Jane Fonda is one of the rare figures in Hollywood who refuses to be confined to one box or label. Throughout the height of her career in the ’70s, Fonda split her time between movie-making and political activism. One of her primary focuses was the Vietnam War, and she tirelessly advocated for a stop to the fighting. These efforts led her to North Vietnam, the region that the United States was waging war against.
While Jane Fonda has never walked back her support of the anti-war efforts, there is one consequence of her activism in Vietnam that she insists that she’ll always regret. Fonda traveled to Hanoi, North Vietnam in 1972, just as nearly 300 other Americans had done during the war. She was there to talk to the North Vietnamese soldiers (often referred to as the Viet Cong), to deliver letters to the American prisoners of war, and to open a line of communication between the two sides.
The most pressing matter upon her visit was concerning the Vietnamese dikes—a system of dam-like structures around the country’s coast that prevented flooding. Since the Red River, the largest waterway in Vietnam, was below sea level, the destruction of the dikes would be catastrophic, flooding the bulk of the country’s farmland. As new reports had revealed at the time, the US military seemed to be targeting these dikes in an effort to flood North Vietnam, inducing widespread famine.
In most respects, Fonda’s visit was a success. She brought much-needed media attention to the damage the United States military was wreaking on the dikes, and she was able to provide comfort for the families of POWs, giving them proof that their loved ones were still alive. That was until a certain photo made its way back to the states. In one of the most controversial images to come out of the Vietnam War, Fonda can be seen sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun, wearing a combat helmet, smiling, and conversing with Viet Cong soldiers.
The image immediately incited backlash, and Fonda earned the nickname “Hanoi Jane” for her perceived support of the Viet Cong. What many Americans saw was a powerful, influential activist taking an anti-American, anti-soldier stance. The most hostile commentators accused Fonda of treason. However, the most heartbreaking reactions came from Vietnam soldiers and their families, expressing their disappointment in the actress.
‘I Carry This Heavy In My Heart’
However, once Fonda was given a chance to respond, it became clear that this “Hanoi Jane” was a complete myth. According to the Klute star, it was never her intention to pick sides. Her anti-war stance was never anti-American, and the photograph was a huge misunderstanding. While she had apologized numerous times in interviews and in her books since 1972, she gave yet another explanation for the photo on her website in 2011.
“There is one thing that happened while in North Vietnam that I will regret to my dying day—I allowed myself to be photographed on a Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun,” Fonda wrote. It was her very last day in the country, and Fonda said she was exhausted. Firstly, she explained why she was wearing a helmet. As she recalled, the North Vietnamese required visitors to wear them when they went to see military installations like the gun site they took her to.
Fonda claimed the soldiers sang her a song that was translated into the following words: “All men are created equal; they are given certain rights; among these are life, Liberty, and Happiness.” Fonda recalled immediately softening towards the soldiers, insisting that their common values were just further proof that there was no need for war.
In return, Fonda sang them a South Vietnamese song she had memorized. The atmosphere was celebratory; her hosts laughed and clapped for her, and, in the ruckus, they led her over to the anti-aircraft gun. At that moment, Fonda recalled being overwhelmed by her entire trip, and she simply took a seat without a second thought. Before she knew it, a camera flashed, capturing the uncontextualized moment forever.
Jane Fonda Has Apologized Numerous Times
Fonda immediately tried to recover the photographs before they could make their way to the public. “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.’ I pleaded with him, ‘You have to be sure those photographs are not published. Please, you can’t let them be published.”” Her translator gave her some immediate reassurance, but neither of them realized that it was already out of their hands.
Fonda has had plenty of time to reflect on that moment. The conclusion she’s come to is that, whether she was set up or not, she knows she must take responsibility for the photo and all of the hurt it has caused. “It is possible that it was a setup, that the Vietnamese had it all planned. I will never know… 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,” Fonda wrote.
“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,” she elaborated. She also lamented how much damage the photo caused to her previous work with American soldiers and their families.
“I carry this heavy in my heart. I have apologized numerous times for any pain I may have caused servicemen and their families because of this photograph,” Fonda noted. “It was never my intention to cause harm. It is certainly painful for me that I, who had spent so much time talking to soldiers, trying to help soldiers and veterans, helping the anti-war movement to not blame the soldiers, now would be seen as being against our soldiers!”
Jane Fonda Calls Herself A ‘Lightning Rod’
If the Viet Cong and their supporters used Fonda for their own political gain, it can be said that many American politicians did the same. After the photo made its rounds, nasty rumors emerged that Fonda was an undercover supporter of the Viet Cong. People made up stories about the actress betraying her fellow Americans while in the war zone.
Letters began circulating claiming Fonda had belittled the American POWs in Hanoi, standing by while they were tortured. “It is unconscionable that extremist groups circulate letters which accuse me of horrific things, saying that I am a traitor, that POWs in Hanoi were tied up and in chains and marched passed me while I spat at them and called them ‘baby killers,’” Fonda wrote on her website. These rumors persist to this day.
In a 2005 interview with Barbara Walters, 40 years after the start of the Vietnam War, the two discussed the damage her trip to Vietnam caused to her reputation. “It amazes me Jane that, to this day, I get letters about you,” Walters began, referring to the backlash she herself has faced for expressing her support of Fonda. “Jane, this is just this last week,” the journalist noted, pulling out a thick stack of papers. “The anger, I mean, I could read these. ‘She’s a traitor to her country. Honoring her would be traitorous, stupid.’ On, and on, and on.”
Fonda had a poignant response. “It’s sad, and in a way, it’s pathetic that, these many years later, these people have not made sense of the war. They’re off base in terms of where the anger needs to be placed, and I’m a lightning rod. And the right wing has been very assiduous in fanning the flame of the myth of ‘Hanoi Jane.’ They’ve spread lies on the internet. … They’ve kept it alive because it suits their interests.”
Jane Fonda’s Activism Today
While Fonda learned from her experiences in Vietnam, she has never put down the torch. Her career has evolved. She built a fitness video empire, she made her return to acting, and still, she prioritizes causes near and dear to her heart. Recently, the Oscar winner was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, which she’s called a “very treatable cancer.” The diagnosis coincided with the end of her immensely successful Netflix series Grace & Frankie, in which she co-stars with actress and close friend Lily Tomlin.
While the official show may have come to an end, Fonda recently announced that she’d be combining her two great loves—acting and activism—to bring fans a Grace & Frankie reunion special on Friday, October 28. “We’re very worried about climate change,” Fonda said in the video. “And we’re going to do something about it…. We’re going to have a virtual fundraiser.” The actresses are aiming to support “climate champions” running for office across the nation.
At 83 years young, Fonda is still committed to making the world a better place. Despite undergoing chemotherapy treatments, she’s still actively campaigning for her climate activism organization, Jane Fonda Climate PAC (political action committee), which she founded in March of this year.
It’s clear that nothing can stop Jane Fonda—not bad press, age, illness, or the knowledge that she doesn’t have to contribute in all of the amazing ways that she does. Fonda is and always has been an inspiration, and we can’t wait to see her reunite with Tomlin to reprise their beloved Grace & Frankie characters this Friday.