The Military As TV Entertainment

In the 1950s the American military was the mightiest armed force on Earth. The existence of that arsenal was fundamental to the conduct of American foreign policy. On television during that decade the armed forces were consistently a part of popular entertainment. Reassuringly, TV praised the military, involving its stories and personnel in all types of programming. From film of actual battles and fictionalized drama, to situation comedy and sports and quiz shows, television focused frequently and flatteringly upon the armed forces. Never in the history of peacetime American broadcasting has such emphasis been placed on the military.

As Table 4 indicates, in entertainment series alone, the military was strongly represented on TV.

Table 4: The Military in TV Series in the 1950s
Years ofNo. of
ProgramFirst-RunEpisodes
Crusade in Europe194926
Crusade in the Pacific195126
The Big Picture1951-71828
Victory at Sea1952-5326
Navy Log1955-58102
The Phil Silvers Show1955-59138
Combat Sergeant195613
The West Point Story1956-5739
Air Power1956-5726
Men of Annapolis1957-5839
Citizen Soldier
(The Big Attack)
1957-5839
The Silent Service1957-5878
Flight1958-5939
Steve Canyon1958-6039
Men into Space1959-6038
The Blue Angels1960-6139

One of the most popular entertainment formats was the military documentary series. More than historical accounts, they were laudatory epics with Cold War implications. Crusade in Europe was a 26-part history of action in the European theater of World War II. Based on the memoirs of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the series was skillfully produced by the March of Time and Twentieth Century-Fox. It premiered in May 1949, and proved to be one of the most popular attractions of the summer months. In the words of one reviewer, the series was "the most notable advance for TV in the field of narrative-visual reporting." As an image of the United States in war, Crusade in Europe was a striking presentation. Stressing as it did the skill, bravery, and rectitude of the American war effort, Eisenhower and the armed forces he commanded emerged heroically.

The success of this series led to the sequel production of Crusade in the Pacific, another 26-part documentary program debuting in 1951. This latter series, however, went beyond World War II. Its coverage of the battle against aggression in the Far East included the Korean War, a conflagration that had begun less than a year before the series was released. Important to both productions was the sense of crusade they conveyed, for implicit throughout them was the idea that the national struggle against totalitarian dictatorship and aggression did not end just because Hitler had been vanquished and the Japanese had surrendered.

Nowhere was the blend of military splendor and moral righteousness more powerfully presented than in the prestigious NBC program Victory at Sea. This was the Cold War documentary series par ex­cellence, focusing on the U.S. Navy in World War II but exploiting the militarized mentality of many Americans in the 1950s. The 26-part series was a collaboration of great talent. It was directed by Henry W. Salomon; its music came from Richard Rodgers and the NBC Symphony Orchestra; it was produced by Robert Sarnoff; and it was authenticated by the distinguished historian Samuel Eliot Morison. Supplemented by masterful editing and a vast display of authentic film of naval action during the war, the series emerged as the outstanding television production to that date.

Significantly, Victory at Sea struck a responsive chord within American society when it premiered in 1952. It became an instant programming success and was immediately rerun once its first showing was completed. Ten years after its release, mass acceptance of the series was obvious. By that date every ship, installation, and substation in the Navy had at least one episode of the program to be used as "an educational device." It had been shown in every country in the world where there was television, and theatrically in some of those without TV. Within the United States the program had appeared at least once in 206 markets. And it had been rerun frequently-14 showings in Oklahoma City, 13 in Los Angeles and New York City, and 11 in Milwaukee. The series had also been edited and released as a 90-minute feature film. By 1963 its soundtrack had grossed over $4 million as an RCA-Victor record album.

Needless to say, Victory at Sea won awards. These included an Emmy from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and the George Washington Medal from the patriotic Freedoms Foundation, and a Peabody from the University of Georgia. Other awards came from Sylvania, Variety, American Weekly, the City of Boston Film Council, and the Christopher Society. Three of its key personnel—Salomon, Rodgers, and Sarnoff—were also awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by the U.S. Navy in 1953.

Critics applauded the artistic and emotional quality of Victory at Sea. Some suggested the intent of the series was to illustrate "the preservation of freedom and the overthrow of despotism." But it possessed more than simple historical value. There were those who understood the program in light of the Cold War, those who felt that in film footage of the German and Japanese defeat there was a lesson for actual and would-be Communist aggressors. This attitude was aptly summarized by Jack O'Brian of the New York Journal-American, who felt that the program demonstrated that it was not "ever safe to push the U.S. too far. It might be a good idea to show Victory at Sea to Nikita Khrushchev. A very good idea."

Victory at Sea presented a chauvinistic image of the United States in world affairs. Innocent America clashed dramatically with the savage self-interest of Fascist imperialism. The American cause was couched in terms of altruism, morality and international law—the enemy motive was naked aggression. There was no discussion of issues. There was no explanation of why the British Empire should be preserved while those of Germany, Japan, and Italy should be destroyed. Instead, rhetoric replaced reason and viewers had war painted in sermonizing tones. In one episode the narrator described the purpose of the battle thus: "From island to island, continent to continent, the children of free peoples move the forces of tyranny from the face of the earth.... It is, it will be so, until the forces of tyranny are no more."

In the program about Guadalcanal audiences learned that the American mission was divine in inspiration:

Far from the dying and destruction, far from the sailors and marines who fight and pray for victory and salvation, the United States of America organizes her land, her resources, her industry, her men to answer the distant prayers. In the greatest mobilization of strength known to the world, America prepares to rescue the world. And to the rescue America marches.

As a corollary to such factual and impersonal presentations, Cold War television frequently offered series with a humane, "nice-guy" image of the military. From stories about soldiers and sailors in many anthology dramatic programs, to an Army-sponsored G.I. talent series like ABC's Talent Patrol, which in 1953 was hosted by Steve Allen and Arlene Francis, by spotlighting the human quality of individual servicemen and servicewomen, TV personalized the armed forces, projecting the military as "a bunch of regular guys" rather than a powerful institution with its own direction and self-interest.

Men of Annapolis and The West Point Story were light dramatic series that in the late 1950s treated the collegiate problems encountered by the nation's Navy and Army officers-in-the-making. The most engaging program in this "nice guy" style, however, concerned a noncommissioned officer, Sergeant Ernest Bilko, and his merry band of motorpool enlistees in The Phil Silvers Show. Throughout the history of broadcasting there had never been a successful comedy series set in a military context. But for four television seasons, 1955-1959, and in countless reruns on local stations, the rascally Sergeant Bilko turned the Army into a zany world of gambling, romance, get-rich-quick schemes, and general indiscipline. It was a happy demimonde where Bilko's greatest war was a weekly struggle to outwit his gullible commanding officers.

Unlike official propaganda in many authoritarian countries, the persuasive content of American TV ideology was neither dogmatic nor heavy-handed. There were superficial contradictions that often softened the political message. Sergeant Bilko seemed to outmaneuver his commanding officers with ease, but this did not demean the officer corps. In fact, after apparent success in his high jinks, Bilko often ended up the victim of his own scheme. The shenanigans of Bilko and his motor-pool underlings were nothing more than embodiments of the chronic barrack's gripes by countless GIs about inflexible officers and the routines of military life. Bilko and his men were benign. In fact, their recognizable, human qualities increased their propagandis­tic subtlety, for it was well understood that at heart they were loyal to their country if not to military decorum. This was comedy akin to that of silent films where common people threw pies in the faces of men in tuxedos and women in fine gowns. These were not the antics of social discord, but the comedy of a democratic people uncomfortable with divisions of class and rank, yet powerless to change things meaningfully.

Further, the military was not always shown as invincible. Although the U.S. Navy eventually triumphed in World War II, Victory at Sea often showed sunken American ships and dead American sailors. It was not an indestructible Navy that emerged here. Like the country it represented, the U.S. Navy could be wounded seriously. It might even lose. But such vulnerability only underscored the patriotic call to duty contained in such series. Like the heroes of The Phil Silvers Show, the winners in Victory at Sea—and in all TV shows offering a perspective on the American role in the Cold War—were regular folks, common people who, regardless of rank or class, battled to­gether to preserve bourgeois freedom at home and the possibility of its extension abroad. And the quintessential symbol of this ideological posture in the 1950s was the serviceman.

The American military establishment did much to ensure that television portrayed the armed services in a positive fashion. As early as 1950 it spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce and broadcast TV commercials aimed at recruitment. Whether it was allowing Bob Hope to film and broadcast highlights of his overseas tours, or cooperating with the networks during Armed Forces Week celebrations, the Pentagon sought to display itself in a favorable light.

Typical of this latter function, on May 12, 1957, the military establishment staged a magnificent display of its arsenal on NBC's Wide Wide World program. Courtesy of the Pentagon, viewers for 90 minutes saw an array of live military maneuvers—precision bombing drills from Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix; simulated vertical envelopment in an amphibious assault conducted at Marine Corps installations at Quantico, Virginia-, remote transmissions from a U.S. Navy submarine, an aircraft carrier, and a guided missile cruiser; and demonstrations by the U.S. Army of its latest equipment at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Only the constraints of time prevented Wide Wide World from spotlighting the prowess of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Writing in 1970, Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas described the efforts of the Department of Defense to enhance its public image and to convince the American people of its anti-Communist interpretation of world politics. In his book The Pentagon Propaganda Machine Fulbright cited a National War College public seminar, the purpose of which was described thus by the military: "To provide guidance to military reservists and to selected civic and business leaders regarding the de­ceptive Communist subversive efforts being directed toward the United States. . . . To reveal areas of Communist influence upon American youth through infiltration into theater, motion picture, television, and other entertainment media. "

Of great importance to this Pentagon propaganda machine, according to Fulbright, was the manipulation of television. Whether by the creation of TV programs, or by assisting approved civilian producers in their treatments of military matters, the Defense Department used television to influence public opinion. While Fulbright's publication focused on the Pentagon during the Vietnam War, the propa­gandistic activities of the military establishment were evident early and often in the history of video.

The Defense Department told its own story in a steady supply of motion pictures produced by the Pentagon and distributed free of charge to all stations willing to air them. In mid-1957, for example, outlets were able to obtain free films about the Air Force such as Air Defense and Air Power, the latter narrated by Lowell Thomas. U.S. Navy submariners were praised in Take 'er Down and the Navy in general was the focus of the three-part History of the United States Navy.

Networks and local stations eagerly awaited films offered by the Pentagon. When the Federal Civil Defense Administration released a 28-minute Defense Department movie of the American hydrogen bomb test in November 1952 in the Pacific, CBS took pride in beating its rivals in airing portions of it. Segments of this film, Operation Ivy, were also shown on the DuMont network, while ABC and NBC televised the movie in its entirety.

The Defense Department also produced its own network and syndicated series. As early as October 1949, The Armed Forces Hour was a half-hour NBC-TV public service program offering vintage mili­tary training and recruitment films, discussions of topics such as amphibious warfare and defense spending, special addresses by the secretary of defense, and musical performances by the Singing Sergeants of the Air Force Band.

Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson hailed NBC for presenting the series, commending the network for "undertaking to reflect these developments which are so important to our national security." Niles Trammell of NBC noted that "Every citizen wishes to know as much as possible about the services which will defend his country if it is ever again attacked. NBC's part in this informational undertaking is to provide its facilities for the Armed Forces’ message." The Armed Forces Hour ended its run as a summer series on the DuMont network in 1951.

By far the most impressive military production was The Big Picture, a series that each week announced: "From Korea to Germany, from Alaska to Puerto Rico, all over the world the United States Army is on the alert to defend our country—you, the American people —against aggression. This is The Big Picture, an official television report to the nation from the United States Army." This program debuted in 1951 and appeared until 1971. It was filmed by the Army Signal Corps. Individual shows varied greatly—from a look at aspects of the Korean War and later armistice, to a survey of rocket weaponry or a dramatic recreation from military history, a tour of an Army base, or defenses against a possible Soviet sneak attack upon the United States.

For several years in the mid-1950s, The Big Picture appeared intermittently as an ABC network presentation. But it received the greatest exposure for its hundreds of films through direct distribution to individual stations. At one point in 1957, the series appeared on 377 outlets. Although telecast whenever participating outlets desired, given its breadth of distribution and length of availability, The Big Picture was probably the most widely viewed series in video history.

The Defense Department supplemented its own programming by cooperating with networks and independent producers. Of course there were many individual shows—an episode of Medic needing a Navy locale or a Studio One live drama requiring file footage of Air Force action—where the military assisted in creating TV entertainment. Furthermore, that assistance often was crucial to the success of a program.

Such was the case, for example, with "Dry Run," a live play presented on December 7, 1953, on Studio One. The story was a submarine epic for which the U.S. Navy was asked to provide film of the atomic sub, U.S.S. Nautilus, then being completed by the General Dynamics Corporation. The Navy filmed the submarine ex­pressly for the TV show. It also provided a commandant to introduce the play—plus directors, technicians, actors, photographers, and publicity men.

In addition to working with individual productions, the Pentagon supplied manpower and materials for entire television series. The Blue Angels incorporated U.S. Navy film footage into its dramatized stories about the pilots of the Navy's precision flying team. The Silent Service not only borrowed submarine footage from the Navy but also received use of a real Navy sub, the U.S.S. Sawfish, to lend increased authenticity to the image of the nation's underwater fleet. The U.S. Army freely lent soldiers to be used as extras in producing Citizen Soldier (renamed The Big Attack), a practice that angered the Screen Actors Guild in 1958.

The dramatic series Flight received free film from the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force also provided footage to Steve Canyon—including motion pictures of the Atlas ICBM missile; of zero elevation launching, in which jets were launched from flatbed trucks; and the test detonation of a hydrogen bomb.15 All branches of the armed services cooperated with Ziv Television Productions in developing Men into Space, a CBS science fiction series that in 1959-60 presented a realistic picture of the space race and the future of space exploration—and a series over which the Pentagon had approval rights on all scripts.

Many historical documentary series relied heavily on the Pentagon for support. This had been the case early in the decade with Victory at Sea, and it continued in such later CBS documentary productions as The 20th Century, The 21st Century, and Air Power. The limits to which the military establishment would go for favorable publicity in entertainment TV was evident in the premiere of the Air Power series. That installment, "The Day North America Is Attacked," was telecast on Armistice Day of 1956. With Walter Cronkite as the announcer, the network and the Defense Department enacted the probable American military response to a surprise air attack by the Soviet Union upon the United States.

This hour-long drama was filmed on actual air bases, ships, and defense installations throughout the United States and Canada. Scores of military officers, including General Nathan Twyning, played themselves in the drama. And Cronkite filmed his narration inside the top-secret Colorado headquarters of the Continental Air Defense Command.

This was exciting TV. There was tension when the generals moved the nation from Warning Yellow to Warning Red as 1,100 Russian aircraft moved on the United States from the north, west, and east. There was excitement as missiles were taken from their silos and the Strategic Air Command and the 83rd Fighter-Interceptor Squadron scrambled. Aircraft carriers were busy with jets taking off. Cameras were inside the cockpits when American airplanes launched air-to-air missiles at incoming enemy craft. The exploding of a Russian thermonuclear bomb on an American city was the climactic finale.

Five times during the telecast CBS superimposed the message "AN ATTACK IS NOT TAKING PLACE. This Is a Military Exercise." Still, it was a believable, action-packed thriller, an exhilarating example of the military as entertainment.

Another noteworthy series receiving Defense Department cooper­ation was Navy Log, a production of more than 100 half-hour dramas based on actual naval events and experiences. This program dealt with personalized tales of World War II, such as Lieutenant John F. Kennedy's escape from a deserted South Pacific island following the sinking of his craft, PT 109. Senator Kennedy filmed a short comment that was aired with the episode.

Occasionally, however, Navy Log turned its sights directly on the Cold War. In a particularly powerful installment aired December 20, 1955, and entitled "The Bishop of the Bayfield," the series dealt with the naval evacuation of Vietnamese Christians from Haiphong harbor in North Vietnam. Two years after the actual event, and long before the war in Southeast Asia became well-known, American view­ers saw their somber sailors "on a mission of mercy," rescuing women, old people, and defenseless children from the onslaught of atheistic Communists. Mixing studio recreations with government-supplied film from the actual evacuation, the episode contained classic Cold War imagery: protective and paternal American military men helping frightened, wretched refugees from the Reds. The story blatantly blended Christian religious symbols—a Bible, a rosary, Roman Catholic Mass—and Cold War propaganda and turned the U.S.S. Bayfield into "a ship with a halo."

In addition to providing its own productions and file footage to private companies, the Pentagon lent military bases, such as the Marine Corps Camp Pendleton and March Air Force Base, for on-location filming. It also provided experts to check on the accuracy of everything from proper military formations to Sgt. Bilko's comedic references on The Phil Silvers Show. The Defense Department even offered its academic campuses. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point was used in producing the Ziv series The West Point Story. The U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis was the site of many scenes in another Ziv product, Men of Annapolis. In both cases, applications for admission to the academies rose as a result of these series.

Still another manner in which the Defense Department cooperated with private producers was in the lending of military officers to act as official technical advisers on and off camera. The Air Force pro­vided an expert on the set during all filming of Steve Canyon. A commander who had once headed the Navy's precision flying drill team was adviser, and sometime pilot for aerial shots, on The Blue Angels. While such advisers usually remained nameless, in several instances programs acknowledged the officers on whom they were dependent. As Table 5 indicates, video entertainment enjoyed a close relationship with high-ranking military personnel during the 1950s.

Table 5
TV Series Crediting Military Personnel as Advisers in the 1950sl 7
ProgramOfficer Credited on Screen
Behind Closed DoorsRear Admiral Ellis M. Zacharias, Ret.
Deputy Chief of Naval Intelligence
Crusade in Europe General Dwight D. Eisenhower,
Ret., U.S. Army
FlightGeneral George C. Kenney., Ret.,
U.S. Army
The Man Called XLadislas Farago, former Chief of Research
and Planning, Special Warfare Branch,
U.S. Naval Intelligence
Navy LogMerle McBain, U.S. Navy
Commander Alan Brown, U.S. Navy Reserves
O.S.S.Colonel William Eliscu, Ret., U.S. Army
The Silent ServiceRear Admiral Thomas M. Dykers, Ret.,
U.S. Navy
Steve CanyonLieutenant Colonel Frank Ball, U.S. Air Force
Victory at SeaCaptain Walter Karig, U.S. Nav
The West Point StoryColonel Russell P. Reeder, U.S. Army

The propagandistic flow was usually from the Pentagon to the networks. However, commercial TV was not averse to reversing the current and providing news footage to Defense Department filmmakers. Certainly, too, episodes of NBC's Victory at Sea became training staples of the U.S. Navy. At least one See It Now program was provided to the military and was reissued by the U.S. Army Signal Corps as Armed Forces Screen Magazine, issue no. 522. Originally telecast on CBS on Novem­ber 17, 1953, this See It Now installment featured Edward R. Murrow and CBS reporters Ed Scott and Bill Downs explaining the multiple strike power of the destroyers, carriers, bombers, and heli­copters of the U.S. Navy's Hunter-Killer Group White. Presented now as an informational film for armed forces personnel, the film featured the Hunter-Killer Group thwarting a mock sneak attack on Boston by a Navy submarine following the path that a Russian submarine might take.

In a multiplicity of ways, then, the military ethic was an integral part of TV in the 1950s. It even found its way into televised sports. When the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rejected live telecasts of college football games, the Defense Department co­operated with CBS in airing Saturday afternoon contests within the Armed Forces League. In the fall of 1951 and 1952, football fans could see nationally broadcast games involving such teams as San Diego Naval Training Center, Camp Lejeune, Fort Lee, Quantico Marines, and the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. The climax of these seasons was the annual Poinsettia Bowl between the Eastern and Western service team champions. Once CBS came to terms with the NCAA in 1953, military football left network television except for the annual gridiron clash between Army and Navy.

Even before it was first televised nationally in 1949, the Army-Navy football game was an American event. But TV made visual what newspapers and radio had only been able to describe in words. "If it is true that football is the sport most closely resembling military combat," wrote Harry T. Paxton in the Saturday Evening Post in 1955, "then it is at the Army-Navy game that football has the perfect set­ting." Throughout the 1950s this simulated combat drew large, proud audiences.

As a Cold War spectacle, television brought the color and pag­eantry of this pseudo-militarism into millions of homes. Here were brave national gladiators meeting in mock combat on the football field. Years later sportscaster Lindsey Nelson described the caliber of men in the game, referring to the players as "the best product of our country, the finest young men we can produce." But it was Paxton who captured the emotionalism of the game. "When those erect, disciplined ranks come swinging in turn onto the field," he wrote, "it is a scene that does something to the normal American pulse." Even when the academies had dismal season records, network TV never failed to broadcast their football confrontation while millions of citizens dutifully watched. In addition, the new Air Force Academy seemed to gain full credibility when, in the fall of 1959, its football team played Army. The final score, a tie, was appropriate for this rite of passage. The game was televised nationally by NBC.

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