaling, the
president said, "a new page in our relations with Vietnam."
"The astonishing thing is Vietnam, rather than going away, seems to be
becoming more imbedded in American culture, psychology and politics,"
observed Franklin in a recent Focus interview. "This book is about the relation of
Vietnam to American culture, before, during and after the war. And there is
simply no way to understand America today without understanding its
interrelations with Vietnam."
As an example of the way the war's images have metamorphosed in the
American imagination, the book offers the shocking Associated Press photo of
the execution of a manacled National Liberation Front prisoner by the chief of the
Saigon national police.
The image of the gun firing at the victim's head was replicated in the Academy
Award-winning movie "The Deer Hunter"(1978), but this time with American
prisoners as the victims forced by their North Vietnamese captors to play
Russian roulette. It also appears in "The Escape" (1986), in which the execution
was transformed into a North Vietnamese prison commander's murder of an
American prisoner, Franklin points out in the book.
Such "brazen reversal of this image was a spectacular success," the author
discovered while lecturing on college campuses in 1992. Most students he talked to were convinced the original photo depicted a North Vietnamese or communist officer executing a South Vietnamese civilian prisoner.
Sometimes, the Vietnamese disappeared altogether, as in the Academy
Award-winning movie "Forrest Gump" (1994), which, writes Franklin, "projects Vietnam as merely an uninhabited jungle that for inscrutable reasons shoots at American soldiers."
The Vietnam experience also dictated how America would report on the
progress of its subsequent wars, stretching reality toward the realm of the
fantastic. Controlled battlefield images, ensured by the strict guidelines set down
for reporters and photographers in later conflicts such as Grenada, Panama and
the Gulf War, stemmed from the Pentagon's belief that photographic and
televised images had helped bring about the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, says Franklin.
Some images, though, were found to be necessary in the Gulf War,
particularly that of a "'clean' techno-war -- a war almost devoid of human suffering and death, conducted with surgical precision by wondrous
mechanisms," he writes.
Franklin describes how American viewers could watch a target getting closer
and closer, larger and larger, until everything ended in a soundless explosion.
"There were no bloated human bodies, as in the photographs of the
battlefields at Antietam and Gettysburg. There was none of the agony of the
burned and wounded glimpsed in television relays from Vietnam. There was just
nothing at all. In this magnificent triumph of techno-war, America's images of its
wars had seemingly reached perfection."
According to Franklin, the representation of the Vietnam War still dominant in
America at the beginning of the 21st century is based on a series of fantasies
originally constructed from 1954 through the 1970s and then elaborated and
embellished during the Reagan and Bush administrations. These "denials of
historical reality" include:
There were two nations called South Vietnam and North Vietnam. "In the
face of all evidence, Washington maintained that the Geneva Accords of 1954
established two nations, a blatant falsehood that justified support of the
government it had created in Saigon, ranging from covert operations through
full-scale American war," he writes.
The United States lost the war because the military was restrained by
politicians, the news media and the antiwar movement. "We used more
explosives on Vietnam than all countries in all previous wars put together and
also waged the most massive chemical warfare in human history. What is it that
the military wanted to do that they weren't allowed to do?" he asks.
Returning home, American veterans were routinely spat upon by antiwar
activists. "There is no contemporaneous evidence of any antiwar activists spitting
on veterans," the book asserts. "The first allegations of such behavior did not
appear until the late 1970s. The spat-upon veteran then became a mythic figure
used to build support for military fervor and, later on, the Gulf War."
Many American prisoners of war were being kept by North Vietnam to be
used as slave laborers, hostages or "bargaining chips," or simply as torture
victims. "This issue was concocted by Nixon and Ross Perot sitting in the White
House in 1969 to sabotage the peace talks and generate emotional support for
the war," Franklin declares. The book argues compellingly that the belief that
Americans are still imprisoned in Vietnam "runs counter to reason, common
sense, and all evidence."
Back in 1972, when Stanford fired Franklin, the university claimed that
"rehabilitation is not a useful concept in this case" because the professor was
"unlikely" to change his "perception of reality."
"I'm happy to report," Franklin now says, "that their forecast was accurate,"
noting that both this book and his popular course on Vietnam and America
express his ongoing concern over the destructive fantasies that dominate
American perceptions of the war.