Jane Fonda is a true Hollywood legend. Daughter of renowned American actor Henry Fonda, she got her start as a stage actress in the 1950s and quickly graduated into film. She starred in hit after hit throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, including classic films such as Cat Ballou, Klute, The China Syndrome, 9 to 5, and On Golden Pond (which also starred her dad). Fonda won two Oscars for Best Actress, a handful of Golden Globe awards, and even became an at-home exercise titan thanks to her wildly popular Jane Fond’s Workout series. Currently, she stars alongside pal Lily Tomlin in the Netflix hit, Grace and Frankie.
But despite all her Hollywood success, many people remember Jane Fonda, now 82, for her political activism. During the 1960s and ‘70s, she was a fervent supporter of the civil rights movement and deeply opposed to the Vietnam War. Her outspoken opinions and controversial behavior earned her many enemies, and here, we break down everything the actress did to earn her reputation as one of the most hated people of the Vietnam Era.
Previously dubbed a sex symbol for her role in the racy science fiction film Barbarella, Jane Fonda surprised many of her fans with her high-profile political views. In addition to becoming an impassioned feminist, she publicly supported the Black Panthers, a black activist organization that encouraged armed resistance to oppressive white culture. That put Fonda on the U.S. government’s radar and lead to her home being surveilled by the National Security Agency (NSA).
Jane Fonda was also vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War. In 1970, the Fun with Dick and Jane star teamed up with well-known activist Fred Gardner and fellow actor Donald Sutherland to perform a traveling anti-war show called FTA (short for “Free the Army”). That same year, Fonda was arrested for suspicion of drug trafficking on her way home from a speaking tour in Canada, which resulted in her now-infamous mug shot. Despite the fact that the pills were just vitamins, the police still booked her—which Fonda later said was a direct order from the Nixon administration. In 2009, the actress wrote on her website:
I told them what [the pills] were but they said they were getting orders from the White House. I think they hoped this 'scandal' would cause the college speeches to be canceled and ruin my respectability.
Though all charges were dropped when lab tests revealed Fonda was telling the truth about the pills, it was clear she had attracted the ire of some powerful political players. Of course, that didn’t stop her from fighting for what she believed in.
Fonda continued to be an outspoken political activist and is still one to this day. Most recently, the Monster-In-Law star protested the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 and orchestrated Fire Drill Fridays, a series of climate change protests in Washington, D.C., in 2019. The former resulted in her being arrested five times over a period of a few weeks. She was in good company, though—fellow Hollywood activists such as Ted Danson, Catherine Keener, and Sam Waterston were also cuffed during the protests.
But what made Fonda such a despised figure during the Vietnam Era? It was a photo op she participated in during a 1972 visit to North Vietnam. In the picture—which earned her the infamous nickname “Hanoi Jane”—Fonda is seen sitting on an anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi. The photo sparked immediate outrage in the U.S., as it gave the very anti-American impression that Fonda was so opposed to the war that she would shoot down her own country’s planes.
Fonda faced a ton of heat as a result of the unfortunate photo. Lawmakers across the country called for her to be prosecuted for what they believed to be treasonous behavior, and rumors ran rampant that she had betrayed American POWs in North Vietnam (though they were eventually proved to be false). Many of her fans were also incensed by the photo, and Fonda was even blacklisted in Hollywood for a period of time.
Since the “Hanoi Jane” scandal, Fonda has insisted that she meant no disrespect to American soldiers. She’s publicly apologized numerous times and has admitted: “It was my mistake, and I have paid and continue to pay a heavy price for it” in her 2005 memoir, My Life So Far. She’s also said that she continues to make amends with veterans whenever she can.
"Whenever possible I try to sit down with vets and talk with them, because I understand [their anger] and it makes me sad. 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."
But the actress also says that she has no regrets about being an outspoken activist, even though she knows posing for the “Hanoi Jane” photo was a big mistake. “I’m proud I went to Vietnam when I did,” she said in HBO’s 2018 documentary, Jane Fonda In Five Acts. “And proud the bombing of the diked stopped…I’m so sorry that I was thoughtless enough to sit down on that gun at that time, and the message that sends to guys who were there at the time and their families. It’s horrible to think about that.”