G.I. Joe, the Hasbro toy that debuted in February 1964, was the product of an earlier era: The doll was created largely by World War II veterans as a square-jawed exemplar of American determination to do right in the world. Joe didn’t know what he was in for. Six months later came the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, escalating the Vietnam War, and the face of the American military changed. G.I. Joe did not, even though he grew “life-like hair” in the ’70s. In the ’80s, G.I. Joe decreased in size and reemerged as a team of “action figures,” but Hasbro made the “real American hero” ethos even more explicit.
Now, at 50, G.I. Joe means different things to different generations. To the Greatest Generation, he symbolizes the almost anonymous strength and fortitude of the American military. To children of the Reagan era, he represents a proud, if cartoonish, notion of service. Today, amid improvements in movie technology, when the most popular action characters wear tights and have superhuman powers, it’s harder to conceive of a hero whose capabilities can be captured in a plastic figure. But in various forms — 12 inches or 3 and a half inches — millions of G.I. Joes still stand by, guarding the idea that peace and security are the responsibility of humans, after all.