• The Heritage Network
    • Resize:
    • A
    • A
    • A
  • Donate
  • Rugged Individualism Fades from National Character

    John Wayne

    “That’ll be the day!”

    John Wayne’s gravelly, dry voice connected with millions who recognized in its tenor something of America’s pioneer character. In dozens of popular movies, Wayne— who died on this day in 1979—played the no-nonsense, self-reliant cowboy who had an innate and profound, if not quite scholarly, understanding of justice. Wherever he found himself, he was in his own way a force for good, for law and order.

    Wayne’s favorite setting on the big screen represented a period when hundreds of thousands of Americans headed west. Despite violence, disorder, natural obstacles, and a civilizational void, they forged ahead. Adventure-seeking individuals, enterprising businessmen, fervent missionaries, and ordinary families looking for a new beginning established towns and communities across the American West.

    They extended American society largely without government support and certainly without government direction or regulation. This was a time of opportunity, of energy, of hope. And even though the West had long been settled by the time Wayne came along, his films with director John Ford kept the spirit of the West alive. Their films showed the sometimes harsh realities of human nature, but also served to reinforce the political principles of America’s founding as the best form of government.

    “Out here a man settles his own problems,” said Wayne’s character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), summing up the idea of personal responsibility. This so-called rugged individualism, unique to America, was not detrimental to community; indeed, it was the key to building strong communities. It was this attitude that settled new territory, built cities, established industry, and fostered greater prosperity. Wayne’s and Ford’s movies and countless other examples from popular culture of the post–World War II era helped maintain an American spirit of individualism and enterprise, as Americans began navigating new frontiers including space, communications technology, and the darkened borders of the “captive nations” long occupied by Soviet forces.

    Enemies of the United States also noticed America’s exceptional national character and, in particular, John Wayne. Wayne’s rugged individualism challenged the idea of collectivism. Although Soviet leader Joseph Stalin enjoyed watching American westerns, he recognized them as an ideological threat, and the Duke’s vocal anti-communism made him a clear target.

    According to multiple accounts, Stalin ordered John Wayne’s assassination in the 1950s. Wayne reportedly survived two assassination attempts by Soviet agents, in Los Angeles and on a movie set in Mexico. For similar reasons, China’s Communist leader Mao Tse Tung also put a price on the actor’s head. It turns out that his fictional portrayals of a very real American idea were an important element of U.S. public diplomacy and useful to the success of America’s foreign policy.

    The political culture and societal values reflected in his movies are slipping. Increasingly, Americans look to government as a source of financial, physical, and emotional well-being. Americans’ growing dependency on government is both a symptom and a cause of the move away from constitutional government and toward an ever-greater role for government in the daily lives of ordinary citizens.

    This trend not only weakens the U.S. constitutional order at home, but also undermines America’s ability to maintain its proper and constitutional role abroad. In foreign policy, the U.S. is becoming entangled in an ever-increasing number of multilateral agreements and global governance institutions that restrict America’s freedom of action. This complex web inhibits our ability to respond to future threats, saddles America with extra-constitutional limitations, and unduly confers legitimacy on foreign nations that share values hostile to our own.

    As we approach celebrations of Independence Day, The Heritage Foundation and its members are concerned about these trends. Heritage has offered practical recommendations for getting America back on the road to limited, constitutional government. This path demands something of all Americans, for it requires that we tap into the wellspring of America’s exceptional national character. We must practice individual responsibility if we are to remain the land of the free. And we must safeguard our sovereign independence abroad if we are to continue our indispensable role in the world.

    A return to constitutional government and individual responsibility won’t make life perfect, but it will keep alive the possibility and hope that tomorrow will be better than today. And as John Wayne once said, “Tomorrow hopes we have learned something from yesterday.”

    Posted in First Principles, Ongoing Priorities [slideshow_deploy]

    10 Responses to Rugged Individualism Fades from National Character

    1. EclecticHorseman says:

      When I was young and wise beyond my years I dissed John Wayne for all the reasons indicated in this article.

      Then I watched "Liberty Valance" "The Shootist", and my perceptions changed. On Memorial Days past I came to await eagerly "The Longest Day" and "Sands of Iwo Jima". Since then I have watched many of his movies and though not all are great, they do tell a consistent and proud story. He is the American persona writ large. We are poorer for his death.

      • Bookdoc says:

        Same for me-and I was a theatre major! Then I started to see the movies again and then his later work and realized he was truly a star. He commanded the screen and took the responsibility for his American portrayals to heart. BTW My personal favorite, despite the historical innacuracies, is "The Alamo".

      • He showed the generations that followed what it means to be an American. It's our turn to act and to teach the next–the future–Americans

    2. BackwardsBoy says:

      It's telling that communist leaders tried to assainate Mr. Wayne. They understood what he and his roles represented to the country.

      Also telling is that communist infiltration of Hollywood was one of their stated goals as read into the Congressional Record in the early 1960's: http://backwardsboy.blogspot.com/2012/05/society-

    3. Bobbie says:

      He is what American men used to have in common within their own character. Principle, discipline, courage, masculinity, patience, logic etc… at least as a little girl with older brothers and a wonderful father, that's what I grew up to believe in men. Now seeing men as social objects of their own victim-hood, outnumber the common American man! No worries! More raising up to the strength of good character until soon individualism will be common in the world…

      • Not as long as I draw breath. Thanks for that reminder, it's gotten pretty soft and rotten out there lately. But I and many others like me promise that 'Principle, discipline, courage, masculinity, patience and logic have not died. But we are short on patience and things are gonna change and soon.

        • Bobbie says:

          I believe you. Thank you! …there does come a time when patience becomes complacency and that's when patience outlived it's purpose…
          God Bless you.

    4. That is as intriguing a story as I've seen! Great work. They should have a Russian actor play Wayne in the movie.

    5. JEB says:

      I suppose I can forgive the omission of my generation's face of "Rugged Individualism", Clint Eastwood. He has some similar political views as John Wayne, too.

    Comments are subject to approval and moderation. We remind everyone that The Heritage Foundation promotes a civil society where ideas and debate flourish. Please be respectful of each other and the subjects of any criticism. While we may not always agree on policy, we should all agree that being appropriately informed is everyone's intention visiting this site. Profanity, lewdness, personal attacks, and other forms of incivility will not be tolerated. Please keep your thoughts brief and avoid ALL CAPS. While we respect your first amendment rights, we are obligated to our readers to maintain these standards. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    Big Government Is NOT the Answer

    Your tax dollars are being spent on programs that we really don't need.

    I Agree I Disagree ×

    Get Heritage In Your Inbox — FREE!

    Heritage Foundation e-mails keep you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.

    ×