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Jane Fonda and POWs: One Out of Three [3]

Another Myth of Women's History


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

Update: 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).

More About Myths of Women's History:


Text copyright © 1999-2007 Jone Johnson Lewis .

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