Unlike the Second World War, which functioned as a unifying and integrating force in American Society, the Vietnam War was rather divisive, resulting in one of the strongest anti-war movemenets.
Once again, John Wayne found himself in the midst of a heated political controversy. It started in June 1966, when Wayne visited Vietnam to cheer American troops on the front and wounded soldiers in hospitals. The mission of the tour was twofold: It was a good-will trip, and at the same time provided him the opportunity to gather first-hand material for a film.
It is unclear whether the idea to make a film on Vietnam originated before or during the trip. Before he left for the three-week tour, sponsored by the Department of Defense, Wayne said he was “going around the hinterlands to give the boys something to break the monotony.” “I can't sing or dance,” he said, but “I can sure shake a lot of hands.”
Wayne said he felt a sense of urgency, “I just couldn't feel right until I had gone over there.” “I could not feel right until I had gone there. Wayne received VIP treatment, but insisted on visiting the soldiers on the battlefront.
One report mentioned that a Vietcong sniper's bullet hit the ground about 50 feet from him, and another told how his helicopter landed in the midst of the action. Both reports enhanced his courageous image and popularity among the Marines, and he delighted when they called him Sergeant York, his character's name in Sands of Iwo Jima.”
Upon return, Wayne rushed to tell the press he “never heard complaints from privates up to Generals.” What really got him into trouble was his hawkish, some say imperialist, view of Vietnam. “I get mad these days,” he said, “when I see our boys there getting killed and maimed and people back home aren't behind them.”
“However the world views us,” Wayne explained, “we are reaching the point where further appeasement might well mean disaster.” He could not accept his opponents' argument that “we are miles from home and on foreign territory,” because “we were on foreign territory too when we joined Britain to push back Hitler and crush the evil of Nazism.” “If we had not done that,” he argued, “where would these liberals be today”
To make his point, Wayne drew an analogy between World War II and Vietnam: “We fought in Germany because of what they were doing to the Jews and to freedom, and as far as I'm concerned the Communists are the enemy, not the Russian or Chinese People.” And he continued: “Does anyone believe after the Stalin purges, the labor camps, the repression of free expression, opinion, and artistry, the jailing of brilliant writers, that Communism–either Russian or Chinese–with its enslavement and stifling of liberty and individual freedom, is any less an evil”
Wayne firmly believed that the U.S. had the right to be in Vietnam, but he also praised the South Vietnamese's effort to “come up with a form of constitutional government during a war, when they were hard pressed and were the underdogs.” “It took the colonies of America 11 years,” he reminded, “after our little set-to with England before we could come up with anything all 13 Colonies would sign.”
The United States of America, he held, should serve as an example to small nations: “We've been telling the people of oppressed nations, 'Stand Up for your rights and we'll back you up.' We've been saying this for years, and now, suddenly, it's a terrible thing that we are keeping our word to the Vietnamese.”
Wayne's right-wing view of Vietnam, rooted in his old hatred of Communism, made him many enemies in Hollywood, of which he was well aware. “I'm unpopular in the industry,” he said, “because my political philosophy is different from the prevailing attitude.” But he decided not to reply to his colleagues in Hollywood because “political street-fighting is unprofessional.”
Indeed, even his politics were conducted according to a gentlemanly code of behavior. For instance, he did not approve of using the platform of the Oscar ceremonies for promoting personal politics, denouncing Marlon Brando's rejection of his 1972 Best Actor award (for The Godfather”).
Brando protested against the treatment of Indians, on and off-screen, sending an Apache activist to accept the award in his name and deliver a decidedly political message. Committed to direct confrontation, Wayne said, “It was sad that Brando did what he did. If he had something to say, he should have appeared that night and stated his views, instead of taking some little unknown girl and dressing her up in an Indian outfit.” Wayne felt that Brando “was trying to avoid the issue that was really on his mind, which was the provocative story of Last Tango in Paris,” a sensational sex drama between a desperate middle-aged man and a young French girl, that included sexually explosive dialogue and graphically depicted sex.