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Fonda Meets With Vets, Wins a Few Hearts, Minds

June 20, 1988|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Bob Genovese helped take down the Jane Fonda bumper sticker that had hung behind the bar of the VFW post in Naugatuck, Conn., until Saturday night.

It said "I'm not Fonda Hanoi Jane" and came off the wall by common agreement after the actress, reviled by many veterans since her 1972 visit to Hanoi at the height of the Vietnam War, won a few hearts and minds in a nearly four-hour meeting with about 25 former servicemen at a church Saturday night.

Fonda's encounter with veterans who have been protesting her plans to film a movie in the area later this summer came a day after the actress apologized for some of her anti-war actions in a nationally televised interview on ABC's "20/20."

Tension Melted Away

"I have a lot of admiration for her showing up last night in front of 25 guys that really despised her," Genovese, commander of the 450-member post, said in a telephone interview Sunday. He said the atmosphere of the meeting at St. Michael's Episcopal Church was tense at first but generally conciliatory at the end.

"I think the healing process is really starting here," he said.

Frank McCarthy, president of a Connecticut-based veterans group dealing with issues related to the herbicide Agent Orange and one of those who had been protesting against Fonda, agreed.

"I think it's time to heal the wounds," he said, "and that can't be done unless the factions talk. . . . If this could have been done on a national scale it would have done so much to heal the divisiveness."

Around the country, however, Fonda's televised apology seemed to have changed few minds. Spokesmen for several veterans groups said the lingering hostility toward Fonda is fed by the widely publicized photos and film footage of her at a North Vietnamese gun emplacement. In the ABC interview, Fonda said it was the one act she most regretted.

"That picture became the symbol (of opposition to American involvement)," said Pete Zastrow, coordinator of the Chicago-based Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which claims 3,000 members who opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

"She became to some degree 'responsible' for some of the worst things the left did in opposition to the war."

On a trip to Vietnam last year, Zastrow said, he noticed that a picture of Fonda at the anti-aircraft gun was still on prominent display at a Hanoi museum.

"We feel that she should have been tried for treason," said Michael Milne, executive director of Veterans of the Vietnam War, which is headquartered in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and claims 30,000 members.

Before the program was broadcast Friday night, Milne said, his office received hundreds of calls about the actress's apology, nearly all of them skeptical.

"It's all been negative," he said. "Nobody's said, 'Hey, Jane's going to apologize.' "

For the last few years, he added, some veterans have exercised their anger with Fonda by refusing to watch her movies in theaters or on television. Some even use magnets to erase Fonda's popular "Workout" tapes and cassettes of her movies in video stores, he added, while others "sell Jane Fonda urinal stickers."

B. T. Collins, chief of staff to former California Gov. Jerry Brown and a disabled Vietnam veteran, said he doubted Fonda's claim that she was "naive" when she posed at the gun emplacement.

"She knew exactly what she was doing," said Collins, who is on the commission that is erecting a state Vietnam memorial in Sacramento. As an actress, Fonda must have realized the propaganda power of that moment, Collins said, maintaining that the craft of actors is not spontaneous but "deliberate, that's the nature of their business."

By visiting Vietnam, Collins said, Fonda was giving the Hollywood stamp of approval to the North Vietnamese cause, including the mistreatment and torture of prisoners of war. He called her apology part of "a new political expediency" designed to protect her film career and business ventures.

A Different Perception

At the other end of the spectrum, Mike Leaveck, spokesman for Washington-based Vietnam Veterans of America, which has 400 chapters, said Fonda's olive branch "looks like a pretty direct apology.

"I don't see how she can do any more," he said.

Leaveck said his organization "has always maintained that it's time to give up the hate" aroused by the war. But he conceded that passions are not likely to abate soon.

"I do not think the country is through re-examining the Vietnam War," he said.

Robert Franco, a veteran who is part owner of the Mirabelle restaurant in Los Angeles, was one of the few former soldiers to stake out a middle position on Fonda.

"What she did, I felt, was wrong," said Franco. "I think it's really nice that she makes it (the apology) public. . . . Whatever she did didn't affect me. It was her problem."

In Saturday's session in Connecticut, Fonda did not inspire wholesale conversions, veteran Joe Griggs said Sunday.

"Everybody did not come out of that meeting saying everything was great," Griggs said, conceding that the actress nonetheless won his respect. "She fielded some pretty tough questions from the vets and she didn't back down. I respect the fact that she came out and faced us."

The Rev. John A. McColley, rector of the church and coordinator of the meeting, estimated that more than 20 of the veterans who came to the meeting left convinced that Fonda is concerned about Vietnam veterans and was sincere in her apology for any hurt she might have caused.

"It came out that hating people only hurts the one who hates," said McColley, himself a Vietnam veteran. He said the consensus was that "it's time to finally admit that we all made mistakes" and to begin finding common ground between veterans and those who opposed the war.

Fonda spokesman Stephen Rivers agreed that the meeting ended on a positive note.

"They saw Jane as a human being," he said, "and not as a target."

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