“That’ll be the day!”
John Wayne’s gravelly, dry voice connected with millions who recognized in its tenor something of America’s pioneer character. In dozens of popular movies, Wayne— who died on this day in 1979—played the no-nonsense, self-reliant cowboy who had an innate and profound, if not quite scholarly, understanding of justice. Wherever he found himself, he was in his own way a force for good, for law and order.
Wayne’s favorite setting on the big screen represented a period when hundreds of thousands of Americans headed west. Despite violence, disorder, natural obstacles, and a civilizational void, they forged ahead. Adventure-seeking individuals, enterprising businessmen, fervent missionaries, and ordinary families looking for a new beginning established towns and communities across the American West.
They extended American society largely without government support and certainly without government direction or regulation. This was a time of opportunity, of energy, of hope. And even though the West had long been settled by the time Wayne came along, his films with director John Ford kept the spirit of the West alive. Their films showed the sometimes harsh realities of human nature, but also served to reinforce the political principles of America’s founding as the best form of government.
“Out here a man settles his own problems,” said Wayne’s character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), summing up the idea of personal responsibility. This so-called rugged individualism, unique to America, was not detrimental to community; indeed, it was the key to building strong communities. It was this attitude that settled new territory, built cities, established industry, and fostered greater prosperity. Wayne’s and Ford’s movies and countless other examples from popular culture of the post–World War II era helped maintain an American spirit of individualism and enterprise, as Americans began navigating new frontiers including space, communications technology, and the darkened borders of the “captive nations” long occupied by Soviet forces.
Enemies of the United States also noticed America’s exceptional national character and, in particular, John Wayne. Wayne’s rugged individualism challenged the idea of collectivism. Although Soviet leader Joseph Stalin enjoyed watching American westerns, he recognized them as an ideological threat, and the Duke’s vocal anti-communism made him a clear target.
According to multiple accounts, Stalin ordered John Wayne’s assassination in the 1950s. Wayne reportedly survived two assassination attempts by Soviet agents, in Los Angeles and on a movie set in Mexico. For similar reasons, China’s Communist leader Mao Tse Tung also put a price on the actor’s head. It turns out that his fictional portrayals of a very real American idea were an important element of U.S. public diplomacy and useful to the success of America’s foreign policy.
The political culture and societal values reflected in his movies are slipping. Increasingly, Americans look to government as a source of financial, physical, and emotional well-being. Americans’ growing dependency on government is both a symptom and a cause of the move away from constitutional government and toward an ever-greater role for government in the daily lives of ordinary citizens.