- Towards a History of Transnational Sex in World War II
In the early 1990s, I spent a few weeks reading files of the Office of the Military Government of the United States, or OMGUS, at the National Archives. There I met other doctoral students also studying the American military occupation of Germany after World War II. But my colleagues were a bit grumbly. Here they wanted to parse denazification, the reconstruction of political parties, or economic policy—and what did they find at the top of the meeting agendas of the Allied Control Council? The epidemic of venereal disease.
Fine by me. I was writing about the German wartime generation of “women standing alone,” and their sexual relations with occupation soldiers—consensual, commercial, and coerced—was a big part of the story. But now I didn’t need to be the feminist trying to convince my colleagues that women’s history couldn’t be bracketed off from the rest of it. They could hear it from Eisenhower himself.
For this reason, Mary Louise Roberts’s remarks to the media about her surprise at discovering just how much sex there was in the archival record of the American liberation and occupation of France caused me to smile with recognition, and to cheer her success at bringing this fact to a larger public.1 But it also made me wonder—now grumbly in my turn—why we’re still surprised. Never mind the endless revelations of sexual abuse in today’s military: the massive scale of camp prostitution at military bases in Asia was common knowledge throughout the post-World War II decades. That phenomenon, like American sexual activity in occupation Germany, has been subject to the scholarly gaze for a generation.2 Why should France be any different?
I suspect Roberts might not have been quite as surprised as she claimed. One of the pleasures of seeing feminist historical scholarship attract media attention is to observe the author using her pedestal both to challenge common wisdom and to educate audiences about the delights of doing history. With her adventure-in-the-archives story, Roberts breaks the news gently that young men may have been motivated to fight for reasons that weren’t entirely altruistic, and that their behavior on the ground was not impeccable. She also communicates the excitement of historical research. Among other things, Roberts’s book—and the attention it’s received—teach us a few things about bringing our scholarship to a larger audience. [End Page 138]
In fact, Roberts draws not only on her own painstaking research but also on a varied and extensive literature: on the war and occupation in France, on sex across the European theater, on race in mid-twentieth-century America, and much more. Leaving aside the French setting, What Soldiers Do is less a pioneering exploration of uncharted territory than a crowning achievement of a generation of feminist scholarship on gender, militarism, and race in the Second World War and its aftermath. It thus invites us to reflect on the state of the art and where we might go from here. Among other things, Roberts’s work highlights the challenge of writing genuinely multi-national histories, the necessarily collaborative nature of such an undertaking, and the need for synthetic work.
What Soldiers Do is the first sustained treatment of American military men’s sexual activity in France, and Roberts makes clear that France mattered. Long-standing stereotypes of French eroticism encouraged fantasies of erotic adventure as a component of military service in France. African American soldiers’ expectations of a racially tolerant France made their often fatal scapegoating in rape charges there particularly crushing. And the centrality of the Normandy landing in the “greatest generation” myth raises the stakes of writing such a history in the French case. In especially stark terms, we must confront the confluence of military achievement and sacrifice on the one hand, and institutionalized sexism and racism (not to...