Militant Liberty

The climate of Hollywood-Pentagon cooperation fostered by the threat of communism led to a number of creative projects, designed to sell official Cold War strategy more discreetly. One of the most fascinating of these was the top-secret 'Militant Liberty' programme instigated in the mid-1950s by John C. Broger, an evangelical Christian working as a psychological warfare consultant in the US Defence Department. Broger felt that it was essential to propagate more aggressively through a range of media the ideas of freedom and individual responsibility, both in the developing world, in order to inspire anti-communism among cadres of activists, and at home, including among the armed forces, whose 'brainwashing' during the Korean War had, some felt, exposed an ideological and spiritual vacuum inside the United States itself.18 By late 1955, 'Militant Liberty' had brought together Pentagon, State Department and CIA officials, intent on using Hollywood 'to explain the true conditions existing under Communism in simple terms and to explain the principles upon which the Free World way of life is based'. In line with the CIA's belief that the exporting of positive 'American values' was often better than explicitly anti-communist messages, audiences were to be presented with images which would help them to frame the East-West conflict appropriately: for example, showing America to be a land of opportunity and affluence, teaching that competition was healthy, encouraging Good to fight Evil, and explaining why Free World principles were superior to those promulgated by Moscow and Beijing. What was needed was a 'consortium' of Hollywood actors, producers and directors willing and able to insert into films 'the right ideas with the proper subtlety' for domestic and overseas audiences.19

A year later, after several meetings in California, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had signed up some of the biggest names in Hollywood for the Militant Liberty campaign. At the centre of the 'consortium' was the acclaimed director John Ford. An outspoken supporter of FDR's New Deal in the 1930s, Ford had moved markedly to the political right during the first decade of the Cold War. A rear-admiral in the reserves by this point, who had produced films for the CIA's predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, during the Second World War, Ford was entirely in sympathy with the idea that the government's intelligence services should suggest themes for Hollywood audiences. He had already made a number of overtly anti-communist pictures, and distributed Militant Liberty material sent to him by Pentagon officials among his team of scriptwriters.20 Another recruit was the producer and brigadier-general Merian C. Cooper, whose mortal fear of communism dated back to 1919, when he had flown sorties against the Red Army in Poland. Best known as the creator of King Kong, the classic monster movie directed by Ernest B. Schoedsach in 1933, Cooper arranged for Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, producer of Ford's recent Western The Searchers (1956) and cousin of senior CIA psychological warfare operative Tracy Barnes, to be briefed.21 The actors John Wayne and Ward Bond, past and present presidents of the Motion Picture Alliance respectively, completed the consortium's high-profile quartet. Bond was a veteran of nearly 200 films, and in the late 1950s starred in television's highly popular Western series Wagon Train, significantly raising his profile. For many Americans, John Wayne was the screen hero of the age, and the personification of the nation's martial values. Wayne, Bond and Ford had worked together for years, notably producing some of Hollywood's classic Westerns. They were firm friends.22

One film in which all four consortium members were immediately involved, and which epitomises much of their work of the late 1950s, was The Wings of Eagles (1957). This $2.6 million naval melodrama was a tribute to Ford's personal hero, Frank 'Spig' Wead, who had died in 1947. Wead had been a flying ace in the First World War. His aviation career had then been cut short by a terrible accident, after which he had turned to writing novels and screenplays about war and the armed forces. The US Navy considered Wead a perfect subject for the big screen and granted Ford full access to equipment and manpower. On request, the Joint Chiefs of Staff provided the director with assistance 'in putting Militant Liberty elements' into the movie, even despatching an official to work directly with Ford during the location shooting in Florida.23

The Wings of Eagles comes across as a rousing story of courage in the face of adversity, not as propaganda. It celebrates duty and derring-do, opportunity and camaraderie, and is sprinkled with raucous humour and daring aerial sequences. Our first sight of young naval officer Wead (played by Wayne) is just after the Great War, when he lands a biplane in the middle of an admiral's garden party. However, maverick high jinks soon give way to tragedy when Wead's infant son dies. Emotionally crippled and already estranged from his wife (played by fiery redhead Maureen O'Hara, Wayne's favourite leading lady), Wead buries his head in work for the navy. Our hero becomes world famous after breaking seaplane speed records and is made the youngest squadron commander in naval history, only then to break his spine falling down stairs at home. Through long and painful years, the paraplegic Wead is movingly nursed back to health by his old navy mechanic, Carson (Dan Dailey). Now able to get about with only braces and canes, Wead develops a second career as an aviation writer for magazines and, after he is hired by a John Ford lookalike (Ward Bond), the cinema. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the indefatigable Wead then wangles active duty. More amazingly still, he devises the 'baby carrier', which makes a major contribution to Pacific strategy.24

Called a 'men's weepie' by some, and 'a routine glorification of the United States Navy Air Force' by the communist press, the trade papers deemed The Wings of Eagles a bankable cert. Only one scene, in which Wead makes an impassioned speech to a Congressional committee warning of the dangers of disarmament, might have struck some in the audience as unnecessarily didactic.25

Liberty in action: John Ford (seated, with baseball cap) directs Barry Kelley and John Wayne (with walking sticks) on the set of The Wings of Eagles (1957). The film marked the tenth time Ford and Wayne had worked together. MGM/The Kobal Collection.

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