On April 11 in 1944, German-born actress Marlene Dietrich staged the first of her many performances for United States troops serving overseas in a campaign that ultimately led the USO to call her “… one of the Most Patriotic Women in World War II.”
Dietrich, who once publicly called Adolf Hitler an “idiot,” refused to return to her homeland as the Nazi regime ramped up its war machine and began persecuting Jews in the 1930s. She became a U.S. citizen in 1939.
Here, she built a strong resume as a movie star by co-starring opposite Gary Cooper, Victor McLaglen, and Cary Grant in the early 1930s. In 1939, she starred with James Stewart in the western “Destry Rides Again,” portraying a saloon singer whom Madeline Kahn later parodied in the 1974 comic classic, “Blazing Saddles.”
Dietrich also added her star power to war bond drives, and, in essence, became the Allies’ counterpart to Japan’s propaganda queen, “Tokyo Rose.” Dietrich worked with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the CIA) to record albums intended to undermine Hitler and the Nazis in her native Germany. The Nazis, in fact, banned her song “Lili Marlene,” which German troops loved. She managed to cause many German citizens to question or turn against the Nazis, who had proclaimed her a traitor. According to the USO, a U.S. Bombing Survey “discovered that the programs were just as devastating to German morale as an air raid.”
When World War II began, Dietrich developed a cabaret act to entertain U.S. troops during two USO campaigns: the first in North Africa and Italy, and the second near the front in France and Germany during which she developed frostbite.
Dietrich also visited wounded service members in hospitals both in the U.S. and abroad, and developed a fund to help Jews escape Germany and support them as refugees.
In 1947, Dietrich received the Medal of Freedom, which is the highest civilian award bestowed by the U.S. government, and the same year received France’s similar award – the Legion of Honour.