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Adventure magazines constructed a version of World War II and Korea that depicted heroic men as warriors, protectors, and sexual conquerors. Here was both a friendly genre for veterans and a way for curious young men to get a glimpse of what war might be like. Many of these wartime stories were written by veterans themselves. Some wrote to honor their fallen comrades, others to deal with the traumas of war by sharing their experiences, still others to advocate for veterans’ rights and opportunities in an increasingly consumer-oriented society. The narratives were simple in construction, stories of good versus evil revolving around individual men or small groups of heroes. A militarized version of masculinity seemed an antidote to Cold War emasculation. In these storylines, tough men survived the worst of war and proved that democracy could still produce the best soldiers. Adventure magazines also demonstrated that war was meritocratic – anyone could be a hero. Yet the magazines’ stories and the vibrant artwork skirted the harsh realities of war, focusing on individual triumphs rather than the horrors of combat. By avoiding the truths of war’s ugly side, adventure mags constructed a battlefield memory that relied mostly on an imagined reality.
The macho pulps’ portrayal of women, especially non-European foreign women, left young male readers with the impression that American dominance overseas allowed them to engage in a form of sexual oppression. Still, contemporary anxieties remained. Thus, the magazines highlighted the “red seductress,” the communist femme fatale who used her body to lure good men astray. In these storylines, women were both beautiful and deceitful, depictions which could be particularly unnerving for young men inexperienced in sex. The magazines also portrayed “exotic Orientals,” women of “darker races,” as sexually available, desirous of Americans, and a counter to stifling wives at home. As in storylines on German Frauleins or communist spies, however, Asian women could be just as deceitful, using their bodies as weapons of war. Thus, the objectification of women was perpetuated by adventure magazines, especially concerning those women who weren’t American or European. In large sense, men’s adventure magazines created a fantasy world where young men easily could find sex in almost any wartime environment. And even when women did fight alongside men, as they did in some storylines, sexualized versions of women – Amazonian tropes were common – helped leave readers with the impression that strong male warriors were also sexual conquerors.
It seemed that men faced two threats in the post-World War II era: one from global communism with its tentacles spreading into US society and the other from postwar consumerism which inspired fears of losing one’s masculinity in a cold, corporate world. The contours of these Cold War anxieties were expressed clearly in adventure magazines. Working-class readers confronted changing sexual norms, fears of being left behind as the US economy grew, and, it appeared, the boredom of suburban life. Thus, the magazines sold images of a “new American man,” one that was muscular, sexually aware, and able to overcome his working-class limits by following through on advertisements that promised easy money. Still, a sense of deep anxiety pervaded these magazine stories – and, arguably, Cold War America as a whole. The “Red” menace was cultivating unseen enemies capable of invading the body politic, even the US military according to some accounts. Fears of nuclear Armageddon were just as prevalent. And, just as importantly, men’s magazines painted a dark picture of a sexual menace being unleashed by postwar American society. Thus, these wide-ranging fears appeared to leave many American men in an uneasy state despite the victory of World War II.
According to many Vietnam veterans’ memoirs, John Wayne set the standard for what it meant to be a man. Yet for many young adults in Cold War America, there were other models for masculinity far from Hollywood, and among the most popular were men’s adventure magazines. Throughout the 1950s and into the mid 1960s, these magazines proved a popular cultural venue for war stories illustrating the exploits of courageous soldiers, fighting against the “savage” other in foreign lands, and defending democracy in a harsh world where the threat from evil actors always seemed lurking. Sex underscored nearly all of these tales, with pulp heroes rewarded with beautiful, seductive women as a kind of payoff for the combat victories. The magazines offered a masculine ideal to their readers, warrior heroes who were physically fit, mentally strong, and resolutely heterosexual. They also targeted a working-class white readership, the same communities that disproportionately sent their young men off to fight a long and bloody war in South Vietnam. Pulp Vietnam argues that men’s adventure magazines from the post-World War II era crafted a particular version of martial masculinity that helped establish and then normalize GIs’ expectations and perceptions of war in Vietnam.
How did the fantasy world depicted in men’s adventure magazines compare with the reality of Vietnam? While magazine stories about the US war in Vietnam suggested that this was a new kind of war, more unconventional in nature than that of World War II or Korea, storylines remained stuck in earlier conceptions of warfare. The vast majority of US soldiers serving in Vietnam did so in combat support or service support units, yet the magazines continued to focus on the exploits of combat infantrymen. Moreover, portrayals of the enemy continued the long tradition of racism against non-white combatants. Thus, storylines not only illustrated the evils of Vietnamese communists, but also highlighted the corruption and ineptitude of America’s South Vietnamese allies. Narratives extolled the courage of a new generation of heroes who, like their fathers in World War II, could best their enemies on the field of battle. Yet, Vietnam offered few chances to prove one’s manhood in battle. Combat was immensely frustrating for American soldiers, who more often than not fought a war of surprise ambushes against an elusive enemy. And in a war without front lines, few of them could demonstrate that progress was being made toward ultimate victory.
In this compelling evaluation of Cold War popular culture, Pulp Vietnam explores how men's adventure magazines helped shape the attitudes of young, working-class Americans, the same men who fought and served in the long and bitter war in Vietnam. The 'macho pulps' - boasting titles like Man's Conquest, Battle Cry, and Adventure Life - portrayed men courageously defeating their enemies in battle, while women were reduced to sexual objects, either trivialized as erotic trophies or depicted as sexualized villains using their bodies to prey on unsuspecting, innocent men. The result was the crafting and dissemination of a particular version of martial masculinity that helped establish GIs' expectations and perceptions of war in Vietnam. By examining the role that popular culture can play in normalizing wartime sexual violence and challenging readers to consider how American society should move beyond pulp conceptions of 'normal' male behavior, Daddis convincingly argues that how we construct popular tales of masculinity matters in both peace and war.
Men’s adventure magazines faded in popularity by the opening of the 1970s, the same time as the American war in Vietnam was drawing to its conclusion. Popular media stories of returning veterans hardly lived up to the ideals portrayed in the magazines. Unlike World War II, the war in Vietnam could not be looked back upon nostalgically. Boys had come back not as victorious heroes but as men broken by war. While this storyline was equally fraught with imprecision, it nonetheless challenged the dominant narratives of adventure magazines. Thus, we should ask why a society desires to remember war and male veterans in certain ways. Many veterans’ memoirs, in fact, reflected key aspects of the prevailing narratives within adventure magazines, even as they contested the idea that war was ennobling. How we talk about wartime expectations on heroism, violence, and sex matters. Men’s magazines contributed to a normalization process of sorts, helping tropes about masculinity and gender become embedded into the larger popular culture of the Cold War era. And in times of war – and, arguably, peace as well – this is can be dangerous. War erodes the veneer of civilization that makes behaviors in fantasyland seem more possible and, thus, acceptable.
Men’s adventure magazines presaged sexual violence in Vietnam by opening rhetorical space for some men to think along the lines of sexual conquest and see “Oriental” women as opportunities – for sex, to prove one’s virility, or to demonstrate power over the “savage” other. Americans often failed to differentiate between “available” and “unavailable” women, and magazines helped create a culture that bred indifference to, if not hostility toward, the local Vietnamese population. Some US soldiers viewed prostitution and sexual violence as acceptable, or at least normal, due to the influence of men’s magazines. Other GIs took this further, viewing women’s bodies as lesser, sexually loose, and perhaps even “rapeable” to the “righteous” American man. In South Vietnam, many Americans also saw themselves fighting a war on behalf of the Vietnamese and some felt entitled to dominate both the allied and the enemy’s women. Yet Vietnamese women were not simply passive victims or damsels in distress as seen in adventure magazines. Rather, they were an integral part of a communist insurgency that wielded political and military influence over the population and key members of a South Vietnamese community defending against what many saw as an assault against a burgeoning, if flawed, noncommunist state.