Thanks to Hollywood, America’s collective memory of the Vietnam War is now inextricably linked with the popular music of that era. More specifically, it is linked with the music of the late-60s counterculture and antiwar movement. But opposition to the war was far from widespread back in 1966—a fact that was reflected not just in popular opinion polls, but in the pop charts, too. Near the very height of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, on March 5, 1966, American popular-music fans made a #1 hit out of a song called “The Ballad Of The Green Berets” by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler.
Sadler was exactly what his name and uniform implied he was: a real-life, active-duty member of the United States Army Special Forces—the elite unit popularly known as the Green Berets. In early 1965, Sadler suffered a severe punji stick injury that brought a premature end to his tour of duty as a combat medic in Vietnam. During his long hospitalization back in the United States, Sadler, an aspiring musician prior to the war, wrote and submitted to music publishers an epic ballad that eventually made its way in printed form to Robin Moore, author of the then-current nonfiction book called The Green Berets. Moore worked with Sadler to whittle his 12-verse original down to a pop-radio-friendly length, and Sadler recorded the song himself in late 1965, first for distribution only within the military, and later for RCA when the original took off as an underground hit. Within two weeks of its major-label release, The Ballad of the Green Berets had sold more than a million copies, going on to become Billboard magazine’s #1 single for all of 1966.
While it would not be accurate to call “The Ballad Of The Green Berets” a pro-war song, it was certainly a song that enjoyed popularity among those who opposed the growing anti-war movement. A year after “Green Berets” came out, Buffalo Springfield would release the anti-war anthem “For What It’s Worth,” which continues to be Hollywood’s go-to choice for many films and television programs depicting American involvement in the Vietnam War. On this day in 1966, however, the American airwaves belonged to a clean cut, uniformed member of the U.S. Army and his anti-antiwar epic.