Elvis Presley: America’s Secret Weapon in the Cold War
The King of Rock became a one-man special force against the East Germans, even as he questioned the validity of the conflict itself. Jon Wiener writes on the Cold War’s celebrity veteran in this excerpt from his new book, How We Forget the Cold War.
Elvis was the king of rock and roll and the star of 33 Hollywood films, and he’s also America’s most famous Cold War veteran. In 1958–60, he served in Germany in a tank unit during the Berlin Crisis. The East Germans regarded Elvis as a problem they had to counter; the U.S. military regarded him as an opportunity they could exploit. Elvis mattered—a lot—to both sides in the Cold War. Missing from this picture: Elvis himself. We have the official PR story, but his own view is hardly known. What we do know about it is fascinating, significant, and surprising.
Elvis was drafted in March 1958, assigned to a tank division—the one formerly headed by Patton—and sent to Germany. American tanks were there—thousands of American tanks—to stop thousands of Russian tanks from pouring through the famed Fulda Gap, a flat corridor between mountain ranges at the border between East and West Germany. Hannibal had invaded through the Fulda Gap. Napoleon and Patton had taken the same route. American strategists said the Red Army could do it, too, coming through the Fulda Gap to take Frankfurt, the financial capital of West Germany, and then all of Western Europe. As one tank commander explained, “We stop ’em here or not at all.” Stopping them was Elvis’s mission. The mission gained intensity after November 1958, when Elvis was on maneuvers in Grafenwöhr and Khrushchev issued an ultimatum giving the U.S. six months to agree to withdraw from Berlin. Thus began the Berlin Crisis.
During those years, Elvis loomed large in official East German thinking about the Cold War. The East German leaders described him as a threat—the country’s defense minister, Willi Stoph, declared that Elvis’s rock and roll was “a means of seduction to make the youth ripe for atomic war.” In April 1959, East German Communist Party leader Walter Ulbricht told a cultural conference that it was “not enough to reject the capitalist decadence with words, to ... speak out against the ecstatic ‘singing’ of someone like Presley. We have to offer something better.”
What they came up with was the Lipsi. It was an officially promoted dance, offered as an alternative to Elvis’s rock and roll. Time magazine in 1959 described the Lipsi as “a sort of double-time waltz” in which “the dance steps themselves looked like a mixed-up rumba, laced with old-fashioned open steps that led to a kind of shimmying amble.” What made the Lipsi preferable for East German officials was that it was a couples dance rather than what they termed an “open dance.” In the Lipsi, the man led and the woman followed, while rock-and-roll dancing did not require women to follow the male lead and thus promoted more gender equality and permitted more sexual expressiveness by women on the dance floor. In the East German dance halls of the official youth organization FDJ, there were signs on the dance floor stating “dancing apart is forbidden.” But in spite of enormous propaganda efforts, the Lipsi didn’t replace Elvis.
Indeed, youthful protesters in East Germany chanted Elvis’s name. In 1959 groups of adolescents in Leipzig marched downtown with a call-and-response chant:
Call: “Long Live Walter Ulbricht!”
Response: “Pfui, pfui, pfui!”
Call: “Long live Elvis Presley!”
Response: “Ja, ja, ja!”
Similar demonstrations by “Presley admirers” were reported in 1959 in Dresden and 13 other East German cities and towns. The Leipzig authorities cracked down in the summer and fall of 1959, sentencing 15 demonstrators to prison sentences of six months to four and a half years.
The East German establishment view of Elvis was not so different from the American establishment view—he was crude, primitive, and potentially dangerous as an influence on young people. But Western military officials did not share that view; instead they were eager to exploit Elvis’s popularity to build support for NATO among German youth.
The most striking of these efforts came in April 1959 in the town of Steinfurth, where Elvis was enlisted by the American military “to help overcome widespread German unease over the rearmament of West Germany.” Elvis posed for pictures working on the construction of a World War I memorial dedicated (in German of course) to “Heroes 1914–1918.”
Why was Elvis honoring German soldiers of World War I? The U.S. believed that Europe could not be defended against a Soviet attack without West German military participation, but the German Social Democratic Party opposed West German rearmament, and many in West Germany were not reconciled to the U.S. military presence. The unease was widespread in West Germany, and it had several sources. Some of it, historian Frank Biess explains, was simply pacifism. But resistance to rearmament also had a nationalist basis: many veterans wanted a new German army, but not under American and NATO auspices. And Germans also had a sense that German soldiers would not make any difference in a potential nuclear war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. They also suspected that they might be used simply as cannon fodder by the Americans.
So the U.S. undertook a variety of projects to convert the Germans to the American mission, and one key effort consisted of public events at which the U.S. Army honored the German armies of the past. Eisenhower himself led this effort, declaring that he had “come to know that there is a real difference between the regular German soldier and officer and Hitler and his criminal group.” West Germany established an official day of mourning for the dead of two world wars, and part of the American military strategy in Germany was to publicly participate in official memorial observances and to “treat Germany’s war dead with the same respect accorded to U.S. soldiers.” Thus, the U.S. Army sent its most famous soldier to advance the cause of winning Germans to the American Cold War project.
Of course one thing was missing from the culture clash over Cold War Elvis: Elvis himself. The official story, put out by the Elvis PR machine, was—as Elvis himself dutifully told the press—that he felt “sincere gratitude” for “what this country has given me. And now I’m ready to return a little. It’s the only adult way to look at it.” America gave Elvis the freedom to become a rock-and-roll star; now it was time for him to help protect that freedom.
But it turns out that Elvis himself had some questions about all of this. William J. Taylor Jr. was Elvis’s lieutenant and wrote a book about it. Taylor is no ordinary fan-book author—he has a Ph.D. in international relations and today is a senior adviser in the National Security Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He’s published 17 books, including American National Security: Policy and Process, now in its sixth revised edition. He also wrote Elvis in the Army.
As Taylor tells the story, during a break in the war games, Elvis posed the big question: “Lootenet, what’s goin’ on in the world?”
“Our butts could be ordered into combat at any minute,” Taylor replied. But, he added, Germany was not really a Russian target. The next Korean War would begin somewhere in the Third World, not at the Fulda Gap. But, Taylor told Elvis, they might have to fight the Soviets in Germany anyway, because Kennedy wanted to sound “tough.”
Elvis replied, “Well, he can sound tough if he wants to, but I’m tellin’ you that most people I know don’t want any more Korean War kind of stuff. I mean goin’ around the world and gettin’ killed because some politician wants to show how tough he is.”
Finally Elvis asked his lieutenant, “What the hell are we doin’ this for anyway?”
The answer he got was the conventional one: “deterrence.” But it’s not the answer here that’s significant, it’s the question—posed by Elvis about the American troop presence in Germany: “What the hell are we doin’ this for anyway?” Sometimes the hardest thing is not to know the right answer, but to ask the right question. Elvis did.
Another officer who served in Germany with Elvis, and who later asked a similar question, was Colin Powell. He wrote in his 1995 autobiography My American Journey about his time with the Third Armored Division in Germany in 1958–60 as a 21-year-old second lieutenant, participating in the training exercises at the Fulda Gap at the same time Elvis was. He understood some of the big picture: “Every piece of artillery, every machine gun, rifle, mortar, tank, and antitank weapon in our division was intended to hit the Russians the moment they came pouring through the gap.”
At this point in his narrative, Powell asked the crucial question: “Why would the Russians be coming?”
Hardly any Americans asked that question in 1958. Indeed, hardly any historians asked it subsequently, so Powell gets credit for asking. His answer: “I did not know; the answer was above my pay grade.” At the time he wrote these sentences, the author had been national-security adviser to the president and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, so the question wasn’t above his pay grade in 1995, when he wrote the book. But he still didn’t have an answer.
Was it really necessary for anyone, including Elvis, to prepare to fight a tank battle with the Russians at the Fulda Gap in 1958? That question was posed at the time not just by Elvis, but by two of the most distinguished political thinkers of the era. A year before Elvis went to Germany, George Kennan went to England. The famed architect of the containment doctrine delivered the Reith lectures on the BBC. He favored demilitarization of both East and West Germany, and indeed all of Eastern and Western Europe, because it was “far more desirable on principle to get the Soviet forces out of Central and Eastern Europe than to cultivate a new German army for the purpose of opposing them while they remain there.” Today Kennan’s proposals seem obviously right.
Elvis went home from Germany in March 1960; a year later Walter Lippmann went to Moscow—to interview Nikita Khrushchev, “mostly on Berlin.” Lippmann was the premiere political columnist and commentator of the era. Khrushchev told Lippmann there had to be an all-German peace treaty that included a new status for Berlin. Without that, he feared that the West Germans would drag America into a war to recover territories in East Europe they lost in World War I. Khrushchev was determined to seek a solution to the German question, Lippmann concluded, even though he “dreaded the tension” and hoped for an accommodation. Despite the “relentless determination” of the Soviets to promote revolution in the Third World, Lippmann concluded, they were definitely “not contemplating war” in Germany and were “genuinely concerned to prevent any crisis.”
Walter Lippmann, George Kennan, and Elvis: Cold War skeptics, together at last.
Two more recent voices can be added to that company. President George W. Bush and his national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice released a statement on Sept. 17, 2002—just a year after the 9/11 attacks—declaring that “in the Cold War ... we faced a generally status quo, risk-averse adversary.”
That suggests Elvis asked the right question about the Cold War: “What the hell are we doin’ this for anyway?”