Moosylvania: When Cartoon Comedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis Collided
Even the threat of nuclear war wouldn't stop Bullwinkle creator Jay Ward from his mission.
In 2018 it’s strange to say The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, a show that ran from 1959 to 1964, was social satire almost as subversive as South Park—but it was. It’s only a little less strange to compare tensions between Russia and America in 2018 with the era that gave us the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It seems quaint now, but in 1962 Rocky and Bullwinkle was pissing people off, and creator Jay Ward enjoyed it. “We’ve not only offended people—without meaning to, of course—but we’ve also had trouble with countries,” he told a TV and radio magazine, “The story of Pancho Villa almost got us into a jam in Mexico and I think our new character, ‘Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties,’ may be the hit of the show. But I won’t be surprised if we’re at war with Canada over him within the year.”
Rocky and Bullwinkle didn’t go to war with Canada. There was no Canadian Maple Syrup Crisis. If Jay Ward and his cartoon characters had chosen to attack our northern neighbors, they would have launched their mission from a tiny island on the U.S.-Canada border dubbed Moosylvania.
As Keith Scott wrote in The Moose that Roared: the story of Jay Ward, Bill Scott, a flying squirrel, and a talking moose, Moosylvania was originally cooked up in a Bullwinkle script, when the Moose in question took a trip to a “dreadful little place called Moosylvania.”
After a flood of fan mail, the show’s creators decided to make Moosylvania real. Ward leased a tiny Minnesota island right on the border for $1500, then conspired with one-time Rin Tin Tin publicist Howard Brandy to petition the White House for statehood. He and Brandy would deliver this petition in person, in a van, in costume.
Ward and Brandy would cross the country in a colorful panel van. They would stop in several cities to collect signatures supporting the cause. The president would then declare Moosylvania—”the Only State in the Union With an Entirely Non-Resident Population”—the 52nd state (Puerto Rico, as far as Ward was concerned, was number 51).
As Jay Ward was readying his goofy campaign to create a state so tiny it would make Rhode Island look like Texas, Washington D.C. was an unhappy place. In the fight against communism, the Kennedy Administration had pulled the trigger on invading Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in May 1961. That, like many of Bullwinkle’s schemes, was a very bad idea.
Had so many Cuban exiles and CIA advisors not been killed, it would have been a tragic comedy of errors worthy of Jay Ward Productions. Instead, it was just tragic. Public opinion of the president had dropped and tension between the USSR and the United States, a permanent undercurrent in relations between the countries, was beginning its rise to the breaking point it would reach that fall.
The moment those tensions began to edge toward nuclear war might be debatable, but Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko’s big lie to the UN on September 21, 1962 is good as any.
Gromyko insisted that “any sober-minded man knows that Cuba is not…building up her forces to such a degree that she can pose a threat to the United States or…to any state of the Western Hemisphere.”
Of course, Cuba was doing just that. President Osvaldo Dorticos hinted as much when he addressed the United Nations on October 8, saying that if his country was “attacked, we will defend ourselves.”
“I repeat,” he said, “…We indeed have our inevitable weapons…”
The following day, President Kennedy signed off on a U-2 spy plane mission to Cuba.
On October 10, The Amarillo Globe-Times advised Bullwinkle fans of the show’s “zany creator” and his plans to secure Moosylvania statehood. The paper quoted Jay Ward, who said the island’s non-existent residents had “stood quietly as Congress has passed them over in order to grant statehood to such fledgling territories as Hawaii and Alaska.”
Ward said that neither the theoretical Moosylvanians nor the moose and squirrel had ever raised “their voices to cry out at this injustice being done them.” The article then said fans could write the Sunset Boulevard address of Statehood for Moosylvania. They would receive a pamphlet about the glories of the island and “a dandy little yellow lapel pin and a decal for your car.”
The following day Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Luke Feck weighed in. He wrote that in addition “to the thorny problems of Cuba, Berlin and how to redecorate Lincoln’s bedroom, I add the flea bite of a plea for admission into the Union by the Unincorporated Territory of Moosylvania.”
The nation held its breath.
On Saturday, October the 13th, Chester Bowles—no longer an Under Secretary of State, but empowered to address Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin—asked the Russian if the Soviets had plans to give Cuba weapons. Dobrynin held the Gromyko line. Of course, they had no such plans.
A day later, Air Force Major Richard Heyser was in his U-2, high above western Cuba. He triggered the shutter on his camera, taking nearly 1000 images of shapes on the ground far below. Shapes that looked a hell of a lot like medium range ballistic missiles.
News of this rocketed through the intelligence community and the upper echelons of the government like a flying squirrel on a mission to save a moose.
The machinery of war was rumbling to life.
Once the missiles were conclusively identified, events in Washington accelerated. Everyone could feel that terrible predatory machine awakening. JFK met with Gromyko and informed him America wouldn’t stand for Soviet weapons of war in Cuba. The foreign minister again did the equivalent of a “Who, me?” shrug.
The following day, October 19, Kennedy met with his Defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss their choices.
Twenty-four hours later, the AP published a report in papers nationwide: “Wacky Stunter Now at it Again.” It described Jay Ward’s Moosylvania mission to turn “a boggy area north of Minnesota” into a state. Because, according to a likely frustrated Ward, “Canada has twice refused Moosylvania as a gift. Even with Lake Superior thrown in.”
On Sunday, October 21, Kennedy implemented the blockade of Cuba.
Here the timeline grows cloudy. The Jay Ward and Howard Brandy timeline, not the Cuban Missile Crisis. That one is pretty set in stone.
In the latter, Kennedy addressed the nation about the blockade. The military went to DEFCON 3 and Castro’s forces began to mobilize. There was a cascade of events between October 22 and the 27th. The nation felt it, and fear was spreading like a virus. People were stocking bomb shelters, some were staying home as we do today in times of national crisis, glued to the three major networks. Kids probably even missed Rocky and Bullwinkle.
The war machine was oiled and running smoothly by the 27th, and the events of the day have been carefully parsed a million times over. The crisis proper began at 2 that morning. Leaders had begun to exchange letters and cables. Then at some point, a U-2 was shot out of the skies above eastern Cuba. US forces actively mobilized as diplomats met and phoned each other, desperation rising by the moment.
On the same day, The Salt Lake Tribune published a report on TV events highlighting Jay Ward’s kooky campaign. Calling Ward “one of the zaniest television producer-publicists in the business,” (he was apparently very “zany”), the article related Ward’s argument against skepticism about his mission. “There are many people who declare it’s a publicity stunt for The Bullwinkle Show,” Ward said, “This is not true. It’s a keen tax dodge.” He also referenced Moosylvania’s “two-party system. One starts at 5 p.m. and the other at 8 p.m.”
If reports about the moment Ward and Brandy reached the White House in their wildly colorful touring van are accurate, they must have arrived on or about the 27th. There are at least two narratives of what happened then—one from Scott’s The Moose That Roared, the other from Howard Brandy in the PBS documentary Of Moose and Men. We can piece together what happened from both. Sort of. Some of the following could be considered embellishment.
The Moosylvania van came tootling up the drive to the White House gate, its calliope playing circus music. The music burbled across the White House grounds and it’s likely that on hearing it, President Kennedy pushed aside his mistresses, grabbed the red phone and told Khrushchev he could go pound sound. Even though the president was trying to stop a nuclear war, he rushed to the window only to see a guard put up a hand and Jay Ward, clad in his Napoleonic costume, hit the brakes.
Keith Scott quotes part of Ward’s telling of the story in Moose that Roared. “Before I knew it sixteen guards were upon us. The sergeant asked, “’Waddaya tink your doin’?’”
“I told him,” Ward said, “I was asking for statehood.”
The guard wasn’t having it. He gave the colorful crew about thirty seconds to leave. Ward, of course, claimed “diplomatic immunity.”
Thus, a third superpower was added to the mix. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a bubble about to pop, and Jay Ward was the zany character who would pop it, bringing chaos to the world.
Howard Brandy described Ward handing the guard the petition for Moosylvania, which was “rolled up like a big roll of toilet paper.”
Ward said, “We want to see President Kennedy.”
Told he couldn’t, Ward insisted, hopefully with one hand tucked inside his Napoleonic getup. “You don’t understand, we’ve got a petition for statehood.”
The guard held fast. Ward, like the Russians sneaking ICBMs through Havana, pressed on. “If President Kennedy knew what we were doing, he’d want to see us. He has a sense of humor!”
By then Brandy was terrified, and a publicist along for the ride was about three shades whiter than Moosylvania snow.
The guard unsnapped the buckle holding his revolver, and Ward was forced to stand down.
The trio beat a hasty retreat, Ward grousing the whole way. “I mean the man is absolutely rude.”
Later, Khrushchev secured an agreement from the U.S. to stay out of Cuba and remove some pesky missiles parked in Turkey. The following day, Khrushchev said in a speech that Russia would remove the Cuban missiles. And the American weapons in Turkey? Eh, okay. Those can stay.
The United States and Russia stood down. The Cuban Missile Crisis was over.
While Ward and Brandy would continue touring into November, complete with what a writer for the Hartford Courant called “a swinging, girl-filled parade,” the quest for Moosylvania statehood was kaput, never to be revived.
Jay Ward lived till 1989, bringing zany yucks everywhere to the very end.
John F. Kennedy? Yeah, things didn’t go so well for him.
Khrushchev continued banging shoes all over the Soviet Union until 1964, when he was replaced by a sentient pair of eyebrows named Leonid Brezhnev.
Now here’s something you’ll really like: Rocky and Bullwinkle lived on to star in kind of creepy CGI renderings and endless early morning reruns.
They never got their own state, but they achieved immortality.
Helen Thomas, Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President
Keith Scott, The Moose that Roared
Multiple newspapers, Newspapers.com