Hating Jane: The American Military and Jane Fonda
©2004 Peter Brush
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Note: An edited version of this article appeared in Vietnam magazine, Vol. 18, No. 6, April 2006.
Searching the web makes it evident that Vietnam veterans have strong opinions of Jane Fonda. These opinions range from low to very low, from calls to have her shot, or hung from a tree to $2.95 "Boycott Jane Fonda American Traitor Bitch" bumper stickers. 1 Over 90,000 websites are returned by a "Jane Fonda and traitor" search. Not only veterans but also active duty military personnel hold these opinions. An entire company of Naval Academy midshipmen, born years after Fonda spoke against the war in Vietnam, respond to a plebe's shout of "Good night!" and "Good night, Jane Fonda!" with a loud "Good night, bitch!" 2 This article examines the American military hatred of Jane Fonda.
It wasn't always that way. Fonda's life got off to a very good start. A descendent of Revolutionary War patriot Samuel Adams, Jane is the daughter of Henry Fonda, one of America's most esteemed actors. 3 Bursting with subsequent irony is her 1962 Pentagon award of "Miss Army Recruiting of 1962." Jane accepted the title festooned in red, white, and blue ribbon, and praised the American military in her acceptance speech. 4 1971 saw her complete the rise to the top of her profession with a Best Actress award for the movie Klute. The following year Fonda made the Gallup Poll list of women most admired by the American people. 5 Even as late as December 1979, according to a Roper Poll, Fonda was considered one of the most important women for what "she has done to or for this country or the world." 6
Fonda became a peace activist in 1970. She organized an antiwar review that toured U.S. military bases with Hollywood personalities including Dick Gregory and Donald Sutherland. She drew large crowds speaking at churches and universities across the country. She traveled to Hanoi, carrying mail to American prisoners of war. While in North Vietnam Fonda observed the effects of the American bombing campaign, made several live and taped radio broadcasts to American military personnel in Vietnam that were broadcast on Radio Hanoi, met with Communist officials, and interviewed American prisoners of war. She supported the Communists (claiming they were democratic, peace-loving patriots) and was critical of the United States (Nixon was "a new-type Hitler" committing "mass genocide" against North Vietnam). 7 According to historian Mary Hershberger, the federal government opposed her activism, resulting in Fonda being monitored, harassed, and briefly falsely imprisoned. By the 1990s Fonda's largely positive image ended when claims appeared that her visit to Hanoi resulted in the torture and even death of American pilots held prisoner by the Vietnamese Communists. 8
The government claimed Fonda's antiwar activities impacted on the morale of American soldiers in South Vietnam. According to an analysis provided by the House Committee on Internal Security, the declarations Fonda made from North Vietnam during her July 1972 visit shook the stamina of our soldiers. The effect was "tantamount to being wounded;" the resulting psychological casualties were advantageous to America's enemies.
Historian Eric Bergerud provides an example of Jane's morale-busting in Red Thunder, Tropic Lightning, a history of the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam. An Army lieutenant is interviewed who recalls returning to base camp from a two-week operation only to see "a Jane Fonda protest" on television. 9 Novelist and Vietnam veteran Nelson DeMille, speaking from his own experience "as a combat infantry officer in Vietnam" attested "to the fact that Jane Fonda . . . . succeed very well in lowering troop morale" and this fall in morale leads to battlefield deaths. 10 How valid are these recollections? In 1972, on the Phil Donahue show, Jane Fonda discussed how she became an antiwar activist, noting that "two years ago" she didn't even know where Vietnam was. 11 The lieutenant Bergerud interviewed was in Vietnam in 1966. DeMille served in 1968. Both remember being personally effected by Jane's antiwar activities before those activities took place.
According to Henry Holzer, author of "Aid and Comfort": Jane Fonda in North Vietnam, it was Jane's Hanoi trip that was treasonous, as it worked to undermine the morale and military effort of American soldiers fighting in South Vietnam 12 (Holzer attaches much less significance to her stateside antiwar activities). However, one can explain the impact of the Hanoi trip on U.S. troop morale with a single word: Vietnamization. 8,744,000 Americans served in the military during the war. Of those, 2,215,000 served in Vietnam. Yet by July 1972, less than 50,000 remained in Vietnam, where their morale was susceptible to manipulation by Fonda. In August 1972 the last US ground combat unit in Vietnam was deactivated. Simply put, Fonda's trip occurred too late to have a sizeable effect on the morale of Americans fighting in Vietnam. 13
Internet accounts that describe the torture of American POWs as a result of Jane's Hanoi visit are plentiful. Accordingly, POW pilot Larry Driscoll was forced by his captors to meet with Fonda. His instructions were to tell the famous visitor of the "lenient and humane treatment" he received. Instead, Driscoll spat at her. The camp commandant then beat Driscoll with a wooden club. This beating caused the pilot to suffer from double vision which ended his flying days.
Another story is that of Colonel Larry Carrigan, who spent six years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton prison. Learning of Fonda's coming visit, Carrigan and others wrote their social security numbers on small pieces of paper. The prisoners were paraded before Fonda. While shaking her hand, each man slipped his piece of paper to her, trusting Jane to get word of their survival back to loved ones in the United States. To their shock, "Jane turned to the officer in charge ... and handed him the little pile of papers. Three men died from the subsequent beatings. Col. Carrigan was almost number four but he survived, which is the only reason we know about her actions that day." 14
In fact, according to Driscoll and Carrigan, these stories are false. According to former POW and NAM-POW president Mike McGrath, no POWs were killed on account of Jane's visit. According to McGrath, the worst thing that happened to the prisoners was having to listen to Fonda's propaganda broadcasts on Hanoi radio. "It pissed us off, but I doubt you can call that ‘torture.'" 15 This is not to say American pilots were always treated well by their Communist jailers in North Vietnam. A small minority of them were tortured, but the mistreatment ended in 1969, years before Jane Fonda's involvement in the antiwar movement and trip to Hanoi. 16
Fonda's celebrity status attracted large crowds when she spoke at rallies. She also provided generous financial support to antiwar groups such as Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the Winter Soldier Investigation. As a result Fonda was investigated by the FBI, the U.S. Army, the Secret Service, and the National Security Agency. These investigations included opening her mail and tapping her telephone, examining her finances, sending informants to her meetings, and providing reports to President Nixon and National Security Advisor Kissinger. According to one White House source Fonda got about the same investigative treatment as Soviet leader Brezhnev. 17
Although Fonda may be unique in how she is remembered for her antiwar activities, those activities were not particularly unique. Over 200 Americans visited Hanoi in the 1965-1972 period. At least 82 made broadcasts on Radio Hanoi. Meetings between American activists in Hanoi and POW pilots were common. These activists toured North Vietnam investigating bomb damage and met with American POWs. They were opposed by the federal government, who sought to prohibit travel to North Vietnam and harassed returning travelers. 18 They have been largely forgotten, while Fonda is remembered as a traitor and enemy conspirator.
While in Vietnam Fonda visited an anti-aircraft gun emplacement. A cultural group sang songs and the crowd applauded. Her hosts offered her a seat on the gun, which she cheerfully accepted. The crowd applauded her, and she smiled and waved in return. The occasion was festive, not tactical. The area was not being bombed and the gun was not firing. The event was filmed. Several frames were distributed as single images. These photos are described as showing Jane pretending to shoot down American planes, or as evidence of her encouraging North Vietnamese to shoot down American planes. 19 In a 2000 magazine interview Fonda said she would go to her grave regretting the antiaircraft photo. 20 No doubt many veterans hope she undertakes this journey sooner rather than later.
The Pentagon monitored Fonda's Hanoi radio broadcasts and gave reporters details of her trip. Although many other activists had gone to Hanoi, made radio broadcasts, and met with American prisoners, Jane Fonda's trip was the first that raised charges of treason. At the request of the House Internal Security Committee (who wanted to prosecute), the Justice Department investigated her conduct in North Vietnam. Their conclusion was she had violated no U.S. laws, including the law intended to punish anyone who "in any manner causes or attempts to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty by any member of the naval or military forces of the United States." 21
According to Hershberger, the notion that Fonda committed treason and caused pilots to be tortured began after Operation Homecoming, the return of U.S. prisoners after the 1972 signing of the Paris Peace Accords. The White House and Pentagon worked hard to make heroes of the prisoners and their return was a major public relations event. The event had to be managed because many of the pilots had made statements while in captivity that were critical of the war. Pilots who hoped to continue with their military careers felt the need to convince Pentagon officials that their conduct in North Vietnam had not been inappropriate under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Some of the pilots who had criticized the war insisted they only met with antiwar activists and made antiwar statements because of torture or threat of torture by their captors. Even though it turned out to be untrue that antiwar activists had a causal role in the torture of prisoners, the connection between American prisoner suffering and peace activists stuck, especially when the claims of the pilots were publicly challenged by Fonda. 22
In 1988 Jane Fonda publicly apologized on television to American Vietnam veterans for her thoughtless and careless behavior and the hurt she caused. 23 This had little effect on veterans' opinion. The United States was unable to meet its goals in Vietnam. Had we won, Jane's trip would be no more remembered than that of Joan Baez or Ramsey Clark. A war lost wants scapegoats. As the image of the shootings at Kent State will always be an icon for the antiwar movement, the image of Jane in Hanoi will always be an icon for the anti-antiwar movement.
Suggestions for further reading
Jane Fonda's War : a Political Biography of an Antiwar Icon by Mary Hershberger. New York : New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.