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G.I. Joe

“G.I. Joe… G.I. Joe… Fighting man, from head to toe… on the land… on the sea… in the air.”

After the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, a veritable war toy boom swept the country, dominating the toy industry among Baby Boom boys. Leading that charge was G.I. Joe, a costumed, plastic soldier marketed by Hasbro as “America’s Moveable Fighting Man.” Yet by decade’s end, the Vietnam War claimed G.I. Joe as just another of America’s casualties.

So, attention, recruits.

Introduced in 1964, G.I. Joe can be understood as the boyhood equivalent of Mattel’s fashion doll Barbie (five years his senior and a half inch shorter). One symbolized the fear and the other the materialism animating Cold War culture. 

And like Barbie, this twelve-inch action-figure was a real game-changer – literally – a watershed in how children played. GI Joe – with his scarred face molded from a composite of twenty-three Medal of Honor winners Hasbro claimed – shifted a boy’s playtime perspective downward from the child-as-general reenacting a battle with little plastic soldiers toward instead living the battlefield experiences of a singular soldier you dressed and posed; playing an ordinary G.I. Joe. 

Early Joes had jointed necks, shoulders, arms, waist, and legs for maneuvering hostile terrain, and an opposable thumb and trigger finger for firing weapons or throwing grenades. Upwards of thirty different uniform variations from all four branches of service could be purchased separately along with a seemingly inexhaustible arsenal of gear and realistic weapons. 

Joe’s real genius, however, was how believably the action figure represented a generic “every-soldier” from World War II or Korea. In this way, he promoted intergenerational identification between Cold War boys and their father’s military service. Hasbro initially offered no line of enemies for Joe to fight. After all, the experience was less about conquering a specific enemy, as it was affirming the Greatest Generation’s military values surrounding service, heroism, and valor. 

Vietnam and the growing peace movement, however, drove the popularity of war toys sharply downward and with them G.I. Joe fell out of favor.

Father-Son bonding broke down under the strain of televised warfare. Whether dads fought in Vietnam, opposed the war, or fell somewhere in between, most simply sought to distance their families from the fight, not introduce sons to a toy whose make-believe battles constantly brought to mind this all too real, and confusing, conflict.

During 1970, Hasbro reimagined G.I. Joe in the first of a decade’s long series of transformations resulting directly from Vietnam. The soldiers – given new flocked hair and beards – were repurposed into a less-military-looking Adventure Team: big game hunters with Kung-Fu grip on safari and scuba divers in search of treasure.

The adventurer was retooled once more, as the modernized Super Joe, a futuristic fantasy warrior (albeit only an eight inch one due to rising plastic costs after the 1973 oil shocks) who waged high tech havoc on alien intruders with laser beams and rocket ships. 

And by the 1980s, massive Star Wars merchandising influenced G.I. Joe’s otherworldly battlefield exploits against arch-villain Cobra. For children with no memories of Vietnam, their G.I. Joes were thoroughly divorced from realistic combat, estranged from their dad’s military memories, and left without a hint of all that unpleasantness in the 1960s.

Joel P. Rhodes is a Professor in the History Department of Southeast Missouri State University. Raised in Kansas, he earned a B.S. in Education from the University of Kansas before earning his M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.