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Did Jane Fonda Betray US POWs by Handing Over Secret Messages to Their NVA Captors?

Jane Fonda, yes, that’s the Jane Fonda of Hollywood stardom, decided to take the opportunity to travel to a war-torn Vietnam in the 70s and advocate for peace.

While there she met with seven US POWs wheeled out for a meet and greet session with the visiting celebrity.

On shaking their hands, each man secreted her a tiny piece of paper with their name and service number to take home. At the end of the meeting, Jane supposedly turned around and promptly handed over the seven secret notes to the North Vietnamese guards.

That is how the story goes…but did she or didn’t she?

There is ample evidence to suggest that this story is as far-fetched as it sounds, including the testimony of the pilots involved. Although this tale has been disproved as a myth, it is a myth that has snowballed overtime and continues to plague Ms Fonda to this day.

It has been perpetuated in part by Vietnam veterans who firmly believe her to be guilty of treason and continued still by those who weren’t even alive when the conflict ended. There remains in some an absolute hatred of the woman whose anti-war stance and vocal disapproval of the conduct of the US government.

The Fonda family.
Jane Fonda seen here with her father Henry and her brother Peter Fonda in the 1950s

The Early Life of Jane Fonda

But how and why did this successful Hollywood starlet end up entangled in a heinous accusation of treason against her own nation? Actor, model, singer, dancer turned political activist, a young Jane became swept up in the 1960s counterculture, eventually undertaking a 2 week tour of North Vietnam in July 1972 in order to spread the anti-war sentiment which she shared with many other young Americans and celebrities of the day including Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Muhammad Ali, Gregory Peck and Donald Sutherland to name a few.

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To put this and the other accusations levelled against her into context we first need to understand a little more about the young Jane Fonda.

Born in 1937 to a hugely successful actor, Henry Fonda and his wealthy but troubled wife Frances Ford Seymour, Jane would later describe her relationship with her father in an interview with The Guardian to be a troubled one.

Henry Fonda decided to enlist in the US Navy in November 1942 to fight during World War Two leaving a 5-year-old Jane, her younger brother Peter and his wife behind. He went to sign up with the words, “I don’t want to be in a fake war in a studio.” On his return he took a break from acting before resuming his career again with great success but his marriage wasn’t a happy one.


Henry Fonda
Jane’s father, Henry, was a huge film star and a WW2 veteran. He served in the US Navy.

It was not until 1949 that Henry Fonda requested a divorce from Jane’s mother Frances, with the intention of marrying his then mistress, a young Susan Blanchard.

The Fondas, who by this time had been married for thirteen years, had apparently struggled to achieve a connection. Frances Seymour, who had been struggling with her own mental health, had been in and out of institutions causing Jane to feel like her mother was absent much of the time.

Jane would later go on to identify her mother’s struggles as what we would now term ‘bipolar’ disorder. Unfortunately, Frances committed suicide in April 1950 whilst receiving treatment, approximately 3 -4 months after Fonda had asked her for a divorce. Jane was just 12 years old.

By December 1950 a newly widowed Henry Fonda had married 21-year-old Susan Blanchard. Henry Fonda was married a total of 5 times throughout his life and we can only assume that this may have had some impact on Jane and explains her much later activism in the areas of women’s rights and her attitudes towards men.

Jane described her father as “ someone who had a hard time expressing his feelings and his emotions.” Though, she insightfully attributes this to be a typical trait of his generation, Jane made it very clear in an article in 2016 that she ‘adored’ her father and felt him to be a good man.

Why Vietnam?

Despite this admiration of her father, Jane herself attributes her actions over the Vietnam war in part to Henry Fonda. Explaining that many of his film choices influenced her.

When Jane was growing up, Henry Fonda starred in movies such as 12 Angry Men and The Grapes of Wrath, portraying characters who extolled a strong sense of justice and as Jane describes who, “fought for the underdog.”

Henry Fonda’s issues with being emotionally remote meant that his daughter was eager to gain his approval. She saw his passion for these roles and wanted him to be as moved by her own actions and performances.

This may have fuelled her desire to be a part of something bigger and more important in the same way her dad had felt when he left to sign up for the US Navy.

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But this is mere conjecture on our part. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review in 2018, Jane explains the origin of her interest in the Vietnam conflict in her own words. By that time, she was already a celebrated Hollywood actress in her own right and aged 30, she was pregnant and living in France.

Confined to her bed due to pregnancy complications, she found herself with little else to do besides watch the situation in Vietnam unfold. At this time, Jane described herself as a “sponge” soaking up all this information and finding the motivations of the Nixon administration decidedly suspicious, she became determined to investigate and took matters into her own hands.

Jane Fonda had a huge distrust of President Nixon. Nixon is seen here shaking the hand of a US soldier in South Vietnam.

Fonda became a vocal Vietnam protestor initially partaking in tours of US military towns and speaking on university campuses with the feeling that she knew more than most American civilians about life on the front line for American soldiers.

She writes of this time on her website, “I cared deeply for the men and boys who had been put in harms way. I wanted to stop the killing and bring our servicemen home.” She goes on to explain how she discovered soldiers were being lied to about the reasons behind this conflict, the longest in US history besides Afghanistan.

In 1972, armed with her camera, Fonda set off on a 14 day tour of North Vietnam to explore the damage caused to dykes allegedly by secretly planned US bombings, something which the US government vehemently denies to this day.

Whilst there she visited towns and villages, and broadcast a series of radio programmes denouncing US leadership and the actions of the US military. Her mission was to draw Western attention to supposed injustices perpetrated by US soldiers and to ultimately end the war.

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Her approach was formed partly by what she had seen in the media but also by her own view of ‘maleness’ which she describes eloquently in her 2018 interview, “One of the reasons the Vietnam War was prolonged, even when presidents and their advisers knew we could not win it, was because the men felt they would lose their masculinity if they pulled out. I jokingly call it “premature evacuation.”

She later stresses that there is a marked distinction between being anti-war and anti-soldier and though this is correct, her approach meant that this distinction became blurred in the minds of many. What did Jane Fonda hope to achieve by addressing individual soldiers so directly? was she hoping to cause a military coup?

Was she hoping that US soldiers would be so enlightened by her message that they would suddenly lay down their arms, walk to the nearest airport and demand a flight home? That they’d be content to return home and be labelled deserters?

The Making of Hanoi Jane

Despite many trips to Northern Vietnam conducted by other officials, journalists and anti-war campaigners, none received the same media attention as Jane Fonda’s. She was followed avidly by both local and Western news teams and this attention led to the full and unavoidable coverage of an event which would place a dark cloud over the actor for the rest of her career.

The incident in question was not only photographed but documented on film leaving a 30-year-old Jane Fonda scrabbling to get out of the very large and controversial hole in which she had dug herself.

Fonda NVA
‘Hanoi Jane’ said she regretted sitting on the NVA anti-aircraft gun.

Jane Fonda has apologised for the incident profusely on a number of occasions since the photograph of her sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun was released. In an interview in 1988 she famously made this statement, “I will go to my grave regretting the photograph of me on 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.” She claims that it was unintentional, that she didn’t realise what was happening at the time.

This may be true but the film footage does make this explanation harder to swallow. It shows a smiling Jane, watching a Vietnamese soldier manoeuvering the gun before she walks towards it and takes a seat seemingly handling the controls herself. Looked on by smiling Vietnamese soldiers. It doesn’t paint a forgiving picture.

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Unfortunately, in the Jane Fonda of the 1970s there existed a combination of well-intentioned naivety and political fervour to spread a message of peace. A fundamentally good message, let’s not forget that.

But this action did catastrophic and lasting damage not only to Jane personally, earning her the nickname Hanoi Jane but also to the anti-war movement of the time playing right into the hands of the US pro-war propagandists, and led for calls from veterans to have her tried and branded a traitor even to the present day.

Jane Fonda
Jane Fonda at an anti-Vietnam War conference in the Netherlands in 1975.

For a supposed anti-war activist to put herself in this position seems decidedly foolish, she claimed her aim was to end war, so we must beg the question, why would you go near any weapon of violence on any side of the conflict, and indeed, one which is in place to target US planes?

Even if this was a clever ploy by the North Vietnamese the magnanimity of this error cannot be understated.

As much as many might like to believe Jane to be sincere in her apologies, it is difficult for some US citizens to accept this when her apologies have often occurred synonymously with interferences to her filming schedule planned by still furious vets, or ahead of her new releases.

So, did Jane Fonda betray US POWs by handing over messages to their North Vietnamese captors? Most likely not. However, her celebrity status, her position as a woman in 1970s America and her very public protest which became a media fiasco has left doubt in the minds of many, and though Jane Fonda has always been an active person who has and still does to this day fight for many, many good causes, this incident has gone down in history and history cannot be rewritten.