Vietnam was merely a blip on the radar screen for most Americans when Bob Hope made his first trip there, 50 years ago this December. During World War II, he had braved enemy bombing raids, harrowing plane flights and rough-hewn Army barracks in making his celebrated tours to entertain U.S. troops overseas. But he never faced more danger than when he ventured into the jungles of South Vietnam, where the war against a communist insurgency backed by North Vietnam was just heating up.
His arrival there, shortly before Christmas 1964, was shrouded in secrecy “greater than that normally used to veil the movements of generals and Cabinet officers,” UPI reported. His itinerary was kept under tight wraps; for each show a stage was set up in two different locations, to thwart potential attacks. When Hope and his entourage were driven into Saigon from Tan Son Nhut Air Base, they arrived at their hotel to find billows of smoke, people running, sirens wailing. Minutes before, a massive explosion had gone off in a hotel just a block away. Two years later, U.S. troops would capture secret Viet Cong documents revealing that the bomb had in fact been directed at Hope. It had detonated 10 minutes early.
Hope would return to Vietnam for nine straight Christmases, as the U.S. commitment grew from 23,000 “advisers” to more than half a million troops at the war’s peak. He brought along gorgeous gals and corny gags–though he could also be cutting, reflecting the cynicism over a war that was proving complicated. “Last year you were all advisers,” Hope quipped on his second trip, in 1965. “And now that you see where it’s gotten us, maybe you’ll keep your trap shut.” The high-rated NBC specials that chronicled those trips–his January 1970 special was the highest-rated TV show in history to that point–were irreplaceable documents of the Vietnam era. The sight of Hope entertaining vast oceans of men brought home more vividly than anything on the evening news the enormity of America’s commitment to the war.
But that commitment soon soured for Hope, as it did for the rest of the nation. His World War II and Korean War tours had made him a national hero, but during Vietnam, his patriotic mission took on an increasingly combative, partisan tone. He grew more outspoken in support of the war, often denouncing protesters as disloyal. On his 1969 Christmas tour, when he tried to talk up President Nixon’s “plan to end the war,” he got booed. By his last trip to the region–in December 1972, a few weeks before an agreement to end the war was reached–he had alienated much of a generation.
A half-century later, partisan passions have faded, and the scope of Hope’s achievement is clearer. He may have misjudged the nation’s mood and been swayed by Nixon and the generals he became close to. But he was one star who recognized the power of his celebrity and felt a calling to use it. His devotion to the troops, along with tireless charitable work over a career that spanned 70 years, set a standard for public service in Hollywood that forever changed what we expect of entertainment icons.
Even before World War II, Hope had established himself as a peripatetic do-gooder. He was ubiquitous on the charity circuit, appearing at a reported 562 benefits in his first two years in Hollywood. When he hosted the Academy Awards in 1941, he was given a special plaque honoring his “unselfish services for the motion-picture industry” and for being “the man who did the most for charity.”
During the war, Hope was just one of many stars who went on USO-sponsored tours to entertain the troops. And like most of them, he thought his duty was discharged when the war ended. But three years later, he got a call from the Secretary of the Air Force relaying a request from President Truman that Hope take a troupe to Berlin, where the Allies were embarked on an airlift to break the Soviet blockade of the divided city. His Christmas 1948 trip reaffirmed Hope’s status as the Pentagon’s go-to guy for rallying morale. And after NBC televised his 1954 trip to Greenland to visit a Strategic Air Command post on New Year’s Eve, Hope’s holiday tours–and the TV shows documenting them–became an annual tradition that lasted nearly two decades.
There was, to be sure, a careerist aspect to Hope’s public service. His Christmas tours were great for his image, drew spectacular ratings and brought him the kind of big, easy-to-please audiences that he craved like an addict. But that doesn’t invalidate the work he did or the effect it had in Hollywood. “I can remember a day when Hollywood didn’t think much about serious things,” columnist Hedda Hopper wrote after accompanying Hope’s 1957 tour of Asia. “I remember the time of the mammoth Christmas party, the $5 Christmas card and the exchange of valuables which meant Yuletide in the movie colony. I remember too the first Christmas … when someone reminded us what we owed the rest of the world. The time was 1943 and, you guessed it, the someone was Bob Hope.”
Hope’s causes and conservative political views were different from those that motivate many stars today. But he’s the one who paved the way for celebrities to be taken seriously when they make political endorsements and critiques–or work for sexual-abuse victims, starving African children or Louisiana hurricane victims. There’s a direct link between Hope and the globe-trotting activism of George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Oprah Winfrey and Sean Penn.
Clooney acknowledged as much when he accepted the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, given to him by the Television Academy at the 2010 Emmys. He took a moment to praise the award’s namesake for his charitable work and for embodying “the best version of the term celebrity.” It was, perhaps, required rhetoric for a high-minded moment of Hollywood self-congratulation. But in Hope’s case, it had the advantage of being true.
Zoglin is TIME’s theater critic and the author of Hope: Entertainer of the Century, published Nov. 4 by Simon & Schuster
This appears in the November 17, 2014 issue of TIME.