Laughter, Liberty, and M*A*S*H
By Thomas Firey
Television’s finest half-hour reminded America of the values of classical liberalism.
This fall, LIFE magazine has published a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movie M*A*S*H. Despite the hook, the issue focuses on the ensuing TV series, which ran from 1972 to 1983. Though the show has often been characterized as being politically left-wing, it actually is heavily classically liberal, celebrating the individual, civil liberties, and the market, and harshly criticizing anti-individualism, government compulsion, and government decision-making. In a series of essays, I examine the classical liberalism of M*A*S*H. This is Part 1.
The TV series M*A*S*H premiered on September 17, 1972 — a bad time to debut an anti-war, anti-establishment dark comedy. America’s mood was on the rebound from the social upheaval of the late-1960s: Operation Linebacker was pushing back the North Vietnamese forces with few U.S. casualties, easing public frustration over the Vietnam War. The nation’s economy was booming, growing 5.25 percent in 1972 and would grow 5.6 percent in 1973. Prosperity and military success produced strong approval numbers for President Richard Nixon, who would be reelected in November with more than 60 percent of the popular vote and winning 49 states.
All that good news was bad for the early weeks of the impertinent if not subversive M*A*S*H. The pilot finished 45th in the week’s ratings, a miserable showing in the three-network era. Subsequent episodes fell into the 50s, raising the specter of cancellation.
But national moods can change quickly when the news changes. Three months before M*A*S*H debuted, the Washington Post reported that five men had been arrested in connection with a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. As the show’s first season played out, Watergate mushroomed from an offbeat news item into a full-blown scandal. Halfway through the TV season, a humbled United States signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending America’s involvement in Vietnam; the last U.S. troops left the country on March 29, 1973, four days after M*A*S*H’s first-season finale. That fall, with the show’s second season underway, the OPEC oil cartel cut production in retaliation for western nations’ support of Israel. The resulting energy crisis sent the U.S. stock market reeling and the economy into recession. With inflation already surging, the United States got its first dose of “stagflation.” Finally, on August 9, 1974 — a month before M*A*S*H’s season-three premiere — a disgraced Nixon resigned the presidency.
Those events may have helped Americans embrace the sitcom that treated the inhumanity of war and the inanity of government with a cathartic mix of laughter and tugged heartstrings. M*A*S*H’s ratings rose in the final weeks of its first season, as more viewers began following the goings-on at the fictional 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, located near the front lines of the Korean War. That prefaced regular top-10 finishes for the rest of the show’s 11-year run. M*A*S*H’s cast, crew, and writers would carry off a slew of Emmys and Golden Globes over the next decade. The series finale is television legend; even current Super Bowls struggle to top the nearly 106 million viewers who watched “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” on February 28, 1983. Following the program’s end, its decommissioned sets, costumes, and props became wildly popular exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution. Today, M*A*S*H continues to draw audiences in syndication, nearly a half-century after it debuted.
What made it so successful? Public reaction to Vietnam and Watergate may explain its first few years, but M*A*S*H was a TV juggernaut for the rest of its run, despite the departure of most of its original cast, change in show runners, and turnover of writers. Even the series’ shift in tenor from situation comedy to dramedy (sometimes heavy on drama) did not weaken its audience.
An academic thesis has argued that the show’s success came in part from its following changing public values and outlooks as the United States moved from leftish libertinism of the early 1970s, to malaise-induced cynicism of the late ‘70s, to the conservative Reagan Revolution of the early 1980s. Yet, libertarians and other classical liberals — who often find political similarities where others see left–right differences — may perceive something else: that throughout its run, M*A*S*H consistently promoted the ideals of classical liberalism.
People unfamiliar with classical liberalism may be unsurprised by the idea that M*A*S*H was a “liberal” show. Several of its cast members are vocal supporters of political causes on the left side of the U.S. political spectrum, and critics (and even some fans) of the series criticize it for being too “lefty” in its later seasons. But this is not the liberalism I mean. The philosophy of classical liberalism acknowledged that government has an important role to play in addressing truly public problems, but that individual liberty and private, consensual relationships are of paramount importance. Classical liberalism is skeptical of government power, appreciates the incentives and benefits of the marketplace, and defends civil liberties. As such, classical liberalism encompassed a broad swath of the American political spectrum as it existed in the latter part of the 20th century, from ACLU civil libertarians, to Jimmy Carter/Bill Clinton centrists, to Ronald Reagan’s small-government conservatives.
To be clear, M*A*S*H’s chief protagonist, surgeon Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce (played by Alan Alda), may not have been an avowed libertarian who leafed through The Road to Serfdom along with his beloved nudie magazines. But he and his comrades embraced and advocated principles and institutions that acknowledged classical liberals hold dear, as did many Americans (including both Democrats and Republicans) of that era. And today, amidst a surge in illiberalism in both the United States and abroad, the show continues to offer classical liberals both comic relief and hope.