Jane Fonda: traitor or wartime scapegoat?

By Michael Kenney
July 1, 2010

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Jane Fonda went to North Vietnam in July 1972. Following what had become a well-traveled path for antiwar activists, she visited farms and hospitals, viewed sites destroyed in bombing raids, visited American POWs, and made a number of broadcasts.

She also visited an antiaircraft battery where she was photographed sitting in a gunner’s chair, wearing a helmet, and squinting into a gun sight.

And years later, that won her the derisive, even traitorous, appellation, “Hanoi Jane.’’

Taking that moniker as his title, Jerry Lembcke, a sociology professor at the College of the Holy Cross, argues that “the creation of Hanoi Jane as a betrayal figure may derive less from anything the real Jane Fonda did in Hanoi than from the needs of those who constructed the image and kept it alive.’’ Hanoi Jane was used as a scapegoat, a person to blame for the American defeat in Southeast Asia.

In his previous book, “The Spitting Image,’’ Lembcke argued persuasively that claims of servicemen returning from duty in Vietnam being spat upon by antiwar protestors were more myth than reality.

Here, he faces a more difficult task, for the documentary evidence that was lacking in the spitting charges is all-too present for Fonda’s actions from which she later attempted to distance herself.

Some discussion of the activities of the 300-some other antiwar activists who visited North Vietnam during the war years would have been helpful in providing a context for Fonda’s two visits.

Fonda’s 1972 visit, and a second one two years later with her then-husband Tom Hayden, received relatively little coverage in the mainstream press at the time. It was reported in Stars and Stripes, however, prompting Lembcke to comment that “the ironic fact that Fonda’s words more likely reached US fighters through [its] pages than the enemy’s airwaves greatly dispels the aura of duplicity that decades later surrounds her image as Hanoi Jane.’’

“The idea,’’ he writes, “that [GI’s] innocence was shattered by Fonda’s voice on the camp intercom is itself rather naïve.’’

Thus for Lembcke, the resilience of “Hanoi Jane’’ has more to do with the coining of the name than with the actions that provided a basis for it.

“Hanoi Jane,’’ Lembcke reports, does not appear in the mainstream press until 1978. It only gained wide currency in connection with protests over the filming of the romantic working-class drama “Stanley and Iris’’ in Waterbury, Conn., in 1988.

Lembcke bases his account of the Waterbury connection on interviews with local veterans, including the retired general who takes credit for “having made ‘Hanoi Jane’ the household phrase it is,’’ as well as local antiwar activists.

Lembcke suggests that conservatives and others still angry about Vietnam were happy to be able to point the finger of responsibility at “Hanoi Jane’’ and other liberals for America’s loss.

He serves up a bit of speculative cultural analysis, arguing that being a woman made it easy for these forces to place her in a line of direct descent from other wartime traitors like Mata Hari. Only in this modern incarnation, Fonda also becomes a symbol of a kind of potent, treacherous feminism, combining elements of the erotic warrior she played in the 1968 cult film “Barbarella’’ with the faithless political activist and wily workout-video entrepreneur she would become.

Lembcke leaves his readers on a curious note that suggests the ambiguous nature of the Hanoi Jane myth.

During a television interview in 2005, Lembcke writes, a POW/MIA activist was asked whom she blamed for the American defeat in Vietnam. “I don’t know on whom to place the blame first, the media or the politicians.’’ And she continued: “You know what I mean? The war was lost because liberal Washington insiders and media elites conspired to sell-out the military. You know, Jane Fonda . . . like Hanoi Jane.’’

Michael Kenney, a Cambridge-based freelance writer, can be reached at


War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal

By Jerry Lembcke

University of Massachusetts, 224 pp., paperback, $22.95