Article - Winter 2020

The Greatest Sexual Revolution

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How World War II prefigured the ’60s

By Jon Zobenica | December 2, 2019
The San Francisco
The San Francisco "peace riots," which convulsed the city for 72 hours, inflicted wide-spread property damage and 1,000 casualties, including 13 fatalities. (George de Carvalho/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris)

Typically characterized as a fantasy novel, Vincent McHugh’s 1943 I Am Thinking of My Darling imagined New York City in the grip of a tropical virus that rendered the infected void of any moral sense, particularly with regard to sex and fidelity. The city came to have the “unmistakable feel of a place with its hair down and a flower dangling over one ear,” its residents exhibiting “no more morals than a tomcat.” Yet for all the comic fornication and unconcern for consequences, the novel presented this radical changing of habits—“The toughest social force there is, probably”—as a genuine public crisis, the act of a society undergoing self-inflicted disorganization.

Two years later, when President Truman announced that the war with Japan was effectively over, San Francisco experienced 72 hours of social disintegration beyond anything in McHugh’s novel. An August 1945 Life magazine feature on the victory celebrations nationwide captured some of the mood in San Francisco. One photo shows a couple of attractive blonds skinny-dipping in a pond near the Civic Center, and another shows a small group of sailors looting a liquor store and passing out bottles. Life’s caption is admirably direct: “In San Francisco sailors break into a liquor store and pilfer the stock. Revel turned into a riot as tense servicemen, reprieved from impending Pacific war-zone duty, defaced statues, over-turned street cars, ripped down bond booths, attacked girls. The toll: over 1,000 casualties.” Direct as it is, however, the caption hardly captures the scale of the “peace riots” that convulsed San Francisco. Among the casualties were 13 fatalities and six women medically treated for rape, though shocking eyewitness accounts suggest that the incidence of sexual assault ran far higher than that. (The riots form the backdrop of Niven Busch’s 1946 novel, Day of the Conquerors.)

However extraordinary, McHugh’s “fantasy” and San Francisco’s nightmare are representative of the war years, when America not only pulled together industrially and militarily but also fell apart socially without ever fully coming back together. It all began with a huge increase in defense spending, which—after a long depression—helped boost the economy and with it the marriage and birth rates. But even before war’s end, things had gone haywire on the home front. By 1945, an unprecedented one in three marriages ended in divorce, up from one in five as recently as 1940, and the rate was still climbing. Rapes were up 27 percent in 1944 compared with the prewar average, and rape statistics were much higher among youths, with the total number of juvenile delinquency arrests (for a variety of serious offenses, including rape) 100 percent greater in 1945 than in 1939. Magazines of almost every stripe were fretting about an epidemic of venereal disease, with Ladies’ Home Journal reporting that in 1944, “11,000 girls between the ages of eleven and fifteen acquired syphilis.” Illegitimate births had increased, and had done so most sharply—according to Jane Mersky Leder, author of Thanks for the Memories—among the 20-something wives of military men. Then again, also according to Leder, a 1945 U.S. Army survey found that 80 percent of “GIs away from home for two years or more admitted to regular sexual intercourse. Nearly a third of these men had wives at home.”

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