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

Culture | April 3, 2019

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?

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.

What Happened, In Jane's Words

Jane Fonda as prostitute Bree Daniels in 'Klute,' 1971, for which she won an Oscar in 1972. Source: IMDB.

Like most people who took a stance against the infamous conflict, Jane Fonda does not regret protesting or condemning the Vietnam War. She feels her mission to Hanoi in 1972 was a good faith effort to bring about a net positive thing. And today, few people would dispute that she was right on a number of points -- civilians were being killed and displaced in greater numbers than Americans were led to believe.

But Fonda committed a classic intentional fallacy. For all her claims that she was hoping to bring about peace, the inarguable fact is, she had visited the enemy and acted friendly toward them. Intentions don't mean much when the photographic evidence is so striking. So what was she doing on the anti-aircraft gun? Here's an account she published on her own website in 2011:

It happened on my last day in Hanoi. I was exhausted and an emotional wreck after the 2-week visit ... 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.' ... 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 ... It is possible that it was a set up, that the Vietnamese had it all planned. I will never know. But if they did I can't blame them. The buck stops here. If I was used, I allowed it to happen ... a two-minute lapse of sanity that will haunt me forever ... But the photo exists, delivering its message regardless of what I was doing or feeling. I carry this heavy in my heart.

Jane Fonda, Poster Child Of Anti-Vietnam War Sentiment

Jane Fonda Then And Now. Source: (flickr.com)

If you look at the resentment from a Vietnam Veteran’s perspective, the pieces do come together. Imagine you fought in one of the most brutal wars in history, a war you think we should have won. You believe that a big reason why the war ended was because of anti-Vietnam sentiment, ignited by a certain beautiful, Oscar-winning celebrity with a particular picture. It's understandable to see how Vietnam Veterans could blame public anti-war opinion, as epitomized by Jane Fonda, for the Vietnam War failing, even though it was way more complicated than that. Also, it's important to remember that Vietnam Veterans were treated terribly when they returned, and that many anti-war protests came off as anti-veteran.

Jane Fonda Has Apologized

Bumper stickers critical of Jane Fonda. Source: Free Republic

Jane Fonda has, on numerous occasions, expressed deep regret over her actions. In 1988, she told TV interviewer Barbara Walters:

I would like to say something, not just to Vietnam veterans in New England, but to men who were in Vietnam, who I hurt, or whose pain I caused to deepen because of things that I said or did. I was trying to help end the killing and the war, but there were times when I was thoughtless and careless about it and I'm very sorry that I hurt them. And I want to apologize to them and their families. ... I will go to my grave regretting the photograph of me in an anti-aircraft gun, which looks like I was trying to shoot at American planes. It hurt so many soldiers. It galvanized such hostility. It was the most horrible thing I could possibly have done. It was just thoughtless.

It's important to note that in this apology she says "things I said or did." While she has been very clear about apologizing for the anti-aircraft gun photo, she has been known to defend, or choose not address, separate statements and actions that some have found objectionable. 

What Did Jane Fonda Say On Radio Hanoi?

Jane Fonda in 'Barbarella.' Source: IMDB.

The fact that Jane Fonda spoke on North Vietnam's propaganda radio station is bound to incite curiosity -- after all, that doesn't sound like a good thing to do. A post at FoxNews.com gives the full transcript of her remarks, and it's easy to see how some of them can be hurtful or construed as treasonous. Here's one example:

In the shadow of the Temple of Literature I saw Vietnamese actors and actresses perform the second act of Arthur Miller's play All My Sons, and this was very moving to me — the fact that artists here are translating and performing American plays while U.S. imperialists are bombing their country.

That word "imperialists" is a tough one. Later, Fonda said:

This is a war against Vietnam perhaps, but the tragedy is America's.

Here's one more controversial extract:

One thing that I have learned beyond a shadow of a doubt since I've been in this country is that Nixon will never be able to break the spirit of these people; he'll never be able to turn Vietnam, North and South, into a neo-colony of the United States by bombing, by invading, by attacking in any way. 

There's more to her remarks, and they're worth reading, if only to answer the question: Was her message anti-war, or was it anti-U.S.?

Jane Fonda Gets Hate For Something She Didn't Do

A patch registering military displeasure with Fonda. This patch is described at av8rstuff.com as "the famous AC-130 Gunship Patch with Snoopy across the top ... telling Jane Fonda that she's still #1 with pretty much every military person."

While the rage over Jane Fonda's behavior in Vietnam is understandable, in some cases it has to do with a story that has been circulated in recent years and will not die.

In 1999, Fonda was about to be honored on an ABC special A Celebration: 100 Years of Great Women, hosted by Barbara Walters. Prior to the show, an e-mail began to be widely shared detailing an incident that allegedly happened when she was in Vietnam in 1972. The text of the e-mail, which can be found in various places online, tells a story that Fonda met with a certain group of American POWs. Each man handed her a scrap of paper with his social security number written on it, in hopes that Fonda would take them home and get the message to their families that the men were still alive. According to the story, Fonda simply turned the pieces of paper over to the POWs' captors, who went on to administer beatings that ended up killing three of the men. 

The account is credited to one who survived, Col. Larry Carrigan.

The story has resurfaced via e-mail, and notably was changed a decade later to indicate that then-President Barack Obama (instead of ABC and Barbara Walters) would be honoring Fonda. The story has been debunked several times, with at least one of the servicemen named in the account calling it out as fiction. A fairly thorough article posted to Fox News details the controversy. 

When American Heritage published a feature about Jane Fonda in 2001, the magazine was deluged with angry correspondence repeating this same story. In a special letter from the editor, Richard F. Snow wrote the following:

There was a real Colonel Carrigan, and he was a POW in Vietnam. But he never met Jane Fonda, and he has no idea how the maddening tale attached itself to him.

While it's a story that was no doubt painful to read for veterans, or really anyone, who might have received it, it appears to be one of those old, usually-false tales that perhaps we didn't always know how to spot: A fraudulent e-mail urban legend.

The Controversy Over Jane Fonda Will Never End

Jane Fonda and Robert Redford in 'The Electric Horseman,' 1979.

In today's political climate, it's difficult to find objective information about Jane Fonda's 1972 trip to Hanoi, or even to find commentary that doesn't come from a clear liberal or conservative viewpoint. Here on the internet, there's a lot of anger -- a lot of name-calling directed at Fonda and, generally, at people who have an opinion on her one way or the other. Jane Fonda is a litmus test, and how you feel about her might well say a lot about how you feel about a host of other issues. We've attempted to present information and sentiment about Fonda in an even-handed manner, though it it's likely even this will incur criticism of bias toward one side or the other. (And we're not sure which side it will be.) Such is the legacy of a divisive war and a high-profile celebrity. It seems that "Hanoi Jane" will haunt Jane Fonda -- and all of us -- like the war itself does, forever.

Tags: Jane Fonda | The Vietnam War

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!