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Jane Fonda

Next Stop Vietnam

Jane Fonda Hanoi Press Conference Excerpt

Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives

The two-time Academy Award-winning actress Jane Fonda – one of the most divisive figures to emerge from the Vietnam War era – had her political awakening relatively late in life. Indeed, Fonda was 30 when she watched extensive French news coverage of the war and gradually changed her opinion that it was an "acceptable cause" as she put it in her 2005 autobiography, 'My Life So Far.' At the time she was confined to a Paris hospital during a difficult pregnancy with her daughter, Vanessa (with French film director, Roger Vadim). Prior to this period the Lee Strasberg-trained actress was most famous for being the daughter of acting legend and World War II hero Henry Fonda and starring in Vadim's sexy 1968 science fiction film 'Barbarella.' As a way of demonstrating the dramatic shift in her political ideology, Fonda reveals in her autobiography that in 1959 she was named "Miss Army Recruiter" and adds that in 1964 she dismissed Roger Vadim's denunciation of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution as the "sour grapes" of a Frenchman.

Fonda recounts in her book that her transformation was aided by her "sometime mentor" Simone Signoret who took her to a large anti-war rally in Paris that featured the speakers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The actress writes that during the event "for the first time I felt embarrassed for my country." While still in France Fonda was introduced by her stepmother, Susan, to a 19-year-old U.S. Army resister named Dick Perrin from the 64th Armored Brigade. Perrin and other resisters had formed an organization called RITA – Resisters Inside the Army. Perrin gave Fonda the Jonathan Schell book, 'The Village of Ben Suc,' which she describes as a turning point in her rejection of the war.

It was during the fall of 1970 that Howard Levy—a former U.S. Army physician who had done prison time for refusing to train Special Forces heading to Vietnam—suggested that Fonda and Donald Sutherland (then both filming the movie 'Steelyard Blues') stage an anti-war response to the Bob Hope U.S.O. tours. The co-stars embraced the idea and mounted a show with the aid of fellow actors and comedians like Dick Gregory, Peter Boyle, Paul Mooney and Barbara Dane and the writers Jules Feiffer, Carl Gottleib, Fred Gardner and Barbara Garson. Known as F.T.A. (short for "Fuck the Army" or, more politely, "Free the Army"), the satirical road show toured the country and was popular with some elements of the military. To no one's surprise Fonda's efforts to lobby President Richard Nixon for permission to take the production to South Vietnam failed (she played a hysterical Pat Nixon in one of the show's most famous sketches, after all), but F.T.A. did perform in the Philippines and Japan. A motion picture record of the performances ('F.T.A.') was released theatrically in 1972.

After the F.T.A. tour ended in late 1971 Fonda was becoming romantically involved with Chicago Eight veteran and future husband, Tom Hayden. Hayden made Fonda aware of the significance of the Nixon administration's mining of Haiphong Harbor. It was the actress's concern over the harbor and the vulnerability of the dikes in Vietnam that led her to accept an invitation to visit North Vietnam that had first been extended to her in May of 1972. Fonda's FBI files confirm that her two week sojourn into enemy territory was heavily monitored. No less a figure than National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger was notified by cable when the actress arrived in Hanoi on July 8, 1972 via Aeroflot from Moscow, Russia.

During her trip Fonda witnessed U.S. bombing missions (not unusual given she was in a war zone), talked with various representatives of North Vietnam, filmed and took pictures of the dikes, and met with American Prisoners of War to whom she also delivered mail from the United States. On the last full day of her visit, Fonda was taken to an antiaircraft installation where she noticed a larger-than-usual press contingent. She was asked by the soldiers present to sing a Vietnamese song in response to one that they had sung. She responded with a South Vietnamese tune she had learned for the occasion – Day Ma Di. Fonda does not remember who led her to sit in the chair next to the antiaircraft gun, but she does write that she remembers the cameras flashing and the realization of the potential impact of such photographs. In her autobiography Fonda acknowledges that the "two minute lapse of sanity [sitting in the gunner chair] will haunt me until I die."

But it was the actress's strident Radio Hanoi* broadcasts, including her Hanoi press conference from July 22, 1972, an excerpt of which is heard here, that inspired Representatives Fletcher Thompson, a Republican from Georgia and Richard Ichord, a Democrat from Missouri to accuse the just-returned activist of treason. On August 14, 1972, however, Attorney General of the United States Richard Kleindienst announced that Fonda would not be prosecuted, explaining that the issue of "free speech in an election year far outweighed any specific advantage of prosecuting a young girl [Fonda was in her early thirties] like that who was in Vietnam acting rather foolish."

Jane Fonda, of course, went on to win her second Academy Award for Best Actress as the wife of a suicidal Marine (Bruce Dern) and the lover of a paraplegic veteran (Jon Voight) in the 1978 Vietnam film 'Coming Home.' Fonda's repeated apologies for the antiaircraft photo and for some of her statements on the war have done little to calm the vitriol that many veterans feel towards her. In 1988 when protests threatened to derail a film ('Stanley and Iris') she was scheduled to shoot with Robert DeNiro in Waterbury, Connecticut, Fonda participated in a summit of sorts with twenty-six Vietnam veterans at a church hall in Waterbury. The meeting defused the controversy to the degree that the film project was allowed to proceed, but many vets remain hostile to the actress to this day. Indeed, at a 2007 book-signing event she was spat on by Vietnam veteran Michael A. Smith. Smith was arrested, but Fonda declined to press charges and he was not prosecuted. Smith later told the 'Kansas City Star' that "There are a lot veterans who would love to do what I did."

Fonda has had several different incarnations since the Vietnam War – feminist, anti-nuclear activist, devoted wife (first to Tom Hayden and much later to billionaire media mogul Ted Turner), exercise guru and, since her divorce from Turner, an actress for hire again in Hollywood films ('Monster-in-Law' and 'Georgia'). Despite all of the other events in her long life, it is unlikely that her obituary's first paragraph will fail to mention that infamous snapshot from Hanoi in 1972. In her autobiography Fonda stated for the record that her only regret from her trip to North Vietnam was being photographed at the antiaircraft site: "What that image suggested had no relationship whatsoever to what I was doing or thinking or feeling at the time. 

* Jane Fonda was not the only American civilian to broadcast on Radio Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Folk singer Peter Seeger and Black Panther Party activist Eldridge Cleaver had also spoken on the air.

Various - History Next Stop Is Vietnam 1961-2008 (13-CD)
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