The writer is the author of The Duke, the Longhorns, and Chairman Mao: John Wayne’s Political Odyssey (2014)
Not once, not twice, but three times, international Communism attempted to assassinate iconic American actor and patriot John “Duke” Wayne. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered hits on “the Duke” in 1951. Homegrown Hollywood Communists tried to kill him in 1955. Chinese henchman Mao Tse-tung ordered him dead in 1966. Why have these attempts not been told before? Wayne did not want his fans or his family to know what happened.
First of all, the assassination attempts are veritable proof that Communism had a foothold in Hollywood. Movies that describe the Blacklist usually use fake names, because to use real names would often require them to tell the truth; for instance, all 10 members of the infamous Hollywood Ten were card-carrying members of the Communist Party. Many of them received their orders from Moscow directly, but in general the Soviets gave directives to a screenwriter and union chief named John Howard Lawson, who in turn controlled the other Communist screenwriters (most notably Dalton Trumbo), as well as others. Many others escaped the blanket of scrutiny, wrote under aliases, or were “saved” when Senator Joseph McCarthy was found to be a drunken buffoon, unfortunately giving the Reds an excuse to state that it was all a “witch hunt.”
It was not. It was real and had been going on since the 1920s. The Alger Hiss conviction; Witness by Whittaker Chambers; Wayne’s testimony to a writer named Michael Munn; and the Venona Papers, along with much other verifiable evidence, all proves it. Today liberals hold up the hunt for Communists in the 1940s and 1950s as a lie, a violation of civil rights. They are dead wrong. It all happened.
Born Marion Morrison in 1907, the man known as John Wayne grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, which in those days was a chaparral landscape much like the Old West, perfect for horseback riding and adventure. Morrison was nicknamed “Duke” by local firefighters he befriended in town. A terrific football star at Glendale High, Duke earned a scholarship to play at the staunchly conservative University of Southern California. He claimed he was “a Socialist” until he took some classes that convinced him the Russian Revolution was evil.
Duke was a strapping six-foot, four inch stud, so handsome that female classmates were known to pray that he would ask them out. He was not a major party-goer and did not date that many girls, mainly out of shyness, although he was rumored to have attended an infamous party held for the Trojans football team at the Hollywood mansion of silent era “it girl” Clara Bow, in which it was said the entire squad had their way with the winsome actress. It was later proved to be untrue, although shenanigans certainly occurred. These stories did not hurt USC’s recruiting. They won national championships under coach Howard Jones in 1928, 1931, 1932 and 1939.
What also helped recruiting was the availability of jobs, mostly in the summer, for USC football players in the Hollywood film industry. Duke Morrison got his start keeping silent film cowboy Tom Mix and others in shape, although he was also their drinkin’ buddy. He literally learned how to be a cowboy and gunslinger from Wyatt Earp, the famed lawman, who lived in Los Angeles as a consultant to the L.A.P.D. and the the film business in his later years. Additionally, Duke worked as an extra, often on John Ford films, or as a gaffer, camera-holder, and other set jobs.
He excelled on the football field for USC’s nationally-acclaimed team, and was penciled in as a starter when, just before training camp, he ventured to Newport Beach to body surf the infamous Wedge, where heavy waves meet steep underwater rocks, causing bodies to crash to the ocean bottom. This happened to Duke, causing a dislocated shoulder. Unable to block he was demoted from the first team and lost his scholarship. He came from nothing and had to borrow money from his fraternity brothers, but it got out of hand. He dropped out of school and went to work full time at Fox Studios.
In 1928-29, Morrison made his mark not as an actor but as a “producer,” of a sort. Ford wanted to make a movie called Salute. He was a Navy man and World War I veteran who desired to glorify the Naval Academy football team. His plan was to film over the summer in Annapolis, using as players members of the 1928 USC national title team. This would be advertised to audiences as a chance to see the best team in the country on screen long before TV.
He tasked Duke Morrison with organizing this endeavor. Morrison’s fraternity brother was the son of USC president Rufus vonKleinsmid, who arranged a meeting. VonKleinsmid refused at first, stating he could not justify allowing football players to leave campus before finals. Duke persisted, saying the players could take the tests under supervision. In addition, it would be a terrific learning experience, a kind of “Washington, D.C. semester” where they could learn about the government, since Annapolis is close to the District of Columbia. Lastly, it would add enormous publicity, exposure and prestige to the university having their team star in a major Hollywood film. VonKleinsmid agreed and now Duke Morrison could do no wrong in the eyes of John Ford (this later led to Wayne and vonKleinsmid starting the USC School of Cinematic Arts).
Morrison helped pick out which players would make the trip and perform in Salute. He was standing next to the entrance to a train taking the Trojans back east when a player named Ward Bond approached to get on.
“You’re not getting on this train, Bond,” Duke drawled. “Yer too damn ugly.”
A fistfight ensued, broken up by Ford, who had a vision of future movies starring Duke and Bond as friendly rivals, often having fights over a girl in a bar, only to make up later. Indeed these scenes did occur regularly, most notably in “fights” between Duke and Bond over Maureen O’Hara. The two men became inseparable lifelong friends, both sharing a love of the Trojans, Irish whiskey, and hatred for Communism.
Films were transitioning from silent to “talkies” around this time, so directors needed actors who could not only ride but sound like real cowboys. Nobody fit that bill better than Duke Morrison. Ford recommended Duke to director Raoul Walsh for The Big Trail (1929). The producers decided to change his name to John Wayne, and a star was born.
Wayne never served in the military, but he and Ford were tasked by the OSS with “espionage” prior to Pearl Harbor. They regularly sailed Ford’s yacht, The Wild Goose, down the coast of Mexico. Given a high-resolution camera, they spotted so-called Japanese “tourists” taking photos of potential beach landings and cove inlets where ships could hide. When the wacky “Japs” did not realize they were being watched, they suddenly straightened up, taking orders with military discipline.
Stalin hears of Wayne
By 1949 Wayne was the biggest movie star in the world, and well known as a sincere American patriot. This was the height of the Blacklist and HUAC’s un-American activities investigation. The Hollywood Ten were convicted, and shortly thereafter so was paid Soviet spy Alger Hiss. Key members of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Oval Office were Soviet moles. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were about to be put to death for passing Atomic secrets to the U.S.S.R. Manhattan Project leader Robert Oppenheimer felt it not fair that Soviet scientists not share in our nuclear secrets. Soon the Korean War would be underway. Senator McCarthy would become infamous accusing non-Communists (among many actual Communists) of Red sympathies. Whittaker Chambers would write Witness. Sides were being taken.
Hollywood was also turning very liberal. MGM honcho Louis B. Mayer, a staunch Republican, was replaced by the liberal Dore Schary. Wayne found himself surrounded by Communists and their “fellow travelers.” He was very outspoken about it, particularly in speeches he made to the Crusade for Freedom, along with SAG president Ronald Reagan. This was in opposition to the Hollywood Popular Front, a Communist organization led by a paid Soviet traitor. screenwriter John Howard Lawson.
The Soviets had not been particularly worried about their operations being exposed. Everybody just denied everything, just as the Democrats do to this day; it could all be attributed to McCarthyism, to a “witch hunt,” and to partisan politics. They had allies at the New York Times and in Hollywood. Besides, even the studio executives who enforced the Blacklist were not eager to have the public learn their industry was crawling with Commies.
But Duke Wayne had no problem tellin’ it like was!
This was also a period of intense Communist adventurism in which the Soviets captured all of Eastern Europe; China went to Chairman Mao Tse-tung; Korea began; the majority of the 35 million killed under Joseph Stalin died in the gulags; and the insane “doctor’s plot” resulted in a veritable pogrom of Jews in the U.S.S.R. Despite efforts to hide Communist atrocities by the New York Times and other Soviet mouthpieces, the American public was finally coming to learn the awful truth about Stalin, Mao and Communism courtesy of Congressman Richard Nixon of California, Time publisher Henry Luce, Ronald Reagan and John “Duke” Wayne.
Then in 1949 a Soviet filmmaker named Sergei Gerasimov attended a “friendship conference” in New York. There he saw a poster of Duke Wayne, and inquired who he was. He was told he was a big cowboy star and major anti-Communist with a big platform for his outspoken views.
Gerasimov returned to the Soviet Union with news of Wayne’s speeches, plus copies of all his movies. Stalin began watching them and loved them, although he viewed them from a different lens. He chose to focus not on Wayne’s heroism but rather on the subjugation of the American Indians thus depicted.
Soon it became obvious Wayne could not be stopped or shut up. In 1951, Stalin ordered his henchmen in America to hunt down and assassinate Wayne. In the mean time, Stalin had a daughter who in the 1930s fell in love with a Russian movie director of Jewish extraction named Alexei Kapler. Kapler made several of the greatest films depicting the Russian Revolution, but in order to keep him away from his daughter, Stalin ordered Kapler sent to the Siberian labor camps.
Somehow, somebody in the know was also imprisoned there, and told Kapler about the plan to kill Duke Wayne. Kapler told somebody to warn Wayne of this. By miracle, word made it out of the death camp and found its way to some Chinese dissidents who had escaped Mao Tse-tung. They in turn told the great actor-director Orson Welles and another actor named Peter Cushing, who was visiting Asia.
Somehow the FBI got wind of the plan. Wayne was warned of it.
The first attempt
By 1949 “Stalin came to hate the name John Wayne,” Welles later recalled. In 1951, Wayne was told by the FBI that Soviet hitmen would try to kill him at his offices in Burbank. A trap was set, with the agents waiting outside Duke’s office until Stalin’s men arrived. They were then arrested by the FBI agents. According to John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth, the Duke then stood over the arrested men, handcuffed and forced to their knees. In the presence of his friend, screenwriter James Grant, with the Russians muttering and asking for mercy, John Wayne produced a revolver, aimed it at their heads, and pulled the trigger.
The gun had blanks.
According to the story, told by Wayne’s stuntman Yakima Canutt to British journalist Michael Munn in 1976, Duke said to the agents, “You can have them now.” He showed his gun to the hitmen and said simply, “Blanks.” Then he told the agents to “send them back to Russia,” at which point the men begged, “No! Please! Don’t send us back to Stalin. We will both die.”
“Don’t worry,” the G-man said. “You won’t be going back . . . yet. We’ve a few questions we want answered.”
Threatened with a trip back to the U.S.S.R., both men pleaded that they were happy to cooperate if only they could stay.
“Welcome to the land of the free,” Wayne then said. Such a statement seems a bit incongruous except it came from the man most likely to utter it, Duke Wayne. Wayne also had made a deal with J. Edgar Hoover to keep his name out of the story. It was not made public. In fact, a great deal of Soviet espionage from the 1940s and 1950s was not made public.
For instance, when Congressman Nixon had the goods on Alger Hiss in the form of the “pumpkin papers” found in Whittaker Chambers’s front yard, he asked Hoover to verify through Soviet cable traffic (later known as the Venona Papers) that it was authentic. Hoover said he could not; to do so would alert the Soviets that U.S. intelligence was on to them. He needed them to think they were getting away with their operations, so he could collect more and more data over a long time. But Hoover did tell Nixon he was on the right track, leading to Hiss’s conviction.
Ironically, Hoover’s decision not to publicize what the United States had on Communist infiltration of Hollywood, the Oval Office, the State Department, the Defense Department, the American media, our academic institutions, and the Democrat Party, spared hundreds if not more American traitors from exposure.
According to Canutt, there were many “real hard line” Communist cells operating in Hollywood at the time. Most of the legitimate assassins and spies were paid Soviet men. “The Communists in the business were just trying to follow a policy they believed in, although they were naive to do so,” said Canutt.
When the FBI men questioned the would-be assassins, they found the main motivation for the plot was to stop Wayne from making Big Jim McLean, which featured the actor as an FBI agent hunting down Communists. Their “cover” was to pose as FBI agents themselves.
What happened after the KGB men were removed from the office is stranger than fiction, worthy of a movie in its own right. The plan was apparently hatched by the screenwriter James Grant. The hitmen were put in cars and driven, by the FBI agents along with Wayne and Grant, to a remote beach Wayne had previously picked out. There they were placed on the sand and, if all these facts are correct, subject to a second mock execution. Again, blanks.
When Stalin died in 1953, Alexei Kapler was released from the gulags. He then told Sergei Bondarchuk about the plot “to kill John Wayne. Bondarchuk told me and now I tell you,” Orson Welles told Michael Munn in 1983, four years after Wayne’s passing. Of course, Welles supposedly also heard the story from Chinese dissidents.
The second attempt
With Stalin’s passing, the order to murder Duke was rescinded, but this was not the end. The public of course knew none of this, in keeping not only with Wayne’s desire not to publicize the event, but with Hoover’s belief that if the Soviets realized how much we knew of their operations, they would shut down and much intelligence would be lost.
Wayne never knew that Stalin’s order was rescinded, so he remained vigilant. It was a good thing he did. In 1955 a group of homegrown Hollywood workers decided to take out the star actor on their own. This time Yakima Canutt learned of the plot and gathered a group of other stuntmen loyal to Wayne. They invaded their cell and “ran them out of town.”
This time, luck and circumstance again worked in Duke’s favor. Wayne was going through a divorce with his then-wife, a fiery Mexican woman named Chata. While filming in Mexico, the studio set up extra security around the locations, mainly to apprehend private investigators hired by Chata to discover “dirt” on John Wayne. The FBI offered to protect him but he did not want their pervasive presence. Besides, all of these episodes were still unbeknownst to his family.
According to Yakima Canutt, some of the information authorities used to ferret out the plot came from the KGB agents who had tried to kill Duke earlier. “Wayne later learned that those Russian agents were so afraid of going back to Russia that they happily worked for our side, and they were able to provide a lot of useful information,” recalled Canutt.
Because the studio had detectives looking at Chata’s detectives, they found other “detectives” were
“Communists out to get Wayne,” said Canutt. “”This time they were not Russians, but American citizens.”
Armed with this information, Wayne and the FBI apprehended the would-be killers. Wayne insisted they be sent back to Russia, so the police rounded them up and put them “on a plane to Russia at gunpoint,” said Canutt.
This story is not easy to believe. If these men were Americans, they should have been subject to the U.S. legal system. Perhaps because Wayne disdained the publicity exceptions were made. Either way, Wayne told Canutt that “this Khrushchev fellow still wants me out of the way,” referring to Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev. But Canutt said he was “not so sure,” since he was the main source with his ear to the ground in Hollywood, and “my guy,” as he put it, “says that the American Commies are making their own decisions,” so he advised Wayne to stay alert.
Canutt later said the men behind these plots were not “limousine Communists” like the Hollywood Ten, but rather hardcore Stalinists worried that with him gone the U.S.S.R would soften its ways. They were, according to the stuntmen, held to the belief they they were “the true government of America in waiting there.”
Whittaker Chambers described this form of fanaticism in Witness, as did The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon. The cell was identified working out of a printing company in Burbank, near Wayne’s offices on the Warner Bros. lot. This time they were motivated by the anti-Communist politics in the latest Wayne film, Blood Alley.
The effort to get Wayne while filming Hondo in Mexico had been foiled, so they were willing to take the chance of killing him in the U.S. There is no indication John Wayne showed any fear, essentially offering a “bring it on” attitude, like President George W. Bush when asked if he thought breaking up Islamic Jihad might make the terrorists mad.
“They show so much as their pinkies, I’ll blow them all to Kingdom Come,” Wayne told Canutt. Wayne said he had “the 7th Cavalry,” in the form of loyal Hollywood stuntmen, to protect him, but Canutt said the 7th Cavalry had been wiped out in the Battle of Little Big Horn.
Stuntman Cliff Lyon and Canutt rounded up their “most trusted stuntmen who were all cowboys,” recalled Canutt, arming them to the teeth and engaging in what he called the “bloody battle of Burbank.”
Lyons apparently had acted as if he were one of them, setting up a meeting in which the stuntmen came in and they proceeded to “lay into them,” using chairs and tables they engaged in “an almighty fight,” beating the Communists to a “bloody pulp,” only then drawing guns.
The Communists pleaded for their lives instead of dying “for their precious Stalin.” The next part of Canutt’s story is again hard to imagine. He claimed he produced plane tickets, drove them to the airport, where they boarded planes to Russia, apparently without passports or visas if this part is to be believed. All of this was described by Yakima Canutt to British journalist Michael Munn and appeared in a 2003 Duke Wayne biography.
As pointed out in The Duke, the Longhorns, and Chairman Mao: John Wayne’s Political Odyssey (2014), travel rules were different in the 1950s. Because of World War II, Americans were free to fly anywhere in the world without restrictions. It may help explain how Lee Harvey Oswald so easily traveled between the U.S. and Russia a few years later.
Canutt further told Michael Munn that “the cops never knew what we’d done . . . we kept it a secret.” Exactly how this was pulled off remains something of a mystery, although the desire of Duke Wayne to keep it on the down low cannot be underestimated. Canutt further said the “the most dangerous Communists” had been eradicated, but added that “Mao Tse-tung was later gonna try the same thing.”
The Khrushchev meeting
In 1974 Wayne was interviewed by Munn. He told him that he still believed the “Hollywood Communists” had been ordered by the Soviet government under Nikita Khrushchev to carry out the assassination even after Stalin passed away.
In 1958, John Wayne was invited by President Dwight Eisenhower to attend another “friendship conference” hosted by Spyros Skouras, president of Twentieth Century Fox. Wayne was reluctant to give any kind of credence to Soviet Communism but attended at the insistence of Ike, who he admired. He was also “curious” to meet a real-life Communist, although in fact he had met many who had been his colleagues in the film industry, including Edward Dmytryk, who once directed him. The truth is that when some of these Communists were unmasked, Wayne was very kind in his outlook, not insisting they be jailed or deported (with the exception of would-be assassins). He spoke on their behalf, as some had been his friends, and felt it was basically a misunderstanding.
At the conference, a meeting took place that resounds to this day on the silver screen. Wayne was told the Soviet premier desired to speak with him in private, so they repaired to a quiet area where both men drank copiously. Khrushchev informed the Duke that both he and Stalin very much enjoyed his Westerns, although they interpreted it as a depiction of American insensitivity to Indians.
But when Khrushchev proposed a toast to the day the Soviets would “one day rule the world,” Duke Wayne told the interpreter to tell him he was going to “knock him on his sorry f—ing ass.” The interpreter blanched and with Khrushchev smiling told Wayne he could not tell the Soviet dictator that. “We have to maintain diplomatic relations here,” the interpreter said, so Duke just raised his glass and smiled.
This is the first of two scenes in the film Patton that eerily resemble events involving John Wayne. In the film, George C. Scott as General George Patton is confronted by a similar set of circumstances, asked to raise a toast with a Soviet general to victory over Nazi Germany. Famously Scott said he did not care to drink with the Russian general or any other “Russian son of a bitch,” urging the interpreter to tell his counterpart just that. When the Russian says, “You are a son of a bitch too,” the Patton character smiles and agrees to drink to that.
Certainly the events of the 1958 Wayne-Khrushchev meeting made their way around Hollywood, and possibly ended up in Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay.
Beyond that, Wayne finally ended up asking the premier why he ordered his assassination, at which point Khrushchev reportedly became very grim and said, “That was the last decision Stalin made in five mad years,” insisting he personally rescinded the order.
Told that in 1955 Communists tried to kill him, first in Mexico and finally in Burbank, Khrushchev, perhaps drunk, spilled state secrets by informing Duke that there were still Stalinist cells in America and around the world who wished to carry out the dead dictator’s orders from beyond the grave.
“He warned Duke that he should not let his guard down,” added Yakima Canutt, stating that Mao Tse-tung still had a standing order to murder the movie star if ever he appeared in Asia. Despite feeling like punching the dictator when he said how much he enjoyed watching cowboys tread on the territorial rights of native Indians in his Westerns, Wayne actually established rapport with Khrushchev, based on drinking, and in fact the two later exchanged cases of vodka and tequila.
Wayne also spoke to the interpreter about discussion of assassination attempts, and the interpreter was sworn to secrecy on that subject. Duke added that “Old Iron Curtain Pants” was not likely to admit it had happened, either. Asked by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper about the Khrushchev meeting, Wayne said it was okay by him if the two superpowers could get along, but if he had his way he would have punched the premier in his face.
The third attempt
Having survived two assassination plots against his life, Duke Wayne entered the 1960s having been warned that Chairman Mao Tse-tung, dictator of Red China, had a standing order to kill him should he ever venture into Asia.
In 1965 he made a speech promoting American involvement in the Vietnam War at his alma mater, the University of Southern California. According to the MC, Bob Hope, a group of students started demonstrating, but big John Wayne stood up, took over the microphone, and literally silenced them with his awesome charisma and presence. That day he saw a USC student, a Vietnam veteran in uniform, now in ROTC, with a missing arm. He thanked the young man for his service and apparently decided then and there he would not accept the lead in Patton, but would instead make The Green Berets.
That did not mean he was not “involved” in the making of Patton. In 1966 he attended a USC-Texas football game at Austin. The night before the game he made a “speech,” albeit a drunken one, to a group of well-heeled alumni gathered in a ballroom at USC’s hotel. He told the assembled that the U.S. Army was going to go through the Communists in Vietnam “like s—t through a goose,” along with other choice language. A liberal writer took umbrage and tried to start a fight with Duke, who swung at the man but missed.
The next day he addressed the Trojan football team and attended their 10-6 win over the Texas Longhorns, before leaving for his film shoot of The War Wagon in Mexico. Four years later, members of USC’s 1970 football team watched Patton in a theatre. They wandered out of the theatre with strange expressions; the “Patton speech” in front of the American flag sounded eerily like the speeches assistant coach Marv Goux made to the team before big games.
Goux had been in the room and heard Wayne speechify about Vietnam. One of the gladiators in Spartacus, he switched from the Kirk Douglas speech about “dying standing up instead of living on your knees” to one that sounded a lot like what George C. Scott would say in the 1970 movie.
USC’s student manager, Ron Schwary, went into the film business and later won a couple of Oscars (Tootsie, Ordinary People). He may have invited his USC friend, screenwriter John Milius (Red Dawn), to listen to Goux’s speeches, and Milius may have told his friend, Francis Ford Coppola, to use the terminology in the opening scene of the movie he was writing at the time, Patton.
Also in 1966, Wayne did go to Asia, as a member of a USO tour. In Saigon Vietnamese citizens stopped their cars at the sight of the Duke, shouting, “Number one cowboy!” Then the group went to Pleiku, a Marine base very near the combat zone. At Chu Lai snipers fired near him, but Wayne pressed forward. At first it was considered “normal” sniper fire, but shots kept hitting near Wayne.
The Marines finally shielded him. Wayne later called it “a narrow escape.” The Marines scrambled and a short time later actually produced the sniper, who in broken English told John Wayne, “I was trying to kill you.’
The man had Chinese military identification and uniform markings, not North Vietnamese, and admitted that he was under standing orders from Chairman Mao to kill “the big American movie star.” Apparently a spy spotted Duke coming out of his hotel and tailed him. The sniper was told he was promised glory, but added his poor family would get a large financial reward, which was now out.
Wayne never found out what happened to the sniper, assuming he was killed during interrogation. In later years he told his first wife Pilar about the incident, but the American public never knew about the assassination attempts.
Apparently actor Peter Cushing heard the stories from Chinese dissidents, as did Orson Welles (also from Sergei Bondarchuk), who in turn told writer Michael Munn, who did interview Wayne before his passing, as well as Yakima Canutt and a few others, but it remained an almost-unheard story for decades.
Steven Travers is a former Hollywood screenwriter who has authored over 30 books including Coppola’s Monster Film: The Making of Apocalypse Now (2016). One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation (2007) is currently under film development. He is a USC graduate and attorney with a Ph.D who taught at USC and attended the UCLA Writers’ Program. He played professional baseball, served in the Army JAG corps in D.C., was in investment banking on Wall Street, worked in politics, lived in Europe, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, Newsman and MichaelSavage.com. He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.