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

By Allan M. Brandt | Go to book overview

III
"The Cleanest Army in the World":
Venereal Disease and the AEF

1

In the United States social reformers could, for the most part, protect soldiers from vice, immorality, and disease; in France, the men would be left to their own designs. To the reformers who directed the social hygiene campaign on the home front, venereal disease among the American Expeditionary Forces would indicate the demoralization of American manhood, in spite of their efforts. They considered the Old World hostile territory for their crusade. The temptations that French towns offered, they surmised, could hardly be compared to those of Charleston or San Antonio, nor could they be repressed so easily. To the military, venereal disease would cause inefficiency that could threaten their ability to wage war. Considerations of manpower and technology would be critical in this war, the first major conflict of the modern industrial age. Though the war enlisted the two most powerful social currents of Progressivism -- the desire for a defined moral order and the emphasis on scientific efficiency -- in the battle against venereal disease these forces would not always work in concert. 1

Those committed to Woodrow Wilson's vision of an international moral order saw the war as an opportunity for fulfillment. The idealization of the American soldier, the knight in the crusade for democracy, included rigid prescriptions for upright behavior overseas. Alcohol and sex would thus be taboo for members of the AEF. In this way they would not only demonstrate their allegiance to higher ideals, but would also avoid the taint of venereal disease. 2 The president himself lent his authority to the anti-venereal fervor in words befittingly obscure:

The federal government has pledged its word that as far as care and vigilance can accomplish the result, the men committed to its charge will be returned to the homes and communities that so generously gave them with no scars except those won in honorable conflict. 3

-96-

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