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Don’t be sorry, Jane Fonda

The 1972 visit to North Vietnam and the war around her

The American war on South East Asia, or more commonly known as the Vietnam War was at its bloody peak when Jane Fonda went to Hanoi.  Millions had died, the promise of victory was ever elusive for the US government.  The support for the war inside the United States had waned, it had pained presidential administrations and hopefuls, the war was part of the eras culture.  The draft had made the war relatable; its absence would create a distance between the average American and those inside the conflict zones.  Blonde haired actress Jane Fonda was one of the many anti-war voices of the time, a child of Hollywood she was the fantasy for no doubt many of the GI’s in country.  When she went to North Vietnam on a fact-finding mission, she met with US prisoners and apparently in her visiting the bombed countryside, she betrayed the United States.  I

It was alleged that Jane Fonda betrayed the trust of POWs while she was inside North Vietnam, such claims grew along with the resentment that she fostered.  Many had claimed that she had belittled US POWs as she visited them or that she had betrayed them by handing over their secret letters to the Vietnamese guards.  None of which it turns out happened, while visiting the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where downed US pilots painfully resided as prisoners of the communist dictatorship, Jane Fonda met with a single group of seven US prisoners.  All of which agreed to meet with her. None were tortured for not meeting her and her contact with these prisoners did not lead to executions or beatings. By this time there already had been a steady exchange of letters to and from the prisoners, Jane Fonda herself had even bought some to the country with her.  Fonda returned to the US with 241 letters for the families of the US POWs, she even would go on to telephone the wives of some of the prisoners, updating them on their husband’s conditions.  The evidence and allegations of her most heinous betrayal was fabricated to taint her message, to end the war or at least the bombing of the farmland and civilians.  Fonda believed that the US pilots were unaware of the civilian suffering due to their missions, she pleaded with their humanity.  Perhaps she was right, maybe she was wrong. 

The likeliness of a modern-day celebrity visiting the capital of a belligerent nation at war with the United States is very distant. Dennis Rodman had his North Korea moment but the war by that time had long chilled.  Even if a super star hated the sitting president the image would outlast the contemporary importance of partisan politics.  The idea of sympathising with another people over ones own is sacrilege. But despite that obstacle, Jane Fonda did so. Perhaps it was a different time and the resistance to the war in South East Asia was so widespread that she could make such a stand. But to pose like she did behind a weapon of war that could have harmed American soldiers, how dare she? The imagery of a smiling American actress sitting on an Anti-Aircraft gun pointed skywards at the future under belly of US bombers was too much. 

What was the big deal after all?  The artillery piece was defensive in nature. It was being deployed to protect strategic and civilian sites from the relentless attack of US bombers, thousands of sorties had been flown, with millions upon millions of bombs dropped.  Killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. Many civilians continue to die even now as bombs randomly detonate with cruel menace.  So why is it taboo for an actress to be seen near a defensive weapon that likely would defend civilians exclusively?  Because it may also have killed or harmed American airmen. Some of the American POWs that Jane Fonda had visited in her 1972 trip had been shot down by such artillery and likely injured by it.  To many observers the US serviceman is above all others.  His life is sacred.  His death a martyrs.  The coffins draped in flags are the greatest sight of sorrow for the American voter. To see a wealthy actress would smile as she sat on a piece of artillery that may have prevented an American aircrew from potentially murdering countless Vietnamese civilians, goes against the exceptionalism of the United States. The manifest destiny of its foreign policy, to kill without question.  Jane Fonda arrogantly was questioning such exceptionalism.  

Americans like those nationalists found in any other country have a mythic understanding of their national history. It is a religion. One of heroes, prophets and demigods. One that is above the common history shared by lesser peoples, lesser nations.  One of the pillars of the American national religion is the righteous importance of its military. A perfect, brave and honoured institution that is only ever let down by bad civilian administrations, a lack of support at home or political mismanagement.  It is otherwise near always beyond criticism.  The killings that it inflicts are always justified, they are unintentional, collateral by default.  The cause is always so righteous and ever present that mass death is inevitable. Eggs must be bashed to a pulp to create the death soup that is foreign policy.  It is acceptable to such pragmatic patriots. Jane Fonda and the other actors like Donald Sutherland who had at the time formed the anti-USO troupe were the sickness at home that hurt the noble military, harmed the soldiers.  They were an infection that tainted the righteous state that is the America in imagination.

The dead service personal, they are heroes that died for a cause. Even if that cause becomes unpopular or known over time to be terribly flawed. They were still heroes. They had no other choice but to serve. The American public and even the world should rejoice for their existence because without them calamity would reign, or an unimaginable tyranny would swallow the Earth.  Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese communist regime and decades later, even as bombs cooked off randomly and the countryside remained scarred the victors had become a key ally and trading partner of the USA.  A bulwark against Chinese expansionism and a manufacturer for Western goods as well as a blossoming tourist centre.  Just over a decade after the fall of Saigon and Hot Wheels and McDonald’s toys were now made inside the factories of Vietnam for American children to play with as some of those born in the Indochinese countryside suffer the agonising mutations as a result of the many chemical soups dumbed across the landscape by the US military.  Despite all the murder and pain, the following decades bought trade and tourism.  Not falling dominoes of communist Asiatic tyranny.

The same year that Jane Fonda visited Hanoi, President Nixon met with the despot of China, a leader whose regime had murdered millions upon millions. Inn an act of Realpolitik the Nixon regime would play on the national interests of Moscow, Beijing and even Hanoi. Wedging Uncle Sam between the split of the two great communist powers. It turned out Communist internationalism was never much of a thing.  Heads of state and their central planners were fixated on the ruling of interest of their own nations and mini empires, the rhetoric of world revolution was for the idealists and not the pragmatists of governance.  The dying Mao met with the soon to be impeached Nixon, the next era of the Cold War would unwind as their respective times as heads of state ended.  The war in Vietnam would also dwindle away as a past tense.  The importance of victory would become secondary as a need to save face for the nation, much as is the pattern in many futile wars of hegemonic hubris to follow.

 Twenty years after Nixon’s visit to China and Fonda sitting behind the artillery in Vietnam, the Soviet Union would collapse into itself, the inevitable fate of such a centrally planned lunacy, China would repress thousands of pro democracy protesters as its rulers juggled economic liberalisation with censorship and a strict one party rule and Vietnam would slowly grow and follow in some ways the footsteps of Chinese one-party rule, economic liberties so long as dissidents and free speech is kept under control.  The communism for the new century.  Trade with the West ever present, tourism growing and those refugees who were forced to leave their home land because of the war could now return and see their families left behind.  The world had changed but Jane Fonda was never forgiven, no matter the apologies she offered.

The memory of Jane Fonda sitting on the piece of artillery, beneath a green steel helmet could not be forgotten by those proud of nation, no amount of leggings and aerobic exercise videos along with the countless apologies could unlock her from that ball of national disgrace. The one element that the advocates of US society should be celebrating was the fact that a woman could do and say what she said.  The freedom to dissent, to disagree, to question. That sacred right which is slowly disappearing.  That sacred right that is barely existent in Vietnam or China even now, that is being squashed by law and public credit from within the culture of the supposedly liberal West.  That is what should have been taken from that moment, instead the proud celebrate the war and the war fighters.  They demanded the apology because their sacred religion of death had been offended.   But where was the apology for the Vietnamese, the Laotians or Cambodians?

The decade of Jane Fonda’s work outs  was also filled with unapologetic movies, books, television and comics re-fighting the Vietnam War.   Macho images of one-man armies taking down the evil commies, rectifying the injustices suffered to the braves who served their government in another man’s jungle.  Twenty years after that into the new century and in the wake of the post ‘911’ euphoria of nationalism Jane Fonda was again and again called in to apologise.  Because though the American war on South East Asia is a lost memory and mostly understood to have been flawed, in the critics minds her action could also have been performed in the American war on the Middle-East, Africa, Latin America and so on, in the age of the War on Terror the enemy were unimaginable head choppers.  The hooded decapitors and suicide bombers could not be reasoned with unlike the communists that ran death camps where victims were electrocuted to death or shot on mass into pits.  The enemy in the war on terror may have lacked the death toll of the communist regimes, their stateless energies made them more dangerous to the American right to empire abroad.  And people like Jane Fonda only served their cause,  because they in some way weakened the illusion of America. 

Perhaps in her fact finding mission Jane Fonda should have visited Cambodia or Laos, taken her cameras to the dead and dying inside those countries. Had she then known about that ‘secret’ part of the war. Two Nations not at war with the US, nations who suffered millions of bombs and lost hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and like those victims in Vietnam many continue to die on as a result of that deadly decade.  If Jane Fonda had of posed with a neutral nations anti-aircraft artillery would the narrative have been the same?  The NVA were the enemy, killers, communists, the butchers of Hue.  Laotian farmers with bolt action rifles or ancient Hotchkiss machine guns pointed skywards with limp defiance would have depicted a different perspective, the proud however would still have made her apologise.  Regardless it was Jane Fonda who returned home to a house upturned and ransacked because of her visit, Nixon however after visiting a leader that oversaw perhaps 100 million murdered was considered a hero.  Jane Fonda and her fellow activists drew the ire of President Nixon, but his tolerance of one communist totalitarian regime for another showed his own ideology was flexible when it suited the interests of US policy.

The innocent dead do not matter to many. They are insignificant, whether they are in Afghanistan or Yemen, Korea or Vietnam. They are doomed to suffer because the US empire is war.  Its most important instrument of implementation is the willing and conscripted a like. A powerful army of professionals whose role is to obey political policy.  War was once far simpler when the rules were direct and the mission was a mandate from congress. Now the mission is perpetuality, an abstract. War on terror, war on drugs, peace keeping and so on.  In South East Asia it was a mission of defending an ally, preventing the spread of communism.  Curbing the spread of a political ideology is not something that military force can or should do but in the rationality of the Cold War it was almost the only way to do so.  ‘To burn the village in order to save it’ was the known truth of military planners and those who obeyed it.  If not An Loc or Khe Sahn then Los Angeles or New York. It was that simple in their minds. New exotic names became part of the political lexicon Fallujah, Aleppo, each so important in the struggle for domestic politics at the time, by the time the next election cycle rolls around such names forgotten. We must fight to protect our allies, the ARVN, the moderates, the Kurds.    

Jane Fonda killed no one, though she was condemned as though she had.  Why was murder so perfectly accepted, yet calling for its end forbidden?  How many babies burned in their mothers arms are needed to satisfy the god of national interest? Never enough it seems.  Its hunger for the innocent is endless.

For the policy makers, Kissinger, Nixon, LBJ, McNamara, the generals Westmoreland, Taylor, Abrams or the lower ranks, would a media of self-important talkers demand such a repeated apology from them?  Would it be deemed impolite? Or unnecessary?  Would it even matter?  William Calley and the murdering rapists of My Lai would they be hunted down for decades after an apology demanded upon them for the deeds that they committed, would the media questioning Fonda even know about such events? Calley stood trial a year before Fonda went to the North, he was the only soldier charged for the infamous rape murder atrocity known as the My Lai Massacre, a day after he was sentenced to hard labour and life in prison, President Nixon ordered him to serve house arrest.  He did so for only three and a bit years.

I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy. That was my job that day. That was the mission I was given. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women, and children. They were all classified as the same, and that’s the classification that we dealt with over there, just as the enemy. I felt then and I still do that I acted as I was directed, and I carried out the order that I was given and I do not feel wrong in doing so.” Lt. William Calley, who was charged for the murder of 109 Vietnamese civilians out of about 500, almost all were women, children, toddlers and elderly.

“I will go to my grave regretting that. The image of Jane Fonda, Barbarella, Henry Fonda’s daughter, just a woman sitting on a enemy aircraft gun, was a betrayal,” Jane Fonda in one of her many very public apologies.

“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.” Soldiers like Calley.

The war in South East Asia for most Americans is distant, it is a setting to some of their favourite films.  The present however reveals the very same mindset, the jungle is now desert and mountains.  They are no longer South East Asians but middle Easterners.  The heroic service people are not coming home to hippies calling them baby killers, they are being thanked for their service, gaining standing ovations.  For what?  To defend who?  It is not an American serviceman standing alongside an actress, manning an artillery piece defiantly because fleets of bombers are dumping millions of explosives and chemicals onto their cities and countryside, killing far too many civilians. It never was, it never has been.  The new wars are not without their My Lai’s either, only they are lost inside wikileak cables and omitted by the mainstream media and political professionals.  No need to apologise, it is the right of a great nation and its warriors. 

One needs to look at the chaos and righteous indignation that the terror attacks of 2001 set in motion for the American public. How would most feel if fleets upon fleets of bombers dropped bombs all over their nation, murdering too many to count.  Each hour of an air raid making the death toll of ‘911’ look miniscule in scale.  What hatred and need to correct the savagery would they feel if foreign drones and attack helicopters hovered high above delivering death with random frequency.  The due process and language of legalese all bunk that is used to justify the war and society that wages it.  What due process did an assassinated family experience, what process of law was in place to legitimise the millions of bombs dropped across South East Asia?  If a great society is one of laws and the rule of such perfect institutions, then where are they to check the murder of such a state?  Instead the same president who sat in office when Jane Fonda visited North Vietnam would famously be impeached, he would declare that he was not a ‘crook’.  The event that he would be thrown out of political office had no body count.  The mass murder that his regime over saw, even if it was illegal like those before or since would not matter because ultimately as the world realises, to kill innocent civilians in other countries is the mark of a great president. Such actions transcend a single political administration.  No apology is ever given for the bi- partisanship of war.   

If one can not even feel a remote flake of guilt for the celebration of mass murder, then how will these wars end?  If some one like Jane Fonda into her eighth decade is still asked to apologise because of a moment captured on camera over forty years ago, then what hope is their for the future. If the military and the endless wars are so sacred, above reproach, then how can they be checked, how can such excess be curbed.  That even if a war like the US one in South East Asia is beyond the realm of apology where the only regret is in the defeat, not the millions dead.   What hope for peace is left?  If anyone should apology, perhaps it is those who will drop millions of tonnes of high explosives intentionally onto civilians.  Jane Fonda took a risk for peace, it was unpopular in the end, so be it.  Because if murdering the innocent is popular, then I can only hope to be as courageous in my unpopular defiance as Jane Fonda was.

Kym Robinson, 15 October 2019 

Published inWar, History and Foreign Policy