History

Why Elvis' time in the Army scared the hell out of the communists

A sense of dread washed over the youth in 1958 when The King of Rock and Roll got his draft papers. Elvis Presley was told by Uncle Sam that he'd have to join in the Army and, graciously, he accepted his fate. The higher-ups knew exactly who they had standing in formation, but Presley didn't accept any special treatment — he chose to just be a regular guy.

His service to the United States Army wasn't particularly special. He got orders to West Germany, crawled in the exact same muck as the rest of the Joes, and was essentially no different than any other cavalry scout in his unit. He honorably served his two-year obligation before returning to the life of a rockstar.

But that's just what happened on our side of the Iron Curtain. The East Germans and the Soviet Union were on the verge of going to war because the guy who sang Jailhouse Rock was on their doorstep.


The idea that a man of Presley's fame and fortune would give it all up for patriotism didn't make any sense to the communists. He was the perfect embodiment of all things Western and he just happened to show up at their doorstep. Something, in their mind, had to be up.

Their conclusion was that the United States had Elvis singing and dancing so close to the border in order to cause young communists to leap the border to go see him in concert.

To the East German defense minister, Willi Stoph, Elvis and his rock music were "means of seduction to make the youth ripe for atomic war." The East Germany Communist Party leader, Walter Ulbricht, even said in an address to the people that it was "not enough to reject the capitalist decadence with words, to ... speak out against the ecstatic 'singing' of someone like Presley. We have to offer something better."

Because obviously Elvis' dance moves were the only reason people would ever consider escaping a communist dictatorship. Obviously.

(Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.)

The communists needed a secret weapon of their own to counter Elvis' sultry hip movements. So, they came up with the Lipsi, a dance that was, uh... Let's just say the communist-approved version of the waltz that was aimed towards youngsters never caught on because, well...

Then came another public relations nightmare for the Soviets. Elvis was voluntold into a working party responsible for moving the Steinfurth WWI Memorial off-post and back into the neighboring community. Presley and his platoon simply relocated the memorial, but were heavily photographed throughout — because he was Elvis.

The West Germans were enamored because The King was honoring their people's legacy. The Soviets feared that his "good will" would draw East German youth away from communism. The Soviets insisted that Presley's involvement was part of a greater, sinister plot and doubled down on their anti-Elvis stance.

Keep in mind, he was, basically, just a private being told to move rocks because his commander told him so.

(National Archives)

After the monument was rededicated and the Lipsi failed to take off, the East German youth actually started to listen to the music of the guy that the government feared. The communists' overreaction to Elvis only generated intrigue, and more and more people wanted to check out his music. The anti-Elvis sentiment snowballed and compounded until, eventually, all dancing done without a partner was strictly forbidden. Why? Because it could lead to everyone doing pelvic thrusts like a savage capitalist.

No, seriously. That's not a joke. Rock-and-roll dancing was akin to sexualized barbarism to the communists, and people were beaten, arrested, and sentenced to prison for partaking. Riots ensued when the East German youth were screaming, "long live Elvis Presley!" And when protesters had their homes raided, the intruders would routinely find pictures of Presley stashed away.

Sgt. Presley would eventually leave West Germany and transition back to civilian life, but not before inadvertently creating some new fans along the way.

All hail the King, baby!

(National Archives)