Playboy and Vietnam: How One Magazine Changed the War for Its American Soldiers

Soldiers weren’t buying the magazine just for the centerfold.

By Molly Smith & Rhonda FanningMarch 2, 2017 8:41 am

In the years since World War II, the pin-up girl has become a classic image associated with the “Good War.” Betty Grable look-alikes splayed across the noses of fighter planes and were a way of differentiating American flight crews from one another.

Fifty years ago, when American troops fought in Vietnam, another iconic image was plastered on planes and tanks, helmets and regulation jackets: the Playboy bunny.

Amber Batura, with Texas Tech University, has discovered that Playboy magazine was more than a just a source of entertainment for the troops. She details the impact it had on the battlefront in a recent New York Times column. She describes Playboy as “a coveted and useful morale booster, at times rivaling even the longed-for letter from home.” Many soldiers wrote to the magazine about how the images helped them remember what it was they were fighting for.

“The military defines morale very specifically … and they talk about unit cohesion, a belief in the cause of the war,” Batura says. “Especially after 1968, a lot of that didn’t exist for Vietnam and so the military started turning towards entertainment and material goods to try and boost morale because they couldn’t boost it in ways that they had for World War II.”

But soldiers weren’t just drawn to the magazine for its centerfold: they also read its feature articles and editorials. The writing of David Halberstam, Norman Mailer, Henry Kissinger and Shel Silverstein graced its pages, and Batura says the magazine was a “who’s who of 20th century writers.”

“The editors had decided that they wanted to start talking about things that mattered to them,” she says. “They were about the same age of the men that they were writing for, and so they started talking about cultural issues that were going on, like race and the counterculture movement.”

The anti-war movement on the homefront was another one of these issues. But while articles may have been critical of the president, his administration, military leaders and the war’s strategy, they were careful not to directly criticize the soldiers.

Although Playboy has often been overlooked because it helped perpetuate the sexualization of women in American culture, Batura says that it’s still an important historical artifact.

“This is an important story in the lives of soldiers and the everyday experiences that they have in the military,” she says. “It’s important to understand that there are more aspects to [Vietnam] than these generals and these strategies. There’s the lived lives of these men and what they had to do.”