Jane Fonda repents again

Jane Fonda is in the news again, for the old reasons. Whenever she makes a public appearance, angry protesters remind anyone willing to listen that in their eyes she’s a traitor. And she reissues what has become a familiar mea culpa.

“Whenever possible I try to sit down with vets and talk with them, because I understand and it makes me sad,” [she said]. “It hurts me and it will to my grave that I made a huge, huge mistake that made a lot of people think I was against the soldiers.” … However, Fonda said she did not regret traveling to North Vietnam, saying her time there was “an incredible experience.” 

No, she doesn’t understand. She doesn’t get it. Traveling to North Vietnam was against our soldiers. Being photographed aiming an anti-aircraft gun at symbolic American planes was against our country and the dozens of American pilots languishing in North Vietnamese POW prisons.

Bob Hartman, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, said he blamed Fonda for breaking off negotiations among the countries and held her responsible for thousands of American lives. “She encouraged North Vietnam to pull away from the negotiations table,” he said, holding a sign outside the Court Street parking garage to protest her presence. “She got Americans killed … and she went to Vietnam to advance her husband’s career.” 

Bah. He just discredits himself with this kind of hyperventilating. Fonda didn’t have the power to lengthen or shorten the war. She’s just a movie actress and the daughter of a movie actor. Her visit to North Vietnam didn’t prolong the war in any way, shape, or form. Our troops’ presence in their country provoked the fighting and kept it going.

Before Americans came, the Vietnamese fought French colonialists and Japanese invaders, and after we left they fought off a Chinese border incursion. Long before Fonda arrived and made her splash, they had vowed to fight a hundred years if that’s what it took to secure their country’s independence. They would never have given up, either on the battlefield or at the negotiating table, and they always made that clear. From their point of view, the purpose of the negotiations was to persuade us to leave, and until we agreed to do that, the negotiations couldn’t end the war.

“We feel what she did was so egregious … [she] really cost lives,” said Mike McGowan, a Marine Corps veteran who served as an infantryman in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969.

Humbug. No evidence supports this claim, but the assertion that Fonda caused American casualties is one of those enduring and unshakeable political beliefs that you can’t debate with the people who believe it, because the facts won’t change their minds.

Probably the most famous iteration of this myth is the claim that, “During a trip to North Vietnam, Jane Fonda turned smuggled messages from U.S. POWs over to their captors.” This urban legend was authoritatively debunked by back in the 1990s, shortly after it began circulating by email, but is still gospel truth to many veterans, especially those of rightwing bent. These people aren’t interested in the truth; they merely have a visceral need to hate Fonda that they will take to their graves.

The fires of Fonda-hatred still burn, and occasionally are stoked by new lies, because they feed this need. These lies range from photoshopped images (see to apocryphal stories (see to revisionist history (see It’s all classic scapegoating.

This doesn’t mean Fonda is innocent. She’s not. She’s more culpable than Iva Toguri, who was vilified as “Tokyo Rose” but was largely a victim of circumstances who became a convenient scapegoat. Toguri, an American citizen, was stranded in Japan by the outbreak of war, but refused to renounce her U.S. citizenship and didn’t overtly cooperate with the Japanese. She did provide assistance to U.S. POWs who, like her, were coerced into participating in radio broadcasts. Unlike Toguri, Fonda visited an enemy nation and participated in enemy propaganda efforts by voluntary choice. Toguri was convicted of treason and spent several years in prison, although her flawed trial eventually led President Ford to pardon her. Fonda was never prosecuted, which continues to enrage her detractors.

I won’t try to adjudicate Fonda’s case here. This commentary isn’t meant to be a trial. I’m a Vietnam veteran, and I don’t have an issue with her antiwar activities on the homefront; like every citizen, she had a constitutional right to protest our government’s policies. From an objective point of view, her trip to North Vietnam and here activities there were of similar character to conduct that was condemned in previous wars. And so she should expect public condemnation. Saying she’s sorry doesn’t put it right with those who feel swerving time is how you repay society for your criminal behavior.

She’s probably guilty of a crime of sorts, but that should be kept in perspective. She didn’t commit a crime of violence or murder, and her culpability certainly is less than that of Lieutenant Calley, who served only a brief house arrest, or of Captain Medina, who wasn’t punished at all. She’s less guilty than the Haditha murderers, whom rightwingers indignantly defend whenever anyone mentions that atrocity.

To me, Fonda is small fry, not worth the time and energy some people have invested in demonizing her. Vietnam veterans have more important issues. This energy would be put to better use helping the returning veterans of our latest wars, and advocating for improved benefits and services for thefondanv veterans of all our wars.

Another reason why you won’t see me joining the anti-Fonda protests is because I think people should be truthful and a lot of what’s said about her is so over the top that I don’t want to be associated with it, nor do I feel inclined to associate with the people making those outlandish claims about her. If they have no respect for truth, and refuse to be truthful, then I can’t support what they’re saying. What Fonda actually did do is bad enough that it isn’t necessary to spread lies about her.

Iconic photograph of Jane Fonda in North Vietnam.

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