The TV Western As Political Propaganda

The Western flourished on Cold War television. Whether in its original juvenile orientation, or in the adult formulation that emerged in the mid-1950s, the Western was relevant drama embodying the psychology of the East-West struggle. In this time of international tension and generalized social anxiety, the Western offered answers. In it powerless, perhaps frustrated, viewers found stylized tales of how their forefathers had triumphed over antisocial forces.

There were morals in the Western. The warm and friendly heroes of such programs believed in process, rules, and order. Sometimes they were law enforcement officers paid to uphold the regulations of civilized life. Sometimes they were do-gooders volunteering to rid the settlement of its disruptive elements. However they appeared, these heroes always preferred rational methods in upholding the law. But, when compelled by enemies, the Western stalwarts could be tough. These decent people were always prepared to use physical strength and firearms to achieve their just goal.

In a Cold War society where there were threats to existence and where similar toughness seemed necessary, Western heroes offered role models in resolve and courage. Their weekly exploits demonstrated a protective mentality suited to the popular perception of Cold War realities: basically law-abiding, but capable of great force in defense of civilization. As one editor pointed out at the time: "Though we are a peaceful people at heart, we let no one push us around, and find a warm kinship in reading of the Westerners who wouldn't be pushed either, or who so colorfully retaliated with six-guns, fists, or lariat."

The Western was an integral part of the earliest TV programming. Directed primarily at children, relic B Western films and serials from the 1930s were inexpensive to broadcast, easy to edit for commer­cials, and filled with the action desired on early television. Faded cowboys stars like Tim McCoy, Hoot Gibson, and Ken Maynard had their careers rejuvenated. For William Boyd, the star of dozens of Hopalong Cassidy movies in the Depression, revitalization became a national commercial fad. By 1950 vintage Hoppy features, a new series of half-hour TV films, and a multitude of consumer products (from roller skates to bath towels) endorsed by Hopalong catapulted Boyd and his character into cultural prominence.

The success of Hopalong Cassidy opened the way for other per­sonalities from juvenile Westerns. From movies and radio came Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Lone Ranger, and the Cisco Kid. And there were new heroes riding weekly in the name of justice and American civilization: Wild Bill Hickok, Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, Jr., the Range Rider, Zorro, Kit Carson, and even a dog, Rin-Tin-Tin, labored in the cause of law and order.

When they flourished in the early 1950s, the juvenile Westerns gave children admirable models of responsible American adults. The heroes of these shows were ideal relatives—the perfect father, uncle, big brother, or even mother, aunt, or big sister—the type of person­ality after which to shape oneself. Here, too, were paradigms of dedi­cation to purpose and concern for positive social values. Moreover, as stylized American history, here was love of country, respect for just government, and communion with the creators of the nation.

The educative dimension of the video Western was summarized by Gene Autry in his Cowboy Code. Promulgated in the early 1950s, the code was a cowboy Ten Commandments enunciating the personal and nationalistic force inherent in the genre:

    1. A cowboy never takes unfair advantage, even of an enemy.
    2. A cowboy never betrays a trust.
    3. A cowboy always tells the truth.
    4. A cowboy is kind to small children, to old folks, and to animals.
    5. A cowboy is free from racial and religious prejudice.
    6. A cowboy is always helpful, and when anyone's in trouble, he lends a hand.
    7. A cowboy is a good worker.
    8. A cowboy is clean about his person, and in thought, word, and deed.
    9. A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents, and the laws of his country.
    10. A cowboy is a patriot.

Another finely developed as a patriotic series was The Lone Ranger. It exhibited nationalistic qualities by being the story of a former Texas Ranger who worked altruistically to bring justice to the West of the 1870s. More specifically, American patriotism was one of the basic tenets upon which producers on radio and TV constructed the show. According to the statement of standards written by its production company:

Patriotism means service to a community; voting ... the development of schools and churches. Patriotism includes also an obligation to maintain a home in which good citizens may be reared. Patriotism means respect for law and order, and the selection of officials who merit such respect. Patriotism consists of the preservation of the things for which our ancestors fought and died. The preservation of the rights of freedom of speech and religion.

Others understood the political qualities of The Lone Ranger. Senator Homer Ferguson in 1953 lauded the Ranger as possessing traits that were endearing to youngsters while teaching them "the principles of good citizenship, patriotism, fair play, tolerance, and a sympathetic understanding of people and their rights and privileges." For George W. Trendle, creator of the program, loyalty to country was part of the general goal of making the Lone Ranger a patriotic, God-fearing, tolerant, habitless character that always used good grammar, never shot to kill, and could "fight great odds, yet take time to treat a bird with a broken wing." Fran Striker, who wrote hundreds of Lone Ranger radio and TV scripts, also articulated the nationalistic qualities of the character. "He feels that the future of the country is in the West, so he's on the side of anyone who wants to build the West," Striker told an interviewer. "He's very patriotic," he continued, "and he believes in the right of every man to work at what he wants to do and to profit in proportion to his work."

While the nationalistic quality of The Lone Ranger was a generic appreciation of country and national past, the patriotism in The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin seemed more directly associated with Cold War thinking. This was an attractive program offering the alluring combination of a likable young boy, sympathetic supporting characters, and a talented German shepherd dog. More than any other juvenile Western, however, Rin-Tin-Tin glorified the military solution to problems of incivility.

The series was set in a cavalry post, Fort Apache, in the Arizona Territory of the 1880s. Throughout its 164 half-hour episodes, all cast regulars except "Rinny" wore U.S. Army uniforms. This was the ultimate garrison state: few civilians except for those causing problems, soldiers everywhere, savages and other enemies outside the protective walls of the fort, and a military presence willing and able to defend American prerogatives. The series taught trust in, and dependence upon, the military. Moreover, because the young hero and his dog enjoyed the happy masculine life within Fort Apache, the program suggested that living could be pleasurable even in a completely militarized society.

As a political statement, however, the most concentrated lesson in Cold War Americanism came from Walt Disney. In his three-part Davy Crockett series—broadcast in 1954-55 as part of Disneyland on ABC—the creator of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse introduced the nation to a patriotic ancestor. Disney's Crockett fought and killed warring Creek Indians, but he spoke resolutely for the rights of peaceful Cherokees. With his innocent belief in direct action in the cause of truth, Crockett was elected to Congress and quickly became the voice of the honest commoner. When his friend President Andrew Jackson tried to force an unjust Indian Bill through Congress, the high-principled Crockett lashed out in unpretentiously democratic terms:

You can fold up your grins and put 'em away, for you'll hear no jokes from Davy Crockett today.... Expansion is a might' fine thing. Sure, we gotta grow, but not at the expense of the thing this country was founded to protect. The government's promises set down in the Indian treaties is as sacred as your own word. Expansion ain't no excuse for persecutin' a whole part of our people because their skins is red and they're uneducated to our ways. You wouldn't be doin' the settlers no good by votin' for this Bill. You'd only be makin' rich men outta the land-grabbers and speculators that've been tryin' to get it passed.

Honest, self-sacrificing, and in love with America, Davy Crockett made the patriot's ultimate sacrifice, giving his life in the defense of the Alamo. Journeying to Texas because "Americas are in trouble" and because that was where "freedom was fightin' another foe," Crockett was killed in the cause of American imperialist expansion. Slaying Mexican soldiers with cannon, rifle, and knife, in Disney's rendition the tall frontiersman was a martyr for freedom, a model for contemporary America. This was a hero for the Cold War, part Washington, part Jefferson, and part Lincoln. Yet he was of common stock, an Everyman who loved peace and family and everyday things. Willing to heed "his country's call" to defend its political goals, Crockett was a citizen soldier convinced of democracy, repulsed by injustice, and prepared to die for his beliefs.

The Davy Crockett trilogy represented a transition in the history of the video Western. It was designed for youngsters, but it had adult appeal. Davy might out-grin a wild bear or make simple jokes with his sidekick, but there was much violence and bloodshed in the production. There was also sophistication in Davy's political philosophy, and the death of his young wife added an emotional depth to his character. Months before the "adult Western" premiered in the fall of 1955, Davy Crockett had shown the taste for more mature representation in this TV genre. Within a few years juvenile Westerns would be out of production and scheduled as reruns on weekend afternoons. Primetime, instead, would be packed with cowboys dramas intended for grown-ups. Still, the nationalistic relevance of the Western to Cold War thinking would endure.

With the advent of the adult Western, American television experienced a dramatic break with its past. In contrast with the flawlessly moral and one-dimensional types who were the heroes of the youth-oriented shows, the central characters in the adult programs were portrayed in more realistic terms. In an adult Western it was not uncommon to encounter the series hero drinking in a saloon, chatting amiably with a dance-hall girl, or playing poker with local gamblers. Now the star was allowed romantic interests. Others sold their talents as gunfighters or collected rewards for capturing wanted criminals. Viewers saw leading characters who sweated in the summer and complained of winter cold. Occasionally these frontiersmen exploded in anger. They also made mistakes and were compelled to suffer the consequences of their errors.

It is difficult to underestimate the acceptance of the adult Western by American society. During the next decade it would dominate popular tastes. At its height, as many as 60 million viewers per night watched Westerns. What had begun as four programs became 29 by the fall of 1959. In October 1957 the average Nielsen rating for fifteen Westerns was 25.4, while the average prime time show rated only 20.7—a clear 23 percent higher rating for the former. In 1959 almost one-fourth of prime time television consisted of Westerns. The Nielsen ratings for January 1959 also demonstrated their strength; eight of the top ten programs for the month were of that genre:

    1. Gunmoke
    2. Have Gun, Will Travel
    3. The Rifleman
    4. Wagon Train
    5. The Danny Thomas Show (sitcom)
    6. The Real McCoys (sitcom)
    7. Tales of Wells Fargo
    8. Maverick
    9. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
    10. Zane Grey Theater

Despite the high number of adult Westerns, Americans were not fickle in their tastes. As Table 7 illustrates, some series lasted through hundreds of episodes and remained popular for many years.

Table 7: Longest-Running Adult Westerns in TV History
Length of Number of
Title First RunEpisodes
GunsmokeSept. 1955-Sept 1975640
BonanzaSept. 1959-Jan. 1973430
Wagon TrainSept. 1957-Sept. 1965284
The Virginian
The Men from Shiloh
Sept. 1962-Sept. 197150
Have Gun—Will TravelSept. 1957-Sept. 1963226
The Life and Legend
Of Wyatt Earp
Sept. 1955-Sept. 1961226
RawhideJan. 1959-Jan. 1966217
Tales of Wells FargoMar. 1957-Sept. 1962199
The RiflemanSept. 1958-July 1963169
Daniel BooneSept. 1964-May 1970165
LawmanOct. 1958-Oct. 1962156
Zane Grey Theater Oct. 1956-Sept. 1962148
Maverick Sept. 1957-July 1962124
LaramieOct. 1958-Oct. 1962123

Reasons explaining the popularity of the adult Western are plenti­ful. Certainly, they were engagingly written, usually well-acted, and often photographed in color, a distinct advantage at a time when color TV was being introduced to American consumers. But, most important, the explosion of the genre on television was related to historical circumstances.

The Western succeeded in part because it was a political morality play for the frightened, confused, and dispirited. It contained secular parables for a nation whose citizens built bomb shelters in their backyards, whose government leaders threatened massive nuclear retaliation against evil "bad guys," whose external enemies seemed perpetually poised for attack, and whose internal politics generated fear of subversion and disloyalty.

In three distinct ways video Westerns suited the emotionality of their times. First, they reaffirmed the desirability and superiority of innocent American-style civilization. Second, they offered a system of justice that was efficient and effective. Third, they justified nationalism in terms of a moral code that may have sounded secular, but had at its base a Judeo-Christian religious heritage.

Westerns paralleled the popular understanding of the East-West struggle. They were social allegories in which honest, hard-working American folk were threatened, without good reason, by evil forces. Innocent ranchers, settlers, and town dwellers inevitably found their world under attack from criminals. The honest folk never asked for this trouble, never did anything to precipitate it. But it was now upon them, and it called for heroic intervention by a brave soul.

This is the stuff of which myths are made. Indeed, the TV West­ern projected a mythical interpretation of reality. This was legend, not documentary. It was the past shaped for the present, the fabulous justifying the contemporary. Always the Westerns suggested that the society defended by these video champions was well worth defending. By implication they argued for similar defensive actions by contem­porary heirs of that which was forged in the Old West.

How often did audiences encounter the value of responsible social freedom? How often did such programs applaud democratic themes—tolerance, equality, dignity—among those settling the wilderness? How frequently did the frontier heroes operate among those symbols of the superiority of American social arrangement—the church, the schoolhouse and the schoolmarm, the fence, the ranch house, the graveyard, the wife, and the child? And how often did video Westerns underscore the desirability of such capitalistic tenets as individuality, hard work, and self-reliance?

This was powerful rhetoric, enticing TV viewers multiple times each evening. And it was persuasive. The phraseology and icons of its mythology was so seductive that it could be employed to sell everything from a child’s toy, to a brand of automobile, to the Strategic Air Command and its Hound Dog air-launched missile built by the North American Aviation Corporation.

While all such programming stressed obedience to law and the arrest, execution, or redemption of the lawbreaker, the television Western suggested a facile image of the American legal system. Legal complexities that are so frustrating in reality were absent in these series. Lawyers were usually nonexistent, and where they did appear, they were frequently shown to be shysters. Court technicalities were also unimportant, since the genre on TV seldom treated restraining orders, changes of venue, grants of immunity, plea bargains, appeals, and trial delays. Instead, decisions were swift and justice was well served.

Here was a universe where good men thwarted villainy, and viewers generally concurred in the courses of action taken by their heroes to restore law and order. In its streamlined and obvious way, then, television invited its audience to become interpreters of the law, experts in legal sophistry. It was also an alluring prism through which to view Cold War.

For many seeking to comprehend the complexity of world and national politics in the 1950s and 1960s, television Westerns offered a straightforward answer: strong action unencumbered by legal soph­istry—the political equivalent of the quick draw or the night in jail. This attitude was espoused by William F. Rickenbacker, writing in 1962 in The National Review. He argued that the video Western embodied the aspirations of the nation. When a stalwart told an interloper to leave town, Rickenbacker suggested, the stranger had better depart. "That's the kind of thing a hundred million Americans would like to see someone say to Nikita Khrushchev," he contended.

Further, in the stereotype of a pioneer rancher refusing to be intim­idated by the threats of rustlers, the author saw a situation analogous to popular resistance to the encroachment by central government. "Several thousand city officials throughout the country," he alleged, "would all do us a service if they took this attitude toward the schemes the Federal Government has for making over the face of the country in the image of Washington (D.C., alas; not George)."

If in the Western Rickenbacker recognized patterns of action for the politically abused, David Shea Teeple argued in American Mercury magazine in 1958 that the direction of foreign policy could be en­hanced were American diplomats required to view TV Westerns. He argued that television stressed models of the successful "rough and ready character," rather than the impotent "dressed-up dude rancher." According to Teeple, the popularity of these series proved that the "American public ... wants to abandon the grey philosophies of fuzzy minds and return to the days when things were either black or white—right or wrong." In a colorful argument, Teeple called upon an array of video champions to substantiate his points.

Would a Wyatt Earp stop at the 38th Parallel, Korea, when the rustlers were escaping with his herd? Ridiculous! Would a Marshal Dillon refuse to allow his deputies to use shotguns for their own defense because of the terrible nature of the weapon itself? Ha! Would the Lone Ranger, under any circumstance, allow himself to be bullied and threatened by those who sought to destroy the principles by which he lives? Would Restless Gun or Jim Hardy of Wells Fargo attempt to buy friends who would fight for the right? Can you imagine Paladin of Have Gun Will Travel standing aside, while women and children were being mas­sacred? Can you imagine Cheyenne living in a perpetual state of jitters because he feared the next move of some gun Slinger? Would Judge Roy Bean release a murderer on some technicality devised by a slick lawyer? Would Wild Bill Hickok sell guns to the badman?

If the TV Western proffered an interpretation of law and its enforcement, it also dealt with the morality fundamental to American civilization. In fact, legality and morality were often synonymous. This was succinctly stated in "Scorpion," an episode of The Virginian in which one character remarked, "We have laws here, Mr. Pierce, to hold all of us in.... Law and morality have to be the same thing." In this way Western heroes were moral as well as legal agents. In their actions were ethical, even religious, judgments as well as juridical assessments. It is important that two of the more compelling contemporary explanations of the Western on TV suggested that the genre held great religious significance.

For Peter Homans in 1962, the Western was essentially "a Puritan morality tale in which the savior-hero redeems the community from the temptations of the devil." Undoubtedly, most viewers did not consciously register such a relationship each time Bill Longley on The Texan or Johnny Yuma on The Rebel stopped a criminal and saved a town. But as a pattern of social action, the formula closely resembled the fundamental motif of Christian faith: the single savior giving his life for the salvation of the multitude. In Homans' view, the Western hero was a religious operative, moving within a secular environment to reaffirm the Judeo-Christian morality originally planted in American civilization by the Puritan forefathers. "Tall in the saddle," Homans noted, the Western hero "rides straight from Plymouth Rock to a dusty frontier town" where "his Colt .45 is on the side of the angels."

Even more theological in its direction was the argument put forward in 1957 by Alexander Miller in The Christian Century. Miller stressed the appearance within the genre of many of the great dialec­tical issues of Christian theology. Pilgrimage and rest, justice and mercy, war and peace—basic contradictions between which religious man fluctuated—were integral to the TV Western as well as faith. Miller contended that the cowboy hero was a fatalistic, yet moralistic, individual. "A man does what he has to do," noted Miller, "and justifies it in one way or another." Like modern religious man, the central character in the television Western possessed "the incorrigible yearning after virtue, the inevitable implication in sin, the irrepressible inclination to self-justification." Miller concluded that in the genre "every theological theme is here, except the final theme, the deep and healing dimension of guilt and grace."

In the mix of moral, legal, and social self-justification that was the Western, throughout the Cold War millions each night saw the taming of the savage and the Americanization of the wild. Truly, to employ the phrase of Chuck Connors, star of The Rifleman and Branded, the Western is "the American fairy tale." As such its political message—appropriate at all times, but singularly suited to the spirit of anti-Communism—was welcomed. It was reassuring to see the shooting of the vicious gunslinger or the jailing of an anarchistic malcontent. It made the world a safer place in which to live. In their allegiance to law and order, TV Westerns defended the American system against divisiveness and subterfuge. The heroes of these series were mythic outriders of freedom, defeating enemies of democratic civilization and ensuring for law-abiding people the right to pursue happiness. William F. Rickenbacker again touched upon the nationalistic flavor of the TV Western when, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, he wrote that such programs

... speak a language very close to the heart of the American Dream: the dream of righteousness, the flowering of personal virtue and the power that flows there from, the selfless battle against Evil, a simple moral code, a sense of community, the respect for the poor, for the downtrodden, for the tempest tossed

The recurrent message of Cold War television came across loudly and clearly: America was threatened by a sinister, dictatorial power; in order to survive, the United States—with leadership primarily from government through its political officials, espionage agencies, and armed forces, plus a large dose of citizen cooperation—would have to root out subversives at home, outmaneuver enemy agents overseas, and win over the uncommitted and enslaved populations of the world through generosity, efficiency, bravery, and strength. It was a tall order. But it was accomplished each time culture heroes like Herb Philbrick, Biff Baker, China Smith, Steve Canyon, or any of the many cowboy good guys won another battle against treachery.

Indeed, there were countless occasions on which such propagandizing champions had the chance to win. Typically, during the week of February 1-7, 1958, the seven stations servicing Minneapolis-St. Paul and the two outlets in Fargo, North Dakota, offered the programming shown in Table 8.

Table 8:
Cold War TV Programming, Week of February 1-7, 1958.

8 Western moviesThe Silent Service"For God and Country,"
speech by American Legion
12 Western seriesChina Smith
Flash GordonRocky Jones
Combat SergeantNavy ReporterThe Big Picture
Religious Town Hall,
"Struggle for Freedom"
Look Up and Live,
discussion of the film
Time Limit
Victory at SeaThe Big Picture
4 Western moviesSpy film,
The House on 92nd Street
8 Western seriesThe Man Called X
Orient ExpressThe 20th Century,
“D-Day Buildup” Pt. I
Foreign Intrigue

2 Western movies1 Western movie
6 Western series7 Western series
I Led 3 LivesPhil Silvers Show
SupermanChina Smith
O.S.S.The West Point Story
Uncommon Valor
(U.S. Marines)
I Led 3 Lives
CrusaderCold War film:
He Stayed for Breakfast

1 Western movie5 Western movie
4 Western seriesThe Silent Service
I Led 3 LivesMen of Annapolis
China Smith2 Navy Log episodes
This Is Your Navy
TV Reader’s Digest

FridayI Led 3 Lives
8 Western seriesWartime film:
They Lived Dangerously
I Led 3 LivesMatinee Theater,
The Man Without a Country

When a society entertains itself with the slogans and symbols of its political, nationalistic rhetoric, it runs the risk of misinforming its citizenry, distorting the exchange of information and ideas, and developing an insularity that is unhealthy for social, intellectual, cultural, and political growth. It is one thing for a partisan legislator to use TV to persuade the electorate of his or her political values. It is quite another when unsuspecting people sit down to watch an evening of television, only to discover those political values are an integral part of their entertainment. In most cases, viewers do not recognize politics in their amusements. They do not discover the propaganda amid the diversion. With little information with which to evaluate what they see, innocent viewers are tempted to believe that the imagery on television is both accurate and universally accepted.

To a great degree, American society in the 1950s was marked by this mentality. It was noticeable, however, to a wide range of foreign viewers. The London Times Literary Supplement in October 1954 painted an ominous picture of American television and the society it served. An article in this conservative journal described the "climate of fear" in American TV, which "strips the medium of so much reality and truth." While the anonymous author deplored "the rigid, constrictive commercial framework" of broadcasting in the United States, he was especially hostile to the impact of Cold War politics on the maturation of television. "The greater tragedy may be," he remarked, "that the first crucial years of development will have been experienced during the deepest political reaction America has ever known."

The newspaper of the Soviet government, Izvestia, complained in early 1961 about the "spy mania" on American TV. The journal blasted American video in general, terming it "a horrible mixture of criminality and advertising, low-quality shows, and radically cut films." Although it was heavily infused with government propaganda, itself, Izvestia was most angry about politicized entertainment on American television:

An American is sitting in front of his television set, and if a murderer is not aiming at him, a spy is creeping up on him. What kind of spy? A "Communist" spy, of course, a "Soviet" spy, and always with a knife between his teeth and an atomic bomb in his hand.

What had been missing in video in the 1950s was a persistent, rational presentation of the issues and motives in the East-West confrontation. TV exploited nationalistic loyalty instead of creating a thoughtful, informed public. An intelligent dialogue through which honest information might have challenged propaganda was absent from postwar American TV. The result after more than a decade of such imbalance was a nation of patriotic, trusting citizens left underinformed and fearful. It was a citizenry that in the 1960s was hardly in a position to criticize its political and military leaders when they began to slide inexorably into that tragic anti-Communist war in Southeast Asia.

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