Among all the soldiers, officers, spies, politicians, socialists, anti-war activists, and draft dodgers, somehow actress Jane Fonda became one of the most controversial figures during the Vietnam War. And while the Oscar-winning actress is still enjoying a successful career to this day — currently starring in the comedy “Grace and Frankie” and the Robert Redford romantic drama “Our Souls at Night,” both on Netflix — she has still not been able outrun the notoriety of her actions in Vietnam.
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS documentary series “The Vietnam War” digs into Fonda’s 1972 visit to North Vietnam in Episode 9, titled “A Disrespectful Loyalty.” Although many of her actions, including speaking on Radio Hanoi and denying the reported conditions of American POWS, drew criticism, it was her posing for a photo on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun that sparked widespread hatred among veterans and the South Vietnamese alike, and earned her the nickname “Hanoi Jane.”
As with John McCain and John Kerry, “The Vietnam War” filmmakers did not interview Fonda for the series. In an interview with IndieWire, Novick said, “These are public figures who have had their say many times. And we didn’t feel we needed to give them another platform to burnish their reputations in whatever way they want. And also, these are extremely polarizing figures, and we were really trying to tell the story in a way that an audience could come to it with an open mind, and not feel that we were favoring one particular perspective or another. And so it seemed like it wasn’t up to us to give any of those people the platform to tell their story yet again. They’ve told it many, many times.”
In 2011, Fonda had released her side of the story in a statement on her official website about the incident:
“It happened on my last day in Hanoi…The translator told me that the soldiers wanted to sing me a song… The soldiers asked me to sing for them in return…I memorized a song called Day Ma Di, written by anti-war South Vietnamese students. I knew I was slaughtering it, but everyone seemed delighted that I was making the attempt. I finished. Everyone was laughing and clapping, including me… someone (I don’t remember who) led me towards the gun, and I sat down, still laughing, still applauding. It all had nothing to do with where I was sitting. I hardly even thought about where I was sitting. The cameras flashed…
It is possible that it was a set up, that the Vietnamese had it all planned. I will never know. But if they did I can’t blame them. The buck stops here. 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… I have apologized numerous times for any pain I may have caused servicemen and their families because of this photograph. It was never my intention to cause harm.”
Despite this public apology and more than 40 years having passed since the incident, Fonda’s name still evokes feelings of absolute hatred and disgust for many. The depth of loathing is actually perplexing to comprehend.
“It does surprise me,” said Novick. “I thought she was just representative of radical politics, but there are so many other people who could have been — Joan Baez was in North Vietnam. Lots of people went to Hanoi, lots of antiwar activists said things that were very provocative.
“I think it’s also the power of images, just having herself photographed on an anti-aircraft gun that was shooting down American planes — even though those planes were bombing North Vietnam and inflicting collateral damage like we said on innocent people,” she continued. “But the pilots weren’t the ones makes the decisions about what our policy should be. They were the ones also paying the price, so like everything else in this story, it’s extremely, extremely complicated.”
The documentarians did not lack for subjects who were willing to discuss the actress, but they focused on veteran John Musgrave for his insights into the subject.
Novick said, “Everyone we spoke to was happy to say something about Jane Fonda, and we did have a variety of perspectives, but we thought he was able to explain the anger, and also in his mind, the origins… of the betrayal that people felt because they had idolized and fantasized about her.
“There’s something deeper going on there for sure. She seems to be the kind of focal point of all of this, and I guess that’s the price you pay for being a celebrity,” she added. “I think it’s the incongruity of ‘she’s not a foreign policy expert, she’s not connected, she’s a beautiful woman, she’s a great actress, and she used that celebrity platform to speak about things that maybe are better left to others.’”
Although the detractors have been the most vocal, Fonda isn’t universally despised for her actions.
“Not all vets hate her,” acknowledged Novick. “A number of vets who were involved in Vietnam but are against the war think she was courageous for going to Hanoi and taking a stand even though they didn’t agree with everything she had to say. So it’s not monolithic, but people react to her very strongly.”
”The Vietnam War” airs nightly at 8 p.m. through Thursday, Sept. 28 on PBS.