At the height of the Cold War, American pulp magazines offered stories of adventure, sex, and power. In sum, Gregory Daddis argues, they produced a “particular version of martial masculinity” that shaped soldiers’ expectations of and experiences in combat during the Vietnam War (p. 5). For Daddis, these magazines, largely neglected in the historiography of the Vietnam War, provide crucial insight into how “preexisting sociocultural dynamics” in the United States prepared U.S. soldiers to think and behave in violent ways, especially but not only against women (p. 6).

Bearing titles such as Stag, Man’s Conquest, and American Manhood, the pulps explicitly invoked, harnessed, and propagated a vision of masculinity rooted in patriotism, racial dominance, sexual conquest, physical toughness, and pugnacity. As such, they worked to resolve the widespread and oft-voiced mid-century fear that American men had gone soft. American men, many claimed, were overly mothered, sexually impotent, and sheltered from the strenuous life in cushy corporate jobs. As such, they were not prepared to resist the rising tide of communism at home or abroad. But not in the world of the pulps. There, lurid tales of combat heroism and carnal virility, often drawn from World War II and the Korean War, served as “antidotes to men’s fears and anxieties” (p. 229). In these stories, U.S. soldiers were always the good guys. They defeated ruthless enemies (Nazis and communists, typically), endured harrowing physical trials, and seduced or subdued sensual, exotic women.

Wildly popular among young men at home in the 1950s and 1960s, selling millions of copies a year, the pulps were also a hit at PX newsstands across Vietnam. As Daddis tells it, the pulps’ version of war, so wildly out of touch with its realities, helped ensure that American men were poorly prepared to grasp the complexities of the Vietnam War. Furthermore, he argues, pulp fantasies primed many American soldiers to commit atrocities against civilians, including the rape of Vietnamese women.

Daddis has clearly spent much time in this world. His work references hundreds of stories published across more than two decades, and the book usefully features dozens of illustrations that spotlight the gendered and racialized discourses at work in the pulps. What is more, drawing on veterans’ oral histories and memoirs, Daddis demonstrates a strong connection between the fantasy world of the pulps and how U.S. soldiers actually perceived the war in Vietnam and their role in it—at least its initial stages. Yet Daddis notes that as the war in Vietnam wore on, its realities destroyed most of the illusions the magazines offered. Combat wasn’t heroic, manly, or meaningful. It was senseless and destructive. Consequently, the pulps began to decline in the early 1970s as Americans reckoned with the costs of the failed Vietnam War and what it said about their nation and their values. Still, as Daddis explains, fantasies of martial manhood were quickly resuscitated in other forms as Americans waged new wars in the 1980s and afterward.

More engagement with the literary cultures of previous wars would have broadened Daddis’s analysis. After all, soldiers in the Civil War and World War I also marched off with fantasies of combat heroism and racial dominance in their heads. Nevertheless, in telling this story, Pulp Vietnam examines an overlooked piece of Cold War culture and explains how it helped create real-world forms of violence.

Kyle Burke
Hartwick College