When John Wayne was on the screen, he was not just representing America—he was America.  By the time of his death on June 11, 1979, Wayne had transcended the physical limitations of this mortal coil to become an American folk hero akin to the tall tales of the country’s frontier days. In an obituary published the day after his passing, The New York Times suggested that Wayne, the actor, had, “saddled up to become the greatest figure of one of America’s greatest native art forms, the western.” [1]

But away from the John Wayne persona—as Marion Michael Morrison—he was someone very different. His obsessions reflected a man doubtful of his (and, by extension, his country’s) place in the world. Much as the tall tales of figures like Davy Crockett obscure more complicated histories of the founding of America, the image of John Wayne as a folk hero hides a dark period in American history.

THE OFFICE OF WAR INFORMATION

World War II accomplished something few previously thought possible. The war had united rival political factions throughout the United States—and Hollywood in particular—by providing a common cause for Americans to rally around. Figures like director John Ford, a lifelong Democrat, joined the photographic unit of the Office of Strategic Services to contribute to the war cause by creating overt propaganda, while others, like Wayne, a Republican, churned out more subtle examples.

In June 1942 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9182 creating the Office of War Information (OWI). Elmer Davis, the agency’s new director, immediately conscripted Hollywood to serve as his soldiers, as he felt that the entertainment industry was a necessary cog in the growing war machine. But this would not be a few USO tours for the boys overseas or public service announcements to buy war bonds. How would America win a war of information? Davis argued:

“The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people’s minds is to let it go in through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize that they are being propagandized.” [2]

Soon after its creation, OWI produced a document called the “Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry,” directing Hollywood on what it could and could not show in its films. [3] The manual—which included advice like “words are ammunition”—would serve as the basis for a number of movies, including the John Wayne-starring redemption film Pittsburgh (1942). In the film, Wayne transforms from a greedy business magnate into a humbled patriot, under a backdrop of World War II. The story arc was no coincidence. The team behind Pittsburgh collaborated with representatives from the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs to turn what was originally a romance picture into wartime propaganda, pulling from the OWI manual for much of the film’s dialogue. [4]

The Office of War Information did not discriminate based on political affiliation or ideology. So long as a party or person was willing to contribute, they were in, which meant even members of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) were welcome. In 1943 OWI collaborated with screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and director Edward Dmytyrk on the proto-feminist war drama Tender Comrade; at the time, Trumbo was an active member in CPUSA, while Dmytyrk would join the group the following year. In spite of this seeming ideological conflict, representatives from OWI provided a receptive Trumbo with feedback on the film’s script during production. [5]

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of World War II, the OWI tie that bound Hollywood broke. The agency dissolved in September 1945, with the end of the war, and the political detente  Hollywood liberals and conservatives had been operating under ceased. Films that once supported the war effort as American propaganda—like Tender Comrade—transformed overnight into something much more insidious, in the eyes of a small group of Hollywood elite. Wayne would be among the most vocal figures leading this cause.

THE JOHN (WAYNE) BIRCH SOCIETY

John Wayne’s status as a folk hero is as much a function of his own doing as it is any outside parties. As an actor, he would select roles based on how patriotic he perceived the script to be; speaking with Playboy Magazine in 1971, Wayne claimed to have turned down the lead role in western High Noon (1952) because it was the “most un-American thing [he’d] ever seen in [his] whole life.” [6] Others also reported Wayne intervening in the creative process of a film if he felt the writing was not up to his standards. According to director George Sherman, Wayne asked for the script for Wyoming Outlaw (1939) to be rewritten to include the line: “[America] stands for freedom and fair play.” [7] 

Wayne would lend his professional name to projects that connected him to the military and its struggles abroad—specifically in the fight against Communism. The sixties were a time of growing conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union and Wayne placed himself central to that struggle. He collaborated with the Department of Defense (DOD) on the war film The Green Berets (1968) which included a DOD-sponsored trip to South Vietnam in 1966 for research. [8] He also worked with the agency on a pseudo-documentary titled The Challenge of Ideas (1961). Wayne appeared in the documentary as himself, or rather as his professional persona, extolling the virtues of America and capitalism. “We have, on occasion, some difference of feeling,” he intones over an image of striking workers early in the film, before adding, “yet at other times we are united. We are all these things and many more, but above all else we are free.” [9]

Communism was a specter that would haunt John Wayne for most of his adult life. He would grow to see hints of communist infiltration in every aspect of American society—in the youth cultures of the sixties and seventies; in the Civil Rights movement; and most especially among his fellow actors. But John Wayne was no coward. He may not have enlisted to fight in World War II, but he had been drafted for battle in a new Cold War. And John Wayne, American Hero, would place himself on the frontlines to uncover the communist plot to destroy Hollywood.

Probably the best-known example of Wayne’s anti-communist activism was his short-lived involvement with the John Birch Society in the early sixties, and while it is true he was a member, his participation appears to have been minimal resulting from a series of disagreements over messaging and tactics [10] Less discussed but equally important is Wayne’s association with evangelical pastor Dr. Fred C. Schwarz. Schwarz, an outspoken critic of communism in his native Australia, moved to Southern California in the fifties and founded the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade (CACC). The group thrived in the anti-communist milieu of the era thanks to a combination of financial support from right-wing philanthropists like Schick Razor magnate Patrick J. Frawley, Jr. and ties to the American law enforcement and intelligence communities. [11] Wayne was an ardent supporter of CACC, promoting and fundraising for the group until his death. [12] Notably, he appeared as a featured speaker at a series of Frawley-funded CACC events, first at the Hollywood Bowl in October 1961, as part of a televised special called Hollywood’s Answer to Communism  (1961), and again in December at CACC’s Project Alert anti-communist school. [13][14] The events helped CACC attract the attention of Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Chief William H. Parker who recruited Schwarz to offer anti-communist lectures and literature to the LAPD’s red squad (specialized units within police departments that surveilled and harassed alleged communists). [15] During the same period, CACC was alleged to have coordinated with the Central Intelligence Agency to provide funding (and possibly arms) to right-wing groups in Guyana as means of fomenting unrest against Guyana’s left-wing leader Cheddi Jagan. [16] It is unclear the extent of Wayne’s knowledge of CACC’s participation with these groups but he had habit of unknowingly supporting coups. Wayne previously had financial ties to Panamanian politician Roberto Emilio Arias while Arias was plotting to overthrow Panama’s government in 1959. [17]

John Wayne’s participation in anti-communist groups might suggest a passive inclination, someone caught up in the Cold War paranoia of the times, but much as in his professional life, Wayne was not someone who could relegate himself to supporting roles. He was more than a fundraiser or pitchman. He had to be up front, a leading man—an American cowboy fighting the Red Menace. From the very beginning, Wayne placed himself at the forefront of the anti-communist movement, working tirelessly to promote his vision of patriotism and produce the kind of propaganda that might correspond with such a worldview. But the John Birch Society and the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade existed outside the sphere of Hollywood’s influence. How would John Wayne stop the plot against Hollywood?

THE MOTION PICTURE ALLIANCE FOR THE PRESERVATION OF AMERICAN IDEALS

Founded in 1944, the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA) was a conscious effort by the far-right in Hollywood to assert control over the film industry. Led by producer Sam Wood, Hollywood conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Ayn Rand banded together to combat what they perceived as covert infiltration of the entertainment industry by communists. Wayne was initially only a fellow traveler, but he joined the group at the insistence of a friend, actor Ward Bond, in 1947. [18] That same year, the MPA released a controversial pamphlet harkening back to the Office of War Information’s propaganda directives. The document, titled “Screen Guide for Americans,” laid out for producers what content was acceptable for American audiences. Echoing OWI director Elmer Davis, the MPA argued:

“The purpose of the Communists in Hollywood is not the production of political movies openly advocating Communism. Their purpose is to corrupt our moral premises by corrupting non-political movies—by introducing small, casual bits of propaganda into innocent stories—thus making people absorb the basic premises of Collectivism by indirection and implication.” [19]

The Motion Picture Alliance’s activism extended well beyond pamphlets and letters. Shortly after its founding, the MPA invited the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to launch a full-scale Congressional investigation into Hollywood’s ties to communism. HUAC had convened in 1938 to investigate American citizens alleged to be communists or communist sympathizers, led by Texas Congressman Martin Dies, Jr. The committee immediately began targeting federally-funded arts programs like the Federal Theatre Project and the Federal Writers’ Project, making it a perfect ally for the MPA. Beginning in 1944, the MPA coordinated with HUAC and like-minded federal authorities to undermine Hollywood. [20] MPA members such as Ronald Reagan would serve as confidential informants for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, covertly reporting on the activities of the Screen Actors Guild, while others like Lela Rogers would testify as “friendly witnesses” at HUAC hearings in 1947, providing first-hand accounts of communist infiltration. [21]

The MPA’s targets made little sense and often focused on artists who had previously collaborated with the government during World War II. At one HUAC hearing, Lela Rogers, mother of actress Ginger Rogers, attacked screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and claimed he had covertly inserted communist themes into his pro-America war drama Tender Comrade. Rogers accused Trumbo of manipulating her daughter (who had starred in the film) into promoting un-American concepts like communalism via secret messages in the script. Her evidence? The film included the line: “Share and share alike—that’s democracy!” [22]

Most troubling, however, were the MPA’s aggressive lobbying efforts. In July 1950 it began a campaign to muscle the City of Los Angeles into creating a registry of known communists. [23] Actors working at the time reported that the MPA and other like-minded groups (including the equally-conservative Motion Picture Industrial Council) began coercing “voluntary” loyalty oaths. [24] As the Los Angeles City Council debated the issue, the councilman who sponsored the MPA’s resolution, Ed Davenport, went a step further and began pushing for the internment of all communists in the Greater Los Angeles area. [25] Speaking with the Los Angeles Times, Davenport claimed that American communists were part of a “criminal conspiracy pledged irrevocably to the aims of the Soviet Union.” [26]

While the resolution would stall in Los Angeles, another version succeeded nationally. Congress passed the Internal Security Act of 1950—also known as the McCarran Act and, more colorfully, the Concentration Camp Law—in September 1950. [27] The bill contained two sections, the Subversive Activities Control Act and the Emergency Detention Act of 1950; the former, as with the MPA resolution, established a registry for communist organizations and persons, while the latter allowed for the indefinite detention of American citizens where there was “reasonable ground to believe that such person probably [would] engage in, or probably [would] conspire with others to engage in, acts of espionage or sabotage.” [28] The Emergency Detention Act would remain law until 1971.

BIG JIM MCCLAIN

John Wayne’s contributions to the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals were immense. He served four terms as MPA president, from 1949 to 1953, and called on other groups in Hollywood to join in the MPA’s demand for a registry. [29][30] Moreover, he aggressively lobbied on behalf of the MPA and HUAC in public, attacking critics and using his influence as president to propagandize on behalf of both groups. His most substantial contribution would thread the needle between these organizations in their common cause against communism.

In 1952, Wayne formed the production company Wayne/Fellows Productions (later renamed Batjac Productions) with producer Robert Fellows. For its first production the company tapped HUAC investigator William Wheeler to create a film about the communist conspiracy operating in the United States. Wheeler’s experiences working for the group would form the basis of the plot to Big Jim McClain (1952). The film follows Wheeler surrogate Jim McClain (John Wayne) as he investigates a secret cell of American communists in Honolulu, Hawaii. While there, as part of covert program known as “Operation Pineapple,” McClain uncovers the cell’s involvement in a series of crimes ranging from insurance fraud to the sabotage of military equipment, but tellingly, the communists’ ultimate goal is to infiltrate the local shipping union so it can cause a work stoppage and interrupt the flow of goods from the United States. In what would have by then been a familiar sight, Big Jim McClain ends with members of the cell refusing to answer questions from a HUAC subcommittee about their membership in the group.

Big Jim McClain was very loosely based on Wheeler’s involvement in a real HUAC case in Hawaii. A series of strikes by the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) brought Hawaii’s economy to stand stills in 1947 and 1949, preventing the export of its primary cash crop, sugar cane. [31] In the midst of the first strike, in 1947, a former ILWU member and self-proclaimed ex-communist named Ichiro Izuka published a pamphlet titled The Truth About Communism in Hawaii alleging long-term infiltration of Hawaii’s labor unions by communists. The pamphlet caught the attention of HUAC, and the committee sent Wheeler to investigate in late 1949. As in the 1947 HUAC hearings involving Hollywood and the ending of Big Jim McClain, hearings in Hawaii resulted in former and alleged communists refusing to confirm membership in CPUSA. [32]

In adapting (and distorting) the Hawaiian labor disputes, Big Jim McClain served two functions; first, it outwardly presented HUAC as a vital political tool in the fight against communism, but second—and probably more important—it advanced of the financial interests of the MPA and the studios it aligned itself with by linking American unions to the Communist Party. During the thirties and forties, disputes between trade groups and studios erupted in a series of labor actions ranging from strikes to unionization. Of particular cause for concern for studios was the re-emergence of the Screen Writers Guild in 1939. Writers became among the most frequent targets of accusations of communist sympathies; nine of ten men cited for contempt by Congress at HUAC hearings—later dubbed the Hollywood Ten—were screenwriters. The recruitment of Wheeler and the script’s anti-labor focus was a direct attack on unions like the Screen Writers Guild.

For Wayne, the issue was also personal—he held an unusual contempt for writers. “Screenwriters generally thought themselves intellectually superior to mere actors,” Wayne explained to author Michael Munn for the biography John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth. “Many of them belonged to an alliance of liberals and Communists.” [33] During his time as MPA president, Wayne targeted a number of writers he believed to be active communists. In 1951, High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman, a former member of CPUSA, testified before HUAC, where the committee asked him to identify current and former communists in Hollywood, but he refused. Wayne and other Hollywood conservatives like Hedda Hopper were incensed and pushed for their peers to cut ties with Foreman. High Noon producer (and Foreman business partner) Stanley Kramer responded by forcing Foreman to sell his stake in their production company, and High Noon star (and MPA member) Gary Cooper backed out of plans to invest in a separate production company. [34][35] Recalling the incident years later, Foreman stated that Wayne offered him a respite if he publicly apologized; Foreman again refused. [36]

Wheeler, for his part, was well-acquainted with the MPA and its goals by the time of his involvement with Big Jim McClain. Speaking with director David Helpern in the documentary Hollywood on Trial (1976), Wheeler confirmed that the organization was responsible for HUAC’s targeting of Hollywood writers. “This was more or less a request by the people in Hollywood who had personal knowledge of, you might say, communist infiltration in the various craft unions,” he stated. “They were concerned about this infiltration and the influence the Communist Party would have in Hollywood.” [37]

DAVY CROCKETT’S LAST STAND

To understand the plot against Hollywood, you must understand how myths are created—what is told and those things left out. Myths are not ideas set in stone, history’s Medusa gaze. They are often conscious projects that take shape over years—decades even. America’s myths and its mythic figures, in most cases, exist to provide the country with an identity; Christopher Columbus discovering North America, for example, was a historical fiction invented by writer Washington Irving, who Americanized the explorer and erased prior discoveries by indigenous peoples, in his book A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.  [38]

Myth-making can also be something personal people engage in to create identities for themselves. When John Wayne was on the screen, he was not just representing America—he was America. This did not happen by chance. Wayne engaged in acts of self-mythologizing throughout his career. In 1960 he made his directorial debut with The Alamo, a recreation of Davy Crockett’s last stand on March 6, 1836. Wayne starred as Crockett, and working with screenwriter James Edward Grant (who would also contribute to Big Jim McClain), he fictionalized the events of the Battle of the Alamo to perpetuate another American myth: his own.

But if John Wayne is the defiance of Crockett—a man who would die defending America—he must also be the paranoia of McClain—a man who would destroy it chasing those defending their beliefs. For better or worse, we are remembered for the choices we make, and Big Jim McClain may be among the most important of Wayne’s choices. Even he seemed to recognize this. At various points later in his life he would try to reorganize his own history and downplay his involvement in anti-communist projects like the MPA. In the same Playboy interview where he attacked High Noon as “un-American,” Wayne admitted, “I’ll never regret having helped run [Carl] Foreman out of this country,” before stating he was only speaking figuratively. [39] Neither Wayne nor his fellow MPA members would ever dare admit a conspiracy was at the root of their actions in the forties and fifties, that they were guilty of the very thing they had accused so many others. However, if Wayne and Wheeler are one, if Jim McClain was as much Wayne’s choice as Davy Crockett, then we must acknowledge those things left out.

This irony was not lost on William Wheeler, the real-life Jim McClain. Later in life he, too, would reimagine the events of the HUAC hearings, although there was a sense of self-awareness behind his words. “I didn’t know anybody that typed out a list of names and circulated them around studios and said these people are not to be hired,” explained Wheeler in Hollywood on Trial, referring to the blacklisting of the Hollywood Ten. “I mean, this would be against federal legislation, this would be a conspiracy to keep people from being employed.” [40]


[1] Richard F. Shepard, “John Wayne Dead of Cancer on Coast at 72,” New York Times, June 12, 1979, https://www.nytimes.com/1979/06/12/archives/john-wayne-dead-of-cancer-on-coast-at-72-duke-an-american-hero-john.html.

[2] Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies (New York: The Free Press, 1987): 64.

[3] Ibid, 65-66.

[4] Ibid, 97-98.

[5] Ibid, 165.

[6] John Wayne, interview by Richard Warren Lewis, Playboy, May 1971, https://archive.is/ymNny.

[7] Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies (New York: The Free Press, 1987): 69-70.

[8] Michael Goldman, “When Duke Met the Grunts,” JohnWayne.com (blog), March 7, 2017, https://www.johnwayne.com/blog/2019/2/27/when-duke-met-the-grunts.

[9] The Challenge of Ideas, created by the Department of Defense (1961), https://www.c-span.org/video/?301240-1/the-challenge-ideas.

[10] Scott Eyman, John Wayne: The Life and the Legend (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2014): 349.

[11] Donald Janson, “Right-Wing Groups Gain in Drawing Financial Aid,” New York Times, Jun. 28, 1965, https://www.nytimes.com/1965/06/28/archives/rightwing-groups-gain-in-drawing-financial-aid.html.

[12] Hubert Villeneuve, “Teaching Anticommunism: Fred C. Schwarz, the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade and American Postwar Conservatism” (doctoral thesis, McGill University, 2011): 400.

[13] George Willey, “Hollywood Answers Communism,” Concord Transcript (Concord, CA), Oct. 16, 1961, https://www.newspapers.com/image/745257017/.

[14] Donald L. Neff, “Project Alert Anti-Communism School Opens at Shrine Monday, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 10, 1969, https://www.newspapers.com/image/385985787/.

[15] Frank Donner, Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America (Berkeley: University of California, 1990): 246-249.

[16] Jane Kramer, “Letter from Guyana,” New Yorker, Sep. 16 1974, 109.

[17] “Wayne Seems $500,000 Poorer In Arias Deals,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 3, 1959, https://www.newspapers.com/image/177668455/.

[18] Michael Munn, John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth (New York: New American Library, 2004): 99.

[19] Ayn Rand, Screen Guide for Americans (Beverly Hills: Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, 1947): 1.

[20] Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community 1930-1960 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983): 211-212.

[21] Scott Herhold, “Reagan Acted as Informant for the FBI,” San Jose Mercury News, Aug. 25, 1985.

[22] Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies (New York: The Free Press, 1987): 165.

[23] “Register Reds, movie groups urges,” Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), Jul. 20, 1950, https://www.newspapers.com/image/689542179/.

[24] “ASPC Backed Meet Assailed ‘Red Channels,’” Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, Nov. 11, 1950, https://www.newspapers.com/image/683783347/.

[25] “Register Reds, movie groups urges,” Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), Jul. 20, 1950, https://www.newspapers.com/image/689542179/.

[26] “Registration of Reds Urged by Councilman,” Los Angeles Times, Jul. 7, 1920, https://www.newspapers.com/image/385446621/.

[27] Masumi Izumi, The Rise and Fall of America’s Concentration Camp Law: Civil Liberties Debates from the Internment to McCarthyism and the Radical 1960s (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2019): 68.

[28] Internal Security Act of 1950, Pub. L. No. 81-831, 64 Stat 987 (1950), https://uscode.house.gov/statviewer.htm?volume=64&page=1025#. 

[29] Randy Roberts and James S. Olson, John Wayne: American (New York: The Free Press, 1995): 338.

[30]  “Register Reds, movie groups urges,” Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), Jul. 20, 1950, https://www.newspapers.com/image/689542179/.

[31] Alan D. Boyes, “Red Hawaii: The Postwar Containment of Communists in the Territory of Hawaii” (master’s thesis, University of Hawaii, 2007): 14-23.

[32] Ibid, 50-55

[33] Michael Munn, John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth (New York: New American Library, 2004): 66.

[34] Bernard Weinraub, “‘High Noon,’ High Dudgeon,” New York Times, Apr. 18, 2002, https://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/18/movies/high-noon-high-dudgeon.html.

[35] “Gary Cooper Won’t Buy Stock in New Film Firm,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, TX), Nov. 2, 1951, https://www.newspapers.com/image/638151600/.

[36] Scott Eyman, John Wayne: The Life and the Legend (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2014): 505.

[37] Hollywood on Trial, directed by David Helpern (1976; New York, NY: Film Movement, 2018), DVD.

[38] Ed Burmila, “The Invention of Christopher Columbus, American Hero,” Atlantic, Oct. 9, 2017, ​​https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/the-invention-of-christopher-columbus-american-hero/.

[39] John Wayne, interview by Richard Warren Lewis, Playboy, May 1971, https://archive.is/ymNny.

[40] Hollywood on Trial, directed by David Helpern (1976; New York, NY: Film Movement, 2018), DVD.