The first thing we learn about Don Draper’s past is that he is a veteran; in the series premiere, Don takes a box containing his purple heart out of his office desk. References to Don’s status as a Korean War veteran recur throughout the first season, from Betty’s comment when the Drapers host Roger for dinner that Don doesn’t like to talk about the war to a man on a train who recognizes Don, but calls him Dick, and mentions their time in the service. The penultimate episode reveals the importance of Don’s war service through two flashbacks to Korea. It is in Korea (in the first part of the accompanying clip) that we meet the “real” Don Draper and that we learn how Dick Whitman assumes his identity (illustrated in the second part) by swapping the dog tags off of Draper’s burnt and mutilated body with his own. The purple heart reappears, though here it is revealed not as evidence of Don’s valor in war, but of the act of duplicity and reinvention that his war service enabled.
Korea, often referred to as the “forgotten war,” long has been overshadowed in public memory and popular media by Vietnam. But before there was Travis Bickle and John Rambo there was Raymond Shaw, the central character of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate. While managing to skewer savagely both communists and anti-communists alike, The Manchurian Candidate also spoke to contemporary concerns regarding Korean War veterans. After the war, anxieties circulated about returning soldiers who had been POWs. Suspected of having been brainwashed by their Chinese and North Korean captors and of collaborating with the enemy, veterans were welcomed home as heroes and yet greeted with the dual suspicion of being cowards and traitors. While other films narrated concerns over Korean vets, Raymond Shaw was the apotheosis of this fear – a medal of honor winner who, in fact, was an assassin working for the communists.
It seems fitting that Don is a veteran of a “forgotten war,” since he and his generation are on the verge of being forgotten themselves, overshadowed by the youth and political movements of the 1960s. Yet Don’s story strikes as reminiscent of the forgotten – though once quite powerful – anxieties of the Korean War vet. Don is not who he appears to be, both literally and figuratively. Don, like returning veterans, appears to personify American values and ideals; in actuality, he seems to chafe at and at times loathe the elements of his life that signify his fulfillment of the American Dream.
One of the pleasures of Mad Men is the way it positions its audience as an omniscient viewer with regard to the historical events it references. We know, though our characters do not, that Kennedy will beat Nixon, the Cuban Missile Crisis will not result in nuclear annihilation, that Betty’s unnamed malady will be named three years later “the problem that has no name,” and that Midge’s friends’ anti-capitalist diatribes will be articulated and popularized by the political youth movements of the period. But the show also unearths parts of the historical past that had been forgotten, and in doing so perhaps stumbled upon an appropriate referent in the Korean War veteran to symbolize the conflicted masculinity of Don Draper.