john wayne and “the green berets” as pentagon propaganda

Es­ti­mated reading time is 7 minutes.

WHEN THE SINGLE The Ballad Of The Green Berets was re­leased in Jan­uary 1966, I was 14-years-old (“one hun­dred men will test today”). Being a good, pa­tri­otic Amer­ican lad, I went out and bought it on the same trip to the record store that I picked up the Byrds’ latest record, Set You Free This Time / It Won’t Be Wrong (“but only three win the green beret”).

I played the two records side by side on my portable, plastic, mono record-player be­cause Top 40 radio was so in­clu­sive in the ’60s that dis­parate types of music were a given on the pop charts and con­se­quently in the houses of young record-buyers around the country. Like me!

As I was a pa­tri­otic lad, still a few years from draft age, I be­lieved what I was told: we had to stop the Com­mu­nists in Vietnam be­fore they in­vaded San Fran­cisco and mur­dered and plun­dered and had their way with our women!

I would not sit back and allow Com­mu­nist infiltration.

I would not sit back and allow Com­mu­nist indoctrination.

I would not sit back and allow Com­mu­nist subversion.

I would not sit back and allow the in­ter­na­tional Com­mu­nist con­spiracy to sap and im­pu­rify all of our pre­cious bodily fluids. 1

Hell, yes—I’ll go!


GreenBerets movie poster US 500

This is the Amer­ican poster for The Green Berets movie. It is down­right boring com­pared to the more graph­i­cally ar­resting French poster (below).

Then there was the draft

At 14, I even har­bored dreams of being one of those brave men with silver wings upon his chest. My fa­ther sug­gested West Point in­stead of art school, where everyone al­ways I as­sumed I would end up.

But by the time that John Wayne’s The Green Berets ap­peared in movie the­aters on July 4, 1968, I was on the op­po­site end of the po­lit­ical and philo­soph­ical spec­trum, like many other of my fellow Americans.


By the time The Green Berets ap­peared in the­aters in mid-1968, many Amer­i­cans had come to grips with the meaning of the Tet Of­fen­sive and were op­posed to the film’s message.


I don’t re­call what caused the tran­si­tion in those two years: I’d like to think it was due to my awak­ening morality and not that I was get­ting close to draft age.

By the middle of ’68, the Tet Of­fen­sive had oc­curred and anyone with a func­tioning con­scious­ness knew that not only was our gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary lying to us on a daily basis but that our media—including our pre­cious “free press”—was ei­ther lying with them or en­abling them to con­tinue lying.

And of course, there’s a world of dif­fer­ence be­tween being 14 and being 17-years-old.


BarrySadler TheBalladOfTheGreenBerets PS 1 600

This is the pic­ture sleeve to the Amer­ican single which was awarded an RIAA Gold Record for sales of 1,000,000 copies within weeks of re­lease. Re­puted do­mestic sales by the end of the year were ap­prox­i­mately 5,000,000, making it the biggest-selling 45 of 1966.

Silver wings upon their chest

My cur­rent in­terest in The Ballad Of The Green Berets was spurred while re­searching a project in­volving hit records of 1966. It’s cer­tainly not the kind of record that most of us who grew up then bring to mind when we want to hum or sing a golden oldie to ourselves.

This led to an ar­ticle on Sadler where I called The Ballad Of The Green Berets, one of the un­like­liest #1 records of all time and said it sounded like some­thing that should be played over the closing credits of a movie, not on Amer­ican Band­stand. (“I’d give it an 85. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”)


I would not sit back and allow the in­ter­na­tional Com­mu­nist con­spiracy to sap and im­pu­rify all of our pre­cious bodily fluids.


I tried to de­ter­mine how and why such a record be­came the biggest selling single of 1966. After dis­missing a couple of rea­sons, I fo­cused on looking at its suc­cess as sup­port by the white middle class for our mil­i­tary’s ef­forts to stop the so-called domino ef­fect in South­east Asia.

I dis­cov­ered that Barry Sadler was a very in­ter­esting figure with sev­eral dis­tinct ca­reer paths after his mil­i­tary duty, in­cluding stints as a recording artist, a movie star, and a sa­loon owner be­fore ending up a mod­estly suc­cessful writer with more than twenty pub­lished and pop­ular novels!


GreenBerets movie poster France 500

This is the French poster for The Green Berets. The black back­drop and the huge (should I say “god­like”) image of John Wayne looking down at the war make this much more graph­i­cally in­ter­esting than the Amer­ican poster (above).

Oné hundred men will test today

Back to the Duke’s movie: the rep­u­ta­tion of The Green Berets as an in­ac­cu­rate piece of Pentagon-approved pro­pa­ganda has tar­nished its rep­u­ta­tion for decades. Not that there’s much of a rep­u­ta­tion to tar­nish: based on the novel of the same name by Robin Moore, the film wasn’t very good, even as bad movies go. Here is a sum­ma­tion of the plot from The Guardian (July 11, 2014):

“Wayne wrote to Pres­i­dent Lyndon B Johnson to se­cure gov­ern­ment ap­proval. The Pen­tagon al­lowed Wayne lavish use of props and mil­i­tary bases for filming; it also re­tained script ap­proval, and in­sisted on ex­ten­sive and de­tailed changes to plot and dialogue.


We had to stop the Com­mies be­fore they in­vaded San Fran­cisco and had their way with our women!


The film be­gins with a lengthy pro­logue showing what good ol’ boys the Spe­cial Forces are. But there is a lib­eral journalist—those guys are the worst—called George Beck­worth. He has gotten the silly idea in his commie-loving head that this war might be a bit nasty. For­tu­nately, Spe­cial Forces set him right at the press conference.

The Amer­i­cans spend all their time in Vietnam doing nice things, like of­fering med­ical as­sis­tance to needy peas­ants and hug­ging adorable chil­dren. Mean­while, the Vi­et­cong are a mas­sive, face­less force of evil, mur­dering chil­dren and raping women. Beck­worth sud­denly re­alises that America is to­tally in the right. Take that, liberals!”

The Guardian writer points out that a year after The Green Berets was re­leased, an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by writer Daniel Lang for The New Yorker mag­a­zine re­vealed that atroc­i­ties such as the film de­picts were in fact happening—but they were being com­mitted by US troops.

In 1968, Richard Nixon was elected Pres­i­dent after hinting he could end the war where the De­moc­rats had failed. He did this after tor­pe­doing Pres­i­dent John­son’s at­tempts to broker a peace ac­cord with North Vietnam. Nixon and the Rep*blican Party thus en­sured the deaths of tens of thou­sands more Amer­i­cans and hun­dreds of thou­sands of South­east Asians.

It did not ap­pear that The Green Beret movie stemmed the tide of anti-war sen­ti­ment and opinion that was flowing through the United States and Europe.


GreenBerets movie poster Japan 500

This is the Japanese poster for The Green Berets. It is much closer to the orig­inal Amer­ican poster than the French poster (both above) but packs a little more graphic punch due to the Japanese symbols.

Only three win the green beret

This pales in com­par­ison to a re­view of the movie given it at the time of re­lease by Re­nata Adler in The New York Times (June 20, 1968):

The Green Berets is a film so un­speak­able, so stupid, so rotten and false in every de­tail that it passes through being fun, through being funny, through being camp, through every­thing and be­comes an in­vi­ta­tion to grieve, not for our sol­diers or for Vietnam (the film could not be more false or do a greater dis­ser­vice to ei­ther of them) but for what has hap­pened to the fantasy-making ap­pa­ratus in this country. ”

And that’s the opening sen­tence! While the movie was crit­i­cally panned, it still drew people to the box of­fice: it was pro­duced at a cost of$7,000,000 while pulling in just under $22,000,000 at the box of­fice. This would in­di­cate that it was prof­itable, though far from being a block­buster. 2


GreenBerets BarrySadler 1971 600 crop

Barry Sadler playing sol­dier in the deserts of the Amer­ican South­west in 1971.

The Lord of the Beret trilogy

This is the second of three ar­ti­cles re­lating to Barry Sadler and his 1966 hit single The Ballad Of The Green Berets. The three make the most sense if read in this order:

1.  SSgt Barry Sadler And The Ballad Of The Green Berets
2.  John Wayne And The Green Berets
3.  The Sen­sa­tional Movie Poster Art Of Frank McCarthy


TheGreenBerets movie poster US 1000

FEA­TURED IMAGE: The art­work at the top of this page was taken from the orig­inal poster for the movie The Green Berets. It’s a painting by artist Frank Mc­Carthy, one of the great names in the his­tory of movie poster art.



1   I had prob­ably seen Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Wor­rying and Love the Bomb by this time as part of a Sat­urday mat­inée double-feature. I’m not sure that I un­der­stood the nu­ances of the de­ranged, para­noid Brigadier Gen­eral Jack D. Rip­per’s (Ster­ling Hayden) re­flec­tion at the time.

2   I don’t even try to make sense out of cost and gross and profit for Hol­ly­wood movies—their ac­counting de­part­ment is ap­par­ently far more cre­ative than any­thing the scum­bags in the record in­dustry ever tried. The movie For­rest Gump grossed al­most $700,000,000 world­wide, yet the pro­ducers claimed it did not make a profit: “Win­ston Groom was paid $350,000 for the screen­play rights to his novel For­rest Gump and was con­tracted for a 3% share of the film’s net profits. How­ever, the film’s pro­ducers did not pay him, using Hol­ly­wood ac­counting to posit that the block­buster film lost money. Tom Hanks, by con­trast, con­tracted for a per­cent share of the film’s gross re­ceipts in­stead of a salary, and re­ceived $40,000,000.” (Wikipedia)



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