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Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels




CABLE ADDRESS, “SIMSADUS”                         LONDON, S.W.1

REFERENCE No. 36257          25, September, 1918.

My dear Mr. Secretary:-

               Your personal letter of August 14, 1918 concerning the moral conditions and the venereal disease situation in England and France has been received and read with great interest.1

               The subject is of such importance as to justify every effort to combat this peril, not only to maintain our forces here in the highest state of military efficiency but also to prevent the introduction and spreading among our own people of venereal diseases by returning troops and sailors.

               From a purely military standpoint the combined opinion of the military forces of all of our Allies is that, during the period of the war, all means and methods, regardless of their character, which will prevent venereal disease should be adopted.2

               It will be difficult to convince anyone actively participating in this war that any legitimate effort towards its successful conclusion should be neglected.

          There is a unanimity of opinion that prophylaxis is a most important means to prevent the fighting men becoming incapacitated by reason of venereal disease.3

               A number of months ago I appointed two members of my staff, viz, Captain Sexton, and Doctor Thompson,4 as a standing committee to represent the Navy in the numerous inter-allied conferences which have been called to consider ways and means to combat the constant menace of venereal diseases. Various meetings have been held in conjunction with the British War Office and the Army Council and considerable progress has been made.

               As one practical result of the conferences a general order has been issued by the British War Office, instituting voluntary prophylaxis and making arrangements for carrying it into practice.

               Among our Allies more and more reliance is placed in prophylaxis and they naturally say that if prophylaxis is adopted in principal it should be used without any restrictions as to time or place in order to secure the best military results.

               The British Colonial authorities, especially, are insisting that prophylaxis and all other means be fully carried out in order to prevent the introduction of disease in their own countries.

               The frank opinion of the majority of military and medical men interested in this subject here is that prophylaxis should be fully carried out in a completely unrestricted manner.

               It is recognized by all the authorities above referred to that prophylaxis applied after exposure to possible infection is effective only when applied within a short time after such exposure – about three hours; and that as it is mannifestly impracticable to do so within the required time in the great majority of cases, such treatment cannot be relied upon to prevent the spread of these diseases.

               These authorities are therefore of the opinion that military necessity requires that prophylaxis be applied before exposure as well as after.

               I have discussed this matter at length with Bishop Brent,5 Senior Chaplain with General Pershing’s forces, and member of the inter-allied conferences above referred to, and he is in complete agreement with the conclusions of the Military and Medical authorities above indicated. He definitely states that the military necessities of the war are such, and the decrease in efficiency caused by these diseases is so great that in his opinion the moral features of the question must remain for the time being in abeyance – that we are not justified in allowing them to imperil our success in a cause which he characterizes as a holy one.

               On account of popular sentiment and the legal situation in England it seems impossible to make any laws or regulations limiting the temptations to which men are exposed. As a result it appears that solicitation on streets and other places is rather open and unchecked.

               A diseased woman can not be restrained unless a man appears in court and accuses her of having communicated the disease to him.

               From a study of our naval statistics it appears that the number of cases of venereal diseases on our own ships on active duty is small.6 It is only during liberty periods that venereal disease increases, and under these circumstances it has proven to be a serious problem. During the period when any of our ships are in port for the purpose of repairs or granting liberty there is practically always an increase in the number of venereal diseases.

               All the Medical Officers of the Forces of this command are actively and conscientiously doing their utmost to prevent these diseases. The dangers of venereal infection and the manifold miseries which follow in its train are constantly held up before the men by the Medical Officers through lectures, etc. That the only guarentee of safety is self restraint and correct living is pointed out and emphazised in these lectures and advice of the Medical Officers. The men are constantly warned that when they depart from clean habits of thought and living they not only expose themselves to great danger but are incurring the added risk of rendering themselves ineffective and a burden to their country in a time when the highest efforts of every man are needed.7

               Your information that the Commission on Training Camp Activities will shortly extend their work here and that a Medical Officer fully informed as to all the methods in use in the United States will be sent over is welcome news, and I assure you that all efforts and measures which they undertake will meet with the most hearty approval and assistance of all the forces.8


Source Note: TDS, DLC-MSS, Josephus Daniels Papers, Roll 62.

Footnote 1: Daniels’ letter has not been found.

Footnote 2: Someone has handwritten parentheses in the margin around his paragraph and at the bottom of the page is a notation that reads: “See memo under M & S.”

Footnote 3: Daniels was opposed to the use of prophylactics. In 1915 Daniels ordered that their use be discontinued in the U.S. Navy despite the fact that even the Surgeon General of the Navy admitted they were effective. Still, Crisis at Sea: 225.

Footnote 4: Capt. Walton R. Sexton, who was Sims’ assistant chief of staff; Medical Inspector Edgar Thompson served on the medical section of Sims’ staff.

Footnote 5: Bishop Charles H. Brent, Chaplain General of the American Expeditionary Forces.

Footnote 6: Despite what Sims wrote here, Raymond Fosdick, chairman of the Commission on Training Camp Activities, wrote after the war that the rate of venereal disease in the Navy was “considerably higher than that of the Army.” Ibid., 225.

Footnote 7: Daniel was a determined moralist who believed that an appeal to sailors to “practice sexual continence” would be effective. He also believed that alcohol was a factor in the spread of venereal disease and worked to suppress their sale to American military personnel. Daniels, Years of War and After: 195-96.

Footnote 8: It would appear that exclusion of alcohol from military bases was the new method being promoted. Ibid., 196.

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