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At the Movies: Jane Fonda and Vietnam Culture Wars

March 30, 2012

Wars are not just fought on battlefields. They are also waged in harsh cultural clashes long after a war’s end.

Jane Fonda’s reported selection to play Nancy Reagan in a new film has set off an explosion in the culture wars. To many Americans, Fonda is infamous for being photographed sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi in 1972 during our long war in Vietnam. Many US veterans and home front supporters of that war felt insulted, and rightly so. It was an astoundingly stupefying act.

Despite Fonda’s later apologies for what she called a “thoughtless and careless” lapse in judgment, outrage has flashed anew over news that “Hanoi Jane” may play the role of a revered First Lady, in a film about life at the White House as seen from a butler’s perspective. Based on a Washington Post story about Eugene Allen, a butler who served under seven presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan, it is called “The Butler” and has a big constellation of Hollywood stars said to be negotiating to play an array of White House luminaries, according to movie industry journalists.

"The image of Jane Fonda, Barbarella, Henry Fonda's daughter ... sitting on an enemy aircraft gun was a betrayal,” Fonda said in a 2005 television interview, “the largest lapse of judgment that I can even imagine." She previously apologized directly to a group of outraged Vietnam veterans. Yet many Americans refuse to accept her apology.

This latest outcry raises a question as to whether there is, or ever can be, a statute of limitations on refighting the Vietnam war.

Many Vietnam veterans are still, for good reason, furious with “Hanoi Jane.” There are others, however, who have fond memories of a famous actress who spoke out against the war and assisted bitterly disillusioned soldiers to tell their own stories.

I first saw this silver screen seductress in person talking with some ticked off veterans in Valley Forge National Historical Park. Fonda was there to greet about 150 activists with Vietnam Veterans Against the War who marched from Washington’s encampment at Morristown to Valley Forge on Labor Day weekend in 1970 to protest the ongoing war in Southeast Asia, where I had served as a soldier in 1962-63.

Hopping onto the back of a truck, she spoke to a crowd of war protesters that included patients from a nearby military hospital. Beside her on the flatbed truck was a startling assembly of young men on crutches and in wheelchairs. Fonda gave undivided attention to listening to and rapping with these vets, rather than doing Hollywood star turns.

At a time when relatively few Americans spoke up to stop the trail of tears that stretched from Vietnam to Valley Forge Army Hospital, Fonda stood with young men who had sacrificed more than America wanted to face and who weren’t going to stay invisible or quiet any more. The next spring, with Fonda’s financial assistance from college speaking engagements, Vietnam Veterans Against the War staged an encampment on the Mall in Washington, DC, that sparked a fireworks of national news media coverage.

Mounting protests against the war, including from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, in 1971 pushed the Nixon administration into promising to wind down the military campaign in Southeast Asia. That war effort had begun in 1961, when Jane Fonda was a barely known, young actress and Americans had no idea Vietnam would become a war seemingly without end.

When the war finally ended in 1975, most Americans were wearily ready to move on. But Fonda continued her activism on behalf of wounded warriors, starring in “Coming Home,” one of the few Hollywood films to tackle the tangled emotions of severely battered veterans and military wives, before the term post-traumatic stress had officially been formulated.

In that film, released in 1978, Fonda played the standard-issue wife of a Marine officer who comes home from Vietnam in a disillusioned daze that turns into self-destructive disgust. Volunteering at a VA hospital, she meets a paralyzed vet who is furiously antiwar. Her unquestioning support for the war is rattled, as she falls in love with the dissident paraplegic, loosely based on Ron Kovic, a Marine sergeant active in VVAW who led antiwar marches in a wheelchair and memorably told his own story in “Born on the Fourth of July.”

During that still-controversial era of dissent that spilled from the Sixties into the Seventies, Fonda was estranged from her father, actor Henry Fonda, who served in the Navy in World War II, over her antiwar stance. They publically reconciled in doing an old-fashioned family drama film together, “On Golden Pond”—where audiences can see flashes of real-life culture clash in the Fonda clan played out on screen.

The most interesting question to me in the latest culture wars starburst fireworks is: Can an aging Jane Fonda, now 74, handle playing a former Hollywood actress who married a liberal-turned-conservative actor who ended up in the White House—with a rebellious daughter protesting her father’s saber-rattling military policies, which President Reagan eventually changed?

I’d sure like to see how this movie plays out.

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