Dear Mr President

Spring 1965 witnessed the birth of a publishing sensation, as Robin Moore's novel The Green Berets appeared in America's bookstores. One of the biggest-selling books ever about the US engagement in Vietnam (by 1975 it had sold 3.2 million copies),54 The Green Berets was a direct result of the Kennedy administration's efforts to reinvigorate the nation's policy in Vietnam and the public's support for it. In 1961, JFK had ordered the expansion of the nation's Special Forces in Vietnam, elite units he believed could defeat the enemy by mimicking its unconventional tactics allied to greater firepower. Nicknamed the Green Berets after their distinctive headgear, the Special Forces enjoyed flattering news coverage in which they were celebrated as a combination of James Bond and Daniel Boone. One journalist termed them 'the Harvard PhDs of warfare'.55 The White House press corps was encouraged to make regular visits to the unit's headquarters at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where the Green Berets performed their self-styled 'Disneyland shows' complete with rocket-propelled backpacks designed to prove their mastery of weapons technology.56 When, inspired by this publicity, author Robin Moore asked in 1963 for privileged access to Vietnam in order to write a book about the Green Berets, JFK ordered the unit to cooperate. The upshot was a series of short stories rolled into one, all extolling the bravery and prowess of Captain Steve Kornie's unorthodox combat unit as it, among other things, brilliantly defends a Special Forces camp and conducts a clandestine mission inside North Vietnam. Army enlistment centres were temporarily flooded in the weeks following The Green Berets' publication, and the book soon boasted a 200,000-member fan club. 'The Ballad of the Green Berets', written by Moore and sung by former Special Forces staff sergeant Barry Sadler, topped the pop music charts for five consecutive weeks in 1966.57

Several Hollywood production companies, including MGM and Columbia, showed an early interest in cashing in on the success of Moore's book, only to be put off by the increased domestic opposition to the war, a lack of funds and the Defence Department's controlling hand.58 This left John Wayne's company, Batjac Productions, to put its head above the Vietnam parapet. Having read The Green Berets, Wayne wrote directly to Lyndon Johnson in late December 1965. Without mentioning Moore's book specifically, Wayne told the president of his desire to make a film about the Special Forces in Vietnam, one with 'reason, emotion, characterization and action' that would inspire 'a patriotic spirit' among fellow Americans and tell the world 'why it is necessary for us to be there'. Wayne could take pride in having worked with the military on such films as The Fighting Seabees (Edward Ludwig, 1944) and The Longest Day (1962), the actor informed LBJ, but asked the president if he could put in a good word for Wayne at the Defence Department in order to 'expedite our project'. For good measure, Wayne appealed to the president's Texan roots by quoting a Davy Crockett line from The Alamo warning against appeasement.59 The White House reacted quickly, its speed reflecting Wayne's authority and the government's desire to get Hollywood's support for the war. A week later, in early January 1966, Jack Valenti, Special Assistant to the President, and a man who six months later would be elected president of the Motion Picture Association of America, urged Johnson to 'grant Wayne permission to make the film' despite the actor's conservative reputation. Valenti, a former fighter pilot and advertising agent, calculated that 'a commercial film about Vietnam, with popular stars in it' was bound to be of greater value than any documentary. It would also have greater licence to depict Viet Cong atrocities, evidence of which the government sorely lacked on film.60

The White House soon learned it need have no worries on this and other scores. In February, Wayne told Bill Moyers, LBJ's press secretary, that his film would show how the 'Commie guerrillas are ruthless, having killed twenty thousand civic leaders and their families during these years of slaughter'. In a letter to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April, Wayne repeated this figure, adding that it amounted to the South Vietnamese having proportionately 'lost twice as many fighting men in their battle for freedom as we lost in the Second World War'. In Wayne's opinion, the South Vietnamese people's willingness to die for the cause belied reports from journalists and other 'overnight visitors' that America was forcing the war upon them. Wayne also promised Moyers his movie would depict the American soldiers' 'duty of death' in Vietnam, together with their role as 'diplomats in dungarees -helping small communities, giving them medical attention, toys for their children and little things like soap'. There would be a 'blood bath of two million souls' if the Senate was to 'bow to the irresponsibility of the Berkeley beatniks' and forsake the Vietnamese, the Duke warned. Moreover, defeat or retreat would completely destroy what was left of the once highly respected American image. This, in turn, would only bring guerrilla warfare closer to home, by encouraging communists like Che Guevara in South America.61

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