Two-time Oscar winner and Hollywood legend Jane Fonda is a very famous lady, and thus has had many photographs taken of her. That’s part and parcel of being an actress. But one particular photo she regrets massively. She’s spoken about it a lot, and apologized for what it implies, but it still follows her around.
The incident involving the photograph happened all the way back in 1972, when America was at war with Vietnam. Many people at the time protested against the conflict, and Fonda was one of them. However, she took matters one step further and visited Hanoi that year, wanting to see what was happening with her own eyes.
The photograph taken of her in Hanoi made both it and her part of a propaganda war which is still commented upon today. Some people hate what she did, while others, even veterans sometimes, praise her for standing by her beliefs. Fonda herself has put a lot of effort into explaining what exactly happened.
Fonda was an activist from a young age. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s she campaigned for civil rights. She supported the Black Panthers and raised money for them, which led the US government to snoop on her. She also backed the American Indians who occupied Alcatraz Island in 1969.
In November 1970 Fonda was arrested while re-entering the United States after an anti-war speech in Canada. Her luggage was searched and some pills were found – they turned out to be vitamins in the end. When Fonda had her mugshot taken, she raised one fist in the air. That photo of her also became famous.
In May 2009 Fonda addressed that incident on her website. She wrote, “I think they [the Nixon White House] hoped this “scandal” would cause the college speeches to be canceled and ruin my respectability. I was handcuffed and put in the Cleveland Jail, which is when the mugshot was taken. (I had just finished filming Klute so, yes, it was the Klute haircut).”
Fonda now sells merchandise with that famous image on it – her Grace and Frankie co-star Lily Tomlin was spotted carrying just such a bag in 2017. The money Fonda makes from the sales goes towards the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power & Potential, which works with young people in a variety of areas including providing sex education and helping prevent unwanted teen pregnancies.
In 2016 Fonda wrote an essay for the website Lenny Letter about her activism. When she had first started, she wrote, “I had been married and living in France for eight years and had just come home to become an anti-war activist. It was a very different country from the America I’d left, so I decided to spend two months, that spring of 1970, driving cross-country to New York, where I was to start filming Klute. I needed to get to know the USA again.”
Fonda went on, “Two weeks into my trip, Nixon invaded Cambodia; four students were killed at Kent State, two at Jackson State; 35,000 National Guard troops were called out in 16 states; a third of the nation’s colleges closed down; and before I arrived in New York, I’d been arrested five times for distributing copies of the Uniform Code of Military Justice outside military bases.”
But, Fonda continued, “what I remember most vividly was none of that. It was a woman I met. Terry was her name. She ran a G.I. coffeehouse in Killeen, Texas, near Fort Hood. These coffeehouses — springing up outside major military bases around the country — were meeting places for active-duty soldiers who were questioning the war. I had just become involved as a civilian supporter of the G.I. Movement and was spending as much time at as many such coffeehouses as I could.”
Watching Terry talk to the soldiers changed Fonda’s perspective. “She didn’t judge the young men who were on their way to Vietnam,” she wrote. “She knew most of them were from working-class or poor, rural, and inner-city environments with few alternatives or fancy lawyers to get them deferments.”
Fonda has always maintained she bore no ill will towards the soldiers themselves, just the governments who sent them to war. In 2011, she wrote an article titled The Truth About My Trip To Hanoi on her website. In it, she wrote about her father, legendary actor Henry Fonda, and his actions in the military during the Second World War.
Fonda wrote, “I grew up during World War II. My childhood was influenced by the roles my father played in his movies. Whether Abraham Lincoln or Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, his characters communicated certain values which I try to carry with me to this day. I remember saying goodbye to my father the night he left to join the Navy.”
Fonda continued, touchingly, “He didn’t have to. He was older than other servicemen and had a family to support, but he wanted to be a part of the fight against fascism, not just make movies about it. I admired this about him. I grew up with a deep belief that wherever our troops fought, they were on the side of the angels.”
Henry Fonda left not only his family, but his hugely successful acting career when he decided to serve in the war. Reportedly, he did it because he didn’t want to “be a fake in a war studio,” as the quote attributed to him goes. It transpired that the actor was well suited to life as a military man. He was given the Bronze Star Medal and a Navy Presidential Unit Citation for his efforts.
His daughter wrote on her website about how her perspectives changed. “For the first eight years of the Vietnam War I lived in France. I was married to the French film director, Roger Vadim and had my first child,” she wrote. “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.”
She added, “I viewed it as sour grapes. I refused to believe we could be doing anything wrong there.” But things soon changed for Fonda. “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,” she wrote.
Fonda continued, “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. I drove around the country visiting military bases, spending time in the G.I. Coffeehouses that had sprung up outside many bases – places where G.I.s could gather.”
The actress was concerned for the mental health of those serving in Vietnam. “I met with Army psychiatrists who were concerned about the type of training our men were receiving…quite different, they said, from the trainings during World War Two and Korea,” she wrote. “The doctors felt this training was having a damaging effect on the psyches of the young men, effects they might not recover from.”
The starlet decided to campaign against the war, but she also opted to try and work with veterans. In 1970, she went to a Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) rally in Pennsylvania and made a speech there. She fund-raised for the organization, and was named “Honorary National Coordinator” by its representatives.
In her 2011 website essay, Fonda noted, “I raised money and hired a former Green Beret, Donald Duncan, to open and run the G.I. Office in Washington D.C. to try and get legal and congressional help for soldiers who were being denied their rights under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.” And there was more.
She continued to list all the things she had done for those fighting in the Asian conflict. “I talked for hours with U.S. pilots about their training, and what they were told about Vietnam. I met with the wives of servicemen…” she wrote. “I was the one who would be asked to speak at large anti-war rallies to tell people that the men in uniform were not the enemy, that they did not start the war, that they were – in growing numbers – our allies.”
Fonda went on, fiercely defending herself, “I knew as much about military law as any layperson. I knew more than most civilians about the realities on the ground for men in combat. I lived and breathed this stuff for two years before I went to North Vietnam. I cared deeply for the men and boys who had been put in harm’s way.”
Fonda strenuously denied that she was ever anti-soldier. “I wanted to stop the killing and bring our servicemen home,” she wrote. “I was infuriated as I learned just how much our soldiers were being lied to about why we were fighting in Vietnam, and I was anguished each time I would be with a young man who was traumatized by his experiences. Some boys shook constantly and were unable to speak above a whisper.”
But it all went horribly wrong when Fonda went to Hanoi in 1972. There, a photograph was taken of her seated atop an anti-aircraft gun. As soon as it was published, Americans were shocked and appalled. Fonda became a hate figure, especially among serving soldiers. She gained the nickname of “Hanoi Jane.”
The detestation towards her persists to this day. In 2005 a Navy veteran called Michael Smith spat in the face of Fonda while she was signing copies of her autobiography. He told the Kansas City Star newspaper, “She spit in our faces for 37 years. It was absolutely worth it. There are a lot of veterans who would love to do what I did.”
Smith was arrested for disorderly conduct, but Fonda declined to pursue the matter through the courts. Instead, she released a statement saying, “In spite of the incident, my experience in Kansas City was wonderful, and I thank all the warm and supportive people, including so many veterans who came to welcome me last night.”
Indeed, Fonda has always tried to apologize for what happened in Hanoi. During a 1988 TV interview with Barbara Walters, some 16 years after the image was taken, she said, “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.”
She went on, “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.”
That was only the first of many public apologies. In 2005 Fonda spoke on TV show 60 Minutes about Hanoi and said, “I will go to my grave regretting that… It was like I was thumbing my nose at the military. And at the country that gave me privilege. It was the largest lapse of judgment that I can even imagine. I don’t thumb my nose at this country. I care deeply about American soldiers.”
In the same interview, though, the star said she didn’t regret the rest of her Hanoi visit, which included meeting prisoners of war (POWs) and broadcasting on Radio Hanoi. “There are hundreds of American delegations that had met with POWs. It was not uncommon at all,” Fonda said, adding, “Both sides were using propaganda, were using the POWs for propaganda.”
Fonda said that meeting the POWs was “not something that I will apologize for” and the same statement went for her broadcasts on Radio Hanoi. “Our government was lying to us, and men were dying because of it,” she said. “And I felt that I had to do anything that I could to expose the lies, and help end the war. That was my goal.”
Fonda’s 2011 essay on her website also put to rest an ugly urban legend which had circulated about her time in Hanoi. The story goes that the POWs Fonda met had slipped her messages to return to the United States, but Fonda instead had given them to the Vietnamese, and they had tortured the American soldiers in retaliation.
This unsavoury incident never really happened. In fact, the exact opposite took place. Fonda actually returned to the USA with 241 messages from American POWs, and she gave them out to the families. She even personally called up some of their wives. And as Fonda points out in her essay, “Moreover, according to even the most hardcore senior officers, torture stopped late in 1969, two-and-a-half years before I got there.”
In her 2011 piece Fonda detailed exactly what happened during the lead-up to the infamous photo. “It happened on my last day in Hanoi. I was exhausted and an emotional wreck after the two-week visit,” she wrote. “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.”
Fonda went on, “Here is my best, honest recollection of what happened: someone (I don’t remember who) led me towards the gun, and I sat down… 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.’”
As soon as Fonda realized what the cameras had captured, she tried to fix it. She begged her translator, “You have to be sure those photographs are not published. Please, you can’t let them be published.” He assured her the matter would be resolved. But it was all in vain. The pictures made it to the USA.
The actress mused, “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. It was my mistake and I have paid and continue to pay a heavy price for it. Had I brought a politically more experienced traveling companion with me, they would have kept me from taking that terrible seat.”
Fonda added, regarding the weapon itself, “The gun was inactive, there were no planes overhead, I simply wasn’t thinking about what I was doing, only about what I was feeling, innocent of what the photo implies. But the photo exists, delivering its message regardless of what I was doing or feeling. I carry this heavy in my heart.”
After the film star published her essay, she received many positive comments. Come 2018, one person wrote on the website, “I was taken in years ago by the false narrative promoted regarding your trip to Hanoi in 1972. I ask for your forgiveness for all the years I have ‘hated’ you… I understand now that you simply had a conviction different from mine about the war in Vietnam.” The Vietnam War is a very complex bit of history, and Fonda is still working to explain her part in it. But she’s still very much an activist at heart.