America. A city upon a hill. A great nation built by frontiersmen and outdoor types always pushing westward, waging hand-to-hand war with the wilderness and the natives. A new breed in the history of civilization: stalwart, rugged, violent. Americans!
Once they had populated the Pacific Coast, a new frontier was devised: “the frontier of the 1960s, a frontier of unknown opportunities and paths, a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats,” as John F. Kennedy described it. Once stripped of the fancy rhetoric, it turned out, the New Frontier was Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan. First and foremost, it was the mythological base for a metaphor that likened every war to yet another ‘savage war’ against Indians.
Cut to Jane Fonda–oh Jane!–stuck in bed for three months, pregnant, horrified by the images on TV, as American bombers release their payloads on Vietnamese villages and villagers. Jane hears Simone de Beauvoir speak, she reads Malcolm X’s autobiography, she reads The Village of Ben Suc. Jane may be troubled and bulimic and unhappy, but–she realizes–she is privileged. If she doesn’t speak up, who will? She voices support for the Black Panthers and Native Americans. She travels to Hanoi in 1972. She asks her hosts to go live on radio. She wants to reach out to her G.I.s. She wants to tell them how she feels:
“All of you in the cockpits of your planes, on the aircraft carriers, those who are loading the bombs, those who are repairing the planes, those who are working on the 7th fleet, please think what you are doing. Are these people your enemy? … If they told you the truth, of what your targets really are, you wouldn’t fight, you wouldn’t kill. You were not born and brought up by your mothers to be killers. We must all try very, very hard to remain human beings.”
They hated her for it; they still do. But she was not wrong and she did not stop. Today, Jane Fonda may be best remembered for her workout tapes–the best selling VHS of all time–but not many know that all that exercise generated income that was funnelled into the leftist Campaign for Economic Democracy. Like Jane, we must keep exercising, not just our bodies, but our right to speak out against injustice wherever we may find it.