Being Jane Fonda

A good friend of Medic has reviewed a book on the actress Jane Fonda. During the war Fonda was among three hundred anti-war activists who traveled to Hanoi. A popular story that she turned smuggled messages from U.S. POWs over to their captors and caused them to be tortured is untrue; the identified POWs have refuted the claim. It is true that later in life Fonda apologized for laughing and clapping with an NVA artillery crew, but maintains her anti-war stance. Although many Vietnam vets regard her with contempt, many do not, including the enduring Vietnam Veterans  Against the War, who first published this article in 2010.

Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal
By Erin McManus

As with most books, one must be wary of the misleading seduction of covers. Jerry Lembcke’s Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal (University of Massachussets Press) is no exemption. Consisting of two iconic photos of Jane Fonda–one from her role as space-traveling vixen in Barbarella, the other from her notorious trip to Hanoi in 1972–the cover lends itself to the feeling of a Fonda-centered biography. Yet Lembcke has no interest in revealing “the behind the scenes” Jane Fonda. Such an endeavor would be challenging in its own right, but the book takes on something more enigmatic. Instead of writing about the person Jane Fonda, Lembcke’s work is much more a biography of her infamous persona, Hanoi Jane.

Yes, that’s right, it’s that Hanoi Jane, the traitor bitch, the commie slut, the threat to a nation, the woman with "Lembcke, a sociologist at Holy Cross, dedicates a chapter to each of his concepts on the myth of Hanoi Jane."innumerous epithets–emblematic for losing the war–the book is about her. But more than Jane Fonda, it is about how and why she has come to be what she is, immortalized as the symbol of American treachery and betrayal and loss.

Contrary to the received wisdom, Lembcke insists it is not Fonda or her activism so much as American culture–its collective history, its social and political character – that is responsible for crafting her into the myth of America’s villainess responsible for losing the Vietnam war.

This cultural emphasis is what distinguishes Hanoi Jane as a truly unique book with a large vision. However, the reader may find that Lembcke’s meditations on his subject walk a thin line between the insightful, the convoluted–and at least for this reviewer – at times the conspiratorial. He occasionally insinuates the experience of one POW as symbolic of all. Lembcke appears to suggest that front line female NVA/VC were imagined or exaggerated by combat GIs. Lembcke notes the collaboration of Vietnam war POWs with the enemy to gain favored treatment. This phenomenon is well know in Holocaust literature as identification with the aggressor and it is to Lembcke’s credit that he acknowledges these aspects of the POW experience are contrary to popular belief.

The book is adorned with anecdotes, frequent divergences into distant pockets of American history, literature and mythology, which while often thought provoking, seems to amass a lofty cosmology more revealing of the author than of his subject. Further, the critical reader is given the impression that more than once Lembcke makes his multiple theories fit an agenda both factual and ideological. However, before diving into the murky realms of the abstract, Lembcke wisely begins his book on a concrete historical foundation.

Readers are brought back to the scene of the crime, to the era where it all began, describing Fonda’s notorious 1972 trip to Hanoi with skillful pragmatism. Stripping the story from its usual conflation of fact and fiction, Lembcke informs us of how the trip was covered by the media, perceived by the public, and, how it fit into the larger scope of the peace movement altogether. His references to the suppressed documentary FTA, in which Fonda and a troupe of vaudevillians (including Donald Southerland) visited US stateside and Pacific bases to the rousing cheers of anti-war GIs, is much appreciated.

To Lembcke’s credit, his revised history successfully demystifies Fonda, generating a more understated and humane image of her as a political figure. We discover that what Fonda did was noteworthy, but hardly unusual. She merely followed in the footsteps of three hundred activists who had made similar trips to Hanoi before her. Lembcke artfully inspires in readers the right questions. If Fonda’s actions were not exceptional, then why was she so despised by veterans of Vietnam and by large segments of the public? Who are these aforementioned three hundred activists, what did they do and why have their efforts slipped through the cracks of memory? Lembcke answers these questions by first detailing that Fonda’s vilification began several years after the war. Secondly, this vilification helped to mask the efforts of the late Howard Zinn, Father Dan Berrigan and peace activist delegations. Lembcke offers their work, their struggles, and their impact, in Hanoi Jane – exposing as well as filling in a historical gap that may be empty to Americans of various stripes.

Well known for her litany of colorful films and leotards, in the 1970s Fonda was a Vietnam protestor, touring military towns and universities speaking on behalf of the soldiers she felt were wrongly deployed to Vietnam. "I was infuriated as I learned just how much our soldiers were being lied to about why we were fighting in Vietnam and I was anguished each time I would be with a young man who was traumatized by his experiences," Fonda writes on her website. In 1972, Fonda made a trip to North Vietnam where she broadcast 10 radio shows that denounced the U.S. government and military leaders. Her trip became the subject of controversy when a photo surfaced of Fonda sitting in an anti-aircraft battery in Hanoi. Fonda apologized for the incident in a 1988 interview with Barbara Walters, saying, "I will go to my grave regretting the photograph of me in an anti-aircraft gun, which looks like I was trying to shoot at American planes. It hurt so many soldiers. It galvanized such hostility. It was the most horrible thing I could possibly have done. It was just thoughtless." Despite frequent bad press, Fonda continues to insist her actions were always in protest of the U.S. government and not soldiers.  Source:  TIME  June 12, 2012In fact, the attention Lembcke gives to these peace activists may be one of the book’s greater strengths, in that it indicates a generational insight on behalf of the author. For many younger Americans, as with this reviewer, the history of the Vietnam War and the peace movement has been generally left an untouched mystery by America’s educational system.

One is tempted to say that because of these moments of historical reflection, Hanoi Jane is accessible to multiple generations of readers, and that it is a potential teaching tool. But the point of the book is not to address or rectify disparities in our sense of history. Rather, such particulars are only a means to an end, a platform for Lembcke’s multiple, occasionally over-elaborate theories behind the endurance of the Hanoi Jane legacy.

And it is these theories, arriving in all shapes, sizes, degrees of clarity, plausibility and convolution, that both mar and grace the overall narrative, leaving the reader at times satisfied, at other moments bewildered or conflicted.

Lembcke, a sociologist at Holy Cross, dedicates a chapter to each of his concepts on the myth of Hanoi Jane.

Perhaps most troubling is the first, where commonalities are drawn between Vietnam POW narratives and early American captivity narratives to reveal the American fear of the Other. This “fear of the Other,” a simple apprehension to foreign cultures, is no anomaly. Yet Lembcke connects Fonda’s Other status as a female with POW’s fears of becoming the Other (i.e. the enemy), generating a further reason to hold her in low regard. This seems a tenuous argument at best, an example of Lembcke’s tendency to overemphasize the simple.

In a chapter critical to Lembcke’s use of mythology as a means to explain the enduring derision of Fonda, we see her through a tradition of female figures of wartime betrayal, starting from the ancient Greek drama, Lysistrata, to the Mexican legend of Malinche, the female spies of the Civil War, Mata Hari of WWII–all women who used their sexuality as a tool in political duplicity. In essence, Fonda, as Lembcke would have it, fits an already present model of gender dynamics, one that equates duplicity with femininity.

In another chapter, it is Fonda’s rejection of traditional gender roles, casting off Barbarella, and sliding into feminism and activism, that our patriarchal society was not prepared for.

Elsewhere, Lembcke asserts that the working class was resentful of Fonda’s class status, wealth and privilege in  Rev. William Sloane Coffin, right, shakes hands with Lt. Greg Hanson of Thousand Oaks, Calif., as he greets captured American pilots in Hanoi, Vietnam in this Sept. 25, 1972 file photo. Coffin, a former Yale University chaplain known for his peace activism during the Vietnam War and his continuing work for social justice, died Wednesday April 12, 2006 at his home in rural Strafford. He was 81. (AP Photo/Peter Arnett)relation to her political activities. Fonda’s economic independence, her ability to slide into various occupations, activist, actress, capitalist, created resentment amongst those subjected to the draft, who had no cultural or monetary assets to liberate themselves from the fate society designated.

Perhaps most importantly Lembcke shows that Fonda’s demonization was part of a Right Wing effort to reconstruct history, to blame activists for the loss in Vietnam, to deter critical inquiry from incompetent military and elected leadership, and to try to uphold the ideals of America.

Hanoi Jane is an important book, though likely it will find its niche with historians and academics. More precisely, Lembcke’s too often dry academic tone detracts from what is to this day a highly emotionally charged issue and thus limits its appeal to a broader audience. In this regard, it is unfortunate that Lembcke leaves out the notion of war trauma as a significant force behind the reactions of Vietnam veterans to the (myth of) Hanoi Jane. Additionally left out are the voices of Vietnam veterans, and Vietnamese combat veterans and civilians regarding their feelings (and the explanations of such) toward Fonda. On the other hand Lembcke includes the release of  US Special Forces POWs due to the direct negotiations of Fonda and her then husband Tom Hayden with the government of North Vietnam.

In conclusion, this book is significant to our understanding of this time, but it is only one man’s perception, insightful but not wholly objective; it further necessitates, through the case of Jane Fonda, and the Vietnam War, our need to continually reexamine how heroes and heroines in history are made.

Erin McManus is a graduate student at Salem State University. She can be reached at


Vietnam Veterans Against the War

Published on CounterPunch, October 2010

New York Times: Jane Fonda Apologies

Snopes: The POW Story is False

Jane Fonda’s Website/Apology