The World War II battle against STDs

The World War II battle against STDs


This is Casablanca, in Morocco, as the US
War department mapped it in 1942. They noted everything from the cement works
to the hippodrome. This was Casablanca’s Casablanca. “Across the Mediterranean to Oran, then
by train or auto to Casablanca in French Morocco.” But there was an area missing from the movie
screen, just beneath the Southern border of this map. This is Bousbir, a walled off sex district
in Morocco. It was famous. People sent postcards. It had an official medical dispensary and
a police station. Practically speaking, prostitutes were prisoners
within these walls. On December 10, 1942, American troops opened
Bousbir’s gates. As customers. What happened in the next three days in Bousbir
is an encapsulation of the surprising ways the American military, and many militaries
around the world, fought venereal disease in World War II. “You’ve got gonorrhea, Baker.” “Gonorrhea, why I don’t know how…” “I do. You had a dirty woman.” Sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea
and syphilis, also known as venereal diseases, or VD, were a significant problem in America
at the time. World War II raised the rates and the stakes. Rates varied widely by geographic region,
rank, and service branch. But for example, this chart shows a distribution
in the US Air Force in Continental Europe. In October 1944, 120 out of 1000 servicemen
had VD. That meant lost days on the battlefield. In August 1944, when the US Seventh Army was
liberating France in “Operation Dragoon,” about 1 in 10 of the men had VD. “The Army recognizes the risks present with
a large number of men and the satisfaction of their sexual impulse.” How did the United States fight STDs in the
military, while dealing with the stakes and scale of a World War? How did their tactics complement — and clash
with — today’s values? And where do the bunny rabbits come in? “The greatest risk…is that…of venereal…diseases.” “If you’re smart, you’ll keep away from
prostitutes and pickups. Most of them have syphilis or gonorrhea. They’re not safe — and they can’t be
made safe.” Long before this advice during World War II,
VD was a problem in the military. This War Department chart estimated VD rates
in the US Army – that peak is actually during the Civil War. But the Great War — World War I — started
a new era of global war and mass compulsory service. A military draft greatly expanded the pool
of soldiers, making education and propaganda techniques necessary. This poster was typical. Pamphlets complemented the message. The United States Public Health Service wanted
men, the primary audience, to avoid “prostitutes or chippies.” But if they did have sex, it provided instructions
for combating disease. Women were given similar instructions — abstain
if possible, but if they did “have intercourse with any man except your husband, make him
wear a rubber.” Starting in 1914, the American Social Hygiene
association formed to boost VD awareness, producing pamphlets and even creating exhibits
like this. The army also made it clear that managing
VD was part of the war effort. The most famous example was General John Pershing’s
General Order No. 77, which ordered commanders to attend to venereal infections by running
small clinics, or prophylaxis stations, dedicated to VD, making “no half-hearted efforts.” Congress joined the VD fray as well with serious
laws focused on areas near training camps. The government shut down red light districts,
often clustered near training camps, and quarantined tens of thousands of women. “Birds-eye view of a typical rapid treatment
center in a Southern state, located in a former CCC camp, as are many of these hospitals. Here, infected women are treated with new
intensive therapies for syphilis and gonorrhea.” This created clinics that would last through
the 1930s, like this mobile one. Just before World War II, America was having
a national conversation about the VD problem outside of the military as well, with the
Surgeon General writing a book about it. The book encouraged regular tests for syphilis. So once World War II began, all of these strategies
would be in play again, and they’d need to be used in a global war. “It is extremely important that you do not
go on a drinking party and allow yourself to become so drunk that you get careless. Drunkenness is responsible for much venereal
disease.” Movies like Sex Hygiene were compulsory viewing. But focusing on propaganda overlooks that
there were multiple strategies which the military employed. The war on VD focused on prevention, treatment,
and control, and these efforts interacted in occasionally contradictory ways. As early as 1926, the government began cutting
soldiers’ pay if they missed work due to VD. That was paired with Sex Hygiene, the film
and pamphlet, which included info on “wet dreams,” “masturbation (self-abuse),”
and “sex relations.” That was matched with advice that sex “should
be kept for marriage” with eventual entreaties to use prophylaxis. Often, this was a condom: “Test it carefully. Inflate it with air as you would a toy balloon
until the rubber is fully extended.” The army also distributed medicine to soldiers. “Another good way not to get VD is to use
the army’s new pro kit. It consists of a tube of ointment, a silk cloth, a piece of tissue, and some instructions.” This was the paradox in military propaganda
– prostitutes were clearly labeled as disease carriers, but recommendations to get a prophylactic,
or “pro kit“ held equal emphasis. The government also acted aggressively to
curb prostitution. The May Act gave the Federal government the
right to bust brothels if local areas couldn’t. It was used near American military bases,
like at Fort Bragg. The Surgeon General also established Venereal
Control Officers that year, with duties largely falling to medical officers. Policing extended to soldiers, too. Influenced by charts like these, which appeared
in surgeon general Thomas Parran’s book, syphilis tracking operations formed in more
stable locations. This 1945 Army medical history includes a
typical questionnaire administered to soldiers in the Carolinas who had contracted VD. The goal of questions about the time of sex
contact and location of the “pickup” was to track houses of prostitution. This post-war Navy interviewer’s aid, showing
techniques used during the war, provided similar guidance: a private interview room; education
about the VD chain; and forms with checkboxes for place of encounter — bus; dance hall;
park —and procurement — bellhop; waiter; pimp. This resulted in VD detective cases — if
a prostitute were tracked to a pick-up spot like the “Green Lantern Cafe” after an
interview, the case was sent to a public health worker who sent out a field worker to pull
in the prostitute or disease carrier for a medical inspection. This procedure was easier in American controlled
areas or during relative peacetime. It happened in England during World War II,
with the installation of prophylaxis stations around the country. In further flung locations, this was more
difficult, and warnings had to suffice, like this one in Iran, which cautioned soldiers
to think of their mother, wife, or sweetheart before going out. So did all of these videos and pamphlets and
posters and laws actually work? It’s complicated. In Oran, Algeria, the United States military
selected the top European brothels. Brothels were set aside by the military- and
then segregated. — 9 for white troops and 2 brothels for black
troops, both with their own prophylaxis stations. Military police were stationed inside the
brothels between 5 and 9 pm. As early as 1940, the War Department had to
send letters to commanding officers to clarify that they did not condone prostitution. But in far flung war-torn countries, that
line blurred. This brothel in Manila had a sign for the
nearest Prophylaxis station posted on the door. Italy was typical of more destitute countries
with rampant solicitation and prostitution. In Naples, prostitution led to large VD treatment
centers like this one, well-maintained prophylaxis stations and US army supervised civilian examinations. Towns were officially placed off limits when
possible. The military did not ignore wartime realities
— and in 1944 Congress agreed to stop penalizing soldiers’ pay if they had VD, with the hope
of encouraging reporting. But for all that work, the biggest weapon
might have come from these. “Industrial monument to the miracle drug. Mass production penicillin plant in Terre
Haute, Indiana. Each batch is tested for purity, New Zealand
white rabbits serving as subject. Upon how they react depends whether the drug
can safely be used for battle casualties with pneumonia, meningitis, gas gangrene, and other
wound infections. They seem to enjoy their job of serving mankind.” This chart shows the effects of the drug – even
as total VD rose, the introduction of penicillin as a primary treatment reduced days lost. Due to military experiments, penicillin treatment
gained its own complicated legacy. But in the context of the military, the drug
became a weapon against venereal disease, and it went from military use to the public
at large. Here’s President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
in Casablanca in 1943. This is the footage we expect from World War
II. Leaders and marching. But just as war is filled with reversals and
contradictions, so are the social projects that surround it. There are other forgotten victims and private
injuries. Extras that are missing from the credits. FDR didn’t risk running into troops leaving
Bousbir. By the time he visited, it was closed to Americans. The official report reads: “Disturbances
arising among the troops in the walled city were responsible for this action. The walled city and all other brothels in
Casablanca remained off limits from 13 December 1942 throughout the occupation.” What happened between Dec 10 when the troops
went inside those walls and Dec 13th when the brothels closed to Americans in Bousbir,
in Casablanca? There’s a gap in the record. Even today. Thank you so much for watching that video. If you’re interested in the research that
went into it, Vox actually has a new membership program with lots of extra features. For that program, I have recorded an additional
video in which I go into some of the research and all the crazy stories I couldn’t fit
into the video that you just saw. I’m gonna share one piece of trivia with
everybody though, which is that that movie — Sex Hygiene — that you saw? It was actually directed by the legendary
director John Ford, the same person who directed “The Searchers.”

100 comments

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  2. That may look like a half tone screen in that pamphlet- but its the clap! I should know. I'm VDD, Venereal disease detective.

  3. Trump must have watched this show and came to the conclusion that we have eradicated lots of STDs in the United States. but the people the world have a lot of diseases. Dirty women. men contracted diseases outside our country. Or the simple fact that when you add 100,000 people at the lug garbage they're going to produce and stick on the ground somewhere.

  4. 1:16 Ahh come on why is it Always the black guy who gets gonorrhea first!?

    No but seriously. Black people where not well represented in media back then. Why did they go with a black guy in the first place?

  5. So…the first "birth-control" measures were born out of a male-solely desire to prevent venereal diseases . Wow. Okay …

  6. Wait so whats the cliff hanger at the end? Are they saying they exterminated those prostitutes and anyone with the STD

  7. At 1:50 you say that 120 in 1000 service men had a VD and then at 1:58 you say that 1 in 10 had a VD, you’re voice seemed to implied that thats worse. But it’s less than 120 in 1000 its only 100 in 1000. Maybe I’m too baked this and should go to sleep, or is that confusing someone else?

  8. When I was in the Navy every port of call had prostitutes out to greet servicemen. Fuckie Suckie $10.00 is how I remember it.

  9. Let's take innocent people and throw them off to face the war 'to protect the country', and when they start struggling mentally and lose their senses and morals, let's question them about their deeds.

  10. 6:45 didn't see THat coming ugh my goodness my heart can't…. the way he vigorously tore that open lol

  11. Amd Love is certainly harder when you have to worry about infection.Also blueberries and cherries are anti inflammatory anti infection fruits

  12. White British travellers to Europe should be sexually certified before leaving UK for any location in world especially the paranoid and frustrated women who target coloured locals in their own lands..GOLD DIGGERS..

  13. Notice how the source of the disease is blamed on the woman. There is no mention of how the woman contracted the disease.

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