John Wayne: Politics–Was He Just a Yankee Doodle

John Wayne was not the only star to get involved in real politics.

What was distinctive about him, however, was that he succeeded more than other actors to integrate his offscreen politics into his professional career.

His screen image as a Western hero blended almost completely with his conservative, right-wing politics.

As Eric Bentley observed: “He even seeks, which is fairly unusual in Hollywood, to put his art at the service of his beliefs, and even in his less deliberately propagandistic efforts, he succeeds.” (1972, p. 310).

Wayne’s politics neither damaged his career nor affected his popularity, as could be expected. He was the most popular star in the United States in l950 and l951, while he was president of the anti-Communist organization, the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. And he continued to be popular in 1969, after making the pro-Vietnam movie, The Green Berets.” In 1970, the Academy of Motion Picture ignored his controversial politics and bestowed on him the most prestigious film award, the Oscar, for his performance in True Grit.”

Wayne’s political participation raised the controversial question of whether or not actors should get involved in politics. Most people would agree that actors, like other professionals, are entitled to express their political views in public. The dispute, however, is over their privileged position: they are constantly in the public eye and get tremendous media coverage for their lives on screen and off. Consequently, players’ views tend to get disproportionate attention and, by implication, importance.

Wayne believed that the film industry was not and should not be an ivory tower, “an actor is part of the bigger world than Hollywood.” “I have been in the public eye,” he said, “and when people ask questions, I say what I think.”

Wayne’s attitude toward politics was at best ambivalent, considering it “a necessary evil.” “I hate politics and most politicians,” he repeatedly declared, and “I am not a political figure.” At the same time, he conceded that, “When things get rough and people are saying things that aren’t true, I sometimes open my mouth and eventually get in trouble.”

“I get hooked into politics more than anybody,” he admitted, and one suspects that, despite many statements to the contrary, he enjoyed being a political personality. In congruence with his screen image, he did not mask his beliefs or mince his words. When a principle was involved, he stated precisely what he thought, disregarding intellectual fashion in society or the current vogue in Hollywood. Indeed, said his two worst faults, were being “more highly emotional than I appear,” and “given the choice, I find myself talking too much.”

It is hard to describe a coherent Wayne political philosophy, though there were some specific values that he fervently supported. The critic Charles Champlin holds that Wayne’s politics were characterized by “a private code of beliefs in such things as individual responsibility and honor, loyalty to friends, a primer straight patriotism, and adherence to the American dream of enterprise, hard work, and reward.”

Wayne’s brand of politics was personal; he was an advocate of the rugged, romantic individualism of the nineteenth century frontiersmen, which he espoused emotionally rather than intellectually. Like his Western heroes, he lived by a definite code of ethics.

“About the only thing you have to guide you,” he said, “is your conscience.” One should not let “social groups or petty ambitions or political parties or any institution tempt you to sacrifice your moral standards,” but he conceded that, “It takes a long time to develop a philosophy that enables you to do that.” Integrity and self-respect were his most cherished values, “If you lose your self-respect, you’ve lost everything.”

Equally important was Wayne’s unique brand of patriotism. He described himself as “an old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness, flag-waver patriot,” which was in harmony with his Americanism, the most important attribute of his screen image. Indeed, in Eric Bentley’s view, Wayne was “the most important American of our time” Bentley and others also labeled him an “unabashed Yankee Doodle patriot.” In a feature article, Time magazine described him as “Hollywood’s super American whose unswerving motto is ‘Go West and Turn Right.'”

Over the years, Wayne’s patriotism was panned for being blind and unquestioning. It became an object of ridicule, though even his detractors gave him credit for being honest and consistent. “It annoys me,” Wayne said in response to these accusations, “because I have a normal love for my country. His admiration for America, a country that “in 200 years has taken the wilderness and made it a farm that feeds the world and a factory that defends the world,” was simplistic but profound. “This fabulous prosperity,” he held, “didn’t happen in the United States because we have no brains, no education, and no courage.” He was sincere when he declared, “We have a pretty wonderful country, and I thank God he chose me to live here.”

Wayne never lost his unabashed patriotism, even in the late 1960s, when much of the younger generation was full of criticism, even ashamed, of being American. Wayne liked to see “everyman equal in front of the law,” but also “responsible to his country.” “You see corruption and bribery, sure,” he said, “That’s why we have laws.”

He had a “very idealistic period,” he said, when he thought, “Everyone should have a good living,” but was disappointed to realize “everybody won’t pay their dues.” However, challenged about America’s loss of dignity and asked if he were gloomy about its future, his unequivocal response was “absolutely not.” “I think that the loud roar of irresponsible liberalism,” he said in l971, “which in the old days we called liberalism, is being quieted down by a reasoning public.”

Wayne always maintained his optimism about the future of America: “As a country, our yesterdays tell us that we have to win not only at war but at peace. So far we haven’t done that. Sadly, it looks we’ll have another war to win peace.” However, comparing the America he grew up in and the America of today, he believed that, “all in all, it’s practically the same.”

Wayne’s politics underwent several transformations during the course of his life. He admitted to have been a socialist when he was a sophomore at U.S.C., but not when he graduated. From the 1940s on, his politics were labeled right-wing conservatism, but he continued to regard himself a liberal, “because I listen to everybody’s point of view and try to reason it out in my mind, and then do what I think is right.”

Increasingly, however, Wayne found it difficult to define his politics. “With today’s semantics, I don’t know what I am,” he said, “I used to believe I was a liberal, but I guess definitions have changed.” Regarding liberalism “a way of life,” he suggested to “keep it out of politics.”

For Wayne, liberalism meant, “a man ought to be allowed to get up and express his
opinion,” but “very few of the so-called liberals are open-minded.” He therefore rejected the liberalism of those “who shout you down and won’t let you speak.”

In the 1970s, Wayne gave up his fight to label his politics. “I’m involved with what the semantics of today call conservatism at a time when it’s more fashionable to be a liberal. They call me a reactionary. Well, maybe I am a goddamn reactionary.”

Wayne suffers from a point of view based entirely on his experience,” Katharine Hepburn once remarked, describing the origins of his politics. “He was surrounded in his early years in motion pictures by people like himself. Self-made. Hard working. Independent. Of the style of man who blazed the trail across our country, who reached out into the unknown. People who were willing to live or die entirely on their own independent judgment. ‘Pull your own freight,’ this is their slogan.”

Wayne’s love for America was uncritical because of his subjective experience. “The country and its political system have been good to Wayne,” observed Vincent Canby, in the New York Times. “It’s no wonder that he cherished it in way that others, less fully blessed, find dumb founding.”

Wayne’s critics suggested that his reactionary views derived from his Western movies, charging that his politics, like his films, were oversimplified, rigid, and disciplinary. Furthermore, they claimed he reduced complex issues, such as the Vietnam War, to simplistic denominators, viewing it as a classic Western conflict between heroes and villains, good and evil. And because he applied the simplistic solutions of his Westerns to contemporary problems, he was viewed as a man of the past, unable to cop witty problems of modern society.

In some ways, he approached political problems like a hero out of his Western pictures, favoring courage and direct confrontation. For example, he claimed that “The way to stop the war” was “to call Russia’s Kosygin and say that the next time a Russian made gun is turned against us, we’ll drop a bomb right on him.” Wayne did not feel apologetic about his simplistic politics: “They tell me everything
isn’t black and white. Well, I say, why the hell not”

Wayne’s political character was rooted in the American national grain. The historian Richard Hofstadter defined the American fundamentalist mind as one, which “looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and accordingly it scorns compromise.”

Wayne’s politics were contemptuous of complex or subtle issues, favoring plain, straightforward talk, no compromises, and no tolerance for ambiguity. Wayne was compared to General MacArthur, whom he adored, because their political personalities were similar, based on a seemingly inner contradiction. They were proudly nationalistic, tough with the Russians, and obsessed with Communism as an ideological threat, but they were also sincere, honest, and highly emotional, not rational or intellectual, in their politics.