When President John F. Kennedy, the trailblazer of the New Frontier, called upon Americans to ask not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country, his inaugural message sounded a clarion call to a younger generation that wanted to serve in a noble cause. JFK was a World War II veteran and American society during that war had been united against a common enemy.
Kennedy, like other men and women after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, answered the call. One of the most beloved of all World War II’s pantheon of patriots were nicknamed “Doughnut Dollies” by G.I.s serving in England. They brought coffee and doughnuts to the soldiers returning from overseas missions while playing Big Band music over the loudspeakers of their “clubmobiles.” The Red Cross girls serving in this capacity were part of the patriotic surge of emotion that typified the era.
But the sixties would have no such coalescing cause; for that generation, the Vietnam War was a divisive wedge that divided young and old, parents and children, police and protesters. Knowing the difficulty of maintaining troop morale in the face of what military insiders realized was likely to be a prolonged war, the Defense Department called upon the Red Cross to transplant the Doughnut Dolly program—more officially known as the Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas—to Vietnam. More than 600 single women in their early twenties served from 1965 to 1972. Their mission was to emulate the persona of the girl next door for lonely soldiers who were fighting in a country that didn’t welcome them for a war they didn’t understand. Some of the women maintained recreation centers that provided an oasis for the soldiers, who could listen to music, talk, relax, play pool, and write letters home; others, bringing games, snacks, and sodas, traveled by helicopter to remote areas where soldiers were poised to head into battle.
Doug Bradley and Craig Werner, authors of We Gotta Get Out of This Place, an account of how music helped the soldiers endure the unique experience of serving in Viet Nam, interviewed some of the women who served as Doughnut Dollies for their book. Jeanne Christie, a twenty-one year old college graduate, decided to do her part and in 1967, she was in Vietnam. Boosting morale required more than doughnuts. “There was all types of music going on, you had access to all sorts of music, and you had shows that constantly came through,” she said. “Whenever anybody was going back home they’d play Leaving on a Jet Plane. And everybody sang We Gotta Get Out of This Place by the Animals.”
Christie recalls the moments when music ignited a patriotic response. “One night, at a Marine Club at Da Nang,” Jeanne continued, “we all burst into America the Beautiful. As soon as the first couple notes started, everybody stopped talking . . . When I hear it sung at the baseball game in the seventh inning stretch . . . , I always think back to that moment . . . that’s the type of emotional hold that some melodies have on people.”
The soldiers and the women were young and often lonely; the war was not something to watch on the evening news but was the backdrop of their lives. Back home, young people were carrying signs and protesting against the war. What could the women do to ease the burden the soldiers carried?
They could smile. It was, in fact, something they were required to do, just as they were expected to be cute and perky; their role was to emulate the girl next door, not the Betty Grable pin-up of the Good War. But that pressure took its toll on the women as well. Heather Stur’s book Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War, explores the psychology of the Doughnut Dollies and the myths of the war. Emily Strange, who was stationed in the Mekong Delta, befriended a soldier who, like Strange, played the guitar and liked folk music. His death in a helicopter crash taught her a hard lesson: don’t get too close. So she shut down. She didn’t learn their names anymore; it was easier for the soldiers to be anonymous. She still did her job. She smiled; she was friendly; she was a reminder of home. But she disconnected her feelings from her job. The smile was part of the uniform she wore. Survival in Vietnam required distance from young men who might die.
The sixties were the front lines of a movement that would expand beyond the anti-war protesters to include feminism and other causes that would shatter age-old stereotypes. The Doughnut Dollies who personified the “good girls” the boys were fighting for would also become transformed by the social upheaval that forever altered the image of the girl next door.
The Vietnam War ended in 1975 in a national loss of innocence that was shattered by the reality of an unpopular conflict. But there are many who wonder if the war ever really ended.