Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of John Wayne’s death. In observance of that, several new biographies will appear along with at least one television documentary currently in production.
In the objective sense, since he was only a Hollywood celebrity, his personality and career seemingly have little to do with the main areas of interest of this magazine’s readers: military history and current event analysis. More subjectively, however, Wayne’s influence went far beyond theaters due to the fact that, throughout the mid-20th century, his on-screen persona came to typify – for both supporters and detractors – the archetypal American male.
In regard of his larger cultural significance, two weeks ago we offered a short article analyzing that aspect of his early career: his involvement – or, more correctly, his non-involvement, in the Second World War. That article is still available by scrolling down through the posts on this page.
This second, and final, installment examines the violent collisions he had with communist operatives deployed to kill him, first by Stalin in 1949 and then by Mao in 1966. Those episodes remain generally unknown today because Wayne used all his superstar influence to keep them out of the press when they occurred.
He did that not because he was publicity shy – in general he was anything but that. Rather, he was concerned, if those failed attempts on his life were publicized, the upshot would be to bring on more such efforts. In turn, he feared that would mean he would have to convert his home into a fortress and keep himself and his large family cocooned within layers of security and bodyguards.
Stalin, who used to enjoy occasionally dabbling in film production, first began to hear about Wayne from various Russian film directors after the end of World War II. They told him how Wayne’s career was rapidly rising from making B-movie westerns to true superstar status. That increasing stardom, coupled with Wayne’s vociferous anti-communism – he was prominent in the “Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals,” an anti-communist public relations group formed by conservatives within the Hollywood film industry – made the dictator decide Wayne should be liquidated.
He sent two KGB assassins to Los Angeles carrying false documents identifying them as FBI agents, which they were to use to facilitate their getting close enough to Wayne to kill him. The communist “fellow traveler” group – consisting of various low-level film studio employees – with whom the Russians stayed while planning precisely when, where and how to complete their mission had, fortunately, been infiltrated by undercover agents from the real FBI.
As soon as the genuine FBI found out the assassins planned to call on the actor at his office at Warner Brothers Studios – ostensibly to discuss with him a threat against his life that they were investigating – the real G-Men notified Wayne as to what was coming. Since they knew the exact day and time of the attempt – Wayne was then working late into the evenings on a script for an upcoming film project, and the hit was scheduled for that time of day – the actor said to let them come to his office.
Unknown to the assassins, of course, the real FBI men were waiting just behind the door, ready to nab and disarm them as soon as they entered. The plan worked smoothly, and the KGB team was arrested without any problems.
In September 1958, when Nikita Khrushchev toured the US, the new dictator asked President Eisenhower if he could arrange for a meeting between him and Wayne. It seems Khrushchev enjoyed Wayne’s westerns a lot and, even though the communist leader wouldn’t authorize them for public screenings in theaters in the USSR, he had copies shown in the Kremlin for his own entertainment.
At a reception set up by the head of Twentieth Century Fox studios, Khrushchev – off to the side, with only an interpreter present as the two men talked and drank – verified to Wayne the assassins of 1949 had indeed been sent directly on Stalin’s orders. He also said that, soon after the older dictator had died he, Khrushchev, had personally ordered no such further attempts against Wayne’s life should be planned. He also cautioned the actor, though, he should still be careful because there were indications Chinese dictator Mao Tse-tung was looking for an opportunity to kill him.
Wayne then asked Khrushchev if he really liked his pictures and why. The dictator replied: “Yes, I especially like the ones about the US cavalry. They remind me of how white Americans oppressed the true natives of America.”
Wayne later said that, on hearing those statements translated, he felt like “punching Khrushchev in the mouth.” He thought better of it, though, since he didn’t want to embarrass the Eisenhower administration or otherwise start an international incident.
Mao did make a move in June 1966, when Wayne went on a three-week tour of various US military bases across South Vietnam. Since he didn’t sing or dance, after each introduction Wayne would come off the stage to move among the audience of US soldiers, shaking hands, sharing beers and signing autographs. Near the end of the tour, as he was doing that, several bullets whizzed past him, striking the ground nearby, so close that he later said he “could feel the wind as they flew by.”
His Marine escorts quickly got him under cover but, sometime later when Wayne and his party were getting ready to leave, he was told a quick-reaction patrol had located and captured the sniper who’d fired at them. They took Wayne into the room where the disarmed sniper sat bound in a chair.
The prisoner eagerly explained – via a multi-lingual South Vietnamese interpreter – that he was a Chinese soldier who’d been sent personally by Mao to kill Wayne. The soldier said Mao had promised him, if he succeeded, both “great glory” and a “financial reward.”
The sniper said he’d failed because the base’s perimeter security kept him from getting close enough to line up a sure-kill shot. Wayne later remarked, in regard to the sniper: “I don’t know what happened to that poor bastard. I suspect he didn’t live to tell his tale [again].”
Though relations between the US and China and Russia aren’t smooth these days, it’s doubtful any Hollywood star of today is on Putin’s or Xi Jinping’s personal hit lists. We might take that as one modest measure of things getting better.
Note: In the attached color photo, Wayne is shown moving among some US troops in the audience during his 1966 tour of bases in South Vietnam. The black-and-white photo was taken at the reception where Wayne and Khrushchev drank and talked together. (Wayne was careful to stay away out of photographs all during that soiree.)
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