John Wayne's Racist Comments, Lack of WWII Service Resurface to Intense Debate


In a week when the U.S. culture wars focused on actor Jussie Smollett's reportedly false claim of being the victim of a hate crime and on Donald Trump calling immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border a "national emergency," people also were on Twitter fiercely debating John Wayne's infamous, racially charged 1971 Playboy interview, during which he observed, "I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility."

While Wayne died nearly 40 years ago, the legendary actor was a No. 1 trending topic on Twitter from Monday night through Tuesday afternoon.

There were people who questioned whether there were more relevant issues to worry about than things Wayne said in 1971, and others who joked about whether Wayne would still be able to get work in Hollywood.

Yet for others, Wayne's legacy lives on -- and not just at the Orange County airport named after him. For some, his comments are disturbingly relevant to discussions still taking place in 2019.

Journalist and author Glenn Greenwald joined in the Twitter debate about the interview, which you can read in full here. In his 2008 book, "Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics," Greenwald said the staunchly Republican actor has long served as a template for right-wing notions of "American courage and conservative manliness," Publishers Weekly reported.

That's largely because Wayne played World War II heroes and stalwart figures of the American West in many of the more than 200 Hollywood films he made from 1926 to 1977.

Greenwald, a co-founder of The Intercept, tweeted: "I devoted a book chapter to John Wayne, a conservative icon & one of the 20th Century's most deceitful & pitiful men. A supporter of McCarthy, war cheerleader & moralizer who casually impugned patriotism & called people perverts while draft-dodging & having serial drunken affairs."

As Greenwald suggested, Wayne's biography shows that Wayne was anything but a real-life war hero. Other critics argued Tuesday, as they have for decades, that Wayne was no model of physical courage or moral rectitude.

Wayne's record included three marriages and affairs, apparently doing all he could to avoid military service in World War II, leading efforts to help U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy hunt down Communists in Hollywood and holding views about race that many say were retrograde in 1971.

In the Playboy interview, Wayne, then in his 60s and fresh off his Oscar win for "True Grit," discussed a range of topics, from working in Hollywood to race and sex. One of the more noteworthy quotes in the interview came up in a discussion about African-American political activist and academic Angela Davis.

"With a lot of blacks, there's quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so," Wayne said. "But we can't all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don't believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people."

Later in the interview, Wayne also said he didn't feel "guilty about the fact that five or 10 generations ago (black) people were slaves." Wayne continued: "Now, I'm not condoning slavery. It's just a fact of life, like the kid who gets infantile paralysis and has to wear braces so he can't play football with the rest of us."

Wayne also decried "tokenism" in Hollywood. But he said he had been willing to give black actors opportunities in films he directed by hiring an actor to play "a black slave in 'The Alamo'" and by having a "correct number of blacks in 'The Green Berets.'"

Also in the interview, Wayne, whose Western films like "The Searchers" were accused of perpetuating stereotypes about Native Americans, accused Native Americans of "selfishly trying to keep (North America) to themselves."

He also blasted Communists for teaching in American public schools and the depiction of gay sex in "Midnight Cowboy," the 1970 best picture Oscar winner. Wayne used a homophobic slur to describe the characters played by Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight.

Matt Williams, a screenwriter who shared excerpts of the interview, wrote: "Jesus (expletive). John Wayne was a straight up piece of (expletive)."

Williams also pointed out that Wayne turned down a role in Mel Brooks' Western spoof "Blazing Saddles" because the language was too "blue."

Among those weighing in on Wayne's interview were comedian Patton Oswalt, who addressed the actor's quote that he gave African-American actors opportunities in his films.

"'If it's supposed to be a black character, naturally I use a black actor' was as 'woke' as John Wayne got, I guess," Oswalt tweeted.

Producer Joe Carnahan excoriated Wayne for being a war hawk, especially during the Vietnam War, even though he dodged service during World War II. Carnahan mentioned some of Wayne's famous contemporaries who signed up to serve, including in combat units.

Speaking of Wayne's World War II record, Wayne started the war with a 3-A deferment from the draft for family dependency because he was the sole provider for.a family of four, and film historian Karina Longworth explained in her "You Must Remember This" podcast. But those family deferments were later recalled. Wayne then qualified for a 2-A deferment because he was in Hollywood, engaged in making morale-building films that were believed to serve an important propaganda purpose, Longworth said.

There are conflicting accounts about whether Wayne made a serious attempt to join some branch of the military service. He appeared interested in a position in a unit of the Office of Strategic Services, where director John Ford was making documentary and reconnaissance films, according to Longworth. Ford had made Wayne a star by casting him in "Stagecoach" in 1939.

But it also appears that Wayne kept putting off joining the unit, saying he needed to finish up his next set of films, Longworth added. Ford continued to let Wayne know he was disappointed in his failure to serve, saying he was getting rich making movies while other men died, according to the PBS documentary American Masters.

Wayne's reluctance to leave Hollywood may have been due a torrid love affair he was having with occasional co-star Marlene Dietrich, according to writer Marc Eliot in his book, "American Titan: Searching for John Wayne." Longworth also said he may have worried how a long absence from Hollywood would affect his career.

In any case, Wayne's lack of military service was back on people's minds Tuesday, as were his "white supremacy," slavery and tokenism comments. Wayne had some defenders on Twitter who said his views are not that shocking when seen in the context of 1971.

But others insisted that times haven't changed as much as others think.

"Seeing John Wayne complain about seeing gay relationships in movies and accusing diverse roles of "tokenism" pretty much tells me (expletive) hasn't changed one bit," wrote one person. Another said:

But still others said it's not useful to get worked up about Wayne's comments when there are so many other "truly egregious" events to be concerned about.

This article is written by Martha Ross from East Bay Times and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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