Fighting the "venereal menace"
An unspeakable problem
The Oregon Social Hygiene Society
Just after war was declared, the society took steps to reach all of the Oregon National Guard units as they were mobilized. The men were provided circulars on the subject and received lectures on the wisdom of avoiding infection.
Helping develop an education plan
As a result of the work at Fort Lewis, the Army planned an education campaign in which a medical officer was dispatched to speak to every group of men inducted into the service. The campaign also distributed circulars to "practically every man" as well as posting warning placards on every latrine. The effort was rounded out by the display of the society's "KEEPING FIT" exhibit and the showing of the film "HOW LIFE BEGINS."
Back in Oregon, the education continued with a cooperative arrangement between the society and the Army. The Army detailed a medical officer from Fort Lewis to lecture all conscripted men in the state while the society made the arrangements and picked up the tab. Meetings were held in every county seat except for Gold Beach with attendance reaching a robust 40,890.
Attacking the civilian problem
As an outgrowth of the stepped up enforcement, a "V.D. hospital" was installed "where cases could be observed and treated." The city of Portland also planned and equipped a "detention hospital" that handled the city's cases as well as some from around the state. Women and girls who were detained at the hospital could work to improve themselves. The society "employed a young lady especially qualified for this kind of work and she has devoted her entire time to rehabilitation work since March 1918."
According to the military, even with the law enforcement efforts of the society and local police, the problem persisted with the civilian world. The armed services had instituted effective education that significantly reduced the problem of contracting VD after entry into the service. It continued to blame civilian communities that "had been afraid to attack the problems of venereal disease...."
The governor employs shock power
The governor first argued that it was treasonous to contract venereal disease during war. Since the country was mobilizing with "both blood and treasure" to fight the "war-maddened imperialists," everyone needed to contribute. Citing the definition of treason in the U.S. Constitution as giving aid and comfort to the enemy, Withycombe contended that "if a soldier wilfully injures himself and thereby renders himself unfit for military service, he delivers a blow against this country. If he permits himself to become infected with a dangerous and contagious disease, he deprives the government of his own services and puts in jeopardy the health of all men in the service with whom he may come in contact," thereby giving aid to the enemy and committing treason.
Unafraid to stir up a little hatred for the cause, he deplored the "fiendish devices of war" that Germany had adopted to weaken its enemies: "No act of cruelty seems too horrible if she thinks it will accomplish her purpose. We hear tales that are almost unbelievable in their depravity." Withycombe referred to one report of the enemy sending women and girls infected with syphilis and gonorrhea into cities housing the Allies' soldiers to have sex and render the soldiers unfit for combat.
The governor championed education since "too many of our boys exposed themselves to infection because of ignorance...." Withycombe wanted to use the information taught by the military to reach boys before they went into the service. He wanted to dispel the popular myth that sexual intercourse was "necessary to preserve good health," and to remind boys that there is "a nobler purpose than promiscuous indulgence with immoral women." Praising the military training on the subject, Withycombe noted the need to overcome a common double standard among young men:
He appealed to the boys' sense of shame, reminding them of the grief to parents and loved ones that could follow from the wrong decision. The records of the Army and Navy described conditions, including venereal disease of the soldiers and sailors. What boy would want his parents to know that he had been "checked up as a noneffective because of having syphilis or gonorrhea?"
And the governor warned those who may have contemplated purposefully contracting the disease to avoid service, saying that it would not exempt them. The draftee would report to camp where his condition would "be known immediately." Moreover, "instead of being welcomed by comrades in arms, you will be isolated in a hospital and given treatment until you are no longer a menace to other human beings." Adding ostracism to his list, Withycombe described how men in the service "look with contempt" at an infected man: "Today nothing is so unpopular as venereal disease--the boys won't eat with you and they won't bunk with you."
The Oregon record