G.I. Dick: Don Draper as Korean War Veteran

Curator's Note

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.

In addition, the Korean War scenes function to remind us that Mad Men takes place against the backdrop of the cold war, much as the final episode of season 2 – which is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis – will do. These flashbacks, however, evacuate the politics of the conflict; we see a Korea without Koreans, hear no mention of communism, and learn that both Don/Dick and Lt. Draper are serving for personal rather than ideological reasons. Furthermore, much like MASH (which is hard for me not think about, as Draper and Whitman set out to build a hospital in Korea), these scenes seem to present Korea through the lens of Vietnam, adopting the cynicism and mistrust of military competence that would define the later conflict.

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.





Allison, great post and wonderful clip.   My eyes nearly popped out of my head at this narrative development, something I had not seen coming but conversely something that makes perfect sense of Don's character and why he is so 'closed'.

It reminds me of how ER's Kovac made perfect sense in the Congo and yet seemed slightly out of synch in the US.  Of course we knew Kovac's Croatian story and we can only guess at the past that Don Draper is hiding.  As we said before, we are lagging behind the US by a few episodes so this revelation is a bolt out of the blue for us having just left Don by the pool in Los Angeles.  

But most of all I loved your last line:'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'. How true and how poignant

I never thought to tie Mad Men's anxieties into those of The Manchurian Candidate, but the connection makes perfect sense. Thank you for this insight.


And how appropriate that Frankenheimer's film was released in the year in which season two is set! If season one can be seen to align with The Apartment, as I suggested in yesterday's post, then perhaps season two has moved forward (?) to The Manchurian Candidate. Season one examines the corruption of masculinity by power (see Pete, especially). Season two raises even more complicated aspects of, as you say, conflicted masculinity -- identities (or, more globally, identity) in crisis.


Your post also makes me wonder: Did US narrative television address the Korean War while it was going on (1950-53)? I'm not familiar enough with the history of television's early years to know. I believe 1951's The Steel Helmet was the first theatrical film about the conflict. Was there anything similar on television?


Jeremy Butler


Excellent post, Allison. Like Janet and Kim, I too was struck by your observation that “the show unearths parts of the historical past that had been forgotten.” I couldn’t agree more. The fact that the cultural shorthand used in this series doesn’t always fall back on all the usual mediated stereotypes about the sixties has been one of its biggest attractions for me. Likewise I think you’re right on that Korea is seen through the lens of Vietnam in these scenes, but like Vietnam, Korea was a very chaotic and open-ended war in its own right. Off of Jeremy’s post, I can’t think of any narrative television that dealt openly with Korea circa 1950-1953. Maybe someone else knows of an example. What comes to mind is Ed Murrow’s breakthrough expanded one-hour See It Now entitled, “This is Korea . . . Christmas 1952.” Here’s a short clip of that episode from YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4uQwsdmJl1c&feature=PlayList&p=C067FDE0AF108ECD&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=1) It was a big deal for Murrow to depict Korea so directly on TV at the time, especially in his no-nonsense matter-of fact style where he concluded the episode (not in this clip): “There is no conclusion to this report because there is no end to this war.” Don Draper disillusionment isn’t out of place in Korea per se, as much as it is out of place in our popular memory of America in the 1950s and early 1960s. Lastly, I also agree wholeheartedly with your comment about the pleasures inherent in we being omniscient viewers knowing that Kennedy beat Nixon, that America will survive the Cuban Missile Crisis, etc. As we project forward into the mid to late 1960s and even the early 1970s, it’s fascinating to imagine what kinds of changes lie in store for all of Mad Men’s main characters.

Given that in the UK we have just left Don sitting alone by the pool in California while his suitcase turns up home alone, this narrative denouement is quite a turnaround. Wow! 

Following on from everyone else, identifying our hero from the forgotten generation with a forgotten war has been an extremely enlightening intervention. (From a European perspective, Don has, for me at least, always carried some of the filmic DNA of the European existentialist hero - like Jean-Paul Belmondo, from A bout de souffle or Pierrot le fou, of the fatherless antiheroes of New German Cinema, particularly Wim Wenders' aimless wanderers. This representational type, and one fascinated with Americana, was forged from a modernity predicated on a violent dismantling of the old order, on cultural trauma and processes of amnesia, and on radical shifts in visual and intellectual perception. Where the familiar is made strange.)

As with previous posts, Allison reminds me of how trauma erupts in and through the Mad Men text.

Allison's suggestive and incisive post reminds me that Weiner refers to Mad Men in one of the "making of" documentaries as a "time machine," a metaphor Don Draper himself takes up in his pitch for the Kodak Carousel.


"The past is as open to development as the future," the historian John Merloo once noted, and Mad Men and Allison's revealing trip down memory lane demonstrated why that observation is as true for critical reflection as it is for narrative.

 Excellent post and replies; in a seriously tardy reaction, I'd like to toss in one more interconnection between Don's status as vet and the historicizing of context.  Vance Packard's 1957 expose of advertising technique and attitude sold over 100,000 copies in its first year.  In Stephen Fox's history of advertising he speculates that one reason for this response by the reading public was that Packard's book tapped into an American fear of being controlled by unknown, unseen forces.  Jeremy's link to The Manchurian Candidate then has the added force of Don's participation in a profession "suddenly" (in the public imaginary) dedicated to what Packard called "depth manipulation." The first season's overt linkage of selling and politics, played up in Frankenheimer's film, takes on a more sinister affect when we consider the fear of veterans, the "fear" of advertising that Packard had fanned previous to the year of MM's narrative opening, and a growing fear of Don himself (not really diminished in the second season by our increasing knowledge of the man).  

PS--I'm working on an article, and your posts constitute some of the best "sources" I've encountered.  Keep them coming.   

Nelson (et al.): Since you asked for additional comments, I thought I'd copy & paste a post I put on another MAD MEN thread. I don't know if it's fully relevant to your upcoming article, which may only have to do with Don Draper's Korean War service, but you can make that decision:

"I also want to thank my friends Janet & Kim for their initial post and the excellent clip. The other comments have also been exciting and enlightening, exactly what this site was designed for. Brava and Kudos to all!

To supplement what's been said, though, I want to start with a teaching anecdote. Years ago, I screened THE SEARCHERS for an American Film class and required students to read Brian Henderson's famous essay on the movie, in which he claimed that THE SEARCHERS (1956) was not really about Native Americans in the 19th century, but about Black-White relations in the 1950s in the wake of the U.S. Supremes' ruling Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). One student took exception to Henderson's thesis and wrote a well-researched term paper entitled "THE SEARCHERS is too about Indians!"

That said, I'd argue that MAD MEN "is too" about men. The show certainly deals with all of the issues regarding the social construction of women under patriarchy brought up in the previous posts, but it seems to me that it also portrays the sexiosocioeconomic construction of men under late capitalism. These ad men are not just cold fish and chauvinistic a-holes because they have penises (and/or phalluses, to make a subtle distinction); the very structures of their lives -- workplace, politics, family, education, pop culture, suburbia, new technologies (the Xerox machine, the fluorescent lighting that Jeremy Butler mentioned on another post, etc.) -- made them the organization men (William Whyte, 1956) and men in the grey flannel suits (Sloan Wilson, 1955 -- film version, 1956) that they are.

They are "mad" in all three senses of that word: (a) creatures of MADison Avenue and the corrupt (and corrupting) business of advertising, (b) driven to MADness by the sexiosocioeconomic pressures of the consumer culture that they themselves create; and (c) MAD as hell that they don't have much power themselves to change things. (They take out those tensions on their spouses and employees.) Even Don's romantic interlude in California is but a short vacation and temporary respite from the rat race.

The show shows us (yes, my pun is intended) the circumstances for BOTH genders but doesn't offer any real solutions within its fictional world, except perhaps in the individual (and collective) hearts and minds of viewers who watch that diegesis unfold 40-45 years later."

Frank P. Tomasulo, Ph.D.

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