How 'Dallas' Won the Cold War

By Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch
Sunday, April 27, 2008

Let us now pause in somber tribute to the 30th anniversary of a momentous -- and shockingly unremembered -- turning point in the long twilight struggle between communism and capitalism. An event every bit as important as the Nixon-Khrushchev Kitchen Debate, Ronald Reagan's "Tear Down this Wall" speech and Yakov Smirnoff's defection to the West.

We write, of course, about the debut of "Dallas," the 13-year soap opera that shook the world.

Yes, April 1978 was the first time our nation turned its lonely eyes to Southfork Ranch, the winningly diabolical genius of J.R. Ewing (as played by Larry Hagman) and Victoria Principal's high-waisted pantsuits. It was the booze-and-sex-soaked caricature of free enterprise and executive lifestyles that proved irresistible not just to stagflation-weary Americans but viewers from France to the Soviet Union to Ceausescu's Romania.

"Dallas" wasn't simply a television show. It was an atmosphere-altering cultural force. Lasting nearly as long as recovering alcoholic Larry Hagman's second liver, it helped define the 1980s as a glorious "decade of greed," ushering in an era in which capitalism became cool, even though weighted with manifold moral quandaries. Beginning with the famous "Who Shot J.R.?" cliffhanger at the end of Season Two, "Dallas" was either the highest or second-highest rated show in the United States for a half-decade, showing up in Abba songs and Ozzy Osbourne videos, spinning off the mega-hit "Knots Landing" and inspiring such book-length academic analysis as French academic Florence Dupont's "Homère et 'Dallas': Introduction à une Critique Anthropologique."

After a long hip parade of unironic countercultural icons such as Luke of "Cool Hand Luke" and Randle Patrick McMurphy of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Dallas" created a new archetype of the anti-hero we loved to hate and hated to love: an establishment tycoon who's always controlling politicians, cheating on his boozy wife and scheming against his own stubbornly loyal family. But no matter how evil various translators tried to make J.R. and his milieu ("Dallas, you merciless universe!" ran the French lyrics added to the wordless theme song), viewers in the nearly 100 countries that gobbled up the show, including in the Warsaw Pact nations, came to believe that they, too, deserved cars as big as boats and a swimming pool the size of a small mansion.

Joseph Stalin is said to have screened the 1940 movie "The Grapes of Wrath" in the Soviet Union to showcase the depredations of life under capitalism. Russian audiences watched the final scenes of the Okies' westward trek aboard overladen, broken-down jalopies -- and marveled that in the United States, even poor people had cars. "Dallas" functioned similarly.

"I think we were directly or indirectly responsible for the fall of the [Soviet] empire," Hagman told the Associated Press a decade ago. "They would see the wealthy Ewings and say, 'Hey, we don't have all this stuff.' I think it was good old-fashioned greed that got them to question their authority."

In Romania, "Dallas" was the last Western show allowed during the nightmare 1980s because President Nicolae Ceausescu was persuaded that it was sufficiently anti-capitalistic. By the time he changed his mind, it was already too late -- he had paid for the full run in precious hard currency. Meanwhile, the show provided a luxuriant alternative to a communism that was forcing people to wait more than a decade to buy the most rattletrap Romanian car.

After the dictator and his wife were shot on Christmas Eve 1989, the pilot episode of "Dallas" -- with a previously censored sex scene edited back in -- was one of the first foreign shows broadcast on the liberated Romanian TV. Over the next few years, Hagman became a ubiquitous pitchman in the country for firms such as the Russian petroleum company Lukoil ("The Choice of a True Texan").

To this day, you can visit an ersatz "SouthForkscu" ranch in the nowheresville Romanian town of Slobozia (yes, that's its real name). Or simply visit the original set in Plano, Tex., which draws around as many visitors as the former Texas School Book Depository in Dallas's Dealey Plaza, where Lee Harvey Oswald hid to shoot President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

The impact of "Dallas" on people's worldviews reminds us that the "vulgar" popular culture that left-wing highbrows and right-wing cultural conservatives love to hate is every bit as important as chin-stroking politics in fomenting real social change. Whether it's the junkie-rock band Velvet Underground inspiring anti-communist dissidents in Prague, or the movie "Titanic" inspiring subversive haircut styles in Taliban Afghanistan (the theocrats' Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice regularly rounded up would-be Leonardo DiCaprios), throwaway cultural products influence far-flung cultures in ways that are impossible to predict or control, even (or especially) by the artists themselves.

That lesson is more relevant than ever in an increasingly globalized world in which movies, music and more cross borders with impunity -- and the free West engages the semi-free East, whether in China or Iran. For all the talk of boycotts and bombs, if the United States is interested in spreading American values and institutions, a little TV-land may go a lot further than armored personnel carriers.

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