When the actor Jane Fonda was arrested in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 11, during a demonstration for action on climate change, it was part of a long history of activism by the actor.
Fonda’s activism also made news last year, with the debut of a documentary about the subject — as well as when then-Today host Megyn Kelly called out the actor for an infamous moment in her past, one that has a complicated backstory.
The feud between Kelly and Fonda began in September of 2017, when Fonda appeared on NBC’s Today show to talk to Kelly about her film, Our Souls at Night. During the appearance, Fonda shut down the host for asking about her history with cosmetic surgery. Fonda has since criticized Kelly for bringing up plastic surgery that day, saying in a January 2018 interview with Variety that Kelly’s question showed “she’s not that good an interviewer.” Fonda also joked about Kelly during an appearance on Today in early 2018, when her Grace & Frankie costar Lily Tomlin made a crack about knowing Fonda before her “first facelift.”
Kelly added fuel to the fire Jan. 22, 2018, in an on-air monologue, saying she is not “in the market for a lesson from Jane Fonda on what is and is not appropriate.” She then attacked Fonda for her history as a Vietnam War protester, bringing the actor’s patriotism into question. “After all, this is a woman who is synonymous with outrage. Look at her treatment of our military during the Vietnam War. Many of our veterans still call her ‘Hanoi Jane’ thanks to her radio broadcasts which attempted to shame American troops,” she said.
Kelly dug into this part of Fonda’s past, as well as her refusal to discuss plastic surgery, for more than three minutes on Today.
“By the way, [Fonda] still says she’s ‘not proud’ of America,” Kelly said. “So the moral indignation is a little much. She put her plastic surgery out there. She said she wanted to discuss the plight of older women in America. And honestly, she has no business lecturing anyone on what qualifies as offensive.”
The past to which Kelly referred can be traced back to 1972, at which point the Vietnam War had been raging for roughly a decade.
Amid what was widely perceived as a lack of progress in the war, its continuation prompted widespread protests in the U.S. It was around that time that Fonda focused her political activism solely on the antiwar movement. By that point, she was a prominent movie star, renowned for her performances in critically acclaimed films like Klute, Barefoot in the Park, Barbarella and They Shoot Horses Don’t They? Having worked on behalf of Native Americans and the Black Panthers in the 1960s, Fonda dove into protesting the Vietnam War, first with the formation of the “Free Army Tour” (FTA) with actor Donald Sutherland in 1970. FTA was an anti-war show designed to contrast Bob Hope’s USO tour, touring military bases on the West Coast and talking to soldiers before they were deployed to Vietnam.
In 1972, Fonda went on to tour North Vietnam in a controversial trip would come to be the most famous — or infamous — part of her activist career, and led to her the nickname “Hanoi Jane.” While in Vietnam, Fonda appeared on 10 radio programs to speak out against the U.S. military’s policy in Vietnam and beg pilots to cease bombing non-military targets. It was during that trip that a photograph was taken of her seated on an anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi, making it look like she would shoot down American planes.
At the time, Fonda’s public criticisms of U.S. leadership caused massive outrage among American officials and war veterans. According to the Washington Post, some lawmakers saw her protests as treasonous, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars called for Fonda to be tried as a traitor. At one point, the Maryland state legislature considered banning her and her films from the state.
On the other hand, the antiwar feeling Fonda came to embody was relatively widespread among the American population at the time, and, as filmmaker Lynn Novick put it in discussing recent documentary series The Vietnam War, some veterans “think she was courageous for going to Hanoi and taking a stand even though they didn’t agree with everything she had to say.” More recent scholarship has also emphasized the ways in which the idea of “Hanoi Jane” has grown far beyond Fonda’s actual actions during that tumultuous period.
Since then, Fonda has apologized repeatedly for the “Hanoi Jane” photo, and clarified that her actions during the Vietnam War were in protest of the U.S. government and not against soldiers. She addressed the photo in her 2005 memoir My Life So Far:
Nearly a half-century later, some veterans still aren’t pleased with Fonda’s actions in 1972. In 2015, about 50 veterans protested her appearance at the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick, Md., holding signs that said, “Forgive? Maybe. Forget? Never.”
Fonda told the crowd she tries to maintain open conversations with veterans, according to the Frederick News-Post.
“Whenever possible I try to sit down with vets and talk with them, because I understand and it makes me said,” she said. “It hurts me and it will to my grave that I made a huge, huge mistake that made a lot of people think I was against the soldiers.”