Hanoi Jane will save us all

“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.”

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As most people already know, Jane Fonda at age 81 moved to Washington, DC, and almost immediately began her #FireDrillFridays against climate change.  On October 11, she took herself with a small crowd of followers to the Capitol and deliberately disobeyed the orders of the Capitol police so that she would be arrested.

Her arrest was reported across America, particularly on Facebook, where the commentators split in their opinions.  One wrote, “GoJane. And thank you for all that you have done for the United States. No one is as more of a patriot than you are. Keep up the good work. Please do not listen to the haters. And the right who supposedly are Christians but are not.”  I wrote on the same page, “She was not a traitor then, and certainly not now. She was speaking her mind then, and she is now. I was against the Vietnam War, too, and so were millions of others. And we are against climate change! She’s brave because she knows that she’s going to be arrested and jailed for exercising her first amendment rights.” A woman wrote back to me, “Are you fucking serious?  She was with the enemy in a prison camp… Wake up. You can’t be that stupid.” To which I replied, “I am serious and not stupid. Did you ever march against the Vietnam War? I did. Went all the way from Boston to DC to do it. She was speaking her mind.” To which a man wrote back, “Hanoi Jane is a traitor,” and another woman wrote, “She betrayed the GIs who were imprisoned and they were tortured because of her actions. Even if you were against the war, the individuals serving our country were not to blame. Most of them didn’t even want to be there…forced by the draft. Required to follow orders, and demeaned when (if) they returned. Shameful.” 

Snopes found that she had not betrayed the POWs.   “Fonda specifically apologized for the act of posing for photographs while seated at (an inoperative) North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun, but not for her other activities in North Vietnam:

“I will go to my grave regretting that. The image of Jane Fonda, Barbarella, Henry Fonda’s daughter, just a woman sitting on an enemy aircraft gun, was a betrayal,” said Fonda.

“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.”

“The 67-year-old actress and activist, however, defended her decision to go to Hanoi and said she had no regrets about being photographed with American POWs there or making broadcasts on Radio Hanoi because she was trying to stop the war.

“Well, both sides were using propaganda, were using the POWs for propaganda,” said Fonda. “I don’t think there was anything wrong with it. It’s not something that I will apologize for.”

“Nor does she apologize for making 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.” 

Given the negative reaction of many to her because of her actions during the Vietnam War, it is surprising that Jane Fonda has chosen to be arrested multiple times to fight against climate change.  But she has. She has had a lifetime of fighting for her own opinions.

“Fonda’s life is well-known for its narrative qualities, the acts and arcs easily recognizable and frequently recounted. There is the tragedy of her childhood, after her mother committed suicide when she was 11 years old; the years spent at boarding schools and Vassar, where she developed the eating disorders that defined most of her adult life; her time spent studying Method acting with Lee Strasberg, and her promising early career as an actress; her years in France, where she made Barbarella with her first husband, Roger Vadim. It was 1968, while Fonda was living in France with Vadim, when she attended her first antiwar rally. She didn’t like it. “It was all about how horrible America was,” Fonda explained to Hilton Als in a 2011 New Yorker profile. “I really believed that if we were fighting, there was a reason for it.” In her 2005 autobiography, My Life So Far, Fonda writes of the early months of her first pregnancy, when she was on bed rest. Up until then, she hadn’t been watching the news, and barely understood where Vietnam was. “What attention I did give to it allowed me to remain comfortable in the belief that it was an acceptable cause,” she says of that time in retrospect she realizes she thought women couldn’t change anything, except table settings or diapers — but could not go back after seeing images on French television of the damage American bombers were doing to Vietnamese schools, hospitals, and churches.

“In the seven years between the release of Klute and Coming Home, Fonda solidified her status as someone J. Hoberman once called “the most politically outspoken star in Hollywood history.” Only two years after that first antiwar rally, Fonda had become so devoted to activism she told Ken Cockrel, a Detroit-based lawyer, activist, and member of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, that she was considering leaving acting entirely. He told her that there were enough activists already; what they needed was a movie star. 

“And so Fonda made movies — and speeches. In July 1972, Fonda traveled to North Vietnam to tour the dike system protecting more than 15 million Vietnamese people from flooding, and which the American military had targeted for bombing (an obligatory aside to say that the American government has always denied this). She made radio announcements asking American soldiers to remember their humanity and protest the war any way they could. Photos of her sitting and smiling inside an anti-aircraft gun used to shoot at American planes, however, was what led to one threat of assassination for betraying her country, and a formal statement from State Department spokesman at the time, Charles W. Bray, who called her actions “distressing.” Other people called it treason.” 

Even if you were one of those who chose to label Fonda a traitor for her acts in the 1970s, one might hope that you appreciate her bravery now in the fight against climate change.  “I’m 82 years old, I’ve been here before,” she said in a recent interview. “I mean, I can’t be attacked any more than I already have. So what can [Donald Trump] do? I’ve got nothing to lose.” (She won’t be 82 until December 21).

“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.” I’m for changing her moniker to “Climate Jane.”  As I’ve written previously, I very much hope that she joins #FridayFireDrills with #Fridays for the Future, so that we get a powerful kick towards changes in our society that solve the climate crisis.  She’s one of the few people who can inspire us.

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