MishM*A*S*H 19: Banning M*A*S*H

When the series M*A*S*H debuted in 1972 on CBS, it was the third act in M*A*S*H reaching American audiences following the successful Robert Allan film and the Richard Hooker novel. However, M*A*S*H wasn’t only released in the United States, and it wasn’t an instant classic. In its first season M*A*S*H did poorly in the ratings, but ratings did improve in season two and beyond. Today, we see the novel, movie, and series everywhere. The movie and series are streaming and on television, and the novel is available in bookstores and online stores. In the 1970s, not everyone wanted M*A*S*H and it was banned in several interesting places. Beginning with the film, which was banned in two very interesting ways. What was most surprising to me was that M*A*S*H, the series, was banned in the one place you might not expect: South Korea. Let’s look at what happened to South Korea following the war, why the movie MASH was banned on military bases and in one country, and why the show was banned in South Korea.

Post-War South Korea

First, some context. I believe it is important to know a little history of South Korea following the war as it will help explain why the series was banned and is not popular in South Korea today. When the Republic of Korea (South Korea) was formed in 1948, the country was initially led by president Sygman Rhee. In fact, we hear his name several times throughout the series. He was the president during the Korean War. However, after the war, South Korea remained unstable. Rhee was forced to resign as president in 1960 following a coup. Over the next 28 years, the country would go through a series of nine presidents. Of the nine presidents, five were “acting” presidents, two more resigned, and one was assassinated. It wouldn’t be until 1988 that the presidential power would move from one person to another in a peaceful manner.

  • Syngman Rhee
  • Park Chung-hee
  • Choi Kyu-hah
  • Chun Doo-hwan

The presidents of South Korea (1948 – 1988):

  • Syngman Rhee (July 24, 1948 – April 26, 1960) – Coup and Resigned
  • Ho Chong (April 27, 1960 – June 15, 1960) – Acting President
  • Kwak Sang-hoon (June 16, 1960 – June 23, 1960) – Acting President
  • Ho Chong (June 23, 1960 – August 7, 1960) – Acting President
  • Baek Nak-jun (August 8, 1960 – August 12, 1960) – Acting President
  • Yun Posun (August 13, 1960 – March 24, 1962) – Resigned
  • Park Chung-hee (March 24, 1962 – December 16, 1963) – Acting President
  • Park Chung-hee (December 17, 1963 – October 26, 1979) – Assassinated
  • Choi Kyu-hah (October 26, 1979 – December 6, 1979) – Acting President
  • Choi Kyu-hah (December 6, 1979 – August 16, 1980) – Coup and Resigned
  • Park Choong-hoon (August 16, 1980 – August 31, 1980) – Acting President
  • Chun Doo-hwan (September 1, 1980 – February 24, 1988) – Lost election

Following the Korean War, the United States maintained a military and economic presence in the country. The policy goal was to keep South Korea independent from North Korea, keep the fragile peace, and help South Korea modernize. Until the war, South Korea had been an agrarian country and had not modernized like some other countries in the region. All of that changed with the influx of American investment and military protection of the United States. All of this occurred as power struggles took place between democratically elected leaders and the military. There were several protests or coups that forced a president out of office. That is how General Park Chung-hee came to power in 1962. He would remain in power until 1979, despite the fact that South Korean presidents were supposed to have term limits.

Chung-hee was an authoritarian leader, but he also oversaw the continued modernization of South Korea. It was during his time as president that the country began to be recognized as a modern, industrialized nation. He would remain president until October 26, 1979, when he was assassinated. His successor would be in power for less than a year before he was forced to resign. After another acting president, Chun Doo-hawn would serve as president from 1980 until 1988, when he would lose re-election and peacefully transfer power. The first peaceful transfer of power of an elected president since South Korea was formed in 1948. This turmoil in South Korea was happening as M*A*S*H began in the United States and around the world.

MASH (1970)

Altman’s MASH is very different from the series that later aired on CBS. It followed Hooker’s novel closely, and it included the portrayal of more blood, more foul language, stronger anti-war rhetoric, and dark humor. It was a surprise success for 20th Century Fox when it was released on January 25, 1970, however, because the American public was fed up with the Vietnam War, and the movie expressed the anti-war sentiments the public felt. But the movie was not well received everywhere. In fact, MASH was banned in two very different places: on American military installations and in Israel.

I was surprised to learn that one of the first places the film was banned was on American military installations. The Army and Air Force Motion Picture Service banned the film in early March 1970 “because it ‘reflected unfavorably’ on the military.” Another concern was that “the film would undermine the confidence of the average soldier in any medical treatment he would receive in combat.” The decision to ban MASH was made after it was viewed by 20 – 25 members of the personnel, information, medical, and chaplain branches of the services. MASH was the first film banned by the Army or Air Force since 1963 when they banned War Is Hell and Man in the Middle. Regulations dictated that a film could not be censored or cut, so a film was either approved or rejected as a whole. While MASH is a satire comedy, the height of Vietnam War was weighing heavily on the armed forces.

The OR scenes in the film were filled with blood and humor.

In Israel, the decision to ban MASH was made by Israel Defense Forces Military Court of Appeals on March 16, 1970. In the minutes from their meeting, it was determined that, “In the opinion of the majority of the members of the board who saw the film, it is liable to hurt public feelings in Israel at this time, even though it is a good satire from the artistic perspective. Thus it has been decided not to allow it at this time.” The film was rejected for distribution in Israel completely. The decision to ban MASH was based on two factors. The first was because of the surgery scenes. They were deemed to be too scary, and they feared, like the United States military, that seeing the surgical conditions could harm a soldier’s morale regarding medical treatment they would receive. Then there was the state of war in Israel at the time. The report said, “Everyone – without exception – was of the opinion that this film must not be allowed as long as we are in a state of war.”

Today, we do not hear about many films being banned in their entirety. Some movies are censored or re-edited for other markets, but an all-out ban is rare. Learning that MASH was banned on United States military installations and in Israel surprised me. The film was certainly controversial in 1970, but it was the controversy that made it even more popular in the United States. Given world events at the time, the Vietnam War and state of war in Israel, the argument for banning the film could be made, but it was a drastic step to take.

M*A*S*H (1972 – 1983)

Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds took great pride in making M*A*S*H historically accurate. They tried to balance telling the stories of the doctors, nurses, and wounded who experienced MASH units during the Korean War. They did a vast amount of research, visited South Korea in 1974, and they even picked a filming location, The Fox Ranch, that resembled Korea. Today, M*A*S*H is hailed for its authentic portrayal of a MASH unit in Korea. But it was historical accuracy, and the portrayal of 1950s South Korea, that would get the series banned in the country.

The show runners’ attention to detail extended beyond the MASH unit the series portrayed. The local Korean population were often portrayed as refugees, poor farmers, artisans, or working at the unit. This was not an inaccurate portrayal of Korea during the 1950s. The country was largely agrarian, and the war had led to thousands of Koreans losing their homes and livelihood. This was portrayed in the series, but it was not well received in South Korea. In the history lesson earlier, we learned that by the 1970s, South Korea was being led by an authoritarian leader and, thanks to investments from the United States, was a modernizing country. The leadership felt that showing 1950s South Korea as a poor, farming country was not good for the country’s image, despite being historically accurate. It is for that reason that the series was banned from South Korean television.

Richard Lee-Sung was one of three Korean actors in M*A*S*H. The other two were Soon-Tek Oh and Philip Ahn.
Richard Lee-Sung was one of three Korean actors in M*A*S*H. The other two were Soon-Tek Oh and Philip Ahn.

However, M*A*S*H was not banned in South Korea forever. In 1991, American Forces Korea’s TV station started airing reruns. South Koreans began to question the portrayal of South Korea as “poor and cultureless.” The series formed how a generate of people across the world viewed the country. When the final MASH unit in Korea closed in 1997, there were many who were not unhappy to see the “MASH phase” end. By the late 1990s, South Korea was a modern country and there was desire to shift the conversation to what South Korea had become. When the last MASH closed, the Las Vegas Sun interviewed Lew Seok-choon, a sociologist at Yonsei University in Seoul. He said, “The show itself is funny. But Koreans in the show are portrayed as ‘irrational’ and uncivilized. [M*A*S*H] doesn’t recognize the historical richness of Korean culture.” It is a fair criticism as many of the Korean characters lacked depth, and most of the actors portraying Koreans weren’t Korean at all. It is understandable why the series is not popular in South Korea.

M*A*S*H, both the film and series, are a product of their time which can be both good and bad. The film was outspoken against war and did so with satire in a very dark and belligerent way. The series took a lighter tone, due in part to being on network television, but it still had an anti-war theme. It was that anti-war theme, or as some saw it anti-military, that resulted in bans for the film in Israel and on United States military installations. While the series toned down many of the concerns expressed about the film, new concerns were raised in South Korea when it was portrayed as a poor, agrarian country. While this may have been historically accurate to the 1950s, it was not the case in the 1970s and South Korea chose to ban it for that reason. Today, a series like M*A*S*H would portray Koreans with respect to their culture and using Korean actors. Those are standards today because the film and television industries learned from mistakes of the past. That is why it is less likely to see a film or a series fully banned by the United States military or in other countries today.


Baker, Michael. “Koreans Don’t Cry as Real MASH Folds.” Las Vegas Sun, June 11, 1997. Link.

Douty, Monique. “Why ‘M*A*S*H’ Was Banned from South Korea.” Showbiz Cheatsheet, May 12, 2021. Link.

Hodges, Christopher. “15 TV Shows You Didn’t Know Were Banned in Other Countries.” Screen Rant, June 23, 2017. Link.

“‘M*A*S*H’ Banned from Being Shown at Military Bases.” The New York Times, March 17, 1970. Link.

Mann, Rafi. “’This Film Must Not Be Allowed’: When Israel Deemed ‘MASH’ a Threat to its Soldiers’ Morale.” Haaretz, April 1, 2018. Link.

Seth, Michael J. A Brief History of Korea: Isolation, War, Despotism and Revival: The Fascinating Story of a Resilient but Divided People. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2019.

One thought on “MishM*A*S*H 19: Banning M*A*S*H

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: