In early 1971, Hollywood actress Jane Fonda worked with fellow antiwar activists to organize a troupe that would provide entertainment to U.S. soldiers who opposed the war in Vietnam. The troupe, called FTA, performed songs, comedy sketches, and dramatic readings. The show toured outside military bases in the United States before performing for GIs stationed abroad in the Pacific Rim. Other celebrities and entertainers joined Fonda for FTA’s first performance, including actor and activist Donald Sutherland (best known for his role in the satirical film MASH, 1970), comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, and folksinger and longtime activist Barbara Dane.
Other performers in FTA’s early shows included actor Peter Boyle (later famous for Everybody Loves Raymond), and veterans of the political-satire troupe The Committee: Gary Goodrow, Howard Hesseman, and Carl Gottlieb. These performers joined together under the banner “FTA.” This was a popular term amongst GIs – shorthand for “Fuck the Army.” The acronym was a spoof of the military’s recruitment slogan, “Fun, Travel, and Adventure.” The FTA troupe shared GIs’ sentiments, but officially called itself “Free the Army” or “Free Theater Associates” in order to receive press coverage. The FTA show not only embodied antiwar sentiments, but sided with GIs who critiqued the U.S. military.
The FTA show was audacious in its challenge to the USO (United Service Organizations), the congressionally-sanctioned entity that organized pro-U.S.-military entertainment. The USO’s flagship entertainer, comedian Bob Hope, had been performing for U.S. troops since World War II. Hope was beloved by many Americans – especially older audiences who remembered his morale-boosting work in WWII and the Korean War, but his reception among younger Americans was mixed. Some shared their parents’ fondness for Hope, while others found his jokes insulting, offensive, and symptomatic of the hubristic mentality that led the United States into the war in Vietnam. By framing the FTA show as an alternative to Bob Hope, Fonda and her allies challenged the U.S. military’s monopoly on troop entertainment and signaled a new height of celebrity activism. For the first time, celebrities stepped beyond rallies and marches for the benefit of civilians, and joined together to use their talents and fame to support GIs and challenge the war on the U.S. military’s own turf.
The GI Movement
By the early 1970s, opposition to the war had exploded within the American military, and many soldiers considered themselves part of the GI movement. This movement, composed of active-duty GIs, was adjacent to the antiwar movement but also focused on issues – like legal rights for military personnel – specific to servicemen and women. The stateside GI movement was supported by a network of GI coffeehouses and manifested in hundreds of GI newspapers – published by and for GIs. GI coffeehouses were located outside of military bases. Run by antiwar civilians, the coffeehouses provided GIs with a setting to relax and share their frustrations with military life. GIs stationed outside of the United States had less access to civilian support, and entertainment for these troops was even more circumscribed. For overseas troops, the USO’s patriotic, pro-military offerings were a key form of American entertainment.
Although the USO arranged for many entertainers to perform for the U.S. military around the world, Bob Hope’s yearly Christmas shows made the aging comedian the best known USO performer. Each December, Hope and an entourage of musicians, beauty pageant winners, and celebrities performed for U.S. troops stationed abroad. Hope parlayed his USO gig into yearly financial windfalls by turning each tour into a one-hour televised special. These “Christmas specials” did exceptionally well in television’s Nielsen ratings, as Americans tuned in for the entertainment, out of nostalgia, or in the hope of catching a glimpse of a loved one in the audience. The televised Christmas shows helped Hope amass a substantial fortune and allowed him to remain a relevant popular culture figure long after his heyday as a film actor. Despite his dearth of film activity in the 1960s and 1970s, Hope remained a household name and regularly hosted the Academy Awards.
Hope unequivocally supported the American mission in Vietnam, and praised hawkish military and political leaders. His televised specials depicted a war zone full of patriotic, willing soldiers fighting a necessary war. At the time, Hope’s prowar views were well-known. On- and off-stage, he regularly praised such figures as Commanding General William Westmoreland and, during the Nixon years, President Nixon. Hope also had a well-publicized friendship with Nixon’s hawkish vice president, Spiro Agnew. Off-stage, Hope publicly denigrated antiwar protestors. On-stage and in his Christmas telecasts, he endorsed the perspective that the Vietnam War was inevitable, and told jokes at the expense of minorities and women.
At the end of Hope’s 1964 Christmas show (telecast in 1965), Hope praised General Westmoreland for “giving of all his military genius trying to preserve American lives and principles.” The show’s closing moments included a shot of a U.S. Colonel playing Santa Claus to Vietnamese children, while Hope’s voiceover states, “Most of these kids have never heard of Santa Claus before. But that’s the story of our country – Giving. Let’s face it – we’re the Big Daddy of this world.” Hope depicted the U.S. mission in Vietnam as both benevolent and inevitable. This same Christmas show was rife with jokes about sexual assault. Several songs and sketches “humorously” addressed the relationship between Hope and his young female costars, including references to him barging into their rooms in the middle of the night. Hope not only objectified his female co-stars, he also told racist jokes. During one show he infamously joked that the bombing of North Vietnam was “the best slum clearance project they ever had,” insulting the humanity of Vietnamese and denigrating American minorities who lived in so-called slums. However, given that Hope was providing “entertainment” for American troops, that minorities were over-represented in the U.S. military, and that racial politics were a key focus of national policy at the time, Hope’s comedy instincts in this instance were questionable, and his apathy for the civil rights movement evident.
In this 1967/68 Christmas show excerpt, Hope performs his yearly introduction of the newest Miss World, asking Madeline Hartog-Bel for her measurements (see 4:44 – 7:20 in the clip below).
Significantly, many of Hope’s contemporaries saw USO work as an endorsement of the war. As early as 1966 some performers refused to support Hope’s tour “because they disapproved of United States policy [in South Vietnam].” Hope admitted that “a few” performers had declined to join his tour, but reiterated his own commitment to the war, saying “We ought to move a little faster – hawk style.”
Criticism of Hope’s show expanded over the next four years. In 1970 the New York Times ran an article titled “This Is Bob (Politician-Patriot-Publicist) Hope” that addressed U.S. troops’ disillusionment with Hope’s humor and prowar message, and highlighted Hope’s apathy towards the civil rights movement. The article also reminded readers that in 1965 Hope had “[fired] off telegrams to Washington demanding a tougher stance in Southeast Asia.” A subsequent New York Times article reported on GIs’ lack of enthusiasm for Hope and his pro-war stance. This article appeared less than two months before Fonda announced the FTA show; she later told reporters that FTA was inspired by “articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times about soldiers in Vietnam who were dissatisfied with the typical USO shows.”
On February 16, 1971, Fonda and antiwar activist Dr. Howard Levy held a press conference announcing the FTA show. Levy was a renowned figure within the antiwar movement, having served 26 months in prison for refusing to train military personnel for medical duty in Vietnam. Fonda, too, had earned a reputation as an antiwar activist – with a special interest in working with antiwar GIs and veterans. In 1970 she had met Fred Gardner, the activist who conceived of and established the first GI coffeehouse in Columbia, South Carolina in 1968. Gardner provided Fonda with a map of the GI coffeehouse network, and that year she embarked on a cross-country road trip in which she met GIs and heard their stories. Fonda subsequently helped establish a “GI Office” with a mandate to “represent servicemen and women whose rights have been violated by the military.” She also worked with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, fundraising and volunteering her time to aid the organization. The FTA show was not Fonda’s first foray into GI-centric antiwar activism, but it was her first attempt at combining antiwar activism with her talents and connections as a Hollywood actress.
From the beginning, Fonda and other organizers described FTA as a counter-USO show. Hope unquestioningly supported the war. FTA opposed it. Hope saw the war and draftees as a continuation of the “good” war, WWII. FTA addressed the Vietnam War specifically and focused on draftees’ grievances.
The first FTA performance took place in March 1971 in Fayetteville, North Carolina, near Fort Bragg. Fort Bragg was an important military post – home to the 30,000-man 82nd Airborne Division and the Special Forces. Staged at the Haymarket Square GI coffeehouses, the show was a resounding success. The troupe had to perform three times in order to accommodate all the GIs who attended. Journalists also showed up, and reported on the overwhelming response of the GI audience. The L.A Times’ front page declared “Jane Fonda’s Antiwar Show Scores Hit Near Army Base: Soldiers Roar Approval,” while the Washington Post described soldiers “swarming to the coffeehouse” to catch the “counter-USO show.” The New York Times reported that soldiers sang along to “Join the G.I. Movement,” fists raised in the air.
The inaugural FTA cast included Fonda, Sutherland, Boyle, Dane, Gregory, and Goodrow, as well as the rock group Swamp Dogg. Alan Myerson, co-founder and director of The Committee directed the show, and Fred Gardner – who set up the first coffeehouse years before – stage-managed. The show also credited Gardner, along with syndicated cartoonist Jules Feiffer and MacBird playwright Barbara Garson as writers.
FTA couldn’t have been more different from a USO show. Military intelligence agents spied on the performance, in which Gregory joked that “The Army ain’t got no intelligence” and Goodrow and Fonda satirized Richard and Pat Nixon. “Pat” tells “Richard” that protestors are storming the White House. Nixon reasons that he should call out the 82nd Airborne Division – but Pat interrupts him: “Dick, you don’t understand. They are the 82nd Airborne Division!” To which GIs – many of them from the 82nd – roared their approval.
In another segment – one that foreshadowed 21st-century protests – the cast performed a scathing rendition of the national anthem, during which Sutherland – whose character refused to stand – is beaten to death by the “patriotic” cast members.
This sketch, which originated with The Committee, is performed here by a 1969 Committee cast, which includes future FTA participants Carl Gottlieb (third from the left), Gary Goodrow (seated), and Howard Hesseman (third from the right).
Throughout 1971, the FTA show continued to perform outside such military posts as Fort Ord (Monterey, California), Fort Lewis (Tacoma, Washington), Mountain Home Air Force Base (Idaho), Fort Hood (Killeen, Texas), Fort Sam Houston (San Antonio, Texas), and the San Diego Naval Station. Approximately 15,000 GIs saw the FTA show.
Like almost all movement groups, FTA endured internal divisions. Barbara Dane left the show, as did Fred Gardner. Fonda fired Alan Myerson, explaining that she only wanted to work with female directors, and similarly did not invite Goodrow or Hesseman to continue the tour. Fonda has subsequently both defended and reconsidered her actions, recalling that she wanted to diversify the cast. She was happy with the end result of a cast that was half African American and half female, but conceded that she was “going through my humorless, pedantic, politically correct phase.”
Although Fonda alienated former allies, her diversity efforts paid off. The reconstituted FTA cast included the young folksinger Holly Near, poet Pamela Donegan, singer-songwriter Rita Martinson, comedian Paul Mooney, actor and San Francisco Mime Troupe-alum Michael Alaimo, and singer-songwriter Len Chandler. Donegan, Martinson, Mooney, and Chandler were African American, and their participation changed the dynamics of the show.
Chandler, in particular, was well-known for his political songwriting and civil rights activism, and contributed several songs to the FTA show. Chandler also added legitimacy to the show as a seasoned civil rights and antiwar activist; he had entertained civil rights activists in the South, participated in the historic Selma to Montgomery March for voting rights, and had been arrested for his activism on numerous occasions. Alaimo brought expertise as a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which specialized in political satire. The three new women not only brought gender balance to the cast, but as lesser-known performers, they helped counter the celebrity of Fonda and Sutherland – the only original cast members who remained part of FTA’s Pacific tour. (Gregory was supposed to be part of the cast, but due to antiwar fasting, was unable to perform.)
In November 1971 this cast performed at Lincoln Center with Nina Simone to raise funds for an overseas leg of the FTA tour with the new cast. The troupe then embarked on a month-long tour, performing for GIs stationed in Hawaii, the Philippines, Japan, and Okinawa.
As footage from this Pacific tour illustrates, the FTA show had expanded its critique beyond the war and the military to explicitly challenge racism and sexism. The women and African-Americans who joined the show spoke to the varied needs of audience members. Rita Martinson wrote and performed a song called “Soldier, We Love You,” about “a young black soldier who refused his orders to kill in Vietnam [and] was placed in the stockade.”
The inclusion of more women changed the show by foregrounding women’s issues and speaking to the concerns of military women and wives. FTA’s four women performed an unapologetically feminist song about women’s right to self-respect and control over their own bodies. The song’s chorus included the lyrics, “They whistle for me like a dog, and make noises like a hog, heaven knows they’ve sure got problems, I agree. But they’re problems I can’t solve, ‘cause my sanity’s involved…” Rita Martinson sang, “Look, I know that life is tough and to be a man is rough, but I have had enough and can’t ignore that their masculinity don’t respect my right to be.” The four women, together, sang, “We’ve been victims all our lives. Now it’s time we organized, and to fight we’re gonna need each other’s hands.” Footage shows male and female audience members cheering in a standing ovation.
The racially-inclusive and pro-feminist messages of FTA stood in sharp contrast to Bob Hope’s show. Whereas Hope made racist jokes, FTA embraced racial equality and took seriously the grievances of non-whites. While Hope joked about sexual assault and unapologetically objectified the women in his cast, FTA endorsed women’s liberation and featured women as full participants in the show – without forcing them to don sexually provocative clothing.
In these ways, the FTA show synthesized and performed a leftist critique of the Vietnam War. Reflecting the political currents of the early 1970s – which included women’s liberation and such groups as the Black Panthers – the FTA show embraced versions of Black Power and gender equality within its antiwar critique. Simply challenging U.S. government-sanctioned entertainment with a non-sanctioned antiwar show would have been historic, but the FTA show went beyond this. The show not only lambasted the war, but it rejected the cluster of values that the military – and its chief entertainer – espoused.
This clip from the F.T.A. documentary illustrates many of FTA’s themes, as well as the cast’s efforts to reach out to servicemen and women of color.
Significantly, the FTA show supported and embraced soldiers. The troupe understood that many soldiers did not want to be in uniform, and many more had become disillusioned by military life and the realities of the Vietnam War. FTA’s embrace of soldiers is evident in Martinson’s performance of “Soldier, We Love You.”
The Pacific tour was filmed and made into a documentary, F.T.A., released in 1972.
The FTA show ended after the Pacific tour, but several FTA performers continued their activism. Dick Gregory actively supported the Equal Rights Amendment and opposed South African apartheid. Other performers, like Holly Near, were just beginning their activism. Near went on to be a prominent feminist and LGBTQ singer-songwriter-activist.
Jane Fonda continued her activism against the war after FTA. She became especially controversial in 1972, when she visited the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi and was photographed sitting on an antiaircraft gun. This notorious mistake has largely obscured Fonda’s antiwar but pro-soldier work, including the FTA show. After the war, Fonda continued to combine her activism with her talents as an actress. She was instrumental in the making of Coming Home (1978), in which she also starred – a film about a wounded Vietnam veteran, played by Jon Voigt. Fonda’s production company also made The China Syndrome (1979), about nuclear energy, and 9 to 5 (1980), about women’s rights in the workplace. Fonda continues to speak out about war, women’s rights, and the environment.
The FTA show was a significant part of the antiwar movement’s challenge to Vietnam War – seen by 15,000 GIs in the United States and 64,000 abroad. The show, along with GI coffeehouses and newspapers, challenged the military’s monopoly on entertainment and information available to active-duty personnel, and supported soldiers who opposed the war but had few opportunities for contact with the civilian antiwar movement.
Despite recent books and documentaries, popular memory tends to eschew the GI movement in favor of narratives of patriotic soldiers pitted against disdainful antiwar activists. In reality, there were many pro-war soldiers – but also many soldiers who vehemently opposed the war. Many antiwar activists misunderstood and ignored men and women in uniform but there were also many activists (like coffeehouse organizers and FTA performers) who embraced the struggles of antiwar GIs and sought to support them.
The FTA show reminds us of the diversity of antiwar dissent during the Vietnam War and highlights the courage of men and women who joined and supported the GI movement, including the artists and celebrities who acted as megaphones, using the press and the infrastructure of celebrity to give voice to antiwar GIs. Through the FTA show, entertainers not only produced a “counter-USO show” – they also fused messages of peace and equality, and most significantly, they supported antiwar soldiers – the front line of the movement against the war.
Further Reading and Teacher resources: FTA and the GI Movement
- The full F.T.A. documentary of the Pacific tour is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGR042tGlPA
- David Zeiger’s documentary on the GI movement, Sir! No Sir!, is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nPJgeg6hpA
- For Teachers: this page of the Zinn Education Project discusses Sir! No Sir! and links to teacher resources on the Vietnam War: https://www.zinnedproject.org/materials/sir-no-sir/
- Sir! No Sir! also has a gallery page of images from the GI movement. Researchers can view cartoon images from the GI Press, GI newspaper covers, and photograph collections on coffeehouses, the FTA show, and related topics.
- For primary sources on the GI movement, see the University of Washington’s sources on The GI Movement, 1968-1973, part of their Antiwar and Radical History Project.
- To view digitized GI newspapers, see the Wisconsin Historical Society’s GI Press Collection.
- The Sixties Project has a number of primary sources available online, including a Statement of Aims from GIs United Against the War in Vietnam. Their primary source page also has related documents from Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the Winter Soldier Investigation.
- For Fred Gardner’s account of setting up the first coffeehouse, meeting Jane Fonda, and working on the FTA show, see Hollywood Confidential: Part I and Hollywood Confidential: Part II.
- Historian David L. Parsons has written a book on GI coffeehouses, Dangerous Grounds: Antiwar Coffeehouses and Military Dissent in the Vietnam Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. For a shorter read, see his article in the New York Times.
- For more on Fonda’s activism, see her memoir, My Life So Far, and the chapter on Fonda in historian Steven Ross’s Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
- A year before the FTA show, future FTA participant Barbara Dane performed at GI coffeehouses outside of Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Benning, Georgia; and Fort Bragg, North Carolina. An album of these performances, FTA! Songs of the GI Resistance, can be downloaded from Smithsonian Folkways. The liner notes on this page provide a wealth of information on the GI movement and Dane’s songs, some of which later appeared in the FTA show. Insubordination, for example, was part of the show. For more on Dane, see her website, https://www.barbaradane.net/.
- Holly Near’s memoir provides a detailed account of her time with the FTA show and her subsequent activism: Holly Near, with Derk Richardson, Fire in the Rain… Singer in the Storm: An Autobiography. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990. Near’s website includes biographical, gallery, and “Art & Activism” sections.
- The Library of Congress has an extensive online exhibit of images from Bob Hope’s life, including his work with the USO, at https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/bobhope/bh-object.html.
- For a balanced Bob Hope biography, see Richard Zoglin, Hope: Entertainer of the Century. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.
- For more on GI resistance to the war, see Richard Moser, The New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent During the Vietnam Era. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996; and David Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005.
- The New York Times’ coverage of the first FTA show, Leticia Kent’s “It’s Not Just ‘Fonda and Company’” is available at https://www.nytimes.com/1971/03/21/archives/its-not-just-fonda-and-company-its-not-just-fonda-and-company.html.
- For more on coffeehouses and the history of coffee and American soldiers, see The Kitchen Sisters, “If War is Hell, Then Coffee Has Offered U.S. Soldiers Some Salvation” on NPR, at https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/07/25/485227943/if-war-is-hell-then-coffee-has-offered-u-s-soldiers-some-salvation.