The life of Johnny Cash is intertwined with that of his American homeland. Born into a largely forgotten farming community amid the Great Depression of the 1930s, Cash’s remarkable voice would see him become one of the most celebrated and best-selling popular musicians of the 1950s and ’60s. But Cash is also braided to American history in another important way. Because, in 1953, Cash became the first American to learn of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s death.
In 1950, Johnny Cash was 18 years old. Looking for independence and a sense of purpose, he did what many men of his age did and joined the US military. Cash enlisted in the Air Force and was quickly shipped off to San Antonio, Texas, where he was stationed at the Lackland Air Force base. It was during his stay that he met first his wife, Vivian Liberto, at a roller rink. They fell for one another immediately but wouldn’t marry for another four years. Life was always getting in the way you see, especially for Johnny, who was sent off to a base in Landsberg, West Germany, on a three-year tour shortly after they met. It was the height of the Cold War, and Cash was on the frigid front line.
His experience in Landsberg would turn out to be incredibly formative. He decided to form his first band, The Landsberg Barbarians, to keep himself busy during down periods. The songs they wrote – alongside the countless love letters he sent to Vivian – were Cash’s only escape from his regimented and isolated life on the base. Indeed, many believe that his most famous song, ‘Folsom Prison Blues‘, was inspired by his time at Landsberg. He certainly would have felt like a prisoner at times. Due to the secretive nature of his position, he wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone, not even Vivian, about what he did on those long nights intercepting Russian codes.
During one of these lonely shifts, Cash achieved something remarkable. On March 5th, 1953, Staff Sgt Cash was manning his post when he intercepted an important communique from the Soviets. He hastily transcribed a message explaining that Joseph Stalin was in poor health. For the Americans, the health of the Soviet leader was of critical importance to both the military and intelligence services – as it was to all the Western powers. Cash continued transcribing morse code messages throughout the night until he eventually recieved word that Stalin had been pronounced dead. Stunned by what he had just heard, he relayed the message to his superiors, who in turn relayed it to President Eisenhower. And with that, a new chapter of the Cold War began.