Donald Sutherland and the GIs Who Resisted Vietnam gnewsplus24

In 1971, the actor Donald Sutherland participated in one of the most powerful, least-known political movements of the era: the GI movement to end the Vietnam War. Sutherland wasn’t a soldier, and he was Canadian, not American, so he couldn’t join the movement, precisely—but he was among a group of celebrity-civilians brought together by Jane Fonda that collaborated with activist GIs to stage an anti-war variety show called the FTA Show. Officially, this stood for “Free the Army,” but soldiers tended to replace that first word with something a little more colorful. Over the course of nine months, the show played to tens of thousands of active-duty troops in the United States and abroad.

In 1971, the actor Donald Sutherland participated in one of the most powerful, least-known political movements of the era: the GI movement to end the Vietnam War. Sutherland wasn’t a soldier, and he was Canadian, not American, so he couldn’t join the movement, precisely—but he was among a group of celebrity-civilians brought together by Jane Fonda that collaborated with activist GIs to stage an anti-war variety show called the FTA Show. Officially, this stood for “Free the Army,” but soldiers tended to replace that first word with something a little more colorful. Over the course of nine months, the show played to tens of thousands of active-duty troops in the United States and abroad.

Many of the articles announcing Sutherland’s death in June, at the age of 88, note his anti-war activism; most articles follow this up with reference to his participation in the FTA Show. But none say very much about what the FTA Show was, probably because they don’t really know. And how could they? The short-lived political theater project-turned-low-budget documentary feature film (FTA!) was pulled from cinemas just days after its release in 1972, probably due to a call from the White House. Or so claimed the film’s director, Francine Parker, a few years before FTA! was first re-released in 2009. For years before and after that re-release, almost nobody saw it; only recently was it finally remastered and made available on streaming services.

In the career of a beloved actor whose best-known roles—from Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H to President Snow in The Hunger Games—come from every one of the last six decades, FTA! is an understandably overlooked relic. But a closer attention to the film reveals that Sutherland’s approach to activism mirrored his approach to performance in more ways than one.


Sutherland played many parts in the FTA Show, many of which we get to access in the film, which covers the group’s tour to Hawaii, the Philippines, Okinawa, and Japan. In one sketch, he’s a gruff and grizzled officer, scared of his own men; in another, he’s one half of the sportscasting duo Red and Red, calling the shots as the 101st Airborne and the Vietcong go toe to toe (with disastrous results for the Americans). As a smooth-talking Air Force captain, he seduces Fonda’s naive WAF (“woman in the Air Force”) with visions of making the world “safe for democracy.” In a scene based on a real instance of mutiny at Firebase Pace, where in October 1971 soldiers refused orders to go on patrol, he’s an insubordinate GI who perfectly deadpans to his officer, “We would love to help you, but we can’t.”

Because FTA! is a documentary, we see a lot of Sutherland offstage as well. It’s here that descriptions of the actor as a chameleon or “chameleonlike” (or even “chameleonic”) feel particularly apt—he is a shapeshifter, capable of embodying diverse characters, but he also knows how to disappear, how to direct our attention to someone or something else. In the theater world, this is known as “throwing focus,” and it’s a role as important as any other Sutherland plays in the film, because in FTA! (the film), the stage show is really just an excuse to document the GI movement. Some of the most memorable footage is of soldier-spectators roaring with approval at staged scenes of insubordination, as well as interviews with disaffected and radicalized service members who share their reasons for opposing the war. (In one scene, a GI shares firsthand knowledge that, in fact, nuclear weapons are being transported onto U.S. ships within Japan’s territorial waters, despite then-U.S. President Richard Nixon’s claims to the contrary.) The film contradicts the most powerful weapon the Nixon administration had to use against anti-war protesters: the claim that to be against the war was to be against the soldiers sent to fight it. No wonder the White House wanted it pulled.

That the stage show constitutes the primary example of Sutherland’s activism is especially notable because it has never been the primary example associated with Fonda, whose involvement in the FTA likely precipitated Sutherland’s own. During 1970, Fonda spoke regularly at GI coffeehouses and veteran anti-war gatherings, and by September of that year Sutherland was doing the same.

Fonda’s work in support of the GI movement was eventually eclipsed by her infamous visit to North Vietnam in 1972. The popular perception of Fonda’s activism during this period as “anti-soldier” has much to do with the claims—however thoroughly debunked—that she caused the torture of American POWs. It also has to do with the more general erasure of the GI movement from familiar histories of the era’s activism.

In 1971, Sutherland was standing on a stage, with Fonda, yelling, “Fuck the Army!” and it didn’t threaten to sink his career. What does the story of his involvement reveal about that historical moment, and perhaps also about our own?

The short answer is that Sutherland’s involvement in the FTA Show reflects a politics of solidarity that is often hard to see from a distance, precisely because it tries to draw our attention to someone or something else that is not already afforded visibility—it is a practice of throwing focus. A longer answer is that the show’s political and historical significance—which Sutherland’s participation helps us see—lies in tracing the profound transformation it underwent from its opening night on March 14 1971, at the Haymarket Coffeehouse near Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina, through its performances in California, Washington, Texas, and Idaho, to the final form it took on stages across the Pacific Rim in November and December of the same year.

Publicity for the first performance at the Haymarket Coffeehouse pitched the show as “just entertainment” with no heavy political “line.” Its structure was loosely based on Bob Hope’s format for his annual USO Christmas tours and mirrored its dependence upon celebrity guests and a mix of comedic sketches and musical numbers. With the exception of comedian and activist Dick Gregory, the original cast was all white, and with the exception of Fonda and folk singer Barbara Dane, it was all male. Like Hope’s show, its cast and content reflected what it presumed to be its audience’s relative homogeneity, ideologically if not demographically, given the overrepresentation of Black service members in combat units. The show steered clear of any overt reference to racial discrimination, and while it mostly avoided reproducing the explicit sexism of Hope’s routines, it didn’t address it, either.

Seven months later, as documented in the film, the FTA Show featured a racially diverse cast, comprised equally of men and women: Holly Near, Paul Mooney, Michael Alaimo, Len Chandler, Rita Martinson, and Pamela Donegan, as well as Fonda and Sutherland. New sketches by Nina Serrano and Robin Menken captured the experience of service members through the eyes of a young WAF, played by Fonda, whose own experiences—of sexism, especially—were therefore also portrayed.

New musical numbers indicted not just the war but those profiting from it (“Nothing could be finer than to be in Indochina making money!”); another featured a kick line of women explosively proclaiming, “I’m tired of bastards fuckin’ over me!” Still others gave voice to the experiences of Black service members. And in one scene, Okinawan musicians perform a song decrying the ongoing presence of the U.S. military on that island, while after a performance in Manila, we witness a discussion between Filipino activists and American GIs about who, precisely, the U.S. military presence in the Philippines benefits.

By the end of its brief existence, then, the FTA Show was an indictment not just of the war in Vietnam, which is where it began, but also of imperialism, militarism, sexism, racism, and the class structure that pushed the children of the working class into the ranks of those sent to die for what, exactly, they didn’t even know anymore.

The path that brought the FTA to this point, though, was not straight or smooth. Sutherland stuck around through what can only be described as the FTA’s feminist reckoning, but most others involved in the show’s initial success in Fayetteville, and intermittently in the rest of its domestic tour, parted ways definitively with the group over the summer, alienated by its newfound militancy. Years later, speaking with me for my book on the history and significance of the FTA, the women members who instigated the split both remember and defend the approach they took but also recall the outcome with pain and regret.

I never spoke with Sutherland about his involvement in the FTA, but whatever the reason, and alone among the white celebrity men in that first performance, he stayed. It may have been his romantic relationship with Fonda, but it may also have been, more simply, his commitment to the role he’d come to play as a civilian in solidarity with the GI movement—a commitment to throwing focus.


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