Besides competing against each other in the Space Race and creation of Nuclear Weapons, the US and the URSS took other measures to defeat their enemy.
As we know, the Cold War was all about doing anything to hit and ridicule the opponent in the most creative way possible and still preventing war. It was the US versus the USSR. After the horrible events the world experienced with two world wars in less than half a century, these countries with different political and social views, and with nuclear weapons at their disposal, couldn't find closure. For decades, people feared that the worst war in history could spark at any time since both countries fought with whatever they had at their disposal to prove who had power over the world. This war could also be translated as Capitalism versus Communism, and a silent underground persecution towards people who supported one or the other took place.
It was under this context this strange story took place. So, as unbelievable as this may sound, there was a special agenda for Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to kill John Wayne, one of the most profitable and beloved Hollywood actors of the time. Yet, why this powerful leader would want to kill a Hollywood star? The story claims it was mainly for Wayne’s open stand and strong comments against Communism, but in fact, this had major implications and had he succeeded he would have made a really huge symbolic blow.
Since its creation, the western genre became one of the most powerful and effective political tools as Steve McVeigh points out in his book The American Western. In that same text, he shows how those enticing cowboys people loved were actually shaped with either physical or personality (sometimes both) traits of the president in turn: if you analyze each film from this genre, you’ll see a clear reference to US enemies portrayed through stereotypical villains. Those feared and ruthless Indians, Mexicans, and even bandits were a clear representation of Germans and Soviets depending on the time in which they were produced.
The US was the biggest propagandistic power at the time and cinema had turned out to be quite effective. Hitler had used it. Mussolini pretty much gave him the idea, and now Stalin, a huge cinema lover and quite a film buff, was becoming an expert on that field. He even had private theaters in his different residencies in which he would binge-watch movies produced in the USSR and all over the world. Stalin was the ultimate censor system for he decided if a movie could be released in the Soviet Union or if it had to be adapted to fit his purposes (he even sentenced movie directors who would go against the communist discourse).
What’s interesting is that despite the fact that Stalin hated the US and its capitalist system, it’s said that he actually was a huge fan of western films. Probably this is why he became acquainted with John Wayne. It’s probable that he interpreted these films in a way that he could see some of him in the heroes, after all, he did present himself as a savior of the Soviet Union in its fight against the world.
Still, Stalin had noticed the cowboy’s ranting against his system since Wayne embodied the American values and the morals through which a real American hero (all men, basically) should govern himself. Also, it seems as if he believed he represented that in real life. Not to shatter the illusion of John Wayne's fans out there, but he was quite a repulsive human being in real life. With so many delusions of greatness, as you can imagine, he felt it was his duty to voice his opinions against that colossal threat called Communism. This naturally got him several death threats. Film studios offered him a special security team to protect him, but as the brave and dauntless cowboy he was, he refused the offer by stating: “I'm not gonna hideaway for the rest of my life, this is the land of the free and that’s the way I’m gonna stay.”
But that did not stop the Russians. According to Yakima Canutt, Wayne’s stuntman, the FBI had discovered the plot against the actor. After some work, they managed to crack the blow and had everything ready to prevent the assassination of the star. The plan was that a couple of KGB agents were going to pass as an FBI group sent to take care of Wayne during the shooting of a film. When these men came into his office, as it was expected, the real FBI was waiting for them in another room. Canutt stated that, when caught, the men were so scared to be sent back to Russia and tell Stalin they had failed that they agreed to work as double agents for the Americans.
Wayne was the aim of another murder attempt in Mexico while he was shooting his famous film Hondo (1953). And another one in 1966, when he was visiting the troops in Vietnam. According to biographer Michael Munn, there was a sniper aiming at him but he was captured right before the star got shot. He declared he had been sent by Mao Tse Tung, the communist leader of China.
For a while this story about the attempt of Wayne's assassination felt as a random fake story about the Cold War or something invented by the Russian agents in order to spread fear. However when Wayne met Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, and asked him if it was true his head had a prize in the Soviet Union, the URSS leader said it had been a “decision of Stalin in his last mad years. I rescinded the order.”
All in all, stories like these happened in both countries. It’s easy to take sides in this long, exhausting, and quite violent quarrel, but what it’s true is that both sides did despicable things in their attempt to topple the other for good. As for the particular case of John Wayne, we can say that if Stalin had succeeded, it’s likely that it wouldn’t have changed the course of history dramatically, but it sure would have been a massive blow in America’s mythical identity foundations.
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