mary louise roberts

New book finds parallels between current US military sex misconduct and WWII

In her new book called “What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France,” historian Mary Louise Roberts uncovered the history of sexual improprieties of U.S. troops as they liberated France, and tells the story about how the U.S. military stood silent as troops took women as spoils of war.

In addition, the black American soldiers who were present on the front often were accused of rape and many were tried and executed on foreign soil within mere days of allegations.

Host Jamila Bey spoke with Roberts to talk about her book, the tales that haven’t been discussed in nearly 70 years and the startling parallels to modern day allegations of military sexual misconduct.

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The idea and the knowledge that there was a problem with U.S. troops and sexual impropriety in WWII, particularly in France, that’s not a story that many of us have ever heard about. How did you come upon this?

I was a French historian and I was a little frustrated with the way American historians tell the story of Normandy. They completely leave the French out of the picture. And if you think about films like “Saving Private Ryan,” they could be liberating any country- there’s nothing French about that. SO I was interested in bringing the French into the picture and I thought it would be fun to look at the ways in which the Americans look at the French and vice versa. So I started looking at documents in Normandy that had just opened up to the public. Those government archives are closed for sixty years in France and I discovered the sexual misbehavior. Somewhat shocking for me. I had the same visions of Normandy as everyone else of heroic men rescuing French women.

This is pretty anathema: the idea that U.S. troops behaved poorly in any way. That U.S. troops were sexual aggressors in some cases. What exactly went on when these men many of whom had fathers who fought in WWI and talked about the nature of French women and who encouraged their sons to go and enjoy France.

The problem that the U.S. military had in the European Theater was how to motivate the men. Unlike Japan who had attacked the Unites States, in the Pacific Theater, the men were motivated to fight the Japanese and to liberate the Philippines and places like that. But in the European Theater it was a different story because there was no racialized discourse of the Germans. They were a white European people and there was no real reason to rescue France in the same way that there was to fight the Japanese. So the U.S. military played on those old stereotypes of WWI servicemen coming back and talking about French brothels and what a sexy place it was. And I discovered this by looking at “Stars and Stripes,” the military newspaper. The way they were in great part motivating the G.I.s was to present France as a place where French women were waiting for rescue and would reward them. So what happened was that when the French did that, they produced a “tsunami” of American G.I. lust, and as a result the U.S. military realized that maybe the sex thing was getting a little out of control. There was a wave of rape in the summer 1944 in Normandy and there was also a lot of misbehavior in port towns; a lot of prostitution a lot of sex outside, sex in parks and cemeteries and abandoned building. So the initial drive to interest G.I.s in rescuing France in sexual terms kind of turned into a situation the U.S. military couldn’t handle.

You begin the book with the exchange between French and U.S. authorities discussing the problem. But the U.S. didn’t want to be seen as sanctioning prostitution or other licentious behavior.

If you were living in a place like La Havre, that’s a port town where a lot of G.I.s came in and out of that French port and you could not take a walk in a park, you could not visit your mother’s grave. You could not even walk down the street and I’m including children without seeing a sexual deed- without seeing a G.I. having sex with a woman. That is how overrun the town was with prostitution.

So I found this amazing correspondence in the municipal archives of La Havre between the mayor and the American commander. The mayor asked, “Couldn’t you create a regulated brothel?” He just wanted to get the guys out of town! And he wanted to make sure that it was medically supervised so that the women who were prostitutes would not get venereal diseases. And he was summarily turned down by the American commander. Because, if the U.S. military institutionalized sexual labor, then at home they would find out. And ironically, so that American sweethearts and wives could be kept from the knowledge of prostitutes the French people had to deal with it visually every day.

The U.S. troops were told that they should be mindful of encounters with French women and prostitutes in rather strong terms. What did the rates of sexual disease look like?

The U.S. army did not care if the G.I.s had sex with people. They cared that the G.I.s not contract venereal disease. This is 1944, only months before penicillin is starting to be widely used. No sooner do the U.S. servicemen arrive in France than venereal diseases start to soar. Again, they didn’t care about the women, but they just cared about the soldiers getting diseases because it would be time away from the line. There were some officials who believed it was the top military medical problem. So a lot of the effort to control prostitution was an effort to control the health of the American soldier.

The idea that women were fully human and not spoils of war to be enjoyed was a notion that would take decades longer to gain wider support.

Yes, but I also think it was a colonial mindset. In fact this is why I became interested in the whole issue of sexual misbehavior. I was interested in that blind spot that they treated the French so badly in this one respect. The relations between Americans and French were good in many ways but that aspect of sexual exploitation of women was really about power and dominance. I shaped the relationship between the nations and showed the U.S. as a rising global superpower asserting a new dominance over the European continent.

Black soldiers were overwhelmingly blamed for the rapes and misconduct that went on.

Yes. I found the documents that show this transition from worrying about the unruly American G.I. in the summer and fall of 1944 and needing to make it a so-called “Negro problem” and not an American problem. Because the American mission was to rescue France from Nazi oppression, and France at that time was mostly women, an even greater myth was the damsel in distress. So they didn’t want the sexual misbehavior to ruin that myth, and obviously an army that rapes will undermine that myth. So increasingly the U.S. army decides to disproportionately charge African-American men with accusations of rape, and to use those false accusations to create the notion that sexual misbehavior and sexual violence was a black problem not an American problem.

The trials were quick and these men were hung. But the French had a problem with executions by hanging.

The Jim Crow South was brought to France. Not only were many black men falsely accused, but they were also executed in disproportionate amounts. In the land of the guillotine, it was hard to find a person who would execute via hanging, so they literally brought in someone from Texas to do the job. And a lot of that was symbolic. It’s pretty obvious to anyone who knows the history of lynching that the idea was to equate rape with lynching in France and to scare African American soldiers.

But there was collusion between the French and the Americans in terms of these accusations of rape.

I’m not the first to research this topic, but most people have ascribed these rape accusations simply to the U.S. military and its racism. That is true. But the French women were the people who brought the accusations. And I had to disabuse the idea that France was an oasis of racial tolerance particularly in this period. The age of Josephine Baker. I found a bit of racism in Normandy, a provincial area, unlike Paris which is cosmopolitan. They were hysterically afraid of African American soldiers. They projected a great deal of the prejudices they had of people of African descent which were based on France as colonizer of African countries. Then they were humiliated and hysterical with fear about having a war in their backyard. They projected all that onto African American men. And I believe that many of the accusations were false. But it was more complicated than the racism of the U.S. military.