When Philly Flipped Off Fonda

That time the neighbors of Kensington chased a famous firebrand out of town. 

There wasn’t a word for it in 1972, but Jane Fonda was probably the first woman cancelled by the American public. And it was kind of a social media debacle, too: during a peace tour to Hanoi to oppose the Vietnam War, she was caught mugging for cameras with the enemy, and even posing on an anti-aircraft gun used to target our planes. The images quickly ignited a firestorm back home; she was excoriated in the press for attacking US soldiers, and providing comfort and aid to our foes.

All the better to help boost public support for the conflict, which was waning after almost a decade of bloodshed by the time of Fonda’s visit, a year after the Pentagon Papers leaked. Most Americans were opposed to US involvement, and starting to distrust the government. Indeed, numerous other stars and dignitaries had previously staged their own press junkets through Vietnam – however, none of them had provided such a viral opportunity to smear the Peace Movement.

Not a good look (to put it lightly), cavorting as she did with the Viet Cong. In the face of savage backlash, Fonda stood her ground, insisting that “anti-war” did not mean “anti-soldier.” To this day, she maintains she never intended any disrespect against the veterans and POWs who were mired in an unjust war.

“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,” she has said of this incident. Her intent was not to shame those doing the fighting but to humanize the Vietnamese people, and to push back against the American government’s lies and atrocities. “I cared deeply for the men and boys who had been put in harm’s way. I wanted to stop the killing and bring our servicemen home.”

Her message failed to make it through the din of outrage and rumors, many still circulating today:

  • That she shot at US targets while she was posing on the antiaircraft gun (it was never fired during her visit);
  • That she dimed out POW’s who passed her a note when she visited their compound, resulting in their torture/death (a total fabrication, debunked by many sources);
  • That she called American soldiers “baby killers” and “war criminals” in radio broadcasts she made during her tour (no, although she did speak out about how bombing civilian targets was a punishable war crime, and she begged US soldiers to refuse orders to murder innocent Vietnamese people).

But still. The footage from her visit was really egregious – even by today’s standards. It’s shocking to see an American citizen gleefully chumming it up with opposing forces during wartime. And the whole “famous sex kitten” thing didn’t help. Here was this young Hollywood princess cozying up to our sworn enemy halfway around the world to piss off Uncle Sam — how does that help, exactly? Shouldn’t she be in the USO or selling war bonds or something? Wait, isn’t she a MOTHER?!! 😱 Fonda became the person America loved to hate.

So it’s hard to imagine what might’ve been going through Jane Fonda’s mind when she thought it’d be a good idea to bring her anti-war stylings to Kensington in September 1972, a mere two months after her contentious trip to North Vietnam. It did not go well.

Her harrowing ordeal began, like most doomed efforts, with a deviation from the plan. Fonda was in town as part of a political-musical-variety show called the Indochina Peace Campaign, that had been touring colleges and coffeehouses across the country (and applying pressure in Washington DC).

This particular afternoon, Fonda found herself with hours to kill before she had to be at Villanova for that night’s show. Most people would probably take a walk, maybe get a cheesesteak. Instead, Fonda decided to set up a soapbox in the middle of the city and speak out against the war. She and another cast member borrowed a truck and drove to the corner of Arbor and Tioga streets, across from Philco. Soon, a crowd of hundreds gathered.

As Fonda stepped up to speak, they turned on her, booing and hissing loudly. One dude waved a giant American flag from his porch across the street. The jeers grew louder and louder, no one could even hear Fonda’s voice over the litany of vicious and increasingly personal attacks. Eventually she had to flee the scene for her own safety.

Afterward, a neighbor echoed common sentiments to an Associated Press reporter, “What is she doing here? She should be home with her baby. Or better yet, send her back to North Vietnam if she likes it so much there.”

Ouch. Back at Villanova, Fonda was once again in her element. She was enthusiastically cheered at that night’s show, which was well-received and well-attended. Her spirits buoyed, she took another crack at Kensington the next day. And as you’d expect, Kensington came right back at her…

Props at least to Fonda for planning ahead this time: she rented out the Starlite Ballroom, invited 500 guests, and hired two busloads of cops for security. She did not, unfortunately, count on Kensington neighbors to rally so quickly, and with such force. A mob of 300 met her outside the theater that night, pelting her with eggs and shaved ice as she hurried to her waiting car through a police cordon.

As far as we know, Jane Fonda has never returned to Kensington.

She’s been back to Philadelphia, of course, most recently speaking at the Kimmel and endorsing Helen Gym in last May’s Democratic primary. She’s never stopped using her global platform to support causes close to her heart: Black Lives Matter, gender equality, and environmental rights (among others).

However you feel about Jane Fonda, she was right about the Vietnam War – it was a sham, based on well-documented lies. And it was senselessly destroying countless human lives and along with entire ecosystems. We have the receipts to prove it, reams of papers and books and perhaps most convincingly: Kennedy’s own Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, admitted in his 1995 memoir that he always knew the war was a mistake, and his actions were “wrong, terribly wrong.”

There are also telephone recordings between President Nixon and Henry Kissinger where they discuss illegal and indiscriminate bombing, government cover-ups, and even potential nuclear strikes. By relentlessly dogging and exposing these actions at her own risk, Jane Fonda likely helped save countless lives, both soldiers and civilians. She also pissed off a ton of people, many who will never forgive her — even for the stuff she didn’t do.

Fonda’s career has nevertheless continued and even blossomed thru the decades. Now in her mid-80’s, she’s fresh off an Emmy-winning series with longtime friend Lily Tomlin; she’s got movies in the works and the 2024 election in her sights (where she’ll be campaigning for climate-friendly candidates). She’s never been happier. ✨💖💃

What do you think? This article is a Local summary of Bob McNulty’s original “Philadelphia Story” that you should definitely read here for Bob’s unique perspectives, including lots of little details: names, addresses, and a lively comments section you don’t want to miss. First published September 28, 2022 and featured in September 2023’s Local paper (thanks, Bob!)

Read Bob’s last Local column HERE.  Don’t miss the next great tale from local history, follow @PhiladelphiaStoriesbyBobMcNulty on Facebook.

Click the links and watch the videos here to dive deeper into this controversial topic. Thoughts? Questions? Please leave your comments below, or email editor@nwlocalpaper.com.

About Philadelphia Stories By Bob McNulty 20 Articles
Philadelphia Stories by Bob McNulty. Lifelong Philadelphian Bob McNulty tells fascinating tales about ordinary citizens and extraordinary events from the city’s long history. Ranging from whimsical to tragic (sometimes in the same story!), Bob’s tales are meticulously researched and bring to life figures and events largely forgotten today. Philadelphia Stories is a dramatic archive that spotlights everyday Philadelphians of all kinds -- men and women, Black and white, immigrant and native-born, many of whom, in Bob’s words, “didn’t have anyone to tell their story.”

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