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Vietnamese groups furious over ‘Jane Fonda Day’ in L.A. County

Citing her advocacy for social justice and environmental sustainability, Los Angeles County leaders last month declared April 30 as “Jane Fonda Day.”

The backlash was immediate.

Within days, politicians and members of the Vietnamese American community sharply criticized the decision to honor the actress on the date known in the Vietnamese community as “Black April” in commemoration of the fall of Saigon. Fonda famously made headlines in the 1970 with her staunch opposition to the Vietnam War.

“She may be a very strong activist for climate change, but besides that, we also view her as being a person who was very cruel to the rights of the South Vietnamese people during the antiwar protests,” said Phat Bui, a Garden Grove resident and chairman of the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California.

The outcry has now spurred plans by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to move Jane Fonda Day to earlier in April.

Bui told The Times that he was shocked when he learned that Jane Fonda Day and Black April would share the same date. On April 30, 1975, the South Vietnamese stronghold of Saigon — now known as Ho Chi Minh City — fell to communist forces. It marked the end of the Vietnam War.

Nearly 50 years later, the day is still observed by those who fled Vietnam or whose family members did. In Orange County’s Little Saigon, home to one of the largest Vietnamese communities outside Vietnam, residents gather each year on April 30 to hold a ceremony with prayers and traditional songs in remembrance of the day.

State Sen. Janet Nguyen, a Republican whose district includes Little Saigon, wrote in a letter to the Board of Supervisors that dedicating that particular day to Fonda was “alarming and profoundly disrespectful to over half a million Vietnamese Americans in California.”

Other lawmakers also wrote letters opposing the dedication. Rep. Michelle Steel (R-Seal Beach) called the decision “unconscionable” and urged the board to rescind the honor.

“To elevate Hanoi Jane over the Vietnamese Community, Americans who sacrificed their lives, and the loved ones they lost to communism, is deeply offensive to the freedom-loving Vietnamese Americans who bear such tragic and painful memories of the Vietnam War,” Steel said in a statement, using a pejorative nickname for Fonda that circulated following her protest of the war.

Board of Supervisors Chair Lindsey Horvath said the board would consider a motion at its May 21 meeting to move Jane Fonda Day to April 8 and emphasize its connection to Earth Month. The decision, she wrote in a statement Friday, was made “out of respect for the community voices who have spoken up.”

“The April 30 date was a function of our board schedule and was unintentional,” Constance Farrell, a spokesperson for Horvath, told The Times on Tuesday.

L.A. County’s decision to honor Fonda stems from her contributions to entertainment, environmental sustainability, gender equality and social justice, Horvath said. The supervisor presented Fonda with a certificate during the board’s April 30 meeting.

“This is so beautiful,” Fonda said at the time. “ I am so honored and grateful.”

In a speech accepting the honor, Fonda shared memories of spending time outside in Los Angeles as a child and her love of nature. It’s that background that informed her advocacy for environmental protection measures including Senate Bill 1137, a state law banning new oil and gas drilling within 3,200 feet of homes, schools and parks, which will appear on the November ballot, she said.

”When you go into the ballot box, have climate in your heart,” Fonda said. “Most Americans are very concerned about what is happening, but they don’t necessarily bring it into the voting booth with them. This is an existential year. How we vote from the top — from the president of the United States all the way down-ballot — is going to really matter for whether young people have a future, a livable future.”

Although the Academy Award-winning actress has been lauded for her climate work, Fonda was sharply criticized after she went to Hanoi during the Vietnam War to oppose U.S. involvement in the conflict. During a visit in 1972, she was photographed wearing a helmet and sitting in the gunner’s seat of a North Vietnamese antiaircraft gun.

Fonda told Barbara Walters during an interview in 1988 that sitting on the gun was “a thoughtless and careless thing to have done.” She apologized to Vietnam War veterans and their families at the time.

“My intentions were never to hurt them or make their situation worse. It was [to] the contrary. I was trying to help end the killing and the war, but there were times when I was thoughtless and careless about it,” she said at the time.

Representatives for Fonda did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday.

Despite the apologies, some still feel betrayed by Fonda’s actions.

Bui, on behalf of the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California, penned a letter to the Board of Supervisors on May 1 urging the selection of a different date to honor Fonda.

April 30 holds deep personal meaning to Bui and his family. In 1954, his parents and five siblings escaped communist North Vietnam to seek refuge in South Vietnam. A day after the fall of Saigon, Bui, who was 17 at the time, fled with his family by boat to America and eventually settled in Minnesota. Many others who tried to escape died on their journeys.

“Perhaps the board did not realize,” Bui wrote in the letter, “that such a date can inflict so much pain to our community and to the Vietnam War veterans.”

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