No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States since 1880

By Allan M. Brandt | Go to book overview

II
"Fit to Fight": The Commission
on Training Camp Activities

1

Long before the first Americans embarked on their mission to "make the world safe for democracy," the U.S. War Department undertook a major campaign to make the military camps in the United States safe for the soldiers -- safe from the twin threats of immorality and venereal disease. The war engendered a sense of both awe and anxiety: awe for the opportunity to reorder and control society; anxiety surrounding the vast potential for disruption. The battle against venereal diseases -- unprecedented in magnitude and intensity -- reflected both themes. In the charged atmosphere of world war, venereal disease threatened military efficiency and health and, equally important, symbolized moral failure and social decay.

For many Progressives, the war provided a natural culmination of their domestic reforms, an occasion to demonstrate to an international audience the superiority of American ideals and morals. For reformers seeking to define a unified social order and common moral values, the war offered the chance to accelerate their campaigns. In addition, those Progressives who saw in the first decades of the twentieth century the immense potential impact of a new science dedicated to rationality, efficiency, health, and productivity, greeted America's entry into the war with hope 1 For men and women who would spend the war at home, the venereal disease crusade provided a way to participate in the fight. What began as an attempt to save the health and efficiency of the American fighting man was eventually transformed into a comprehensive program to rid the nation of vice, immorality, and disease. This reform effort constituted one of the most fully articulated ventures in social engineering in American history.

In the military tradition, vice was seen as the inevitable concomitant of soldiery. In 1906 a meeting of the American Society for Social and Moral Prophylaxis was told that soldiers and sailors, lacking the restraining influences of home and family, "appear to be set apart as a class above others to suffer from

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