Why Do People Hate Jane Fonda? Her 'Hanoi Jane' Episode, Examined

By | April 3, 2019

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Jane Fonda speaking in 1975. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1972, actress Jane Fonda traveled to North Vietnam on an anti-war mission. Due to actions and images some people consider unpatriotic or treasonous, she earned herself the nickname "Hanoi Jane." Many Americans saw Fonda's actions as an unforgivable betrayal. Others defend her stance as free speech, youthful passion and indiscretion. We all believe in causes and, when we're young and reckless, we do things we might live to regret.

Fonda, the daughter of esteemed actor Henry Fonda, a sex symbol (thanks to Barbarella) and a recent Oscar winner, for Klute (1971), was among the most famous actors in Hollywood at the time. On her trip to Hanoi, she toured areas that had been bombed by American forces, visited American POWs, and met with North Vietnamese soldiers. She went on Radio Hanoi, the North Vietnamese propaganda station, and broadcast what she considered anti-war messages several times. And most famously, she had her picture taken sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun, flanked by North Vietnamese Army soldiers.

Jane Fonda had been an anti-war activist for years, and was one of many Americans to visit Hanoi in an attempt to do something to bring the war to an end. But she was most certainly the most famous person to make such an appearance, and it was the most famous political action she has ever taken. And she has been hated by many Americans -- hated with a deep, seething anger -- for the four and a half decades since.

The picture of her sitting on the anti-aircraft gun, smiling, didn't help.

But does Jane Fonda deserve, in 2019, the hate she still gets from some Americans?

Free Speech Or Treason?

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One of the infamous photos of Jane Fonda in Vietnam. Here she is sitting on an anti-aircraft gun and peering through the sight, which suggested to some people that she was fantasizing about shooting down American aircraft. Source: Bettmann/Getty

There were many people and many celebrities who protested the Vietnam War. It was an unpopular war that was ripping the U.S. apart along generational and political lines. The U.S. hadn't fought a war quite like Vietnam before -- with its overwhelming violence, the latest deadly technology, the guerrilla tactics in terrain that was unfamiliar. American forces had a hard time figuring out who was the enemy and who wasn't, leading to horrific acts committed by both sides, and particularly tragic and newsworthy events like the My Lai massacre of 1968.

And what's more, the Vietnam War was, in effect, "televised" in a way previous wars hadn't been. It is perhaps easier to believe that a faraway war is just and good if you're not constantly seeing grim imagery of it on the nightly news.

For many young people at home, the war was just a quagmire of death and destruction. They did not foresee any positive outcome. People who were against the war were not monolithic; some were on the far left, advocating socialism or communism in the United States, while others had fairly mainstream beliefs and simply wanted the killing to stop. Protests took various forms, and while some were anti-American or anti-military in nature, others were not -- but often interpreted as such anyway.

Jane Fonda has maintained that the goal of all her actions was to end the killing and the war. Is that a fair defense? It's one thing to protest in the streets of your own country about an issue; it's another to visit the enemy and do anything that appears to support their side. Jane Fonda's detractors say that her actions crossed the line from protest to treason -- even if she was attempting to end the war (which nobody really loved), she did so in a way that appeared to condone or encourage the enemy.