The Democratic Party of Orange County passed a resolution calling John Wayne a “racist symbol,” which is preposterous.
John Wayne is a symbol of many things, but racism isn’t one of them. That’s not to deny that the actor held views or made comments that today are rightly regarded as racist. It’s only to point out that these comments were re-discovered in an interview that the actor, who was born in 1907, gave to Playboy magazine in 1971.
For historical context about American society at the time, that was only four years after the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Loving v. Virginia, striking down state laws that banned interracial marriage.
A symbol of racism is something that’s widely recognized as representative of racism. A Klan hood is a symbol of racism. It isn’t recognized as representing anything else.
If you have to read a 1971 Playboy magazine for the articles to find out that John Wayne held racist views, he’s not a symbol of racism.
Nonetheless, the Democratic Party of Orange County announced that it “condemns” the late actor’s “racist and bigoted statements” and called for his “name and likeness to be removed from the Orange County Airport.”
But before anybody topples any more monuments, consider that there may be another reason the left is so angry at John Wayne.
The legendary movie star was elected to the board of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1940s, and he said that’s when he first got a good look at the leftist movement in the motion picture industry. “Once you get sensitized to it, you’d begin to be aware of cracks at our president, the flag, patriotism,” he said. It was “a kind of sneering.”
Sound familiar? The difference today is that you don’t have to become sensitized to it in order to see it. You just need cable TV, or a window.
In 1944, Wayne became one of the founding members of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, the MPA. The group of actors, directors and writers was organized with the goal of fighting the leftist movement in Hollywood.
The first president of the MPA was director Sam Wood. Clark Gable and Robert Taylor also held the office. Wayne became the MPA’s president in 1949 and served until 1952. That was the period of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Reportedly, studio executives warned the actor that his role at the MPA would wreck his career and kill him at the box office.
A year after assuming the presidency of the organization, Wayne was the top box-office star in the country, up from a rank of 32nd.
Not for the first time, Hollywood executives were disconnected from the political views of the American public.
“I never felt I needed to apologize for my patriotism,” Wayne said. “I felt that if there were Communists in the business — and I knew there were — then they ought to go over to Russia and try enjoying freedom there. We were just good Americans and we demanded the right to speak our minds. After all, the Communists in Hollywood were speaking theirs. If you’re in a fight, you must fight to win, and in those early years of the Cold War I strongly believed that our country’s fundamental values were in jeopardy. I think that the Communists proved my point over the years.”
John Wayne was a fierce anti-Communist. He once explained his position by saying Communists “were rotten and corrupt and poisoned the air of our community by creating suspicion, distrust, hatred. We (members of the MPA) were called anti-Semite, even though [screenwriter Morrie] Ryskind was one of our leaders. We were called anti-labor even though Roy Brewer and three other AFL leaders were in with us. Actually, we were the real liberals. We believed in freedom. We believed in the individual and his rights. We hated Soviet Communism because it was against all religion, because it trampled on the individual, because it was a slave society.”
John Wayne is a symbol of freedom. As a movie star he portrayed tough, independent, gutsy heroes, fearless in the face of danger, confident in his power to overcome obstacles. And as a political figure he was just as tough and just as confident that the right thing to do was stand up for freedom, for “the individual and his rights.”
That’s the kind of thing people on the left call “selfish.”
The Red Scare era in Hollywood left deep wounds that have never completely healed. The blacklisting of suspected Communists devastated lives and careers. Anti-communism is still reviled in Hollywood and in the salons of the political left.
John Wayne was right that communism tramples on the individual and destroys freedom. He was right that it fosters suspicion, distrust and hatred. He was right that when you’re in a fight for your fundamental values, you must fight to win.
Leave his name on the airport. The Democratic Party of Orange County would be well-advised to throw away that old Playboy magazine before somebody sues them for creating a hostile work environment.
Originally published in the Los Angeles Daily News