The US military’s targeting of children goes back decades. In this episode we look at a classic of the children’s TV genre – Lassie – and how episodes of the show were rewritten by the Pentagon. Focusing in on a four part special from the 1970s – Peace is Our Profession – which features Strategic Air Command and a diabetic poodle, we analyse how Lassie was hijacked for the sake of military propaganda.
A Brief History of Lassie
I assume that everyone is familiar with Lassie. Like Star Wars or Black Beauty or Captain Planet, it’s just part of the cultural tapestry of the lives of almost everyone I’ve ever spoken to. But at the same time, I recognise that some people will never have had the unbridled joy of watching Thundercats, they just grew up in a different place and time.
Lassie is a rough collie dog who first appeared in a short story by Elizabeth Gaskell in 1859, where she rescues two half-brothers who are lost in the snow and freezing to death. This story established both the character and the ‘doggo saves the day’ narrative that is the basis for pretty much all depictions of Lassie.
Curiously, this short story prefigured an actual event, which is the likely basis for the film and TV character that followed. In 1915, during WW1, a female collie owned by a guy who ran a pub saved the life of a man thought to have died during a German torpedo attack. He was one of a number of bodies found in the wake of the attack, and laid out in the cellar of the pub, being used as a makeshift mortuary. The dog, named Lassie, worked her way through the bodies and found one that was still alive. She licked the guys face, and nuzzled him for a long time, helping to warm him up again after a night unconscious in the ocean. The man stirred, was taken to hospital, and made a full recovery.
As with all of this stuff, I have no clue how a story written half a century earlier, now recognised as the literary origin of this character, then came true, before then being turned back into fiction. But this is what happened.
In 1938 Eric Knight wrote a short story, Lassie Come Home, which is about an intrepid dog making a long journey to be reunited with her young owner after the family is forced to sell her. Five years later, during the war, this was made into a film by MGM, with the lead role being played by a dog named Pal. MGM made several sequels over the following years, such was the popular appeal of heartwarming tales with canine protagonists.
In 1951, Pal’s owner and trainer bought the rights to the Lassie trademark from MGM, and spent the early 50s appearing at fairs and rodeos across America. In 1954 the character was reborn for TV, and over the following 19 years the series won Emmys and proved enormously popular. A succession of descendants of Pal played the lead role over the years. Further TV series followed in the 1980s and 90s, other films, a remake of Lassie Come Home, among others and – at least according to Wikipedia – Lassie continues to make public appearances to this day.
This is a whole live action experience come cinematic and televisual universe, all based around the charms of one dog. Or, a succession of dogs. Flipper ain’t got shit compared to this. One might interpret all this as a rebirth of our ancient obsession with benevolent animal gods. ‘Dog’ being an anagram of ‘god’, after all, as many dogs will remind you. Waiting for doggo, and so on.
Thus, this is about as innocent and wholesome a cultural obsession as we could possibly ask for – however saccharine and cringe inducing it might be in its more commercial moments. The simple pleasure of watching a dog run about rescuing children trapped down wells and cats stuck up trees and horses stuck in barns, or outside barns, has endured for all the right reasons.
So it’s all the more disappointing and disturbing to find the US military using this most innocent of cultural delights as a vehicle for their bullshit.
The US Military and Lassie
I first found out about this connection years ago, reading David Robb’s Operation Hollywood. He wrote, quite aptly:
The Pentagon even uses movies and TV shows to target children as future recruits, as it did with two of the most popular kids TV shows of all time, Lassie and The Mickey Mouse Club. Episodes of both shows were rewritten at the Pentagon’s insistence to make the armed forces more attractive to children.
As I’ve written about previously, courtesy of files dug up by Roger Stahl, we can add Dennis the Menace to the list of classic kids TV that were messed with by the military. The Waltons is another one, but I don’t think we have any documents on that.
Robb goes on to devote a whole chapter of Operation Hollywood to Lassie, focusing in on three episodes featuring our titular doggie and her clumsy, stupid, accident prone sidekick Timmy. Honestly, this dog would have a much easier life if she just stopped hanging around with people who are clearly getting themselves into trouble just to get attention. Alternatively, someone may need to explore what is going on in the background of this kid’s life that’s making him behave this way because to my mind it’s indicative of an unspoken emotional scar that he’s trying to tell the world about, but cannot. Or maybe the character is just poorly conceived.
Anyhow, Robb starts by examining a 1961 episode called Timmy vs. the Martians, in which our intellectually challenged sidekick is putting together a contraption to try to contact a Martian spaceship and guide it to earth. When they first push the button, nothing happens, but then Lassie starts barking and they all run outside and see a plane crash.
It turns out to be a military plane, and during the Army investigation the Major discovers that Lassie knew about the crash before it happened, so he sends her along to the lab to help the professor figure out what caused the crash. Due to her super-hearing, Lassie detects flaws in the wing design of the aircraft when it is put through a wind tunnel.
I will forgive you for wondering what in the Mid-West were the Army’s problems with this storyline, and in the event it was quite simple. A Major Ellington wrote back to the producers:
We are quite sure that the Army stock footage sequences you plan to use are concerned with the L-19 aircraft manufactured by the Cessna Corporation. In your script, as an explanation of the crash, you say: ‘It points up a structural defect in the plane wing’s assembly.’ This… could elicit serious objections from the Cessna Corporation… The statement could be interpreted to mean that the Army purchases aircraft without making sure that all structural design defects have been eliminated. The L- 19 is a most reliable aircraft and does not deserve any deprecations of its design.
Instead, he suggested that unpredictable weather conditions caused icing on the wings, adding ‘The latter condition could be interpreted as causing the mysterious sound oscillations which could only be heard by Lassie.’ So the script was rewritten to accommodate this, and another line was altered near the end. As Robb recounts:
The last line of the synopsis for the original script says that “Lassie solves the mystery and no lives will be endangered because of it.” But that last part was taken out by the military. In the script approved by the Army, Lassie is still a good detective, but she is no longer a hero because no lives have been saved by her actions.
ls this a proper role for the military to make Lassie look less heroic so that the military will look better instead?
A few months later and the relationship was renewed, in an episode titled The Patriot. In this one the military are having trouble with a cowardly German shepherd named Homer (because apparently any animal who doesn’t want to be part of the military industrial complex is a coward). Lassie is called in to save the day and help train the German shepherd, and with her help he becomes a brave army guard dog at a nearby missile base, and Lassie becomes an honorary member of the K-9 Corps. God bless these United States.
After The Patriot had aired, Don Baruch wrote to the producers looking for opportunities to get the military into future episodes. His memo reads:
We enjoyed our association with you on past productions such as ‘Timmy vs. the Martians’ and ‘The Patriot’ and trust you will consider ‘Lassie’ in other situations involving the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. We will be happy to discuss any other ideas.
Baruch’s charm offensive worked – a few months after this a new military-Lassie episode was produced, this time with the help of the Air Force. Lassie and Timmy find a lost falcon, though how you tell that a falcon is lost is unclear. For some reason they take it to the Air Force academy, in the hope of it being adopted as a mascot. En route, Lassie and the falcon have to stop and help Timmy after he falls off a cliff. It turns out that Timmy’s cousin, Dick, is a cadet at the academy. I will merely say that if Timmy is literally willing to throw himself off a cliff in order to avoid seeing Dick, we may have solved the mystery of his unspoken emotional scar.
The Air Force wanted Dick to be bigger, a more prominent character, and wanted the episode to show off the Academy more. They wanted Dick to be a falcon trainer, and to give Timmy his book on falcon training. Exactly why he does this, when as far as I can tell the falcon stays at the academy, leaving Timmy without a falcon to train, I don’t know.
Peace is Our Profession
There is more to this story. The three episodes covered in Operation Hollywood were from the early 1960s, and the documents for this come from the Georgetown archive (which is being or has been reclaimed by the DOD). We know this because I have a copy of Robb’s Lassie file and of the documents from Georgetown.
However, there is also a set of documents that Roger found in the National Archives, which covers a four-part military-themed special from 1971 called Peace is Our Profession.
The stakes in this four-parter are much higher than in the previous Pentagon-sponsored Lassie productions, it involved Strategic Air Command and a dog in a diabetic coma. Since no one has ever picked up on this, despite the military’s support being obvious, I thought it would make a good addition to what Robb managed to dig up.
The episode starts with an adult named Garth – not Timmy, who has presumably died in a tragic farming accident by this point – going to Vandenberg Air Force Base. Incidentally, Vandenberg is now a Space Force base. Garth is there because one of his adopted sons (in the Air Force) is getting married and he’s going to be the best man. It isn’t clear why he takes Lassie with him.
The four of them – Garth, Lassie, the guy getting married and some other Air Force guy, go and watch a missile test launch out near the ocean. Lassie notices that a goose is nesting near one of the launch silos, and tries to alert the men, to no avail. So, later in the day, with another missile launch imminent, she escapes over the back yard fence and runs off to the launch area.
There’s a very tense sequence where the guys in launch control are getting the green light to launch, and Lassie is running around the fence surrounding the missile silo, trying to warn the goose. She digs a hole under the fence, which sets off an alarm, cancelling the launch and saving the goose and the eggs.
Earlier in the episode, it is established that Garth’s friend is a chaplain, part of the CHAP program – Children Have a Potential – a support program set up for disabled children of Air Force members. Having rescued the Snow Goose and her kids, Lassie is borrowed by the chaplain to help him with his good works. For some reason this involves flying to Offut, which also for some reason involves a mid-air refuelling.
I can only assume the refuelling was something requested by the Air Force themselves – we don’t have any notes for the first of this four parter. It’s the sort of thing they like to show off. However, why Lassie has now been commandeered and taken to Offut – which is in Nebraska, some distance from California, isn’t especially clear. Offut is the home of Strategic Air Command – now simply Strategic Command – i.e. the people in charge of the nukes controlled by the Air Force. Again, this doesn’t seem like a location dreamt up by the producers, it seems like something incorporated on behalf of the Pentagon. Offut is right in the middle of the US – deliberately so, it’s away from the population centres on the coasts. So if anyone nukes the US, Offut probably won’t be immediately affected, leaving time to hit back.
Their support to the show meant that Strategic Air Command (or SAC) had to review the scripts for Lassie: Peace is our Profession. To try to hurry up the process, Baruch’s number two Norman Hatch wrote to the Director of Information at SAC, asking for confirmation that they were happy to go ahead. Hatch wrote:
Although we have a SAC position for the snow goose story, we have nothing in regard to any other proposed episode.
A couple of weeks later, evidently with SAC’s script comments and provisional authorisation, Baruch wrote a memo back to the producers. It gave the go-ahead for Lassie’s visit to SAC, as long as certain modifications were ‘accomplished’.
The first of these was that ‘Lassie not be shown on board or entering any US Air Force aircraft’, and that it be left to the viewers’ imagination how she got from Vandenberg to Offut. Maybe she ran there, it’s only (quick google maps check) 1600 miles.
In the event, it seems the Air Force and DOD overruled this demand, and were happy for Lassie to be flown from base to base, as long as they included the mid-air refuelling to compensate for the ridiculousness of letting a commission-less dog on board.
When they land at Offut, the Chaplain and Lassie go to the Command Post – a massive room with giant screens on the walls – and we’re treated to a little lecture about nuclear weapons, before a very odd conversation between the chaplain and his General.
Now I’m really confused – in Part I Garth takes Lassie to Vandenberg, because his son is getting married and he’s due to be the best man. But the friend is moving to March Air Force Base to take up his role in the CHAP program. This for some reason means going to Offut Air Force Base and SAC, to see a General (who is not a general at either Vandenberg or March) who wishes him luck in his new job. But how does the chaplain know the general? And why did they fly from Vandenberg, in California, to Offut, in Nebraska, only to fly back to March, in California? Nothing about this storyline makes a lick of sense to me.
SAC’s note on this sequence is that Lassie’s visit to the Command Post be ‘quick and under dignified circumstances’. They said ‘This we realise is difficult to interpret in scripting, but certainly should be taken into consideration in direction.’ Sure enough, throughout this whole bit Lassie is very subdued, doesn’t jump up or run around or bark at anything, she is a very disciplined dog. Though why the Chaplain says he’s learning from Lassie, and why the General responds ‘we can all learn from someone’ – I’m just as clueless as I am about the plot.
Lassie Goes to Strategic Air Command
In the following scene, Lassie befriends a diabetic poodle named Sparky, who belongs to a friend of the chaplain’s. It is established that Sparky needs insulin every 24 hours. The friend – who is off somewhere – asks the chaplain to take Sparky over to the base vet’s office for his injection the following morning, but when they go over there, Sparky escapes. The little rascal runs off, with Lassie in hot pursuit.
Sparky sneaks aboard an Air Force plane that’s getting ready for takeoff – a so-called Looking Glass plane, essentially a flying command post. This also proved problematic for SAC, because how does a poodle – and a diabetic one at that – get on board a highly secure aircraft so easily? There were evidently discussions about this, and changes were made to allow Sparky to get on board. The first guard at the gate is distracted by the phone ringing at the key moment, which enables Sparky to get onto the tarmac. Then, the guard patrolling around the steps up into the plane has his view momentarily blocked by a vehicle. It’s all some nice coincidence so it doesn’t look like lax security, which was SAC’s major concern.
When Lassie tries to follow Sparky, the guard at the gate notices her and there’s a brief pursuit before she’s caught, and stopped from entering the plane. But Sparky is left trapped on board, where there’s no doggie insulin. When the Chaplain comes to pick up Lassie, he is told that the plane is committed to an eight hour flight (where the fuck is it going, Japan?). So Sparky’s life is in danger, stuck on a flying command post for 8 hours, at risk of slipping into a diabetic coma.
The guys on board quickly find the poodle and figure out that Sparky hasn’t had his insulin, so they phone up the vet on the base who tells them there’s nothing they can do, just try not to let him drift into a coma. So, the owner of the dog (who conveniently happens to be on board the plane) prevents the dog from falling asleep, picking him up and making him stand whenever he tries to drift off.
Which is, of course, a technique later used at Guantanamo Bay.
After six hours of this, Sparky passes out and it looks like the worst is going to happen. Fortunately, the general hears of the situation and calls the plane down early, to save the dog’s life. In the original script there was some kind of mid-air transfer of doggo insulin, but the military said this was unacceptable. Then it was suggested that the DOD get involved and order the plane down in order to save Sparky’s life, but evidently this met with DOD disapproval.
It is at this point in the notes that they mentions one of the DOD’s suggestions – to have bad weather prevent the plane from landing, and use mid-air refuelling to keep it aloft, before dramatically landing and getting Sparky his lovely drugs. You will notice there are several parallels between this episode and the previous one on Purple Hearts. That’s completely coincidental.
Anyhow, it seems that became showing the mid-air refuelling earlier, during the trip to Offut, abandoning the mid-air insulin transfer and simply having the General, not the DOD or other higher-ups, order the plane down. Though it’s not clear which general orders this, because the one we already met was on the plane.
The plane lands back at Offut (which it has presumably just been circling for the previous six or seven hours, for no reason at all), Sparky gets mainlined and everything is fine again. Then the Chaplain tells his friend that his final orders have come through, and he and Lassie are going back to California. Which had already been established at the beginning of part II.
So, why did Lassie go to Offut in the first place? Was it just so she could befriend Sparky and then alert everyone to the problem once Sparky snuck on board the Looking Glass plane? If so, that’s a bit doggo ex machina for my liking.
Another plane taking off and landing sequence later, and the chaplain and Lassie are at March Air Force Base, where their new boss outlines one of the problem children they’re trying to help – Jimmy. He dreams of being a pilot like his father, but because he has a leg brace, that’s very unlikely. The kid is failing school, and has stopped going to church.
Naturally, Lassie befriends young Jimmy, but all of a sudden the air raid sirens start going off, and everyone rushes to respond. It turns out to be a drill, so Jimmy and Lassie go off for a walk, to look at all the nuclear bombers. Because apparently, that’s allowed?
The two of them then go into an entirely unguarded area, and climb inside a mock-up cockpit. In the script notes, it says ‘Jimmy should not be able to activate the B-52 simulator’ and sure enough he flicks a bunch of switches but nothing happens.
Just as an aside, I cannot hear the phrase ‘B-52 simulator’ without thinking of a karaoke machine that only lets you sing Love Shack.
The story then takes another dramatic twist – the plane that Jimmy’s dad is flying suffers a power failure, meaning they cannot switch fuel tanks or extend the landing gear. Lassie and Jimmy are busy playing on some swings. For the next 15 minutes they try to fix the plane, as disaster looms.
On the ground, the chaplain tries to convince Jimmy to overcome his atheism and juvenile deliquency through the power of Christ. Which works, of course. They hear about the plane in trouble, so Jimmy, his mother, the chaplain and Lassie all go to watch it crash land. Plane crashes being quite exciting.
The DOD had something to say about this – for some reason they were OK with a mysterious electrical malfunction but they wanted to give the impression that the crew were trying to fix it throughout. It seems in the script they tried one last circuit breaker, which brought the power back on and allowed them to land normally. According to Baruch, the script implied that they just gave up and then threw the dice, which happened to work. He suggested the dialogue, ‘Let’s hope this was the last circuit breaker. Say a prayer and let’s try the switch one more time!’
In the event, it is the power of Christ that compels the plane to fix itself – the chaplain is praying on the ground as they watch the aircraft descend, and then it magically fixes itself and everything is fine. There’s even a little dialogue once the plane has safely landed, where Jimmy’s father says ‘I guess all those prayers worked, didn’t they chaplain?’ The chaplain replies, ‘Prayers, miracles, there’s only one thing I know for sure Captain: God is with us, always.’
So that’s where George Lucas got the line from in A New Hope. Like everything else, he just ripped it off from American TV.
In conclusion, this four parter Peace is Our Profession starts out like a classic Lassie story, but by part four it has become almost pure military propaganda. In episode one Lassie saves the snow goose, in episodes 2 and 3 it’s the poodle with diabetes, but in episode 4 she does nothing except follow Jimmy around. The episode is all about the plane being rescued by God because God is on the side of the US military, and there’s a dog in some scenes.
Almost as though Lassie is allowed to be shown as heroic and saving people, but not on the scale of God and the US military, the much more powerful and righteous saviours. Which I find downright disrespectful.