John Wayne was indisputably a Hollywood icon, but he was much more than that to Ronald Reagan. In fact, the 40th president of the United States never forgot how America’s most beloved big screen cowboy, nicknamed the Duke, gave him support when he needed it most.
John Wayne remains one of the most recognizable actors of all time, but he was also extraordinarily patriotic. “John Wayne has dedicated his entire life to America,” said Sen. Barry Goldwater during the 1979 hearings to award the Duke with the Congressional Medal of Honor. “And I am safe in saying that the American people have an affection for John Wayne such as they have had for very few people in the history of America.”
“John Wayne is not just an actor, and a good actor, he is the United States of America,” said actress Maureen O’Hara at the 1979 hearings. “I feel this gold medal should say just one thing: John Wayne American . . . I beg you to order the President to strike it.” O’Hara, known for her fiery red hair, starred with the Duke in the 1952 classic A Quiet Man. They were also great friends his entire life.
Although Ronald Reagan and John Wayne never made a movie together, they were well acquainted. Reagan and Wayne shared political beliefs, but sadly, the Duke died about eighteen months before Reagan won his bid for the White House. However, during a 1988 interview, Reagan recounted how his friend gave him and his wife Nancy support during their first big public battle.
“Are there any comments you’d like to give to close out?” the interviewer asked. “We’re doing this documentary for public television on John Wayne, called An American Hero, I might add. Are there any last, closing comments you’d like to make about the man?”
“There’s one thing that I think shows the character of that man as well as anything,” Reagan said. Then, he began to tell the story of the first Screen Actors Guild strike. At that time, he was president of SAG. So, Reagan was catching most of the blame from the media as well as others in Hollywood.
“In the mornings, for seven months, I was out of that house at meetings trying to get this thing settled,” Reagan explained. “And, Nancy would be there with the morning papers. Sometimes, they were worse than others.”
Ronald Reagan went on to explain how the Duke reached out to Nancy Reagan. “One day, Nancy told me that she’d had a phone call that morning after I left, and it was John Wayne.” The Duke was reading the papers as well. So, according to Reagan, he just called to say, “I thought you might want to hear a friendly voice about this time.” He then went on to tell Nancy how supportive he was of Ronald Reagan and what he was doing as head of SAG.
That wasn’t just a one-time thing, either. Ronald Reagan said that John Wayne called his house every morning just to cheer Nancy up. Looking back on that time, Reagan added, “That was very typical of John Wayne.” When Reagan left acting to start his career running for political office, Wayne publically supported him through every campaign.
During the Vietnam War, several military families started a campaign for missing-in-action soldiers. In remembrance of military members, bracelets would bear the name of a captured or missing soldier. Inspired by Wayne, Ronald Reagan stated he wore the identical bracelet the Duke wore every day. Out of thousands of soldiers, both men’s bracelets bore the name Steve Hanson, who was a second lieutenant and flew a CH46A helicopter in the Marines until Vietnamese soldiers shot him out of the sky on June 3, 1967.
The fallen Marine’s wife impacted the legendary actor when she reached out to Wayne in a letter with a photo. According to a 1988 Reagan Library interview, the former president explained that Hanson had written, “Me as John Wayne,” across the photograph. Both men can be seen wearing the bracelet on camera and during public appearances at the time. Great patriotic Americans like John Wayne and Ronald Reagan only come once in a lifetime, and there is no doubt both are sorely missed in America today.