Kevin Brown Historian

History of health, medicine and naval history

Going Home Clean: the Fight against Venereal Disease in US Military Training Camps in the First and Second World Wars: the Roles of Raymond Fosdick and Eliot Ness


The clean cut and Progressive intellectual social reformer Raymond Fosdick

“The only life worth living is the adventurous life. Of such a life the dominant characteristic is that it is unafraid. It is unafraid of what other people think…It does not adapt either its pace or its objectives to the pace and objectives of its neighbors. It thinks its own thoughts, it reads its own books. It develops its own hobbies, and it is governed by its own conscience. The herd may graze where it pleases or stampede where it pleases, but he who lives the adventurous life will remain unafraid when he finds himself alone.”

Raymond Blaine Fosdick (1883-1972) was not afraid when it came to defending the  moral and physical health of the Great War dough boy, although his aim, in line with much Progressive thought, was to keep the young soldier away from any adventures that might lead to moral contamination. After all it was the mission of the American Expeditionary force to take new world moral values to the defence of old Europe and to return home pure.

Fosdick was well suited for his task. A native of Buffalo, New York, Fosdick had come under the intellectual influence of Woodrow Wilson as a student at Princeton which was to shape his own internationalist world view and interest in social reform. While studying for his law degree at New York Law School, Fosdick had worked at the Henry Street Settlement in the Lower East Side before in 1908 taking up a post to investigate white slavery for the City of New York. This had brought him into contact with philanthropist John D. Rockefeller junior, who in 1913 hired him to study European law enforcement for the Bureau of Social Hygiene, created by Rockefeller to study and prevent prostitution, venereal disease and crime related to urban poverty.  Most recently he had revealed the extent of venereal disease among American soldiers sent to the Mexican border following Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa’s raid on New Mexico in March 1916. It was an ideal background when in 1917 Fosdick was approached by the Secretary of War to take on the task of heading the War Department Commission on Training Camp Activities and stamping out ‘certain vicious conditions traditionally associated with armies and training camps’ in order ‘to re-establish, as far as possible, the old social ties to furnish these young men a substitute for the recreational and relaxational opportunities to which they have been accustomed’.

The troops were bombarded with vivid warnings of the dangers of venereal disease from women less clean than a bullet  and that ‘a man who is thinking below the belt is not efficient’  but, instead, were exhorted  to be ‘100% efficient to win the war’  by eschewing the seductions of ‘booze, a pretty face, a shapely ankle’ in order to ‘go home clean’  and ‘not take the European disease to America’ . Morality and cleanliness had long been linked with modern efficiency in Progressive thought and were now allied to wartime patriotism. It was a matter of pride for the American Expeditionary Force to be pure compared to the moral corruption of the Old World.

1917 training camp

Wholesome pursuits in the Training Camp of 1917

Warnings on their own were not enough. It was necessary to attempt to eradicate the temptations which might corrupt the pure, unsullied soldier, although Fosdick confessed that  he did ‘not think that we will ever absolutely eliminate the prostitute, but we do want to make it impossible for the prostitute to flaunt herself in the face of men on the streets when they are not thinking about her’. As a result the red-light districts were closed in many American cities and all houses of ill repute and saloons within five miles of military training camps were made illegal.

The attitude in Continental Europe was more pragmatic. The French prime minister Georges Clemenceau offered to help establish brothels for his new American allies, an offer which would have appalled Woodrow Wilson. The Secretary of War Newton D. Baker warned Fosdick’for God’s sake, Raymond, don’t show this to the President or he’ll stop the war’.

Despite Wilson’s high moral stance and in his ignorance, American soldiers going on leave were issued with prophylactic kits, containing calomel ointment for the treatment of syphilis, potassium permanganate solution or tablets for gonorrhoea and cotton wool for applying these to the penis  as soon after intercourse as possible. French and German troops were issued with similar kits, but the British were reluctant to issue dreadnought packets for fear of condoning vice.

Sales of alcohol close to the training camps was forbidden as a result of campaigning by the Temperance movement, a move which contributed to the climate of opinion that would very soon endorse the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. Minor vice was simply driven underground.. Drunkenness and casual sex were seen not only as allied moral defects which detracted from the purity of the all-American warrior but also as impediments to fighting effectiveness and the winning of the war. Subsequently, Fosdick served as a special representative of the War Department in France and as a civilian aide to General John J. Pershing. He was appointed Under-Secretary General to the League of Nations but resigned in 1920 when the United States did not ratify its membership of the organisation. He retained his links with Rockefeller as his lawyer and advisor, and from 1936 to 1948 he served as President of the Rockefeller Foundation.

Eliot Ness at work

The Untouchable – Playboy Crimefighter and Vicebuster Eliot Ness

Fosdick’s Baptist background and social reforming credentials were a contrast to the more worldly, glamorous man appointed to take a similar role in suppressing vice among the next generation in the army camps of the Second World War. Eliot Ness (1903-1957) is best known as the Chief Investigator of the Chicago Bureau of Investigation who, with his team of ‘Untouchables’,  brought to justice  the gangster Al Capone. Later as Director for Public Safety of Cleveland, Ohio, between 1935 and 1942, his job was to clear up police corruption and reform the police and fire service.  A fondness for night clubs, alcohol, and fast living made him familiar with the vices he was supposed to battle against when appointed in 1942 by the federal government as Director of the Social Protection Division to fight against prostitution, venereal disease and excessive drinking in the communities surrounding the training camps.


Ness, a man susceptible to the delights of the nightclub

Fresh from his experience in Cleveland, Ness rallied the support of police chiefs, mayors and city managers in his new crusade against prostitution. The National Cab Association was persuaded to revoke the licenses of taxi drivers found to be pimping for prostitutes.  His opponents argued that a clampdown on prostitution would merely encourage men to seek other more violent outlets for their passion, such as rape, homosexuality or the seduction of virtuous girls. Such criticism was nothing to the man who had taken on Al Capone earlier in his career and Ness pointed out that ‘despite the many critics of repression who were either honestly misinformed or whose financial interests were at stake, the more than 300 communities which clamped down on prostitution have not experienced great crime waves or increases in rape cases’.s in the Great War, there were attempts to provide the men in the military training camps with wholesome recreational and educational activities that would take their minds off sex, including lectures, sporting contests and organised entertainments. Once again young men were reminded that it was unpatriotic to contract a venereal infection and that the spread of venereal diseases was helping the enemy. Warnings were issued that even women who ‘may look clean’ could be harbouring the infection. Meanwhile men were given lectures and shown films  to educate them about the dangers of infection, though educational programmes  were not as effective as they could have been because of inadequate funding and  ‘the difficulty of arousing enough interest from the higher officers to lead to their devoting their interest to this teaching problem at least equal  to the interest accorded such problems as teaching the use of weapons, self-protection and hand to hand combat’.

In the absence of education, as in 1917-18, the US armed forces were driven back to providing prophylactic treatment packs and condoms, adopting the motto ‘if you can’t say no, take a pro’. Packs of three condoms and a small tube of lubricating jelly were available in the canteens of military bases. When women took up work in the canteens, sales went down and it was necessary to install condom vending machines in the canteens . These came with ‘the warning that if the men were foolish enough to have intercourse with commercialised or clandestine prostitutes they will sooner or later be infected with a venereal disease but the proper use of prophylactic agents will lessen the chance of such infections being acquired.’

United Services Organisation Club, New York 1943

United Services Organisation Club, New York 1943

Despite the very different moral characters of the men charged with dealing with the problems of venereal disease in the training camps of the First and Second World Wars, very much Fosdick and Ness adopted similar approaches to the problem. When education, recreational facilities and moral exhortation failed, they resorted to prophylaxis. What mattered in the end was not keeping the serviceman pure and a holy warrior but keeping him healthy and thus  fit to fight.


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This entry was posted on October 19, 2015 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , .
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