Blogs > Cliopatria > Rick Perlstein: Review of Mary Hershberger's Jane Fonda’s War: A Political Biography of an Anti-war Icon

Nov 13, 2005 12:22 am

Rick Perlstein: Review of Mary Hershberger's Jane Fonda’s War: A Political Biography of an Anti-war Icon

You don’t know America if you don’t know the Jane Fonda cult. Or rather, the anti-Fonda cult. At places where soldiers or former soldiers congregate, there’ll be stickers of her likeness on the urinals; one is an invitation to symbolic rape: Fonda in her 1980s ‘work-out’ costume, her legs splayed, pudenda at the bulls-eye. Every night at lights-out midshipmen at the US Naval Academy cry out ‘Goodnight, bitch!’ in her honour. They’ve learned, Carol Burke writes in her study of military folklore, Camp All-American, Hanoi Jane and the High-and-Tight, what you learn at all the service academies: ‘that being a real warrior and hating Jane Fonda are synonymous.’* When Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial was built on the Washington Mall, well-organised veterans who criticised it as the ‘gook monument’ – Lin is Chinese-American – were allowed to open their own kiosks nearby. These became the cult’s temples, the places to buy its sacraments and phylacteries; bumper stickers, for example, saying ‘Jane Fonda: John Kerry with Tits’. Phyllis Schlafly and Tom Wolfe have both described the memorial wall as a ‘monument to Jane Fonda’.

A set of urban legends has sprung up around her visit to Hanoi in the summer of 1972: a prisoner of war, ordered by his captors to describe his ‘lenient and humane’ treatment to the visiting actress, spat on her instead and was beaten almost into blindness; prisoners secretly gave her their social security numbers to prove their existence to the outside world – Fonda turned the numbers over to their captors and men were supposed to have died from the beatings that followed. The reliability of such tales is suggested by a piece that appeared in the Washington Times, a right-wing daily, in 1989: a former pow, Air Force Major Fred Cherry, recalled Fonda’s voice ringing out over the prison public address system during an ‘extended torture siege’ in 1967. Fonda didn’t speak out against the war until 1970.

The cult matured in the 1980s when America finally began to accept that it had lost a war which hadn’t been worth fighting in the first place. This was around the time Ronald Reagan observed: ‘Boy, I saw Rambo last night. Now I know what to do next time this happens.’ The moment had come to fix the blame where it properly belonged: not on Lyndon Johnson, not on Richard Nixon, but, as Burke points out, on the oldest story in the world, ‘the seductive woman who turns out to be a snake’.

Last year, the Fonda cult allowed thousands, even millions of anguished veterans and their sympathisers to hold onto their shaky faith in American innocence, while acting as the conduit for the character assassination of the Democratic presidential candidate. ‘They’re the men who served with John Kerry in Vietnam,’ the announcer said in the notorious TV commercial produced by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. ‘And they’re the men who spent years in North Vietnamese prison camps. Tortured for refusing to confess what John Kerry accused them of . . . of being war criminals.’ The tropes come straight from the Fonda mythology. A doctored photograph was circulated (it showed up in several newspapers) showing Kerry on a speakers’ platform with Fonda. The picture was found to be a fake, but the association had already been planted. ‘John Kerry with Tits’: five syllables full of implications for the politics of gender, power and anxiety in America.

In Jane Fonda’s War Mary Hershberger does a good job of describing how this state of affairs came about. The story begins with an apolitical young woman whose anti-Communist convictions were so conventional that in 1959 she accepted the ceremonial title of ‘Miss Army Recruiter’. A budding Method-trained actress, the daughter of an American icon, she fell in love with Roger Vadim, the Nouvelle Vague’s ‘pope of hedonism’, and assumed the particularly confining public role of sexually liberated woman. Thanks to Vadim’s productions, her naked image was consumed like no other American actress’s – in one case eight storeys high, on a billboard over a Broadway theatre promoting 1964’s Circle of Love. Barbarella (1968), starring Fonda as an instantly available space nymph, was pornography in all but name. The poster, the New York Times Saigon bureau chief A.J. Langguth later recalled, ‘was a favourite GI pin-up’.

In 1965 the pin-up shot a movie in Louisiana, during which the (racially mixed) cast received death threats. She saw the 1967 Pentagon protest on TV while living in Paris: ‘I watched women walking up to the bayonets that were surrounding the Pentagon and they were not afraid. It was the soldiers who were afraid. I will never forget that experience. It completely changed me.’ She watched the Tet Offensive unfold, and like many Americans, finally understood how badly she’d been lied to about Vietnam. She read. She gave birth to Vadim’s child, then separated from him and returned to the US to make They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? She decided to stay. By the spring of 1969 – they called it ‘finding yourself’ back then – she took off for a Wanderjahr around the country, and made university campuses and anti-war GI coffee houses the bases of her itinerary....

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