The Secret History of G.I. Joe (Part 1)


| 8/14/2013 3:08:36 PM


Tags: G.I. Joe, Baby Boomer, Cold War, Vietnam War, Barbie, Consumerism, Children's Culture, Star Wars, Vietnam Syndrome, Counterculture, Tom Dispatch, Tom Engelhardt.,
Toy-Soldiers

Barbie, Joe, Darth Vader, and making war in children's culture. 

[The following excerpt, from Tom Engelhardt’s book, The End of Victory Culture, is posted with permission from the University of Massachusetts Press, and originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.]  

1. The First Coming of G.I. Joe 

It was 1964, and in Vietnam thousands of American “advisers” were already offering up their know-how from helicopter seats or gun sights. The United States was just a year short of sending its first large contingent of ground troops there, adolescents who would enter the battle zone dreaming of John Wayne and thinking of enemy-controlled territory as “Indian country.” Meanwhile, in that inaugural year of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, a new generation of children began to experience the American war story via the most popular toy warrior ever created.

His name, G.I. -- for “Government Issue” -- Joe was redolent of America’s last victorious war and utterly generic. There was no specific figure named Joe, nor did any of the “Joes” have names. “He” came in four types, one for each service, including the Marines. Yet every Joe was, in essence, the same. Since he was a toy of the Great Society with its dreams of inclusion, it only took a year for his manufacturer, Hasbro, to produce a “Negro Joe,” and two more to add a she-Joe (a nurse, naturally). Joe initially came with no story, no instructions, and no enemy, because it had not yet occurred to adults (or toy makers) not to trust the child to choose the right enemy to pit against Joe.

In TV ads of the time, Joe was depicted as the most traditional of war toys. Little boys in World War II-style helmets were shown entering battle with a G.I. Joe tank, or fiercely displaying their Joe equipment while a chorus of deep, male voices sang (to the tune of “The Halls of Montezuma”), “G.I. Joe, G.I. Joe, Fighting man from head to toe on the land, on the sea, in the air.” He was “authentic” with his “ten-inch bazooka that really works,” his “beachhead flame thrower,” and his “authentically detailed replica” of a U.S. Army Jeep with its own “tripod mounted recoilless rifle” and four “rocket projectiles.”