By James Sandy, Assistant Professor, The University of Texas at Arlington
Featured image by Sam Nystrom Costales
In a dark jungle, Wong-Chu, the “red guerrilla tyrant,” menaces yet another helpless village in South Vietnam. With the hair and dress of Mao Zedong and racially stereotyped broken English, the painfully over-caricatured villain literally wrestles the villagers into submission and declares victory: “Now let us plunder the town! For None can stop the victorious Wong Chu!”1 If only there were someone strong enough to stand up for the poor and helpless people of South Vietnam? American comic book readers met that someone in Tony Stark and his metal clad alter ego, Iron Man, on the March 1963 cover of Tales of Suspense # 39. Representing a most idyllic image of American capitalist and technological success, Stark was the perfect hero to stop the communistic red menace and its spread across the globe. The “newest, most breath-taking, most sensational superhero…” came to life in the far away land of South Vietnam alongside the very real-world escalation of American military involvement under President John F. Kennedy. Stark joined the more than 16,000 American military personnel already on the ground assisting in the fight against the spread of Communism.2 Iron Man’s origin story highlights stereotypes reflecting contemporary American understandings and preconceptions of the escalating war in South Vietnam, its people, and what lay in store. Lacking any real-world context, these panels combine an overtly racist and simplistic image of both America’s allies and enemies in Southeast Asia with an unassailable vision of American technological superiority and success.
We first meet Tony Stark in his secret laboratory “somewhere in the U.S. defense perimeter.” Stark is fabulously wealthy, a “glamorous playboy,” and the world’s foremost scientific mind and weapons producer. Stan Lee designed a wealthy businessmen turned technological hero to match the atmosphere of the era, even considering naming him “The Mighty Industrialist!”3 The issue opens on Stark demonstrating his newest marvel, tiny transistors that increase the power of any device, to a skeptical American officer. After a successful test, in which a normal magnet rips open a bank vault door, the officer claims he is “ready to believe ANYTHING.” Stark next joins a South Vietnamese patrol to test his new transistors on the battlefield.4 The story’s setting of South Vietnam offers little else than a dark and jungled backdrop. Marvel’s team of writers and illustrators provide no explanation or background to the situation on the ground, the people and their politics, or the intricacies of the ongoing war. 1963 was a pivotal year for South Vietnam, as the young nation faced growing internal and external strife. The Republic of Vietnam, officially established in 1955, and its President, Ngo Dinh Diem, struggled to build and maintain their legitimacy against the specter of the communist regime in North Vietnam, the growing communist National Liberation Front (NLF) insurgency in the south, and accusations of corruption, nepotism, and civil rights abuses from its own citizens.5 Instead, Marvel presents South Vietnam and its people as simple, helpless, and looking to Americans for help.
Stark walks alongside two soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) as they test his invention against the “red guerrillas.” The transistors let the soldiers bring the otherwise too heavy and cumbersome artillery and mortars through the dense jungle and win the fight. Stark’s new power allowed the already superior weapons of the West to neutralize any terrain and geographic advantage enjoyed by enemy fighters.6 The imagery of outmatched South Vietnamese soldiers needing all the help they can get paralleled a powerful national narrative in 1963. Just two months before this issue’s release, the ARVN were publicly embarrassed at the Battle of Ap Bac. Despite utilizing modern American technology, weapons, and vehicles a well-informed ARVN assault was soundly defeated by a smaller force of NLF guerrillas, who shot down five helicopters and destroyed several armored personnel carriers. The attacking ARVN force, outnumbering their adversaries nearly 5-to-1, refused to advance under heavy fire. Regardless of the role played by American advisors in planning and directing the failed operation, the blame settled squarely on the ARVN and their inability to win. John Paul Vann, one of the most senior and experienced American advisors in South Vietnam, described the battle as “a miserable damn performance, just like it always is.”7 Just a few days after the battle, respected political journalist Arthur Krock lambasted American policy in South Vietnam for believing in a people “not willing to die” for their own independence.8 In spite of an improving ARVN’s performance prior to Ap Bac, the escalating American presence and widely publicized failure in the battle cemented the image of an inept and helpless ARVN in dire need of American assistance. Men’s magazines, newspapers, and other mainstream representations painted the ARVN as utterly unwilling to fight and win its own war.9 This comic’s depiction of the helpless people of South Vietnam and the national reaction to Ap Bac echo long held American racist stereotypes of Asian populations as inherently inferior, uncivilized, and incapable of progress without outside assistance.10
Back in comic-land, and after a successful thrashing where “the reds never knew what hit them,” Stark and the impressed soldiers walk right into an explosive Viet Cong booby trap. Stark awakens as a prisoner of the evil Wong-Chu with deadly shrapnel embedded in his chest and threatening his heart.11 His captors carry the stereotyped and racist imagery attached to communist Chinese men during the Cold War; complete with broken English, buck teeth, and that signature red-starred Mao cap.12 For example, Wong-Chu’s lackey describes the imminent peril of the shrapnel in Stark’s chest and their plan to trick him into making weapons: “Yes, he can work till shrapnel reaches heart!” Throughout the issue the “red guerrillas” under Wong-Chu are differentiated from the civilians they terrorize, parroting the Cold War fears over Chinese support of communist revolutionaries like Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese. Comic book readers in 1963 might have readily assumed the Chinese were behind much of the turmoil in South Vietnam, especially as Chinese military pioneer and Chief of the Chinese Joint Staff, Luo Ruiqing, led an official delegation visit to Hanoi in March 1963, the same month this issue hit newsstands. Luo proclaimed that China would step in and protect North Vietnam if America and the West ever invaded, stoking fears of another Korean War and monolithic Communism.13 Historians have laid out the intimate and often difficult relationship between the North Vietnamese regime and China. During the war against France in the 1950’s, China was an instrumental supplier of weapons and military advisors to Ho Chi Minh and the national independence coalition formed by Ho and the Indochinese Communist Party, the Viet Minh. Following the Vietnamese victory, the Korean War (1950-1953), and the Geneva accords of 1954, however, China urged North Vietnam to slow their plans in order to avoid another war with the West. As North Vietnam continued its push for independence and unification, Vietnamese and Chinese leaders drifted apart, retreating towards their historical relationship built on centuries of Chinese aggression, oppression, and occupation.14 Marvel’s characterization of the “red guerrillas” highlights the lack of nuance and clarity in America’s understanding of the war in Vietnam and its principal players on the brink of escalation.15
Wong-Chu orders the “famous Yankee inventor” to build him new weapons in exchange for medical assistance with the shrapnel in his chest. Instead, Stark builds a marvelous suit of iron armor using his transistor technology to stop the shrapnel from killing him, defeat Wong-Chu and his men, and escape back to American lines.16 Stark is assisted by the elder Professor Yinsen, a famed Chinese scientist muzzled and enslaved by the communists for refusing to cooperate. He is obviously educated and staunchly anti-communist, and immediately gets to work helping Stark who remembers him as the “greatest physicist of all.” The venerable professor represents the “good” Chinese people of the Republic of China. Following their defeat in the Chinese Civil War, the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government fled to Taiwan. Yinsen’s character embodies the KMT’s World War II alliance with the West and on-going American support of Taiwan after the communist victory in 1949.17 The two scientists race against the clock to finish the suit before the shrapnel reaches Stark’s heart. Together they admire their creation, its perfect coordination, self-lubrication system, and the “wonders” it will perform. Yinsen proclaims this will be “the crowning achievement of my life,” further driving home the importance of technological advancement in 1960’s America.18 Stark and Yinsen’s wondrous machine echoed contemporary American achievements in space exploration, medicine, computing, and military technology. This mechanical marvel and its possibilities resonated with President Kennedy’s famous 1962 speech at Rice University on America’s moral imperative in the space race. “Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide” postured Kennedy. Stark and his relationship with technology echo this sentiment throughout the issue, showing that only through his application of such technology, and by extent America, could evil be properly defeated.19
The duo finish the suit just as Stark’s condition worsens and an alarm bell sounds. Wong-Chu’s men are coming. To cause a diversion Yinsen runs through the hallway shouting “Death to Wong-chu! Death to the evil Tyrant!” as he is gunned down. “The gallant Chinese scientist,” according to the panel’s narration, sacrifices himself to buy Stark the precious time needed to power up the suit. This heroic moment demonstrates an ingrained superiority complex in the American perspective towards their allies, punctuated by Yinsen’s own admission that his “life is of no consequence” compared to what Stark was trying to accomplish.20 Iron Man roars to life to defeat the evil Wong-Chu and avenge his fallen friend in a rather one-sided fight, using the superior technology of his suit to deflect grenades, saw through a door, convince Wong-Chu’s men to flee by taking over a loud-speaker, and spin the warlord around like a rag doll. During the fight Wong-Chu fearfully accuses Stark of being more machine than man as he and his soldiers wilt in the face of the suit’s unassailable technology. Wong-Chu lambasts his men for being cowards and offers “ten thousand yen to the one who destroys Iron Man” even though North Vietnam first adopted the dong as its currency in 1946. By 1963, even in South Vietnam, the only viable currencies were the French piastre, Vietnamese dong, and an increasing influx of American dollars. Wong-Chu offering a reward in “yen,” which is either confused with the Japanese Yen or Chinese Yuan, again demonstrates contemporary American preconceptions and ignorance of the region, its people, and the ongoing situation there when the issue hit newsstands.21
In the first reference to his allies since the comic’s opening, Stark believes the scattered communist troops will be rounded up by South Vietnamese soldiers. In this way, Marvel presents the South Vietnamese as only capable of success following direct American involvement. As he tries to escape the Iron Man, Wong-Chu orders his guards to slaughter the camp’s invisible prisoners, driving home just how ruthless and callous the “red tyrant” is. Luckily, Iron Man vaporizes the desperate warlord in an ammunition dump explosion before any slaughter can take place. In an abrupt end to the story, Tony Stark takes a moment to remember his friend Yinsen’s sacrifice before disappearing into a smoky haze as the narration promises “more of Iron Man in the next great issue of…Tales of Suspense!” At no point does Stark or the comic’s narrator question or provide explanation for America’s pursuit of victory over communism in Vietnam. Marvel presents America’s presence as an assumed Cold War necessity lacking any political definitions or context. Instead, the birth of Iron Man presents good old-fashioned American capitalism, technology, and military machinery winning the day against an ill-defined and barbaric communist threat.22
Tony Stark’s 1963 adventure in South Vietnam echoed many of prevailing sentiments and conceptions the American people held about themselves, the Cold War, and the escalating situation in Vietnam. Politicians, military commanders, and the public alike believed that the supremacy of American technology and ingenuity guaranteed victory over an inferior and stereotyped foe. Marvel’s depiction of Wong-Chu, his “red guerrillas, and the helpless people of South Vietnam resonates with long established and held American racist caricatures of Asian populations as inherently inferior, uncivilized, incapable of competing with the United States, and unable to progress without it. Just months before this issue’s release, America’s real life war hero president, the young and attractive John F Kennedy, delivered a booming endorsement of the American mission in his 1963 State of the Union Address. According to Kennedy, the United States had “reaffirmed the scientific and military superiority of freedom” from “Viet Nam to West Berlin.” Arguing that the communist “spearpoint of aggression [had] been blunted in Viet Nam,” President Kennedy presented a winning image of the ongoing and ever-increasing mission in Southeast Asia. Central to that image was American technology and military assistance.23 Tony Stark and his Iron Man represent the most American solution to the war against the “red guerrillas” in South Vietnam, a millionaire playboy and genius inventor who announced himself to the world in 1963: “This is Iron Man who opposes you, and all you stand for!”24
Dr. James Sandy (he/him) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at The University of Texas at Arlington. His research focuses on the American War in Vietnam, specifically the evolution of American martial culture and shifting representations of warfare in popular culture. He teaches a range of military and pop culture courses, including America and the Vietnam Wars, the History of Small Wars & Insurgencies, War & Society, and 20th Century American Popular Culture. He is obsessed with 1960’s sci-fi from minds like Philip K. Dick & Robert Heinlein, 20th century war comics like Sgt Rock, and any game by Bethesda. Twitter: @prof_sandy.
- Stan Lee and Larry Lieber, Tales of Suspense #39: “Iron Man!” (Marvel Comics, 1963), 3. Wong-Chu’s image and declaration are a clear reference to contemporary American racial and cultural stereotypes of Asian peoples in the contentious early 1960’s. Joining archetypal and fictitious Asian characters like Dr. Fu Manchu, Wong-Chu’s exaggerated facial features, broken English, and sinister intent fit right into American perceptions of Asian adversaries. Built off the 19th century racialized “Yellow Peril” fears and lasting resentment of Japanese aggressions from World War II, American racial conceptions of Asian communists followed a predictable pattern. See: John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York, NY: Pantheon, 1986); John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats, eds., Yellow Peril!: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear (New York, NY: Verso Books, 2014).
- In March 1963 there were more than 16,000 American military personnel on the ground in South Vietnam, a massive increase compared to the paltry 900 that were present when JFK assumed the presidency. “Vietnam War U.S. Military Fatal Casualty Statistics: Electronic Records Reference Report,” 2018, National Archives at College Park, MD, https://www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics.
- Stan Lee, Son of Origins of Marvel Comics (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1975), 47-48.
- Lee and Lieber, Tales of Suspense #39: “Iron Man!” 2-4.
- Jon Prados, Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975 (University of Kansas Press, 2009); Geoffrey Stewart, Vietnam’s Lost Revolution: Ngo Dinh Diem’s Failure to Build an Independent Nation, 1955-1963 (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
- Lee and Lieber, Tales of Suspense #39: “Iron Man!” 5.
- Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and American in Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1988), 154; David Toczek, The Battle of Ap Bac, Vietnam: They Did Everything But Learn From It (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007).
- Arthur Krock, “In The Nation,” The New York Times, January 8, 1963.
- Gregory Daddis, Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men’s Adventure Magazines (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 148-149; Karen Ishizuka, “‘Kill That Gook, You Gook’ Asian Americans and the Vietnam War,” in The Global 1960’s: Convention, Contest and Counterculture (London: Routledge, 2017), 217-235; Mark Bradley, Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919-1950 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
- According to leading historians like Bob Brigham and Andy Wiest, the ARVN was a deeply misunderstood and historically berated force built upon an unstable cultural and national foundation. Brigham argues the ARVN’s institutional ineptitude led South Vietnamese soldiers to focus on the wellbeing of their own families over that of their country. Wiest blames the flawed relationship between the United States and the Republic of Vietnam and the crushing treatment by the American media for the damning image of the ARVN’s capabilities. Robert Brigham, ARVN: Life and Death in the South Vietnamese Army (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2006), x-xi, 79-81; Andrew Wiest, Vietnam’s Forgotten Army (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2008), 8, 28.
- Lee and Lieber, Tales of Suspense #39: “Iron Man!” 4-5.
- The long standing and pejorative physical caricature of Chinese individuals, stemming from 19th century “Yellow Peril” fears, evolved after World War II to include overt communist imagery, most evident in the red star symbol and the signature Mao style cap. William F. Wu, The Yellow Peril: Chinese Americans in American Fiction, 1950-1940 (New York, NY: Archon Books, 1982); Robert MacDougall, “Red, Brown and Yellow Perils: Images of the American Enemy in the 1940s and 1950s,” The Journal of Popular Culture 32, no. 4 (Spring 1999): 59-75.
- Chen Jian, “China’s Involvement in the Vietnam War, 1964-1969,” The China Quarterly 142, no. June (1995): 356–87; Associated Press, “The Strategic Picture and Forces Involved in the Struggle for Southeast Asia,” The New York Times, April 28, 1963.
- Qiang Zhai, “China Contributed Substantially to Vietnam War Victory, Claims Scholar,” January 2001, The Wilson Center, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/china-contributed-substantially-to-vietnam-war-victory-claims-scholar; Qiang Zhai, China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950-1975 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Steven Hood, Dragons Entangled: Indochina and the China-Vietnam War (London: Routledge, 1992); David Kang et al., “War, Rebellion, and Intervention under Hierarchy: Vietnam-China Relations, 1365-1841,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 63, no. 4 (2018): 1-27.
- Pierre Asselin, Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (University of California Press, 2013).
- Lee and Lieber, Tales of Suspense #39: “Iron Man!” 4-7.
- The Taiwan-China situation sat front and center for Kennedy’s predecessors. Truman and Eisenhower both voiced support for the Republic of China (Taiwan) and over the course of the 1950’s the American military strengthened its direct and visible support of the island in the face of implied and actual aggression form the People’s Republic of China. Escalating with Eisenhower’s response to the twin Taiwan Straits Crises (1954 & 1958) and Kennedy’s reluctance to extend too much support, Taiwan remained a visible issue in America’s Cold War calculations when readers met Tony Stark. Richard Bush, At Cross Purposes: U.S.-Taiwan Relations since 1942 (London: Routledge, 2015); William Newman, “Deterrence and Commitment Across the Taiwan Strait: Lessons from Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy,” War on the Rocks, December 19, 2022, https://warontherocks.com/2022/12/deterrence-and-commitment-across-the-taiwan-strait-lessons-from-truman-eisenhower-and-kennedy/.
- Lee and Lieber, Tales of Suspense #39: “Iron Man!” 6.
- John F. Kennedy, “Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Efforts, September 12, 1962,” September 12, 1962, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Archive.
- Lee and Lieber, Tales of Suspense #39: “Iron Man!” 7.
- Lee and Lieber. 10-11; Brian Letwin, “A Look at Vietnamese Currency Through History,” Saigoneer, October 17, 2014, https://saigoneer.com/vietnam-heritage/2931-a-look-at-vietnamese-currency-through-history.
- Paul Hirsch argues convincingly that Stark’s origin story highlights contemporary American conceptions of race, military power, and anti-communism. Paul Hirsch, Pulp Empire: The Secret History of Comic Book Imperialism (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2021), 259; Lee and Lieber, Tales of Suspense #39: “Iron Man!” 12-13.
- Lee and Lieber, Tales of Suspense #39: “Iron Man!” 3; “John F. Kennedy, Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union.,” January 14, 1963, The American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/237129.
- Lee and Lieber, Tales of Suspense #39: “Iron Man!” 10.