I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Propaganda War: Bob Hope’s Vietnam Christmas Specials

by David Selden
Dec. 23, 2011

“These pictures ain’t for you. They’re for Ho Chi Min. In case he has any questions” i

In Francis Ford Coppolla’s, Apocalpyse Now, there is an iconic scene in which Playmate of the year, Miss Terri Foster (played by Cynthia Wood),ii descends from a Playboy helicopter to entertain the gathered troops. In a sexy cowgirl outfit, she struts her stuff in the spotlight to a soundtrack of Dale Hawkins’, "Susie Q." The local “Vietnamese” watch from behind a chicken wire fence as the soldiers grow more agitated.

As she brandishes her silver six shooters, the stage looks set to be invaded. M.Ps fight back the frenzied spectators. The helicopter lifts off in a cloud of smoke after the master of ceremonies has scattered a handful of pills, bait for the rampaging soldiers. Several cling to the runners of the helicopter as it ascends, recalling the famous images from the fall of Saigoniii that was to bring a final end to the Vietnam War in 1975.

At first sight the harmless razzmatazz of "Bob Hope’s Vietnam Christmas Special" seems markedly more banal than Coppola’s Wagnerian vision. Sure we get Raquel Welch’s Go-Go routine in white thigh-length boots, as Hope wise-cracks, but the soundtrack keeps it easy with jazz standards, sentimental songs and sing-alongs. Nonetheless, one veteran vividly recalls a performance by Ann-Margret at Da Nang in 1966 that clearly prefigures the febrile atmosphere of the scene in Coppolla’s film.

“We only caught a glimpse of a marine carrying Ann-Margret from the helicopter across the mud and to the stage. [ ] Ann launched right into the whirlwind pulsating (Oh) Susie-Q and rocked the valley with her American-woman-magic, stirring the crowd into a slathering hormone-testoseterone (sic) frenzy of mostly 19 and 20 year old men.”iv

Bob Hope, already a veteran of U.S.O shows in World War II, had wanted to visit Vietnam as early as 1962 but the first of his annual Christmas shows would have to wait until 1964. They would continue for the next eight yearsv. He would later grimly quip. “Where there’s Death, there’s Hope”.

From the outset, the intention to film these shows had been part of the arrangement. Hope’ s impeccable timing, even as he flinches as a plane passes overhead, serves not just as a morale-raiser for the troops, but also as an offensive in the propaganda war back home.

Vietnam was famously the first television warvi. Images of its brutality had swept around the globe long before the 24hr news cycle or its careful management. While the American television networks' earlier coverage had generally been upbeat, by 1967 the tide was turningvii. A year later, American troops would massacre up to 500 unarmed civilians at My Laiviii, coverage of the Tet Offensive of 1968 was largely hostile,ix and in 1969 Life Magazine would run with the cover story, "The Faces of The American Dead"x.

Hope narrates his whistle stop tour of bases and aircraft carriers with a string of glib one-liners and casual sexism. At one point an army translator asks a Thai siren, “Aimez-vous les chiens?”, and Bob quips that he is asking her if she likes American men. The political tone is set by interviews, but it remains anodyne and lighthearted (with the odd bit of Commie bashing thrown in). As one servicemen, asked what he is doing in Vietnam responds, “I heard a lot about this Communism as a kid, it was called Bolshevism or something back then. I don’t now what it is but I want it stopped. xi

When the gags let up, the camera returns constantly to the military audience, which stretches as far as the eye can see. At Cam Ranh Bay the crowd was 27, 000. The following year the soldiers would sit in torrential rain, singing Silent Night together with Ann-Margret xii. She, Connie Stevens, and Joey Heatherton were all regular guests. From 1968 Hope would be accompanied by the 15 strong Goldiggers, sometimes performing 4 or 5 shows a day. His typed packing list reveals that he never ventured into the jungle without silk socks and a tuxedoxiii.

The gang show content of the on-stage cabaret is of secondary interest to the logistics of staging such a tour. The American presence in Vietnam had reached 500,000 by 1967 and the tour was covering 250,000 miles. An old Vaudeville trouper, Hope wielded his golf club in lieu of a cane, occasionally exchanging his bright red cap for camouflage. Security for these events was so tight that no official announcements were made and even Hope and his fellow players didn’t know the name of their destination until they arrivedxiv. As he ruefully tells his adoring crowd, “You try being listed as a state secret.”

State secret or not, the propaganda war was surely being lost. In 1968, Emile de Antonio’s Year of the Pig, an evocative account of the origins of the war (with a soundtrack by John Cage), had been nominated for an Academy Award, even as the theatres at which it played suffered bomb threats. AP and Magnum were providing an insatiable International Pressxv with graphic photography by the likes of Henri HuetDon McCullan, and Eddie Adams. In his report on the Tet offensive, Walter Cronkite had argued the war was un-winnable, and it seemed that President Johnson concurred xvi.

Bob’s song and dance routine was starting to look a little tired. The easy-going cocktail set and American exceptionalism of the “Greatest Generation” was out of step with the times. In 1970, when he made references to drug use by the troops, NBC removed them prior to broadcast.

The same year, Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland (with whom she had won an Oscar starring in Klute) and Fred Gardner organized the F.T.A,xvii Tour in direct response to Bob Hope’s U.S.O work. Seeking to initiate a dialogue with troops facing immanent deployment, it initially toured West coast military cities before moving on to a number of military bases on the Pacific Rim. The F.T.A tour had grown out of Gardner’s experience establishing a network of alternative coffee houses for dissenting G.Is, of which their were a growing numberxviii. Fonda and Sutherland’s routines (captured in Francine Parkers F.T.A, 1972xix) are a counter cultural reflection in the bulletproof professional veneer of Magret and Hope’s wholesome gag machine.

After nine consecutive Christmas tours, the American military presence in Vietnam was receding and Hope’s audiences dwindled. Often under threat of attack and called to task for his support of an increasingly unpopular war, the exhausted comedian called it a day in 1972. As Judith Johnson writes, “During the final montage of photos and film of his last televised Vietnam Christmas special in 1972, Hope narrates film footage of Long Binh shot a year earlier, bustling with troops. "Well," he said, showing the new footage of a deserted Long Binh, overgrown with weeds, "this is how [it] looks now…and this is how it should be…all those happy, smiling, beautiful faces are gone. But most of them are really where they belong, home with their loved ones."xx

Three months earlier, Jane Fonda had visited Vietnam. In her radio transmissions from Hannoi, she spoke of girl militias, the temple of literature, rehearsals for plays, ballets and poetry, urging the American soldiers to “Accept no ready answers fed to you by rote from basic training...xxi” Photographed sitting astride a NVA anti-aircraft gun, she became “Hanoi Jane” and called for the trial of captured pilots for war crimes. The images scandalized America and produced an unexpected propaganda coup for the Viet Congxxii. Several members of the US Congress wanted Fonda prosecuted for Treason,         seeing her as a pot smoking “pinko slut” who appeared nude in movies, used profanity in public, and now, worst of all, was aiding and abetting the enemy during wartime. Even Jean-Pierre Gorin and Jean Luc Godard subjected her to a Maoist scolding in their film, Letter to Jane (1972)xxiii.

Perhaps muttering cynical gags to himself in the tankard made from a shell case presented to him in 1969 xxiv, Bob Hope in later years might have wondered if his nemesis had not turned out after all to be the woman who played Barbarella. Sometimes blind with compassion (and not a little naive) “Hanoi Jane” had become the mirror image and the assassin of Susie Q.


Bob Hope’s Vietnam Christmas Tours , Judith Johnson 2009 Historynet

Bob Hope and American Variety, On the Road: USO shows

The Original Golddiggers Official Website | Vietnam USO Christmas Tours with Bob Hope

Library of Congress’ Bob Hope Exhibit Showcases Political Activism More Than Comic’s Legacy , Penny Star 2010 cnsnews.com

i Bob Hope’s commentary on Vietnam Christmas Special, 1967

ii The visit by the Playboy Playmates was based on an actual visit by 1965 Playmate of the Year Jo Collins. She was so popular with the troops that she was made an honorary GI. The Playmate of the Year character in the movie was played by Cynthia Wood, who was herself Playmate of the Year in 1974.


iii “The thunder had a new sound, dry and metallic. It was gunfire. The city seemed to be exploding with weapons of every kind: small arms, mortars, anti-aircraft batteries. "I think we are being bombed," said the tailor, who flinched from his counting only to turn up the volume on his radio, which was tuned to the Voice of America's Oldies and Goldies hour”.

The Fall of Saigon 1975: An Eyewitness Report , John Pilger

iv “One doggie had practically chewed the entire rim off his booney hat!”

Da Nang AB: Freedom Hill – 1966 , Don Poss 1996

v Joined on the tour by actresses Raquel Welch and Barbara McNair, Hope performed for 25,000 men and women at Long Binh who sat in a brutal sun while organizers fretted about security. He told the troops at Da Nang that Dow Chemical just got even with student protesters: "They came up with an asbestos draft card."

Bob Hope’s Vietnam Christmas Tours , Judith Johnson. 2009

vi The US Secretary of State, Dean Rusk noted: "This was the first struggle fought on television in everybody's living room every day….”

vii “The Saigon bureau was for years the third largest the networks maintained, after New York and Washington, with five camera crews on duty most of the time”.

Vietnam on Television , Daniel Hallin. The Museum of Broadcast Communications

viii An Introduction to the My Lai Courts-Martial , Doug Linder. 1999

ix “In 1968, during the Tet offensive, viewers of NBC news saw Col. Nguyen Ngoc Loan blow out the brains of his captive in a Saigon street. And in 1972, during the North Vietnamese spring offensive, the audience witnessed the aftermath of errant napalm strike, in which South Vietnamese planes mistook their own fleeing civilians for North Vietnamese troops.”

Vietnam on Television , Daniel Hallin. The Museum of Broadcast Communications

x We must pause to look into the faces. More than we must know how many, we must know who. The faces of one week's dead, unknown but to families and friends, are suddenly recognized by all in this gallery of young American eyes....

Life Publishes One Week's Dead in Vietnam 1969

xi Vietnam Christmas Special, 1967

xii For Suzy Cadham, our Canadian Golddigger, the most poignant memory was on Freedom Hill in Da Nang . "We were all on stage closing the show and as far as I could see there were Marines, 20,000 of them, hanging from trees, poles, anything to catch a glimpse of the girls from back home. We looked out on the first rows in front of us, where the patients always sat, with their makeshift IV’s, gurneys, bandages and casts; the wounded, for a precious brief time, laughing and having a good time. As always, Bob closed the show with everyone singing ‘Silent Night’. That day it was raining and we had slickers on over our costumes. Singing that Christmas carol under those conditions, far from home, well, believe me, everyone was crying, not just on stage. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house."

Vietnam USO tours with Bob Hope , The official Goldiggers Website

xiii Mr Hope’s Suitcase . Bob Hope’s packing list, 1969

xiv “Reporters noted that plans for Hope's visits to different areas were more secret than those for generals or Cabinet officials”.

Bob Hope’s Vietnam Christmas Tours , Judith Johnson 2009 Historynet

xv The large numbers of photographers and the relative autonomy that they enjoyed contributed to a new political economy of war imagery that emerged in relation to the Vietnam war, one that was very immediately responsive to and regulated by the American and other Western markets' large appetites for war imagery. 

Photojournalism and the Vietnam War , Liam Kennedy. UCD Institute for American Studies

xvi Some accounts of television's role regarding this war assign a key role to a special broadcast by Walter Cronkite wrapping up his reporting on the Tet Offensive. On 27 February 1968, Cronkite closed "Report from Vietnam: Who, What, When, Where, Why?" by expressing his view that the war was unwinnable, and that the United States would have to find a way out. Some of Lyndon Johnson's aides have recalled that the president watched the broadcast and declared that he knew at that moment he would have to change course. A month later Johnson declined to run for reelection and announced that he was seeking a way out of the war; David Halberstam has written that "it was the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman."

Vietnam on Television , Daniel Hallin. The Museum of Broadcast Communications

xvii The acronym stood for Free The Army, Fuck The Army and the army’s own recruiting slogan, Fun Travel and Adventure. Wikepedia.

xviii By January '68 we were officially open and hundreds of G.Is were hanging out at the UFO [The first of the G.I coffee shops in San Franscisco] whenever they could get off post. They helped staff the place and provided the music on week nights, jamming. On weekends we brought in musicians through a booking service or hired good local acts. Patrons were free to hang out, to read, to play chess or cards, to rap, to dance, to flirt, to discuss what was going on in their lives or the world at large. G.Is added their artwork to the walls and hundreds of records to our collection. The UFO was the only integrated place in town, not just white and black, but GIs and students too. [ ]

In the spring of '68 Tom Hayden and his sidekick Rennie Davis set up an operation coyly named "Support Our Soldiers" to establish coffeehouses staffed by peace-movement organizers in the town adjoining army training bases.

Fred Gardner, Hollywood Confidential : Part I. Viet Nam Generation Journal and Newsletter.

xix Jane Fonda's 'F.T.A.' Show Now a Film , Roger Greenspun. New York Times July 22, 1972

xx Bob Hope’s Vietnam Christmas Tours , Judith Johnson 2009 Historynet

xxi Tonight when you are alone, ask yourselves: What are you? Accept no ready answers fed to you by rote from basic training... I know that if you saw and if you knew the Vietnamese under peaceful conditions, you would hate the men who are sending you on bombing missions...”

Today’s Tokyo Rose. Editorial. Oelwein Daily Register, Tuesday, August 29,1972

xxii The cameras flashed. I got up, and as I started to walk back to the car with the translator, the implication of what had just happened hit me. “Oh my God. It’s going to look like I was trying to shoot down U.S. planes.” I pleaded with him, “You have to be sure those photographs are not published. Please, you can’t let them be published.” I was assured it would be taken care of. I didn’t know what else to do.

The Truth about my Trip to Hanoi , Jane Fonda Jul 22 2011

xxiii Letter to Jane , Jonathan Dawson. Senses of Cinema 19

xxiv Mug made from an artillery shell casing, 1969.presented to Bob Hope

After a long international career exhibiting video installation and photography, David Selden renounced the art world in favor of the far less superficial drag scene and became intimately involved with a number of notorious London fetish clubs. ‘Retiring’ to Berlin in 2007 having run out of pseudonyms, he has written about music for Dorfdisco and about art for Whitehot Magazine as well as contributing numerous catalogue essays and translations for a variety of publications and websites. His misadventures in the world of anti-music can be endured at affeprotokoll.tumblr.com