This thesis shows how the US Army managed venereal disease in different military, racial, and geographic contexts between 1870 and 1920. It tracks local negotiations and wider shifts in practice and attitudes over the course of these decades in different militarized spaces: western territories, the Philippines, Mexico, and France. With each imperial context, military officers faced the problem of venereal infections with overlapping concerns about gender, labour, race, and empire. This thesis argues that military officers implemented VD control in ways that made race, shaped gender, and justified colonisation. As it traces VD control along the contours of American empire, this thesis examines how the army worked with and sometimes resisted the efforts of civilian reformers outside the military who were concerned about the behaviour and health of uniformed men elsewhere. It also highlights persistent concerns among military officers and Progressive Era reformers with the army’s role in shaping the conduct and character of the people it employed – concerns tenaciously linked to venereal infection rates.
This thesis intervenes in scholarship on gender and the military, the social history of VD, and US imperialism in three ways. First, it examines masculinities in the military as interactive and multi-directional, seeing gender as built not only upon contested terrain occupied by army officers and middle-class civilian reformers but also dependent on and responding to contested femininities through the presence and labour of women in militarised spaces. In addition, scholarship has traced a shift from a Victorian manhood marked by self-restraint to a masculinity at the end of the nineteenth century marked by physicality, and this project examines the relationship between that shift and shifts in VD control. Second, while historians have looked at VD and the army during the mass mobilizations for the World Wars of the twentieth century and have asked how military approaches affected VD in public health, this project sets its temporal boundaries earlier. This periodisation allows us to ask how and why the same army officers approached VD differently in different places. Third, as this work traces continuities and discontinuities in VD control among the men who worked as agents of empire, it shows how leaders used VD management to meet the aims of American imperialism as national rhetoric shifted from manifest destiny to benevolent assimilation to making the world safe for democracy.