And on a hot, sticky May afternoon in 1970, famous Hollywood actress Jane Fonda, along with thousands of students and protests, took over the University of Maryland mall.
For the next several years, Fonda would continue as one of the most prominent public faces in the anti-Vietnam War movement. But it wasn’t until she traveled to Hanoi in July 1972 that she really enraged critics and fundamentally altered how the world viewed her for decades to come.
From Hollywood starlet to liberal activist
During the Vietnam War, famous Hollywood actress Jane Fonda rebranded herself as a political crusader against the war.
Fonda’s transformation from actress to activist began early on.
- She was active in the Black Panthers.
- She marched for the rights of American Indians, soldiers and working mothers.
- She and actor Donald Sutherland started an “anti-USO” troupe to counter Bob Hope’s famous shows for the troops. They called it FTA, which they said stood for Free the Army, but it was also a not-so-subtle nod to the expression “f — the Army.”
This weekend, filmmaker Ken Burns’s 10-part documentary on the Vietnam War began airing on PBS. Burns said the project is an attempt to heal old resentments. Although he didn’t interview Fonda, the film looks at her controversial 1972 visit to Hanoi.
Trip to North Vietnam
By July 1972, when Fonda accepted an invitation to visit North Vietnam, America had been at war overseas and with itself for years.
- She went to tour the country’s dike system, which was rumored to have been intentionally bombed by American forces — something the U.S. government to this day forcefully denies.
- During her two-week stay, Fonda concluded that America was unjustly bombing farmland and areas far flung from military targets.
- North Vietnamese press reported — and Fonda later confirmed — that she made several radio announcements over the Voice of Vietnam radio to implore U.S. pilots to stop the bombings.
In Hanoi, Fonda also met with seven American POWs and later said they asked her to tell their friends and family to support presidential candidate George McGovern; they feared they’d never be freed during a Richard Nixon administration. Rumors spread and still persist that she betrayed them by accepting secret notes and then turning them over to the North Vietnamese. The POWs who were there have denied that this ever occurred.
Some lawmakers called her actions treason. Congress held hearings. The Veterans of Foreign Wars passed a resolution calling for her to be prosecuted as a traitor.
Perhaps most dramatically, in March 1973, the Maryland state legislature held a hearing to have Fonda and her films barred from the state. Del. William Burkhead, a Democrat from Anne Arundel, said, “I wouldn’t want to kill her, but I wouldn’t mind if you cut her tongue off,” according to a Post story.
Fonda wasn’t deterred. She continued openly to question the accounts of the U.S. government and American POWs, who told devastating stories of the torture they endured at the hands of the North Vietnamese.
“These men were bombing and strafing and napalming the country,” she said, according to an Associated Press report in April 1973, which quoted an interview she gave to KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. “If a prisoner tried to escape, it is quite understandable that he would probably be beaten and tortured.”
Over the years, as Fonda reinvented herself as a fitness maven and again a movie star, she apologized many times for the antiaircraft gun photo. But she maintains she was not a traitor by speaking out against the war or trying to turn soldiers against it, because she still believes the U.S. government was lying to them.
In her 2005 memoir, “My Life So Far,” Fonda wrote of the infamous photo this way:
Still, for some veterans, no apology from Fonda will ever change their views of her as an adversary of America and the troops during wartime. In 2015, about 50 veterans stood outside the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick, Md., to protest Fonda’s appearance there. They held signs that read “Forgive? Maybe. Forget? Never.” and booed people attending the event, according to the Frederick News-Post.
Fonda told the audience that their protests saddened her.