Things have a way of snowballing, and history provides plenty of cases in point. Chief among these is the Cold War, which kept the world on pins and needles for three decades starting in the 1950s. As tensions reached a breaking point during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, few people found humor in these events. But Rocky and Bullwinkle’s creator, Jay Ward, represented the exception, still capable of making light of a world on the brink of atomic doom.
People saw Rocky and Bullwinkle as a controversial social satire when episodes first aired from 1959 to 1964. Inside Hook has even likened it to the South Park of its day. In one interview, Ward noted, “We’ve not only offended people — without meaning to, of course — but we’ve also had trouble with countries.” This “trouble” would include Ward’s run-in with the White House, the result of an ill-fated campaign to create America’s next state: Moosylvania.
Here’s the story of the statehood that would never be and how the Cuban Missile Crisis overshadowed Ward’s imaginative charade.
Campaigning for Moosylvania
The idea for Moosylvania began with an episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle showing Bullwinkle J. Moose on vacation to a “dreadful little place called Moosylvania.” Remember that thing we said earlier about snowballing? Well, such was the case with the idea of this imaginary location. Soon, fan mail poured in from across the nation as people became enamored with the notion of Moosylvania.
Ward decided to act by campaigning for a real place that could serve as Moosylvania. To bring this vision to life, he leased a small island in Minnesota on the border with Canada for $1,500. Realizing he would need to recruit supporters for his campaign, he turned to Howard Brandy, a one-time publicist for Rin Tin Tin, to collaborate. Together, they spearheaded a movement to petition President John F. Kennedy for statehood of their mythical and miniature land.
Of course, Ward and Brandy realized they needed to demonstrate just how popular their idea was. So, they drove across the country in a vibrantly hued panel van featuring a calliope belting out circus music. Along the way, they got plenty of attention and petition signatures. They hoped to complete the deal and then get the president to declare the tiny island “the Only State in the Union With an Entirely Non-Resident Population.” But despite the brilliance of their satirical plan, fate had other ideas: the United States had found itself embroiled in a nuclear standoff with Russia.
Drumming Up Publicity for an Imaginary Land
Besides the colorful Rocky and Bullwinkle van touring the country, Ward proved a master of publicity and knew how to get the public interested in his idea. For example, the Amarillo Globe-Times ran an article on October 10, 1962, where they spotlighted the whimsical concept of Moosylvania.
The paper quoted Ward explaining that Moosylvania’s non-existent residents “stood quietly as Congress has passed them over in order to grant statehood to such fledgling territories as Hawaii and Alaska.” Ward urged people to take action by sending him letters in support of statehood. He promised that they’d receive a decal for their car and a yellow lapel pin for their letter-writing efforts.
The next day, Luke Feck, writing for the Cincinnati Enquirer, added his two cents on the topic of Moosylvania: “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 gauntlet dropped, Ward meant business.
Unfortunate Timing for Moosylvania
As Ward and Brandy toured the United States, their campaign gained momentum. According to Keith Scott’s The Moose That Roared, they decided to deliver the petition signatures in person. So, it was “White House or bust” for the bus.
Their timing couldn’t have proven worse, however. By October 13, 1962, photos taken by a U-2 over Cuba showed evidence of ballistic missiles, and Washington, D.C., scrambled to gain the upper hand against the USSR without inadvertently sparking atomic catastrophe.
By the October 27, events spiraled out of control as the Soviets and Americans struggled to avoid a full-blown conflict. As the public stocked their fallout shelters and remained glued to news radio and television, Ward and Brandy pulled up to the White House. Ward stepped out of the bus in a Napoleon-inspired costume and walked up to the guard who motioned the van to stop, per Helen Thomas’ Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President.
The exchange proved heated and impolite on the part of security. The “you shall not pass” given, Ward and Brandy left the White House in exasperation with Ward exclaiming, “[The president] has a sense of humor.” But Ward and Brandy didn’t realize that his humor had been worn thin by the specter of mutually-assured obliteration.
Thankfully, the tensions between the Soviet Union and America ramped back down, and Americans breathed a sigh of relief. Although Ward and Brandy continued the fight for Moosylvania into November, even hosting a parade, the Rocky and Bullwinkle inspired state ultimately became a Cold War casualty.
By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com