Fifty years ago this week, “Ballad of the Green Berets” by SSgt. Barry Sadler made a mighty leap up the Billboard Hot 100, hitting #10 from #51 the week before. But Billboard was merely catching up with the street: the song had already sold two million copies since its release in mid-January. By late February, it had reached #1 in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Boston, Grand Rapids, Boise, Hartford, Reading, Lincoln, and Madison. Two weeks later, it would start a five-week run atop the Hot 100. It was #1 for four weeks in Cash Box, #1 for five weeks on Billboard‘s easy-listening chart, and #2 country. Many year-end surveys, including Billboard‘s, ranked it the #1 single of the year, a remarkable accomplishment during one of the strongest years in pop history.
How did “The Ballad of the Green Berets” become such a broad-based hit—perhaps the single most broad-based hit of all time?
In We Gotta Get Out of the Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, authors Doug Bradley and Craig Werner note that in the early days of Vietnam, the spirit that animated the soldiers was little different than that which had sent their elders to fight in World War II. Military service was an obligation that came with citizenship; you didn’t ask why America fought, you simply went and did your duty. The first popular songs inspired by the war came from the same point of view: the American effort was morally unambiguous, and the only right thing was to support it. The biggest of the early hits, “Hello Vietnam,” written by Tom T. Hall and sung by Johnny Wright, spent three weeks at #1 on the country chart in the fall of 1965. Although Wright sings “I don’t suppose this war will ever end,” the song also makes clear that the American effort in southeast Asia is necessary to protect freedom around the world.
Less than three months after Wright’s record was #1, “The Ballad of the Green Berets” exploded onto the radio. Its instant success can be attributed partly to the fact that in the winter and early spring of 1966, the antiwar movement was scarcely a movement at all. A patriotic song about Americans willing to die for freedom resonated strongly in a country where quite literally everybody would have known someone, or been related to someone, who fought in World War II or Korea. So there would have been nothing odd about a kid shopping for singles to pick up the current hits “California Dreamin’,” “I Fought the Law,” “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” and “The Ballad of the Green Berets.”
Oddly enough, the strongest contemporary objections to “The Ballad of the Green Berets” may have come from soldiers themselves. In We Gotta Get Out of This Place, one ex-soldier recalled being inspired by the song at first, only to notice that its heroic ideal simply “didn’t square up” with what he saw on the ground in Vietnam. The song also inspired rivalry among the services. At least one Army officer is said to have prohibited the singing of it at the officers’ club he frequented in Saigon. Both Marines and Army helicopter pilots created parodies of it that lionized their own service and put down the Special Forces.
“The Ballad of the Green Berets” was as good as it got for SSgt. Sadler, although he scored a second sizable hit, “The A-Team,” later in 1966. He later became a novelist, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and served jail time after a 1979 shooting incident, and was 49 years old when died in 1989, of complications from a 1988 shooting in Guatemala.
I first heard about We Gotta Get Out of This Place 10 years ago when Bradley and Werner were starting work on it, although it wasn’t published until last year. They discovered that the music of the war was not all Jimi Hendrix and the soundtrack of Good Morning Vietnam, and that music both brought soldiers together and split them apart. It’s required reading for fans of this blog, so go do your homework.