TRUE: During a 1972 trip to North Vietnam, Jane Fonda propagandized on behalf of the North Vietnamese government, declared that American POWs were being treated humanely and condemned U.S. soldiers as "war criminals" and later denounced them as liars for claiming they had been tortured.
FALSE: Jane Fonda handed over to their captors the slips of paper POWs pressed upon her.
The most prominent example of a clash between private citizen protest and governmental military policy in recent history occurred in July 1972, when actress Jane Fonda arrived in Hanoi, North Vietnam, and began a two-week tour of the country conducted by uniformed military hosts. Aside from visiting villages, hospitals, schools, and factories, Fonda also posed for pictures in which she was shown applauding North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gunners, was photographed peering into the sights of an NVA anti-aircraft artillery launcher, and made ten propagandistic Tokyo Rose-like radio broadcasts in which she denounced American political and military leaders as "war criminals." She also spoke with eight American POWs at a carefully arranged "press conference," POWS who had been tortured by their North Vietnamese captors to force them to meet with Fonda, deny they had been tortured, and decry the American war effort. Fonda apparently didn't notice (or care) that the POWs were delivering their lines under duress or find it unusual the she was not allowed to visit the prisoner-of-war camp (commonly known as the "Hanoi Hilton") itself. She merely went home and told the world that "[the POWs] assured me they were in good health. When I asked them if they were brainwashed, they all laughed. Without exception, they expressed shame at what they had done." She did, however, charge that North Vietnamese POWs were systematically tortured in American prison-of-war camps.
To add insult to injury, when American POWs finally began to return home (some of them having been held captive for up to nine years) and describe the tortures they had endured at the hands of the North Vietnamese, Jane Fonda quickly told the country that they should "not hail the POWs as heroes, because they are hypocrites and liars." Fonda said the idea that the POWs she had met in Vietnam had been tortured was "laughable," claiming: "These were not men who had been tortured. These were not men who had been starved. These were not men who had been brainwashed." The POWs who said they had been tortured were "exaggerating, probably for their own self-interest," she asserted. She told audiences that "Never in the history of the United States have POWs come home looking like football players. These football players are no more heroes than Custer was. They're military careerists and professional killers" who are "trying to make themselves look self-righteous, but they are war criminals according to law."
Were Jane Fonda's actions treason, or were they the exercise of a private citizen's right to freedom of speech? At the time, the legal aspects of this question were moot: President Nixon was engaged in trying to wind down American involvement in Vietnam and had to face another election in a few months, so politically he had far more to lose than to gain by making a martyr out of a prominent anti-war activist. (No requirement in either the Constitution or federal law states that the U.S. must be engaged in a declared war, or any war at all, before charges of treason can be brought against an individual.)
On the one hand, Jane Fonda provided no tangible military assistance to the North Vietnamese: she divulged no military secrets, she gave them no money or material, and she did not interfere with the operations of the American forces. Her actions, offensive as they were to many, were primarily of propaganda value only. On the other hand, Iva Ikuko Toguri (also known as "Tokyo Rose") was convicted of treason for making propaganda broadcasts on behalf of the Japanese during World War II (although she claimed her betrayal was forced and was eventually pardoned many years later by President Gerald Ford), and Fonda's efforts could fall under the definition of "giving aid and comfort to the enemy." It is also undeniable that some American soldiers came to harm as a direct result of Fonda's actions, an outcome she should reasonably have anticipated.
The most serious accusations in the piece quoted above — that Fonda turned over slips of paper furtively given her by American POWS to the North Vietnamese and that several POWs were beaten to death as a result — are proveably untrue. Those named in the inflammatory e-mail categorically deny the events they supposedly were part of.
"It's a figment of somebody's imagination," says Ret. Col. Larry Carrigan, one of the servicemen mentioned in the 'slips of paper' incident. Carrigan was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967 and did spend time in a POW camp. He has no idea why the story was attributed to him, saying, "I never met Jane Fonda."
The tale about a defiant serviceman who spit at Jane Fonda and is severely beaten as a result is often attributed to Air Force pilot Jerry Driscoll. He has repeatedly stated on the record that it did not originate with him.
The story about a POW forced to kneel on rocky ground while holding a piece of steel rebar in his outstretched arms is true, though. That account comes from Michael Benge, a civilian advisor captured by the Viet Cong in 1968 and held as a POW for 5 years. His original statement, titled "Shame on Jane," was published in April by the Advocacy and Intelligence Network for POWs and MIAs.
The unknown author of the "Hanoi Jane" e-mail appears to have picked up Benge's story online and combined it with fabricated tales to create the forwarded text. Some versions now circulate with Benge's name listed; others quote his statement anonymously.
In fact, Fonda carried home letters from many American POWs to their families upon her return from North Vietnam, and rumors that a POW was beaten to death when he refused to meet with her were nothing more than rumors. Still, legally treasonous or not, Jane Fonda's actions merit the contempt felt towards her, and her inclusion in ABC's 30 April 1999 "A Celebration: 100 Years of Great Women" rightly angered many who failed to see what was so "great" about this woman. She didn't go to North Vietnam to try to bring about peace or to reconcile the two warring sides or to stop American boys from being killed; she went there as an active show of support for the North Vietnamese cause. She lauded the North Vietnamese military and citizens while she denounced American soldiers as "war criminals" and urged them to stop fighting, she lobbied to cut off all American economic aid to the South Vietnamese government even after the Paris Peace Accords ended U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, and she publicly thanked the Soviets for providing assistance to the North Vietnamese. And she did all this not as a reckless youth who rashly spouted ill-considered opinions now best forgotten, but as a 34-year-old adult who should be expected to bear full responsibility for her actions.
In 1988, sixteen years after denouncing American soldiers as war criminals and tortured POWs as possessed of overactive imaginations, Fonda met with Vietnam veterans to apologize for her actions. It's interesting to note that this nationally-televised apology (during which she attempted to minimize her actions by characterizing them as "thoughtless and careless") came at a time when New England vets were successfully disrupting a film project she was working on. It's also interesting that not only was this apology delivered sixteen years after the fact, but it has not been offered again since. More than a few have read a huge dollop of self-interest into Fonda's 1988 apology. (Finally, in an interview in 2000, almost thirty years after the fact, Fonda admitted: "I will go to my grave regretting the photograph of me in an anti-aircraft carrier, 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.")
Whether the war was right or wrong, those who risked (and gave) their lives fighting it deserve respect, and for Fonda to brand men who were held captive and tortured as "liars" and "hypocrites" (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) in order to defend her political views was and is unpardonable.
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