Put a helmet on your privates because they’re going to see some action: the history of condoms in the military
Abigail Cline Appler
“Survival kit contents check. In them you’ll find: one forty-five caliber automatic; two boxes of ammunition; four days’ concentrated emergency rations; one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills; one miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible; one hundred dollars in rubles; one hundred dollars in gold; nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics; three lipsticks; three pair of nylon stockings. Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.”
– Major T.J. “King” Kong, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb1
|Propaganda posters promoting the
use of condoms and the dangers of
The military is an anvil upon which medical and scientific innovations are often forged. Many of the greatest advancements in technology first start on the battle field. From GPS to drones, military devices move from the frontline to the home front as the technology becomes more utilized. At the same time, civilian items are recognized and employed by the military, thus becoming standard issue. Like chewing gum or cigarettes, there are some articles that a soldier simply cannot do without during war. One such item is perhaps the smallest piece of armor that our soldiers wear to protect themselves: the condom.
Condoms have been used for several centuries as both birth control and prophylactic. Throughout history, condoms have come from a variety of materials, but it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that rubber condoms gained popularity.2 As more people began using condoms, there was more public outcry against their sale. In 1873, the Comstock laws federally banned the manufacture and sale of condoms in thirty of the United States. The 1889 Indecent Advertisement Acts of Ireland made it illegal to advertise condoms, although manufacture and sale remained legal. This opposition resulted in a skyrocketing of sexually transmitted diseases in the second half of the nineteenth century, with soldiers being the most common victim.3
It was at that time that the German military started promoting condom use among its soldiers. No German sailor went aboard his ship without his “kit.”4 The American military even experimented in the early twentieth century to see if providing condoms to soldiers would lower the rates of sexually transmitted diseases. In 1910, groups of soldiers supplied with condoms showed that they not only used the preventatives but they also had lower rates of sexually transmitted disease.4 American naval physicians produced anti-venereal disease packets for American soldiers serving on ships in Asia. One day while the Secretary of the Navy was away on business, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy heard about the sailors’ kits. The Assistant, a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt, quickly ordered that all American soldiers serving on ships overseas receive a prophylaxis kit. However, when the Secretary of the Navy returned, his first act was to end Roosevelt’s prophylaxis provision. Prophylaxis kit was soon shortened to “pro”, creating yet another euphemism for the condom.4
During World War I, Britain and the United States were the only two countries that did not standard issue condoms to its soldiers. When American troops were sent to France, the French Prime Minister informed the American Secretary of War that France extends the use of its military regulated brothels. Due to the social hygiene movement of the time, the American military proclaimed French brothels off-limits for American soldiers.4 Allowed to or not, the American soldiers made beelines for the brothels. The only protection American troops were supplied was the “invisible armor” of abstinence. This resulted in nearly seven million person-days and 10,000 discharges because of STDs. Only the great influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 accounted for more loss of duty during World War I.5
Towards the end of the war, with over 400,000 cases of syphilis and gonorrhea, the United States finally starting providing condoms to its soldiers. Just before the end of the war in 1918, the Crane Act finally allowed the advertisement and sale of condoms as a prophylactic in America. Although advertising condoms as birth control remained illegal in a few states, condoms began to be publicly and legally sold to Americans. At the same time, American and European militaries continued to provide condoms to soldiers for disease protection, even in countries where condoms were illegal to the general population.6
8 June, 1964
In 1927, senior medical officers in the American military started promoting condom distribution and education to members of the Army and Navy. By 1931, condoms became standard issue in the American military and sexually transmitted diseases saw a steep decline.4 The American military changed its stance on condoms, and the U.S. Surgeon General led programs that promoted condom use. By 1940, the American population also had a steep drop in sexually transmitted diseases.
As World War II began, American military were issued not only condoms, but also propaganda promoting their use against sexually transmitted diseases. Films, posters, and slogans reminded American soldiers “Don’t forget—put it on before you put in it” and “If you can’t say no, take a pro.”One poster featured a soldier declaring “I take one everywhere I take my penis!” There was also propaganda warning soldiers about sexually transmitted diseases. Many ads featured seemingly wholesome young women, warning, “She may look clean-but pick-ups, ‘good time’ girls, prostitutes- spread syphilis and gonorrhea.” One ad contains the rhyme,
“The victory girls are on the loose, and soon will cook some poor guy’s goose.
The G.I. Joes must be more wary of the diseases they may carry.
Venereal disease is on the rise- so take your pros; be well and wise!”
There is even an Australian poster that features Donald Duck lamenting that he is “without a pro” in the presence of a beautiful woman.
European and Asian militaries on both sides provided condoms to their troops, even Germany which had outlawed civilian condom use in 1941.4 Regardless of rubber shortages that occurred during this time, condom manufacturing was never restricted. Soldiers soon found a number of non-sexual uses for condoms because they were readily available.
Soldiers used condoms to protect their “other weapons” by covering the muzzles of their gun to prevent mud and other material from clogging the barrel. This practice lasted up into the Vietnam War, during which American soldiers slid condoms onto their M-16s.7 Condoms made sure the rifle was ready instantly. Condoms were also used as waterproof containers for small items—such as matches or charges for underwater explosives.8 Condoms could also be filled with water and used in emergencies as a surgical glove to prevent infection.
After World War II, American troops stationed in Germany continued to receive condoms as they waited to end their furlough. Nevertheless, rates of sexual transmitted diseases rose to the highest levels since World War I. One explanation is that soldiers stopped taking syphilis and gonorrhea so seriously because the military began issuing penicillin treatments to treat sexually transmitted diseases.4 The military stepped up its efforts with the educational posters, training films about venereal disease prevention, and passing out V-packets (V for Victory) to soldiers that included condoms. In 1947, the American military once again began promoting abstinence as the main method of prophylaxis, all the while continuing to issue condoms.4
The military’s ultimate acceptance and promotion of condoms paved the way for condoms to become legal, regulated, and safer for the American public. Condoms sales grew as soldiers familiar with condoms returned home and used them. From 1955 to 1965, 42% of Americans relied on condoms for birth control.4 By making condoms standard issue, the American military helped to make condoms more commonplace in the American public. So does the American military still standard issue condoms? According to the FM 21-76 US Army Survival Manual, the United States Military Standard Issue Parachute Pack Survival Kit (SRU-16), one condom is provided, although it serves as a water container.
- Dr. Strangelove, or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb [videorecording]. Burbank, Calif.: Columbia TriStar Home Video,; 2001.
- Youssef H. The history of the condom. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 1993;86(4):226-228.
- Treichler PA. “When pirates feast … who pays?” condoms, advertising, and the visibility paradox, 1920s and 1930s. J Bioeth Inq. 2014;11(4):479-505.
- Collier A. The Humble Little Condom: A History. Prometheus Books; 2007.
- Greenberg JH. Venereal disease in the armed forces. Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality March 1972. 17 p. 1972.
- Lord AM. Condom Nation: The U.S. Government’s Sex Education Campaign from World War I to the Internet. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press; 2010.
- Huard P. The Combat History of the Condom. 2015. http://warisboring.com/articles/the-combat-history-of-the-condom/.
- Couch D. The warrior elite: The forging of SEAL class 228. Three Rivers Press; 2009.
- Penis Cop (Public Service/AIDS) by Art Chantry. 2002. Philip Slein Gallery.
- She May Look Clean – But Pick-ups ‘Good Time’ Girls Prostitutes Spread Syphilis and Gonorrhea. ca. 1940. US National Library of Medicine.
ABIGAIL CLINE APPLER, PhD, received her doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Georgia. She is currently a third-year medical student at the Medical College of Georgia with an interest in Dermatology, medical education, translational research, and medical ethics. She currently resides in Augusta, Georgia with her husband, John Hunter Appler.
Highlighted in Frontispiece Spring 2017 – Volume 8, Issue 4
Spring 2016 | Sections | War & Veterans