Jane Fonda and POWs: One Out of Three

Another Myth of Women's History

Jane Fonda at press conference on returning from North Vietnam
Jane Fonda at press conference on returning from North Vietnam. Santi Visalli/Getty Images

They started coming in the winter of 1999: emails asking me to "do something" about the book, written by Barbara Walters, already published and the basis of a television special reviewed on this site: 100 Women of the Century.

(I've never been clear how one "does something" about a book that's already been published and sold. I don't think these people really wanted to seize and destroy all copies, did they?)

The protest was over the inclusion of Jane Fonda in the book and special. I'd quoted Fonda in my review, this way:

Who did Jane Fonda say popped into her mind as the most influential woman of the century? Coco Chanel! Fonda explains: "And here's why: She freed us from the corset."

Frankly, I thought anyone reading that quote was likely to come away with this conclusion: Jane Fonda was not exactly the brainiest commentator on the history of women in the 20th century, and not exactly a prime candidate for selection as one of the 100 most influential women of the century!

But, I guess because I included Jane Fonda in that review, these Jane Fonda emails started to pour in. There are fewer of them now, though they continue to come, and unfortunately I suspect I'll get more after publishing this article, from correspondents who don't read carefully.

An example of one I received, after writing the above words, from a Carl R. Brucker, includes these words:

How can a woman who patronized the Vietnamese Army during war time be honored? You media publicicts need to have your heads examined and your patriotism questioned, maybe even your citizenship!

What upset these writers so much? Here's the email that they sent to me - it's also reproduced in many places on the web:

Jane Fonda is being honored as one of the "100 Women of the Century." Unfortunately, many have forgotten and still countless others have never known how Ms. Fonda betrayed not only the idea of our country, but specific men who served and sacrificed during Vietnam. Part of my conviction comes from personal exposure to those who suffered her attentions.
The first part of this is from an F-4E pilot. The pilot's name is Jerry Driscoll, a River Rat. In 1968, the former Commandant of the USAF Survival School was a POW in Ho Lo Prison — the "Hanoi Hilton." Dragged from a stinking cesspit of a cell, cleaned, fed, and dressed in clean PJs, he was ordered to describe for a visiting American "Peace Activist" the "lenient and humane treatment" he'd received. He spat at Ms. Fonda, and was clubbed and dragged away. During the subsequent beating, he fell forward upon the camp Commandant's feet, which sent that officer berserk. In '78, the AF Col still suffered from double vision (which permanently ended his flying days) from the Vietnamese Col's frenzied application of a wooden baton.
Col Larry Carrigan was in the 47FW/DO (F-4Es). He spent 6 years in the "Hilton" — the first three of which he was "missing in action". His wife lived on faith that he was still alive. His group, too, got the cleaned/fed/clothed routine in preparation for a "peace delegation" visit. They, however, had time and devised a plan to get word to the world that they still survived. Each man secreted a tiny piece of paper, with his SSN on it, in the palm of his hand. When paraded before Ms. Fonda and a camera man, she walked the line, shaking each man's hand and asking little encouraging snippets like: "Aren't you sorry you bombed babies?" and "Are you grateful for the humane treatment from your benevolent captors?" Believing this HAD to be an act, they each palmed her their slivers of paper. She took them all without missing a beat. At the end of the line and once the camera stopped rolling, to the shocked disbelief of the POWs, she turned to the officer in charge... and handed him the little pile of papers. Three men died from the subsequent beatings. Col Carrigan was almost number four. But he survived... which is the only reason we know about her actions that day.
I was a civilian economic development advisor in Vietnam, and was captured by the North Vietnamese communists in South Vietnam in 1968 and held for over 5 years. I spent 27 months in solitary confinement, one year in a cage in Cambodia, and one year in a "black box" in Hanoi. My North Vietnamese captors deliberately poisoned and murdered a female missionary, a nurse in a leprosarium in Ban me Thuot, South Vietnam, whom I buried in the jungle near the Cambodian border. At one time I weighed approximately 90 lbs — my normal weight is 170 lbs. We were Jane Fonda's "war criminals." When Jane Fonda was in Hanoi, I was asked by the camp communist political officer if I would be willing to meet with Jane Fonda. I said yes, that I would like to tell her about the real treatment we POWs were receiving, which was far different from the treatment purported by the North Vietnamese, and parroted by Jane Fonda, as "humane and lenient." Because of this, I spent three days on a rocky floor on my knees with outstretched arms with a large amount of steel placed on my hands, and beaten with a bamboo cane every time my arms dipped. I had the opportunity to meet with Jane Fonda for a couple of hours after I was released. I asked her if she would be willing to debate me on TV. She did not answer me.
This does not exemplify someone who should be honored as part of "100 Years of Great Women." Lest we forget..."100 Years of Great Women" should never include a traitor whose hands are covered with the blood of so many patriots. There are few things I have strong visceral reactions to, but Hanoi Jane's participation in blatant treason is one of them.
Please take the time to forward to as many people as you possibly can. It will eventually end up on her computer and she needs to know that we will never forget.

For starters: any email that says "Please take the time to forward to as many people as you possibly can" is probably at best an exaggeration, at worst an outright scam. (I always check similar emails at http://urbanlegends.about.com before passing them along, and I check out allegations of viruses at http://antivirus.about.com as well. Most of those panicked "forward this everywhere" emails are hoaxes or long-expired petitions.)

Checking It Out

When I started getting these Jane Fonda emails, I forwarded one to David Emery, About's Guide to Urban Legends. David carefully checked out the stories in the Jane Fonda email, and discovered that the first two are false — the ones where servicemen actually died. I repeat — those stories have been debunked, and their falsehood confirmed by the supposed sources of the stories. The last one — where a serviceman was beaten because he said he'd meet with Jane Fonda and tell her honestly about conditions in a POW camp — is confirmed as true, but did not involve Fonda's direct action at all.

It's fascinating, though, to see how persistent these Jane Fonda legends remain, despite the attempts of David's site and others to debunk them.

I vividly remember Jane Fonda's trip to North Vietnam, as reported in the media. I remember proponents and opponents of the war alike finding her actions distasteful, ill-thought-out, and profoundly disrespectful of Americans serving in Vietnam.

But I certainly didn't think that her act would generate such energy nearly thirty years later.

When I wrote the review of Barbara Walters' book in 1999, I thought that including Jane Fonda as one of the most influential women of the twentieth century was rather silly, an example of the preference for entertainers that Walters showed in her selections. Barbara Walters included several women even more notorious than Jane Fonda: Madame Mao and Leni Riefenstahl, for instance. The book was about influential and important women — not simply wonderful women who should be held up as role models. Walters says in the book that she included Fonda for her contribution to bringing exercise into wide practice among women — not for her political views! Nevertheless, I didn't think Jane Fonda deserved inclusion as one of the 100 most influential women of the century.

But the persistence of this Jane Fonda email, and the clear passion of the many who continue to distribute it and who continue to believe that Jane Fonda should be tried for treason for her trip to North Vietnam, have convinced me otherwise. Jane Fonda is influential far beyond what I'd thought, if she can continue to generate this level of activity!

The whole story on this email legend and why the first two-thirds is not believable: 'Hanoi Jane' Rumors Blend Fact and Fiction


As of this writing, several years after first publishing this article, the waves of distribution of the Jane Fonda email have diminished somewhat. Perhaps this article has been able to play a part in getting people to think more carefully about an issue that carries a lot of emotional weight. But whenever Jane Fonda is in the news, the erroneous emails return.

To use the example of Mr. Brucker, whose email I excerpted on page 1 of this article: He's still apparently convinced that I'm "honoring" Fonda despite reading an earlier version of this article, failing to understand the difference between writing about someone and "honoring" them (or still being confused about the difference between myself and the author of a book I mentioned). Worse than his misunderstanding is the implication that anyone who publishes something about Fonda may need to have their citizenship questioned. What an insult to those people who have served in America's military, thinking they were doing so to promote a free society, in which dissent is possible, and certainly where the writing about a controversy isn't reasonable grounds for challenging one's citizenship or patriotism. What's next? Burn Barbara Walter's book, bringing to mind Fahrenheit 451? Burn Barbara Walters, bringing to mind medieval witch hunts or the Inquisition?

I wish I could say that Mr. Brucker's tirade was unusual, and indeed some correspondents do read and write more carefully and without advocating closing down free speech. But unfortunately, too many seem to have difficulty understanding two major points:

  • (a) listing several people as "influential" is not necessarily an honor, much less mentioning that a book listed someone as influential; and in this case the continuing venom only demonstrates Fonda's continued influence; and
  • (b) even if someone did honor Fonda for her other achievements, proposing to punish disagreement with the author's perspective by removing a writer's citizenship or shooting the writer is not exactly in keeping with the reasons that many served bravely in America's wars.

On the other hand — whether Jane Fonda's actions in North Vietnam fall into the realm of "treason" is still a matter of debate. The 2002 book Aid and Comfort: Jane Fonda in North Vietnam, by attorneys Henry Mark Holzer and Erika Holzer (compare prices) comes down on the side of "yes."

Fonda's had few defenders recently — her fitness videos of the 1970s and 1980s (compare prices) have largely been replaced by newer videos by new fitness gurus, and Thomas Kiernan's 1982 biography, Jane Fonda: Heroine for Our Time (compare prices), is out of print.

Barbara Walters' 1998 book, 100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century (compare prices), in which Jane Fonda plays a minor role, is still a readable if light version of 20th century women's history, in which celebrities play a disproportionate role and which includes a few women who were influential but not exactly positive role models (Madame Mao and Leni Riefenstahl, for instance).

A Later Update

This story has unfolded over many years. I get far fewer emails now — because the email has morphed since the 2008 election into a story about Barack Obama instead of me co-writing this book with Barbara Walters. I think I should be honored to be transformed into a President. Don't believe that Obama is responsible for this, either. It's you who will look ignorant.