Vietnam ’67. Historians, veterans and journalists recall 1967 in Vietnam, a year that changed the war and changed America.
There’s a famous scene about halfway through “Apocalypse Now” in which Martin Sheen’s river boat pulls into a supply base, deep in the jungle. While the crew members are buying diesel fuel, the supply clerk gives them free tickets to a show — “You know,” he says, “the bunnies.” Soon they’re sitting in an improvised amphitheater around a landing pad, watching as three Playboy models hop out of a helicopter and dance to “Suzie Q.”
The scene is entirely fictional; Playboy models almost never toured Vietnam, and certainly not in groups. But if the women were never there themselves in force, the magazine itself certainly was. In fact, it’s hard to overstate how profound a role Playboy played among the millions of American soldiers and civilians stationed in Vietnam throughout the war: as entertainment, yes, but more important as news and, through its extensive letters section, as a sounding board and confessional.
Playboy’s value extended beyond the individual soldier to the military at large; the publication became a coveted and useful morale booster, at times rivaling even the longed-for letter from home. Playboy branded the war because of its unique combination of women, gadgets, and social and political commentary, making it a surprising legacy of our involvement in Vietnam. By 1967, Ward Just of The Washington Post claimed, “If World War II was a war of Stars and Stripes and Betty Grable, the war in Vietnam is Playboy magazine’s war.”
The most famous feature of the magazine was the centerfold Playmate. The magazine’s creator and editor, Hugh Hefner, had a specific image in mind for the women he portrayed. The Playmate, originally introduced as the Sweetheart of the Month, represented the ultimate companion to the Playboy. She enjoyed art, politics and music. She was sophisticated, fun and intelligent. Even more important, this ideal woman enjoyed sex as much as the ideal man described in the publication. She wasn’t after men for marriage, but for mutual pleasure and companionship.
Though following in their legacy, the Playmate models differed from the pinups of World War II. Hefner wanted images of real women their readers might see in their everyday life — a classmate, secretary or neighbor — instead of the highly stylized and often famous women of an older generation. The sexualized, yet familiar, “girl next door” was the perfect accompaniment for soldiers stationed in Vietnam. This conception of wholesome, all-American beauty and sexuality acted out by largely unknown models reminded young soldiers of the women they left behind, and for whom they were fighting — and could, if they survived, imagine returning to.
The centerfold and other visual features in the magazine served another, unintentional purpose for American troops in Vietnam. Playboy’s pictures and often-ribald cartoons conveyed changing social and sexual norms back home. The introduction of women of color in 1964 with China Lee and in 1965 with Jennifer Jackson reflected shifting attitudes regarding race. Many soldiers wrote to both the magazine and the Playmates thanking them for their inclusion in Playboy. Black soldiers, in particular, felt that the inclusion of Ms. Jackson extended the promise of Mr. Hefner’s good life to them. Viewing these images forced all Americans to rethink their definitions of beauty.
Over time, the centerfolds pushed the boundaries of social norms and legal definitions as they featured more nudity, with the inclusion of pubic hair in 1969 and full-frontal nudity in 1972. The Washington Post reported that American prisoners of war were “taken aback” by the nudity in a smuggled Playboy found on their flight home in 1973. The nudity, sexuality and diversity portrayed in the pictorials represented more permissive attitudes about sex and beauty that the soldiers had missed during their years in captivity.
Playboy’s appeal to the G.I. in Vietnam extended beyond the centerfold. The men really did read it for the articles. The magazine provided regular features, editorials, columns and ads that focused on men’s lifestyle and entertainment, including high fashion, foreign travel, modern architecture, the latest technology and luxury cars. The publication set itself up as a how-to guide for those men hoping to achieve Mr. Hefner’s vision of the good life, regardless of whether they were in San Diego or Saigon.
For young men serving in Southeast Asia, whose average age was 19, military service often provided them their first access to disposable income. Soldiers turned to the magazine for advice on what gadgets to buy, the best vehicles and the latest fashions — products they could often then buy at one of Vietnam’s enormous on-base exchanges, sprawling shopping centers to rival anything back home.
The magazine’s advice feature, “The Playboy Advisor,” encouraged men to ask questions on all manner of topics, from the best liquor to stock at home to bedroom advice to adjusting to civilian life. Troops found Playboy a useful tool in figuring out their roles in the consumer-oriented landscape they were now able to join because of the mobility and income their military service provided them.
The content moved beyond lifestyle and entertainment as the editorial mission of the magazine evolved. By the 1960s, Playboy included hard-hitting features on important social, cultural and political issues confronting the United States, often written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, government and military leaders and top literary figures. The magazine took on topics like feminism, abortion, gay rights, race, economic issues, the counterculture movement and mass incarceration — something soldiers couldn’t get from Stars and Stripes. It offered exhaustive interviews with everyone from Malcolm X to the American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell, exposing young G.I.s to arguments and ideas about race and African-American equality they might not have been introduced to in their hometowns. Service in Vietnam put many soldiers in direct contact with diverse races and cultures, and Playboy presented them new ideas and arguments regarding those social and cultural issues.
As early as 1965, Playboy began running articles about the Vietnam War, with an editorial position that expressed reservations about the escalating conflict. The editors were smart about it, of course: Their stance may have been critical of the president, the administration, the military leaders and the strategy, but they made sure the contributors made every effort to stay supportive of the soldiers. In 1967, troops read the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith arguing that “no part of the original justification” for the war “remains intact,” as he dismantled the idea of monolithic Communism and other Cold War justifications for war. But that was different from attacking the troops themselves. In 1971, the journalist David Halberstam wrote in an article for Playboy that “we admired their bravery and their idealism, their courage and dedication in the face of endless problems. We believed that they represented the best of American society.” Troops in Vietnam could turn to Playboy for coverage of their own war without fearing criticism of themselves.
Playboy was also useful as a forum for the men engaged in the fighting. The publication was unique in its number of interactive features. Soldiers wrote into sections like “Dear Playboy” for advice and with reactions to articles. But those correspondents also freely described their wartime experiences and concerns. They often described what they saw as unfair treatment by the military, discussed their difficulty in transitioning back to civilian society or thanked the magazine for helping them through their time in-country. In 1973, one soldier, R. K. Redini of Chicago, wrote to Playboy about his return home. “One of the things that made my Vietnam tour endurable was seeing Playboy every month,” he said. “It sure helped all of us forget our problems — for a little while, anyway. I thank you not only for myself but also for the thousands of other guys who find a lot of pleasure in your magazine.”
In “The Playboy Forum,” another reader-response section, many wrote in addressing specific aspects of Hefner’s lengthy editorial series “The Playboy Philosophy,” including drugs, race and homosexuality in the military. The forum format allowed those who served in Vietnam to reach out not just to other soldiers, but also to the public, providing them a safe space to voice their opinions and criticisms of their service. “Traditionally, a soldier with a gripe is advised by friends to tell it to the chaplain, take it to the inspector general or write to his congressman,” a soldier wrote. “Now, probably because of letters about military injustice in The Playboy Forum, another court of last resort has been added to the list.”
Playboy magazine’s significance to the soldiers in Vietnam spread far beyond the foldout Playmate. Troops appropriated the magazine’s bunny mascot and the company’s logo, painting it on planes, helicopters and tanks. They incorporated the logo into patches and “playboy” into call signs and unit nicknames. Adopting the symbol of Playboy was a small rebellion to the conformity of military life and a testament to the impact of the magazine on soldiers’ lives and morale.
And the magazine returned the favor. Long after the war ended, it funded documentaries on the war, Agent Orange research and post-traumatic stress disorder studies. It is a commitment that testifies to this enduring relationship between the publication and the soldier, and reveals how the magazine is a surprising legacy of one of America’s longest wars.
Amber Batura is a doctoral candidate in history at Texas Tech University.