Jane Fonda and Col. Bud Day have never actually met, but they'll hold a 40th reunion of sorts in Omaha this week.
Fonda, the famed actress, will speak to a packed house today at the Holland Performing Arts Center, becoming the latest star to talk cinema and raise money for Film Streams, the nonprofit movie theater.
Forty years ago this month, Fonda was touring Hanoi as a guest of the North Vietnamese military. There the anti-war protester was infamously photographed peering into the sights of an anti-aircraft gun — a moment she has repeatedly apologized for.
Today, she'll talk about her career and her Omaha roots.
“I know that when I'm in Omaha, my dad (one-time Omahan Henry Fonda) and Aunt Harriet (Peacock) will be there with me,” she said in an email last week. “It will be an emotional time.”
Day, the famed Vietnam War pilot, will speak to an audience at Papillion LaVista High School on Monday night, becoming the second keynote presenter for a new quarterly speakers series run by a local military-focused nonprofit.
Forty years ago this month, Day was a prisoner at the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where he endured nearly six years of captivity and physical abuse as a North Vietnamese prisoner of war.
On Monday, he'll tell his POW story. He'll talk about Jane Fonda, too.
“Obviously I think she has the First Amendment right to speak” in Omaha, Day said of Fonda. “But she also has the right of a citizen to be responsible for her acts and take the criticism, the slings and arrows, that she so justly deserves.”
This quasi-reunion of one-time Vietnam War protester and one-time Vietnam War POW is no coincidence.
When Bill and Evonne Williams, who run Patriotic Productions, a military-focused nonprofit, heard several months ago that Fonda was coming to town, they went searching for a Vietnam-era veteran to speak. They found Day, an 87-year-old native of Sioux City.
Day is known for being the highest-ranking officer to endure the Vietnamese POW camps, where he often was savagely beaten and nearly killed for transgressions such as singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and giving false information to his captors.
“We don't have any particular animosity toward Fonda,” Bill Williams says. “But I'm not a vet, and I wasn't in Vietnam and I wasn't in the Hanoi Hilton. With many Vietnam veterans, there's still this very strong dislike of her, so this is counter-programming to give a voice to that.”
Rachel Jacobson, the director of Film Streams, says she knew that Jane Fonda's appearance would generate a little heat but decided to invite her in part because it's now been four decades since Fonda's trip to Vietnam.
Alexander Payne, the acclaimed Omaha director, saw Fonda speak in Los Angeles last year and was “blown away” by Fonda's easy, humorous manner as she spoke about her movie career.
He wrote a letter inviting Fonda to Film Streams, and she eventually accepted, agreeing to return to the city where her father, the legendary Henry Fonda, acted in plays and where she spent summers as a child visiting her aunt.
The reaction has been mostly positive, Jacobson said — this event will be Film Streams' best attended talk, easily outdistancing appearances by actress Laura Dern and Debra Winger.
But Film Streams also has received several dozen angry calls and emails — many of them from outside Nebraska — and employees have heard rumors of a planned protest.
It's especially frustrating, Jacobson says, because Film Streams has shown several documentaries and hosted public discussions meant to shed light on the heroism, difficulty and tragedy of war. At two such events, VA doctors, chaplains from Offutt Air Force Base and veterans of the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghan wars have discussed post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, known as the signature wound of the post-Sept. 11 wars.
“We're an arts organization dedicated to film, and she's arguably one of the most important actresses of the 20th century,” Jacobson said of Fonda. “It's really hard to argue that she shouldn't be invited to celebrate film as an art form. We thought we had a pretty good — and I think we still do have a pretty good — justification to have her. And that has nothing to do with her controversial history.”
The controversial history in question began in July 1972, when Fonda took a two-week tour of Vietnam and was first tagged with the derisive nickname “Hanoi Jane.”
She toured villages, hospitals and schools and gave speeches in which she espoused a fairly mainline anti-war view — namely, that the Vietnam War was unjust and needed to end.
But Fonda also sat on a North Vietnamese gun, did multiple radio broadcasts that many Americans saw as supportive of the North Vietnamese war effort and later questioned the honesty of American POWs who said they had been abused and tortured in captivity.
Last week, Fonda declined to answer an emailed question from The World-Herald about the trip.
Fonda has met with Vietnam vets and also issued two public apologies in the past dozen years. Those apologies both were focused on her sitting on the anti-aircraft gun and not her other actions during the trip.
In 2000: “I will go to my grave regretting the photograph. . . . It hurt so many soldiers. It galvanized such hostility. It was the most horrible thing I could possibly have done. It was just thoughtless.”
In 2005, she again apologized and called sitting on the gun “a betrayal” that she regretted.
But those apologies don't go far enough, says Day, the Vietnam POW. Other stars of the anti-war movement, like folk singer Joan Baez, issued unqualified apologies and today are embraced by Vietnam War vets, he said.
“Fonda's aren't honest, it's not a full apology,” he said. “I want her to admit that she committed the lowest criminal act, traitorous acts, and I want her to do it to the American families who lost children in that war.”
Jacobson says it's a bit bewildering that Fonda still generates so much anger some four decades after her North Vietnamese journey.
Jacobson, who is 33 — born six years after U.S. troops left Vietnam — remembers her mother's Jane Fonda workout tape and the classic comedy “9 to 5” starring Fonda and Dolly Parton.
“To me, it's just such a sad story, of veterans coming home, after they had seen horrible things, and then they come back hated and mistreated,” she said. “Somehow she's become a symbol of that, and I just find it unfortunate for everybody, including her. . . . I just want her to come back to Omaha and have a positive time here.”
Vietnam tale is just that ... a tall tale
Local Vietnam veterans often tell a story of Jane Fonda's betrayal of American POWs in Vietnam, a tale that stokes their anger at the actress and anti-war activist four decades after it took place.
There is only one problem with this oft-told tale. It didn't happen.
“It just isn't true,” says Bill Williams, a co-director of Patriotic Productions and an organizer of an event bringing Col. Bud Day, a famed POW, to speak in Omaha a day after Fonda's appearance here.
The CliffsNotes version of the story, which has been mass emailed countless times in dozens of variations, goes like this: Jane Fonda, during her trip to North Vietnam in 1972, visits a group of American POWs in a prison camp. Several secretly pass her notes. She hands these prisoners' notes to their North Vietnamese captors. The American POWs then are beaten savagely — in some versions of the story several die — as a direct result of Fonda's actions.
Except Fonda never visited a POW camp. Instead, she met briefly with seven POWs at a press conference staged by the North Vietnamese. These officials actually encouraged the POWs to pass notes to Fonda to take home to their families, attempting to promote the idea that prisoners were being treated humanely.
All seven have repeatedly denied that they were mistreated as a result of Fonda's visit.
Capt. Mike McGrath, director of Nam-POW, the Vietnam prisoner of war association, has long tried to debunk the myth. The supposedly-beaten POWs never even met Fonda, he has repeatedly written.
McGrath is no fan of Fonda's, but he says the worst thing that happened to POWs during Fonda's visit is that they were forced to listen to her appearances on Vietnamese radio.
“It pissed us off, but I doubt you can call that ‘torture,'” he once wrote. “This is all bullcrap propagated by someone for some unknown purpose.”
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