Friday, June 21, 2024

Flashback: Revisiting Jane Fonda’s Commitment to Activism and Setting the Record Straight About Vietnam


I  published this back on January 31, 2001. Tonight because Jane Fonda spoke to Don Lemon on CNN about her activism, I’m re-running it. There are so many ‘urban myths’ about Fonda. But she’s been an outspoken hero and one of our most important voices. We need to hear her voice more than ever. 

The question of Jane Fonda’s actions during her visit to Hanoi in 1972 still raises a lot of emotion. Over the weekend, this column received several dozen e-mails calling her a traitor.

There were also several dozen e-mails, however, that cited Fonda’s actual activities in Hanoi. These e-mails were erroneous in the opinion of some former POWs and the U.S. government. Fonda — in error for posing for photos on tanks, etc. — is innocent of most of the accusations leveled at her in these missives.

To wit: Although Fonda did go to Hanoi, participated in a staged press conference with American POWs and posed for some regrettable pictures, she did not — I repeat did not — turn in the names of American POWs to the North Vietnamese military. There was no passing of pieces of crumpled paper from Americans to her. Her main speech, the text of which follows, simply describes her observations of the North Vietnamese people as fellow human beings.

This does not excuse what Fonda did or get her off the hook. Stanley Karnow, a highly respected journalist and author of the impressively reviewed Vietnam: A History, told me on Saturday: “I think what she did was reprehensible. And it’s not like the North Vietnamese took her seriously. If they wanted to make a statement to the U.S., they knew how to do it. Not through fringe activists, but through regular channels.”

Nevertheless, Karnow told me — when I presented him with the many urban myths this column was sent about Fonda’s visit: “I’ve never heard of any of this.”

Because they didn’t happen.

Fonda never came in contact with someone named Col. Larry Carrigan. She also was never spat at by a POW, who in turn was tortured as punishment for his actions.

In fact, Cora Weiss — a fringe anti-war activist who organized trips to Hanoi in those days — said in a previously published interview: “We asked Jane if she wanted to meet American POW pilots and she declined.”

The point of this? As time has passed and the Internet has become a breeding ground for falsehoods, the story of Fonda’s trip has been turned inside out.

Was it wrong for her to go to Hanoi? Yes. Does she regret it? Again, yes.

Fonda first apologized during an interview with Barbara Walters in 1988. Fonda said, “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,” she began. “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.”

Last summer, in Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, O, Fonda reiterated her apology: “I will go to my grave regretting the photograph of me in an anti-aircraft carrier, 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.”

Indeed, Fonda’s contrition was manifested when she produced a much-praised movie in 1977, Coming Home, which highlighted the plight of returning American servicemen, especially those who had been wounded. And it wasn’t like this was fashionable at the time.

What did Fonda actually say during her famous radio broadcast from Hanoi? Here is the text, in full. It comes from a transcript made by the U.S. Congress House Committee on Internal Security, Travel to Hostile Areas, HR 16742, 19-25 Sept., 1972, page 7671. Read it carefully; the committee did. It did not find Fonda to be in any way committing treason.

What’s most interesting about it is that Fonda never once blames American soldiers in her speech. She blames then President Richard Nixon for waging a war against the North Vietnamese and using civilians as targets. The anger and resentment toward Fonda and others who went to Hanoi will never be forgotten by those who were in the military or who had relatives who served in Vietnam. But to cloud what really happened with falsehoods only makes the truth less powerful.

Finally, let’s not forget that Jane Fonda is not the person who sent the U.S. military to Southeast Asia or continued to send them there despite countless domestic protests. She was not a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or President of the United States or a member of his Cabinet. It’s quite possible Fonda’s reputation suffers in part from anger displacement.

Herewith is her famous speech:

“This is Jane Fonda. During my two week visit in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, I’ve had the opportunity to visit a great many places and speak to a large number of people from all walks of life — workers, peasants, students, artists and dancers, historians, journalists, film actresses, soldiers, militia girls, members of the women’s union, writers.

I visited the (Dam Xuac) agricultural coop, where the silk worms are also raised and thread is made. I visited a textile factory, a kindergarten in Hanoi. The beautiful Temple of Literature was where I saw traditional dances and heard songs of resistance. I also saw unforgettable ballet about the guerrillas training bees in the South to attack enemy soldiers. The bees were danced by women, and they did their job well.

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.

I cherish the memory of the blushing militia girls on the roof of their factory, encouraging one of their sisters as she sang a song praising the blue sky of Vietnam — these women, who are so gentle and poetic, whose voices are so beautiful, but who, when American planes are bombing their city, become such good fighters.

I cherish the way a farmer evacuated from Hanoi, without hesitation offered me, an American, their best individual bomb shelter while U.S. bombs fell nearby. The daughter and I, in fact, shared the shelter wrapped in each others arms, cheek against cheek. It was on the road back from Nam Dinh, where I had witnessed the systematic destruction of civilian targets — schools, hospitals, pagodas, the factories, houses, and the dike system.

As I left the United States two weeks ago, Nixon was again telling the American people that he was winding down the war, but in the rubble-strewn streets of Nam Dinh, his words echoed with sinister (words indistinct) of a true killer. And like the young Vietnamese woman I held in my arms clinging to me tightly — and I pressed my cheek against hers — I thought, this is a war against Vietnam perhaps, but the tragedy is America’s.

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. One has only to go into the countryside and listen to the peasants describe the lives they led before the revolution to understand why every bomb that is dropped only strengthens their determination to resist.

I’ve spoken to many peasants who talked about the days when their parents had to sell themselves to landlords as virtually slaves, when there were very few schools and much illiteracy, inadequate medical care, when they were not masters of their own lives.

But now, despite the bombs, despite the crimes being created — being committed against them by Richard Nixon, these people own their own land, build their own schools — the children learning, literacy — illiteracy is being wiped out, there is no more prostitution as there was during the time when this was a French colony. In other words, the people have taken power into their own hands, and they are controlling their own lives.

And after 4,000 years of struggling against nature and foreign invaders — and the last 25 years, prior to the revolution, of struggling against French colonialism — I don’t think that the people of Vietnam are about to compromise in any way, shape or form about the freedom and independence of their country, and I think Richard Nixon would do well to read Vietnamese history, particularly their poetry, and particularly the poetry written by Ho Chi Minh.”

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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