It’s almost like the coming of the locusts.
In 1988, 16 years after her infamous trip to wartime Hanoi, Jane Fonda apologized to U.S. veterans for her “thoughtless and careless” decision to be photographed sitting at the controls of a North Vietnamese antiaircraft gun. A few vets accepted her apology. Most spat on the ground and wondered why she hadn’t been prosecuted on treason charges.
Flash-forward 17 years to this week and the release of Fonda’s memoir, “My Life So Far,” and another apology. The reaction: Vets spit on the ground and wonder why she was never prosecuted -- while filling Internet chat rooms with vicious personal attacks, including fantasies about how Fonda should die.
Few figures from the Vietnam War era draw as much venom as Fonda, for whom antiwar activism was only a part of a life that has spanned Hollywood success (two Academy Awards), a video-exercise business that seemed to have half the country doing living-room aerobics in the late 1980s, and three marriages that collapsed spectacularly.
But one trip, one political stance and Fonda’s image was sealed. The brightest lights on the movie marquee of her life flash “Hanoi Jane.” And with the nation still divided over U.S. policy and actions in Vietnam, Fonda embodies for many the street protests, American flags aflame, Canadian-bound draft dodgers and the cold shoulder that greeted many soldiers when they returned home.
It’s a visceral reaction that is even sharper -- and more persistent -- than the enmity some vets feel toward former Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry, whose conversion from decorated Vietnam War veteran to war protester established one of the key narratives of the 2000 campaign. And the emotions surrounding Fonda have outlasted those toward other war protesters, from the late Abbie Hoffman to Fonda’s second husband, former California Legislature member Tom Hayden, a founder of Students for a Democratic Society.
“It’s amazing,” said Nancy Snow, a propaganda expert at Cal State Fullerton and the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, who believes Fonda remains an open wound for those still haunted by Vietnam. “I think that when you have these strong feelings, you need something to sort of fight against or speak out against, and she’s symbolic.”
Snow said no apology or explanation will do any good for those who “need a symbol on which they can pour all of their negativity and feelings” over Vietnam, and who still believe war protesters were anti-American -- even though the demonstrations represented the kind of open debate that lies at the heart of American freedoms.
“To the people who saw her as heroic, she spoke her mind, which is truly American,” Snow said. “That’s the great irony. But she was this sexy A-list woman involved in politics, which was acting out of turn in that time period.... There are always those who are going to say, ‘I don’t care what she says 30 years later, what she did that day was a mistake and there’s no overcoming that.’ The damage was done.”
UCLA sociologist David Halle believes Fonda endures as a target because the anger generated by the war endures.
“What they’re saying is things happened in the war, and here is someone on whom we can take revenge,” Halle said, drawing comparisons to political conservatives who vilify Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. “You’re talking about envy of powerful women who are trying to do things you don’t like, getting in the way of your own deeply felt values and interests.”
Fonda, who according to her publicist was unavailable for comment, talked about the enduring backlash on Sunday’s edition of the CBS program “60 Minutes,” saying: “It makes me sad, because I think that it’s ill-placed anger. I understand that I’m a lightning rod, and I know why the anger is there.”
Fonda defended her opposition to the war and the trip to Hanoi but said she “will go to my grave regretting” the famous photograph.
“The image of Jane Fonda, ‘Barbarella,’ Henry Fonda’s daughter, just a woman sitting on an enemy aircraft gun, was a betrayal,” Fonda said. “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.”
She went on to call her detractors ideologues in a Wednesday night appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman,” telling her host they are using her to “promulgate their right-wing, narrow worldview. It really doesn’t have anything to do with me, and it’s kind of sick.”
Fonda’s critics dismiss her words as calculated to gain attention when she just happens to be trying to sell something -- workout videos in the 1980s and, now, her memoirs and an upcoming film, “Monster-in-Law.”
“We are only hearing so much about Hanoi Jane of late because she has a book and a movie out,” wrote one poster to the conservative Freerepublic.com website. “Here’s hoping they both flop.”
Other postings were more vehement, often profane and misogynist.
“My uncle was shot and killed in Danang, Vietnam, in 1968,” wrote one poster to rocker Ted Nugent’s “Nuge Board” chat room, and followed it with profanity. “I will never forgive her nor will I accept any of her ‘apologies.’ ”
On the bulletin board at libertynewsforum.com, another posting read: “She’s a total waste of humanity and I wouldn’t give her the time of day! How DARE she try to make amends!”
Kevin Craver, a 33-year-old journalist and National Guardsman who runs a website -- rathergate.com -- that focuses on what he sees as media bias, posted a comment last week that he had accepted Fonda’s apology for the photo but that “I’m not absolving her of everything. She said she was sorry for the photo and I accepted that. But let’s not forget that her North Vietnam trip was the tip of the iceberg.”
He said he was “caught off-guard” by the vehemence of some of the responses, especially because his posting was somewhat tongue-in-cheek -- speculating whether in 33 years, CBS newsman Dan Rather would offer a similar apology over last year’s retracted story on President Bush’s National Guard records. He links the passion of the responses to the iconic nature of the Fonda photo.
“It was the antiwar movement’s equivalent of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima -- her one picture said 10,000 words,” Craver said. “Her subsequent success in life, I’m sure, fed that flame of resentment. Mildred ‘Axis Sally’ Gillars, ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ and other Axis collaborators ended up in prison after World War II, but Vietnam veterans watched as Fonda made movies and workout videos.”
Craver said the responses show that Fonda “has a lot of making up to do” with veterans and others. “There are some things in this world that ‘I’m sorry’ just does not fix,” he said. “Not to sound extortionist, but contributing a share of her book profits to veterans’ causes may be an appropriate course of action.”
Fred Pruitt, who served in Vietnam and runs a website (rantburg.com) from Baltimore, believes Fonda’s endurance as a target encompasses class, a sense of personal betrayal and, to a lesser extent, gender.
“A part of it is the fact that she’s a child of privilege, the daughter of Henry Fonda, spouse of [at the time, French director] Roger Vadim, born with a silver spoon in her mouth, while those of us who were fighting the war were largely draftees,” Pruitt said in an e-mail exchange. “Her social class didn’t get drafted; they got student deferments or they went to Canada or Sweden. We couldn’t afford the bus ticket.”
Pruitt said many vets felt Fonda was “talking down to us” at the same time she was sitting in the enemy’s chair. Pruitt recalled being an Army crewman on a reconnaissance plane from Cam Ranh Bay that came under fire as it returned to base.
“We took a 37-millimeter round through the wing over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos,” Pruitt said. “We managed to make it back to Tuy Hoa Air Base, with chunks of metal falling off most of the way.... So, Jane, sitting on the saddle of her [antiaircraft] gun, was aiming at us, personally. Stretch that to just generically looking down a gun barrel at us and you can include everyone who served, not just the pilots and crewmen.”
But some are ready to let the past fade away. Homer Hickam, an author and former infantryman in Vietnam, said by e-mail that over the years his anger had dissipated, allowing him to adopt a more nuanced view of the war and of the roles and emotions of those who supported it and those, like Fonda, who opposed it.
“We are no longer young and no longer caught up in the madness that overtook our country and our people in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” said Hickam of Huntsville, Ala., who earlier this week posted his forgiveness of Fonda on an Internet bulletin board.
“She was as swept up in events as I was.... Jane Fonda applauded an enemy I had observed fully capable of murdering in terrible, gut-wrenching ways their own people. I was caught up in the blood, the flesh of war, while she sat back in comfort and carped about things she really knew little about. Yet, what did I know? Perhaps I was too close to the war and she was too distant.”
Hickam said forgiveness is easier, at least for him, as the passing years drain some of the piquancy from those emotions.
“What, after all, is easier than forgiveness?” he asked. “It is the letting go of those most terrible of emotions, hate and all its bile.”