When Elvis Presley was inducted into the U.S. Army in March 1958, he said he wanted to be treated like any other draftee with no special treatment. It turned out, though, that the rock’n’roller did receive a certain kind of special consideration that he never expected or could avoid. From the first day he stepped off the transport ship that took him to West Germany for his army deployment there in 1959, he became a pawn to be played by both sides in a great ideological game known as the “Cold War.” A great political dividing line known as the “Iron Curtain” separated the players.
(For those too young to remember, the “Iron Curtain” was a “political metaphor” referring to the political border that ideologically separated the U.S. backed democratic-capitalist countries of Western Europe from the USSR dominated communism-based countries of Eastern Europe. The Cold War between East and West began at the end of World War II in 1945 and lasted until the Soviet Union disbanded in 1991.)
A couple of days after Elvis Presley was inducted into the U.S. Army in March 1958, an article in Billboard magazine revealed that young Elvis fans were causing concern for communist authorities in East German. The article noted that, despite government efforts to ban it, Elvis’ music had become popular in the Soviet block countries in Europe.
Although it was illegal to buy Presley records, or even play them on radio stations (all of which were government-owned), some Presley fans beyond the Iron Curtain were finding ways to work around the blockade. Billboard reported that, according to RCA VP George R. Market, some Russians were paying as much as $100 for Presley bootleg recordings, made on old X-ray plates, off of Voice of America programs beamed into Eastern Europe.
(“The Voice of America” was at the time the United States government’s primary news and international radio broadcast network. The efforts of Eastern European countries to block or disrupt the broadcasts during the Cold War years were often unsuccessful.)
• Elvis became a Cold War Concern in East Germany
While Private Presley was undergoing his U.S. Army training from March through September 1958, the American press took little notice of him. However, in October, when Elvis was sent to serve the remainder of his two-year army obligation in West Germany (as it was known then), the press on both sides of the Iron Curtain began to portray Elvis as a combatant in the political struggle between East and West.
East German newspapers began to condemn Presley, claiming that the U.S. had an ulterior motive in sending him so near the border between East and West Germany. On October 17, 1958, a UPI article out of Berlin reported that East Germany’s government was turning up the heat on Private Elvis Presley. The article read in part:
“The official East German Communist youth newspaper said yesterday that Elvis Presley is a key weapon in U.S. atomic war strategy. The newspaper Young World said Presley, now in service as a jeep driver with the U.S. Army in Germany, has no voice, is not an artist, and has a ‘limited intellect.’
“What then, the Communist asked, is Presley’s function in U.S. world strategy? Those persons plotting an atomic war are making a fuss about Presley because they know youths dumb enough to become Presley fans are dumb enough to fight in the war.”
• How best to use Elvis as a Cold War warrior?
U.S. newspaper political writers couldn't resist the bait. A week after the above article appeared, The Decatur Herald (IL) was heralding Elvis Presley as the perfect Cold War warrior.
“The Army wants to keep it ‘Private Presley’ — But the State Department wants to put Elvis into the Cold War. Presley would have immense value as a propaganda warrior.
“The State Department has shown the Army intelligence surveys establishing Elvis is a favorite of Eastern — as well as Western — youth. Presley is said to be a black-market item with Communist youth, particularly Moscow’s ‘jet set.’ Reports state that the offspring of some top Soviet officials are Presley partisans.
“The State Department wants to employ Elvis actively and forthrightly in propaganda projects. They believe the singer would prove a terrific propaganda ‘change of pace.’ Presley is good propaganda for the U.S. in Germany.
“Elvis himself states that he wishes to ‘prove himself as a good soldier’ and to ‘stay out of crap games because I have to set an example for my fans.’ Presumably, Good Soldier Presley, if ordered to do so by his military superiors, will be glad to oblige the State Department.
Not all U.S. journalists thought Elvis should be thrust so boldly into the Cold War conflict. A November 1, 1958, article out of West Germany suggested Presley could be an effective weapon against communism by just being himself. “If Presley can live down the lurid build-up,” the UPI writer explained, “if he can pull off the almost impossible and lead a ‘normal’ life in the face of the near-hysteria which has been generated about him here, he will have scored an important point.”
• The Army and State Department continue battle over how to use Elvis
Elvis had been in Germany barely a month when the press back home was reporting that the U.S. Army and the State Department were wrangling over how best to use the country’s most famous soldier. The State Department wanted to use Presley as a Cold War propagandist. They believed his popularity beyond the Iron Curtain would increase the “problem” the East Germans were obviously having with their youth’s attachment to Presley and his music. State also wanted Elvis to personally broadcast into Eastern Europe over Voice of America. Behind closed doors, some State Department officials even proposed that Presley be sent rock’n’rolling around Europe, stirring up Communist kids over something more understandable to them than lectures on communal property.
One editorial writer in the Hagerstown, Maryland’s Daily Mail newspaper humorously pictured how such a scene could play out.
“This is all right as far as it goes, but it could go much farther. Imagine the effect if Television Free Europe showed a huge picture of Khrushchev with Presley off to one corner singing, ‘You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog!’ — — The squeals of Communist youth might have the same effect on the walls of the Kremlin that the blare of Joshua’s trumpets had on the walls of Jericho.”
On the other side, the U.S. Army brass wanted Presley to perform regular military duties and nothing else. Of course, Elvis often confirmed that is exactly what he wanted to do in the army, but he also occasionally declared that he would do whatever the army wanted him to do.
• Elvis a Political “Pied Piper of Hamelin”
In the 1958 Christmas season, the East Germans again opened propaganda fire aimed at Elvis. UPI’s Berlin correspondent explained.
“East German Communists attacked Pfc Elvis Presley as a ‘cold war’ weapon Sunday and said Soviet zone youth would not be trapped by the ‘modern Pied Piper of Hamelin.’ The official Communist Party newspaper Neues Deutschland printed a picture of the rock’n’roll singer and a teenage German girl he has been dating in Frankfurt. The headline over the picture said, ‘Cold war weapon.’”
A caption under the picture read, “Puffed up like a peacock, Presley, hooting like a ship warning buoy, is an advertisement for NATO to the West.” The paper further claimed that the West Berlin press falsely reported that Presley was popular among young people behind the Iron Curtain. (At the time, Presley was on maneuvers with the U.S. 3rd Armored Division in West Germany.)
An editorial printed in a Hazelton, Pennsylvania, newspaper on New Year’s Eve 1958 pondered the irony of Presley’s appeal to youth people on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
“Bitter, indeed, must be the realization that German kids, even after communism’s grim indoctrination, remain kids still, vulnerable to the same aberrations that afflict the decadent offspring of western capitalists and imperialists. It this assault keeps up, the end is predictable. PFC. Presley will return to his homeland a national hero, acclaimed by young and old, a candidate for a Congressional medal, his name given to an atomic missile.”
By early 1959, many U.S. newspaper pundits who had previously branded Elvis Presley an evil and destructive influence on American’s youth were beginning to defend him against Communist criticism. “There can be no doubt that Elvis Presley has been a controversial figure in the United States,” noted an editorial writer in the March 29, 1959, issue of the Decatur, Illinois, Daily Review. “But, so far nobody in this country has regarded him as subversive and sought to use force to counter his influence. Such is not the case in Communist East Germany.”
There seven East German Presley fans reportedly were jailed for “instigation against the socialist development of the workers and farmers state through their Elvis Presley worshipping.”
The Decatur editorial concluded, “Perhaps this unpopularity with the Communists will win new respect for the hip-swinging singer among his American detractors.”
• Elvis hailed as a “real threat to authoritarian order”
Throughout 1959, other observers of American political and cultural life were coming to the same conclusion — Elvis Presley may have been a nuisance in his home country, but he was proving a real threat to authoritarian order in the Soviet bloc countries. In the fall of 1959, UPI’s West Berlin correspondent spelled out the danger the “Elvis Presley image” posed for Eastern Europe’s government-managed societies.
“What some consider a symbol of juvenile delinquency in the West is seen as a possible ‘counter-revolutionary’ in the East. And the Communists appear to be right. Whether you like Presley or not, his fans behind the Iron Curtain are anti-government. Talk to a boy in blue jeans or a girl in tight black pants and you’ll usually find an anti-Communist. Why? It appears that youths in Eastern Europe are expressing their distaste of the existing order in the only way they can.
“All free political expression is barred them. Their press and radio are censored. Their only outlet is to wear their hair too long, use too much makeup, dance too wildly and adopt as a symbol an American singer they are told they should despise—Elvis Presley.
“The Communists know this is a form of resistance, and it has them worried. In Moscow, East Berlin, Budapest and Prague the communists have declared an ideological war on tight pants and rock’n’roll.”
• Did Elvis think he had influence in the Cold War?
Like most Army draftees at that time, Elvis Presley just wanted to complete his two years of service in good standing and return to civilian life. Since that meant keeping his mouth shut most of the time concerning political issues, he avoided publicly addressing his Cold War profile, something he had no control over anyway.
However, in the October 18, 1959, issue of the Davenport, Iowa, Quad-City Times, one of Elvis’ fellow soldiers, M/Sgt. Ira Jones, recalled a conversion he had with Elvis a few months before Presley’s discharge. Sergeant Jones said he asked Elvis whether he thought the Army had changed him. He paraphrased Elvis’ response:
“Nobody could study something for two years without changing. I’m no different in that than anybody else. I think a lot more about the world today than I did back home. When the papers talked about Communism or Berlin or Moscow, I turned to the entertainment section. I always thought that it was only movie publicity when I read that East German youths were arrested for carrying my picture. But since I’ve been over here, I know differently. The way the Communists see things, I’m one of the Cold War criminals. I’m not only a millionaire-capitalist, I’m a youth leader, a tool of American big-business imperialists, used for stirring up trouble among German youth. At least that’s what the East German papers say.”
• “Elvis Rocked the Reds,” said the prince
On March 4, 1960, the day before Elvis Presley was discharged from the U.S. Army, Prince Hubertus zu Loewenstein, an Austrian author and newspaperman, gave a lecture on the Cold War at the University of Pittsburgh. As Austria was one of the few Eastern European countries that had escaped Soviet hegemony after World War II, he was free to speak freely on the subject. In response to a question, the count said Elvis Presley was a “symbol of the free world,” with tremendous appeal to German communist youth.
The Pittsburgh Press summarized Prince Lowenstein’s further remarks about Presley: “Mr. Presley’s two-year hitch in West Germany actually penetrated the Iron Curtain and inspired a rock’n’roll craze in the Russian zone … East German youths preferred Mr. Presley to the national music heroes idealized by Red officials.”
• Back in civies, Elvis remained a Cold War symbol
Even after Elvis was discharged from the army in March 1960, he remained for some time a symbol of the Cold War. In June 1960, three months after Elvis’ discharge, columnist James Bacon interviewed him in Hollywood on the set of G.I. Blues. In Bacon’s June 19, 1960, syndicated column, he described how the army had changed Elvis.
“It may come as a shock to the malted milk set, but the Army a made a philosopher out of Elvis Presley. Elvis, in a word, has matured. Where two years ago he talked solely about women, now he talks about them only half the time. Such weighty topics as World War III, the recent collapse of the Summit conference, religion, and drama lessons are all expounded by Mr. Swivel Hips.”
Bacon asked Elvis if he thought the Cold War could become a real war. Presley replied, “There won’t be any. Nobody, not even the Russians could be that stupid. I know the Bible says the end of the world will come by fire and brimstone but I don’t think anyone wants to push that button first.” Elvis offered a harsh assessment of Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev: “He’s a bully. No different than a common street bully. As long as you act scared in front of him, he’ll keep smacking you. The minute you stand up and fight him, he’ll back away from you just like any other bully. They’re all basically cowards.”
• Past Presley critics now came to his defense
When Elvis returned to civilian life in 1960, he chose comparative sedate movie work in Hollywood rather than return to the wild stage antics that first brought him fame in the fifties. The maturity he displayed during his two years in the Army earned him praise from most of the American newspaper pundits who had criticized him in his pre-Army years. When, six months after Elvis left the army, an East German newspaper charged that Presley’s rock’n’roll followers there were really Western intelligence agents trying to undermine Communist ideals, American commentators scoffed at the idea.
An editorial in The Standard-Sentinel in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, on August 18, 1960, is one example.
“The world crisis can stand a laugh. The East German communist leader who charged that Elvis Presley is the secret weapon in the psychological warfare of the west showed at least that communists are not as smart as some people insist they are. First, he said Presley encourages youth to use a language no sensible person could understand. Then he leads them to lose respect for life. It follows that the destruction of life is no longer inhumane. That arises a spirit of humanity among youth and prepares them for war. He would be surprised to know, first that rock’n’roll is on the way out, second that Presley is abandoning it, and third that ‘no sensible person,’ could imagine Elvis as an instrument of anything so grim as psychological warfare, to say nothing of being its master.”
• Elvis: The Reluctant Cold War Warrior
If Elvis Presley could ever be considered a real “Cold War Warrior,” he certainly was a reluctant one. He spoke about it with his buddies in the army, but afterwards he was always careful not to comment publicly on controversial issues for fear that doing so might harm his career. — Alan Hanson | © December 2023
"The way the Communists see things, I’m one of the Cold War criminals. I’m not only a millionaire-capitalist, I’m a youth leader, a tool of American big-business imperialists, used for stirring up trouble among German youth."
— Elvis Presley