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The Truth About My Trip To Hanoi

Posted: 07/22/11 07:51 PM ET

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 past 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 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.

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