Joseph Stalin wanted John Wayne gone so badly he sent two men to pose as FBI agents to take him down.
Nothing is more American than a cowboy movie, and there’s no movie cowboy more famous than John Wayne. During the Cold War, when it seemed the fate of the entire world hinged on the power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, the cinema served as an unlikely cultural battlefield, with Wayne playing the lead.
It might come as a surprise that Joseph Stalin, Soviet dictator, man of steel, and murderer of hundreds of thousands, was quite the movie buff. He had a private theater in each one of his homes, where he would watch films of every genre and then impose his will upon one-sixth of the globe, depending on what kind of mood they had put him in. Watching a movie with Stalin was not a leisurely evening activity, as the “supreme censor” he decided which movies got made, which parts got cut out, and which directors got executed.
It might come as even more of a surprise that some of the films Stalin enjoyed most epitomized the values he tried his hardest to undermine: westerns.
The movie cowboys of the 1940s and 1950s were all-American heroes: they were independent, defiant, and self-reliant, all decidedly un-communist attributes. It’s possible in his own version of reality, Stalin identified with these gunslingers, seeing himself as the lone figure violently bringing justice to untamed territories, and despite loudly criticizing the ideology of the films, he would always order more.
The admiration of the Soviet dictator for American cowboys was far from mutual: John Wayne, the spokesman for Yankee cowboys if there ever was one, was staunchly anti-communist. Wayne was a big enough star that he didn’t need to worry about openly voicing his views about communism during a time when many of the biggest names in the industry were card-carrying communists or at least had Soviet sympathies.
Wayne had previously clashed with communists because of his opinions, even receiving a threatening anonymous letter. When one of his friends advised him to be more cautious, the Duke declared “no goddamn Commie’s gonna frighten me.” The situation took a decidedly more serious turn, however, when the movie star attracted the attention of the Soviet dictator himself.
Sources reported that after one of his routine film viewings, Stalin suddenly decided that Wayne was a direct “threat to the cause and should be assassinated.” As citizens of the Soviet Union knew well enough, Stalin’s whims could be fatal, and according to several accounts, the KGB did indeed try to carry out the dictator’s order.
American agents also took the threat seriously enough to offer Wayne protection, to which he replied: “I’m not gonna hide away for the rest of my life, this is the land of the free and that’s the way I’m gonna stay.”
According to Wayne’s stuntman and real-life cowboy Yakima Canutt, the FBI foiled at least one assassination attempt with the help of the Duke himself.
After getting word that two KGB agents posing as FBI agents were going to come to the movie studio where Wayne was filming and lure him away, the FBI and the actors decided to outflank them.
When the Soviets came into Wayne’s office as expected, the actual FBI agents were hidden in a room next door and were able to burst in and subdue them at gunpoint. The Soviets were so terrified of being sent back to Russia and reporting to Stalin they had failed, that they willingly agreed to provide intelligence to the Americans.
The idea of the all-powerful Soviet dictator personally going up against the all-American cowboy may seem too incredible to be true, but it is more than pro-capitalist propaganda. Years later, when Wayne met Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev, he asked the Soviet leader whether the rumors to have him killed were true, to which Khrushchev unnervingly replied: “That was the decision of Stalin in his last mad years. I rescinded the order.”