Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Before the advent of penicillin in 1928, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) had plagued armies in the field for centuries. In World War I alone, syphilis and gonorrhea resulted in the discharge of more than ten thousand American soldiers and consumed seven million person-days from the war.1 In World War II the US government launched a preventative campaign that sought to reduce STD cases before treatment grew costly. Although penicillin was becoming more widely available, STDs still weakened the army and siphoned away precious resources.
From left to right, the caricatures uglify the three Axis leaders of World War II—Benito Mussolini, Emperor Hirohito, and Adolf Hitler—in order to urge troops to take preventive measures against STDs. Hitler and Hirohito tote urethral syringes, and Mussolini’s handpiece depicts a promiscuous woman in black, skull-adorned attire. Their uniforms have open patches revealing the telltale sores and lesions of venereal diseases.2 Taken together, the caricatures caution men to support the Allied war effort by avoiding illicit sex and using prophylactics. The message runs in a vein similar to other propaganda during the war period— one must ration resources, work hard, and abstain from promiscuous sex to help win the war. Not doing so would imply aiding the enemy.
Until penicillin the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases had been largely ineffective. During the American Civil War physicians had experimented with balsam ointments, diuretics, and injections of silver nitrates and zinc sulfates into the anterior urethra (fossa navicularis).3,4Some applied mercury to the sores in hopes of faster recovery, even though the tremors, vision impairment, and muscle atrophy from mercury poisoning still followed.3 Yet for over half a century after the Civil War, mercury remained in use as treatment. During World War II the US Medical Department preemptively issued to troops condoms and individual “V-Packettes” and “Pro-Stations.”5 These kits included urethral syringes, hand towels, soap, and ointments of calomel (mercury chloride) and sulfathiazole.5 The ointments were applied to the sores, bumps, and rashes as illustrated on the three leaders of the Axis powers. Gnarled fingers, tattered uniforms, and faces contorted in discontent are designed to inspire fear and disgust, the motivations Szyk hoped would drive more Americans to use prophylactics.
The meticulous nature of this sketch exemplifies Arthur Szyk’s work. His art reflects the nature of war itself: unapologetic and in unflinching detail. Critic Thomas Craven highlighted its “curiously decorative quality” echoing the stylistics of medieval religious manuscripts. “His designs are as compact as a bomb…firm and incisive in line and deadly in their characterizations.”6 This poster represented a departure from the stylized propaganda featured in the US, Europe, and Russia that usually portrayed beaming wives and soldiers in heroic poses. It also played a role in opening public discussion about sexual health. Unlike other World War II caricaturists, Szyk focused on depicting the enemy and rarely illustrated Allied soldiers and leaders.7 A Polish Jew himself, he resented Nazi rule, and his work soared in popularity across the United Kingdom, USA, France, and Poland. At six years old he reputedly produced sketches of China’s Boxer Rebellion,6 a harbinger of the powerful mark he would leave in propaganda artwork, caricature, and international political affairs.
- Rasnake, Mark S. “History of U.S. Military Contributions to the Study of Sexually Transmitted Diseases.” Military Medicine, 61st ser., 170, no. 4 (2005): 61-65″Fool the Axis – Use Prophylaxis.” Wolfsonian FIU.
- Bumstead, Freeman J., MD. The Pathology and Treatment of Venereal Diseases. Philadelphia, PA: Blanchard & Lea, 1861.
- Randall, P. W. Fort Bragg, Cal.January 1, 1863. Journal entry of assistant surgeon
- Batens, Alain S., and Ben C. Major. “Venereal Disease and Treatment during WW2.” WW2 US Medical Research Centre.
- Craven, Thomas. Dust jacket of The New Order. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1941.
- Sherwin, Byron L., Irvin Ungar, Tom L. Freudenheim, Shalom Sabar, and Irvin Ungar. Freedom Illuminated: Understanding the Szyk Haggadah. Historicana, 2008.
- Current Biography. New York, 1946. p 588.
KELLY YUAN is an avid humanities and biological sciences student in Pennsylvania.