The major American cultural products about Vietnam in the 1960s were the publication of Robin Moore's “The Green Berets” in 1965, and John Wayne's film version of the book in 1968. Both products cashed in on the public's familiarity with the Green Berets. It was President Kennedy who perceived the need to fight the Communists in Asia with guerrilla forces, calling for the use of a new breed of American fighters: the U.S. Army Special Forces. The Green Berets were perceived to be Kennedy's idea, even though he didn't create them because the values they embodied–energy, vigor, devotion, and commitment–were congruent with his “New Frontier.”
Green Berets: The Book
Robin Moore, co-author of an earlier book on guerrilla war in the Caribbean, wrote The Green Berets as a tribute to the Special Forces. He himself took a training course of counter-guerrilla fighting, donned a uniform, armed himself with a rifle, and went to Vietnam. Moore's book was based on his experience, which he fictionalized to avoid secrets of national security. Some critics complained that the book's real villains were “counterpart” Vietnamese officers, presented as coward, hostile, corrupt, and inept. Others noted that Moore displayed in his book “contempt of most Vietnamese.”
The fact that The Green Berets became a best-seller surprised intellectuals of left-wing persuasion. Moore attributed the book's success to the American people's need for a hero image at times that lacked such heroes. The book also inspired a song, “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” whose sales topped 3 million copies in a few weeks, and it persuaded an influential movie star, John Wayne, to go to Vietnam and collect information for a movie.
Green Berets: The Movie
John Wayne's view of Vietnam was rooted in his old hatred of Communism. Pragmatic, Wayne wrote to President Johnson that it was important that “not only the people of the U.S., but those all over the world should know why it was necessary for us to be there.” The star's view of the conflict was even harsher than the Administration's, because the screenplay's first draft was rejected as being too strongly anti-Communist. Jack Valenti, then the President's communications assistant, reportedly told Johnson: “Wayne's politics (are) wrong, but in so far as Vietnam is concerned, his views are right. If he made the picture he would be saying the things we want said.” Batjac, Wayne's production company, thus received the Administration's blessing and support.
James Lee Barret's screenplay was only loosely based on the novel. Many changes, Moore claimed, were imposed on the script by the Department of Defense in order to keep up an unpopular war. Wayne said his motive was to glorify American soldiers as the finest fighting men “without going into why we are there, or if they should be there.” His “compulsion” to do the movie was based on his pride of the Special Forces, determined to show “what a magnificent job this still little-known branch of service is doing.” “I wasn't trying to send a message out to anybody,” he reasoned, “or debating whether it is right or wrong for the United States to be in this war.”
Wayne was accused, however, by liberal groups of glorifying an unpopular war, which irritated him: “What war was ever popular for God's sake those men don't want to be in Vietnam anymore than anyone else.” “Once you go over there,” he said, “you won't be middle-of-the-road.” However, even Wayne set his film cautiously in l963, when the war was less controversial and the issues clearer. At that time, the official role of the U.S. was limited to “advise” the South Vietnamese Army. The narrative starts with the Green Berets' training at the John F. Kennedy School for Special Warfare in North Carolina. Wayne's Colonel Michael Kirby, a dedicated career officer, is contrasted with a pacifist war correspondent (David Janssen) who has doubts about the involvement in Vietnam. But at the end, the correspondent changes his mind and pitches in with the fighting men, committed as they are to its noble cause.
The Green Berets was simple-minded, and modeled on Wayne's Western formula. The outpost was named Dodge City, after a popular Western staring Errol Flynn. And Wayne delivers such lines as “Out here, due process is a bullet,” in a vein similar to his Westerns. He plays yet another cavalry officer, this time fighting the North Vietnamese (instead of the Indians), but the morality is basically the same. Wayne's motives for making the picture also seemed to be taken from one of his Westerns. “This is the right course” for the U.S. because “we gave our word,” a phrase taken from Fort Apache, in which Wayne's hero gives his word to the Indians. Most critics panned The Green Berets, as film and as politics, but it was extremely popular, proving again that critics had no impact on Wayne's standing at the box office.