By her own account, Jane Fonda’s first impression of America’s involvement in Vietnam was that it was a just cause. After all, she’d been raised by actor Henry Fonda who’d served in the Navy in World War II and forged his name in Hollywood by playing the good guys in movies. She was brought up to believe that America was good, as she said, “I grew up with a deep belief that wherever our troops fought, they were on the side of the angels.” So when she first heard about President Kennedy sending advisors to Vietnam she figured it was a necessary action.
For the first eight years of the Vietnam War Fonda was living in Paris with her first husband Roger Vadim, a film director. The two of them were surrounded by the French cultural intelligencia. (“Communists with a little ‘c,'” as she labeled them.)
Fonda described the period on her blog:
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.
Fonda received some notoriety for her activism once she returned to the States, and in the late ’60s she threw her celebrity heft behind causes and groups as far reaching as the Black Panthers, Native Americans, and feminists.
But the anti-Vietnam movement is where she really found her voice. She started an “anti USO” troupe with Donald Sutherland and others called “FTA,” for “Free the Army” – a play on the expression “Fuck the Army,” which had come into favor at the time. FTA toured military towns on the west coast doing skits and singing protest songs and getting veterans to tell their stories of an unjust war.
About the same time she began to support Vietnam Veterans Against the War, speaking at rallies and raising money. In recognition of her efforts VVAW made Fonda their Honorary National Coordinator.
In her own blunt-force, actress-as-center-of-attention way, Fonda tried to segment the war from the warrior, something the nation at large failed to do during the Vietnam era (and for years afterwards).
It was all heady stuff for a well-bred celebrity who wanted to be known for something more than her looks. It could be said that Fonda was educated to a fault – poised and articulate – and the actions of the Nixon Administration and their South Vietnamese cronies gave her just enough talking points and associated faux logic to be dangerous on an international foreign policy stage.
And Fonda got the perfect chance to be dangerous in May of 1972 when the North Vietnamese delegation at the Paris Peace Talks invited her for a two-week visit to Hanoi.
She accepted the invitation with the intention of treating the trip like a fact-finding “humanitarian” mission. She wanted to take photos that would expose that the Nixon Administration was bombing the dikes to flood civilian areas. Ultimately the trip had a different effect.
On the last day in Hanoi Fonda allowed herself to be part of a photo op. She explains on her blog:
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.)
But the photos were published, and they suggest that she was, in fact, aware that she was sitting on an anti-aircraft gun. (One shot shows her peering through the gun’s sight and smiling.)
And other facts about Fonda’s trip emerged: Like an updated version of Tokyo Rose, she’d gone on Hanoi radio and petitioned American fighting men stationed to the south to lay down their arms because they were fighting an unjust war against the peace-loving North Vietnamese. She also met with a select group of American POWs – “cooperative” prisoners who’d never shown their captors any resistance – and while those seven have unequivocally stated that they were not coerced to meet with her and tell her all about their fair and humane treatment, other hard-case POWs have said they were tortured before and after her visit.
And, of course, in spite of the self-justifying logic and parsing of details in her blog entry above, there’s an easy way to avoid the disdain and outright hatred of your fellow citizens: Regardless of how you feel about the war don’t visit another country as a guest of the leaders your country is at war with.
But were her actions treasonous? The Nixon Administration came after her in a big way but failed to get any charges to stick. It seems the war was just too unpopular for lawmakers or the general public to see the effort through.
But it wasn’t unpopular enough to keep Fonda from being shackled with the label “Hanoi Jane, Traitor B–ch” in veteran circles and among conservatives in general.
The arguments about Jane Fonda’s legacy rage to this day. And in an era where celebrities go out of their way to “support the troops” it seems improbable that one of them would show up in a video chumming around with the ISIS boys or high fiving a Taliban leader after he launches a Stinger missile at a coalition helicopter. But these are different times. Now we don’t have Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, or the draft – elements that tended to give the average American strong opinions about the war in progress.
But whatever animosities linger, ultimately America has to accept that America created Jane Fonda. And Jane Fonda’s story – before, during, and after the Vietnam War – is uniquely American.