Men in uniform have long been prime targets for enemy bullets—and other dangers. While fellow patriots expected the American Expeditionary Force’s newly drafted “doughboys” to protect the homeland’s high moral values in World War I, French ladies of the night set their sights somewhat lower, creating a strategic conflict that tested the mettle of military officials and social reformers. As a popular song asked in 1918: “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm / After they’ve seen Paree? / How ya gonna keep ’em away from Broadway / Jazzin’ around and paintin’ the town?”
Where sex was concerned, the authorities decided, an army of 2 million young men would just say no. And the authorities meant it. “Sexual continence,” read a bulletin from AEF commander Gen. John Pershing, “is the plain duty of members of the AEF, both for the vigorous conduct of the war, and for the clean health of the American people after the war.”
Knowing its soldiers would be magnets for prostitutes, the U.S. government began wielding its reformative power long before American feet touched French soil. Prewar public health campaigns had fostered a new willingness to discuss venereal disease, prompting Americans to fear not only for their soldiers’ physical safety but also for the erosion of traditional moral values. As early as October 1917, a few months after America entered the war, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker spoke to a national conference of recreation leaders assigned to U.S. Army camps.
“These boys are going to France,” Baker told his audience. “I want them adequately armed and clothed by their government; but I want them to have an invisible armor to take with them . . . a moral and intellectual armor for their protection overseas.”
To be sure, prostitution was seen as subverting family values; some early feminists were beginning to criticize the double standard its existence implied. But officially the rationale stressed medical issues. Reducing the incidence of syphilis and gonorrhea was high on every medical and social reformer’s list of priorities. Regular Army officers might scoff at the notion that soldiers could (or even should) be chaste, but they could hardly deny that reducing time in sick wards would have military value.
Although President Woodrow Wilson had tried to keep the United States out of the war, his administration nevertheless exploited the war effort to promote the Progressive movement’s central message: that government should tackle social goals such as education, public health, and civic responsibility. In a campaign to improve conditions near newly created training camps and existing military bases, inspectors zeroed in on public health problems: breeding places for malaria-bearing mosquitoes, unsanitary outdoor privies, and meat plants swarming with flies and rats. Almost everywhere they found red light districts where prostitution was openly tolerated and, occasionally, even defined by municipal zoning ordinances. These areas were known as “segregated districts,” a designation that had nothing to do with race.
Reformers from such organizations as the American Social Hygiene Organization, which was founded in 1914 to lobby against officially tolerated vice, were eager for a chance to shut down these districts. In this they had the full support of Baker, a former mayor of Cleveland, who threatened to close camps and bases near cities that failed to abolish segregated districts. He stuck to his guns even after the mayor of New Orleans, joined by two U.S. senators and a congressman from Louisiana, came to his office to plead that New Orleans’ notorious Storyville district should remain open.
As a more positive strategy, the Commission on Training Camp Activities, a civilian agency within the War Department headed by Raymond B. Fosdick, worked with community groups to create recreational diversions for soldiers on leave. The commission and the Army produced the Camp Reader for American Soldiers. Lesson 15 read in part: “Last week I went home to vote. . . . I voted to rid the city of vice. Vice in the city is the enemy of the soldier in camp. Vice in the city will bring vice into the army. Vice in the army will bring victory to the enemy.”
The military produced blunter messages. “You wouldn’t use another fellow’s tooth-brush,” one pamphlet read. “Why use his whore?” And, leaving no doubt about the Army’s attitude, one poster proclaimed: “A Soldier Who Gets a Dose Is a Traitor!”
Too wise to depend on exhortation, the Army required soldiers who admitted to having sex while on leave to submit to an unpleasant form of chemical prophylaxis that included irrigating the penis. Soldiers who did not report for prophylaxis and later contracted venereal disease were subject to court-martial and possibly a hard-labor sentence. Those who contracted disease after treatment merely lost pay during hospitalization. As a result, soldiers in stateside training camps contracted venereal diseases far less frequently than had troops in the prewar U.S. Army. In fact, Army doctors reported that 96 percent of the cases they treated had been contracted while the soldiers were still civilians.
What would happen in France? In Paris alone, officials estimated, there were 40 major brothels, an additional 5,000 professionally licensed streetwalkers, and perhaps another 70,000 clandestine (unlicensed) prostitutes. American medical officials reported that French brothel inspections were not only casual but also spread disease, because doctors often neglected to sterilize speculums. The French army had recorded over a million cases of gonorrhea and syphilis since the start of the war, and at any given time the British averaged 23,000 men hospitalized for venereal disease. To AEF officers, the French and British attitudes toward this problem implied military slackness and a more fundamental moral failure.
American policy was first tested at St. Nazaire, a large town on the western coast of France and principal port of debarkation for American troops. A number of maisons tolérées (houses of prostitution) flourished there, and the French objected when U.S. authorities placed them off limits for the AEF. This dispute reached the highest levels, at least on the French side. President Georges Clemenceau sent a memo to Gen. Pershing offering a “compromise”: American medical authorities would control brothels operated solely for American soldiers. Pershing passed the proposal to Fosdick, who bucked it up to Secretary Baker. Baker’s response: “For God’s sake, Raymond, don’t show this to the president or he’ll stop the war.”
Policy’s racism over
At one point the French authorities expressed special concern that brothels be provided for African-American soldiers, most of whom were assigned to unloading freight in segregated stevedore battalions. (Two black combat divisions, commanded by white officers, also existed.) The French proposal, which may well have been an attempt to exploit American racial prejudice, was rejected, but the campaign against venereal disease illustrated the overt racism that was accepted at the time. White soldiers were subject to prophylaxis if they admitted to having had sex during any trip away from an Army base. But prophylaxis was required for all African-American soldiers returning from leave, whether or not they acknowledged contact with a woman. French military authorities professed to marvel that any soldiers would tolerate such severe limitations on their freedom, not to mention the indignity and even pain of chemical prophylaxis. But because most doughboys were in France for only a small part of the war—in many cases, a matter of months—the official position was not hard to enforce.
The Army also did a fine job of selling daily showers and daily tooth-brushing, even to draftees for whom that degree of personal hygiene had not been a prewar priority. American soldiers’ letters home were full of negative references, particularly regarding the French lack of cleanliness. “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” a limerick-like ditty with two variable lines, was an unofficial AEF anthem. One typical sample: “Mademoiselle from Armentières, parlez-vous? / Mademoiselle from Armentières, parlez-vous? / The cooties rambled through her hair; / She whispered sweetly, ‘C’est la guerre!’ / Oh, hinky-dinky, parlez-vous!”
Early in the war President Wilson had promised Americans that their sons would “return with no scars except those won in honorable warfare.” In fact, the AEF’s pre-Armistice venereal disease rates were lower than those of European combatants or draftees in the United States. This was due less to posters, pamphlets, and films than to suppressing brothels near camps and keeping leaves very short, often only a few hours. After the Armistice, when the Army could no longer plead military necessity as grounds for curtailing leaves, venereal disease rates among U.S. troops shot up. (Although the Army did not distribute condoms in World War I, it did issue “pro-kits” for self-administered after-sex prophylaxis in France after the Armistice.)
American doughboys did their share of fighting at places like St. Mihiel and the forest of the Argonne, but many were lucky enough to give the grim phrase “going over the top” a lighter spin. Initially the phrase described how hundreds of thousands of men on both sides died during four years of stalemated warfare: by charging out of their trenches across no man’s land against barbed-wire barriers and enemy machine guns. But eventually it took on a more pleasurable connotation. As one soldier wrote home, “We all went over the top that night and do most every night. When I get back home I will explane [sic] what over the top means. We have Bucko Madamozels over here and I am getting so much French that I cant hardly speak English.”
But bragging wasn’t the whole story. One statistics-minded American lieutenant eavesdropped on conversations among doughboys in Paris cafés, on buses, and at boxing matches, taking notes on 174 soldiers. Sixty said that they had no intention of having sex with a woman in Paris, mentioning fear of disease, distaste for French dirtiness, or a resolve to be faithful to wives or fiancées at home. Another 36 who said nothing about their plans expressed general disgust for French women. About half of those who acknowledged sexual liaisons said they had accepted a solicitation without realizing that the woman was a professional. Several said that they had accepted propositions because they needed somewhere to sleep, a plausible excuse in a large, strange city.
Tales of “going over the top most every night” made good postwar yarns but sometimes were taken more seriously than they deserved. Early in the 1930s, a bleak decade in American history, Frederick Lewis Allen looked back at the Roaring Twenties and announced that World War I was the principal cause of a “revolution in [American] manners and morals.”
“In France,” Allen wrote, “2 million men had found themselves very close to filth and annihilation and very far from the American moral code and its defenders; prostitution had followed the flag and willing mademoiselles from Armentières had been plentiful. It was simply impossible for this generation to return unchanged when the ordeal was over. Some of them had acquired under the pressure of war-time conditions a new code which seemed to them quite defensible.”
In fact, defenders of the American moral code who followed the soldiers to France did not hesitate to enforce that code with all the power at their disposal. If they failed to enforce chastity, they at least made it harder for young men to find prostitutes in pre-Armistice France than had been the case in prewar America. And if the war contributed to a less moralistic view of sex, so did the frankness of groups like the American Social Hygiene Organization.
Young writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who never made it to France during the war, might have gone to Paris afterwards in search of freer standards. But most AEF soldiers accepted a more traditional moral code: a double standard that divided women into two categories, respectable women and whores. In their letters and in that eavesdropping lieutenant’s notes, the phrase “honest-to-God American girl” occurs repeatedly, banishing the mademoiselle from Armentières to a seamier fate: “She never could hold the love of a man. / She took all her baths in a talcum can! / Oh, hinky-dinky, parlez-vous!”
Fred D. Baldwin is the author of Conflicting Interests, a book about politics and corporation law, as well as two other books and hundreds of articles. He lives in Carlisle, Pa.