By DAN K. THOMASSON
If you wondered what happened to “Hanoi Jane,” she’s alive and well and making a comeback.
The darling of the anti-Vietnam movement who lent her looks, voice and whatever prestige she had as a member of Hollywood’s elite Fonda family of actors to the turbulent protests of the ’60s and ’70s is once again at the head of the march, demonstrating against another president’s plan of action . . . this time in Iraq.
Age, which has been quite kind to her physically, hasn’t seemed to dampen her enthusiasm for confrontation although she has been away from the scene for nearly 40 years and even had earned a measure of respectability in the straight world of God, motherhood and apple pie. If the early Jane is back, can Tom Hayden, her onetime husband and leader of the protest band, be far behind?
The caption under an old picture of Fonda in a recent edition of a national newspaper seemed to reflect this somewhat compassionate view of the new Jane. Everyone has seen the photograph that so angered U.S. men fighting in Vietnam and earned her the unflattering nickname. It shows her in a helmet standing on a North Vietnamese antiaircraft battery in a pose that oozes sympathy for the enemy. The caption of the reprint noted that “many” had found her actions at the time deplorable.
Many? You have to be kidding. Check anyone who served in Vietnam or knew someone who did. Even she conceded years later that it was a mistake. In fact, there were those who equated her with Axis Sally, who broadcast for the Nazis, or the original Tokyo Rose who it turns out was forced to do the same by the Japanese. It is a miracle her career survived. Only overwhelming national anger over that war saved her.
How far we have come since 1941 when the actor Lew Ayres declared himself a consciences objector, explaining that his starring role in the 1930 film of Eric Remarque’s stunning anti-war novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” had left him thoroughly traumatized and opposed to service that required shooting at anyone.
He was the first of his kind in a Hollywood where studios demanded strict adherence by their contract stars to a code of patriotism. Anything less was considered bad for business and would bring instant reprisals. And it did for Ayres, who was shunned by the studio bosses and all but booted out of films. But the quiet, handsome intellectual who had studied to be a doctor more than redeemed himself by serving as an unarmed combat medic, braving enemy fire to save lives on more than several occasions. Young “Dr. Kildare” managed to build a decent career after that.
How unlike today’s Hollywood where film and other personalities are taking a major role in opposing U.S. efforts in Iraq and particularly the president’s latest plan to add more troops to quell the fighting there. This again raises the same question as when Fonda and other movie stars took to the streets for the first time all those years ago. Simply put, why would anyone find Fonda and Susan Sarandon or any other of the actors who took part in last week’s march on Washington any more persuasive than anyone else? They are merely play actors with no real expertise in much of anything that hasn’t been scripted for them.
It was one thing for Ayers to stand up for his principles and put his life on the line without compromising them and quite another to try to convince people as Fonda did the other day that her voice will make a difference so it is time for her to speak out again. Lady, there are any number of Americans who view your first incarnation with loathing and believe, fairly or unfairly, your only credential is that of a traitor. That may be harsh, but others did what you did without lending themselves to the kind of propaganda that provided aid and comfort to the enemy. Being high profile carries responsibilities.
This is not an anti-protest diatribe. Actors are people we love to watch and they have the same rights as anyone else to express their sentiments. But we should understand that playing a part does not qualify them to fill the same role in real life nor does it imbue them with a special understanding beyond that of the average American. Only a very small handful of them have managed to accomplish that.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)