Stop Rape: A WWII Chaplain’s Advice

Stop Rape: A WWII Chaplain’s Advice

During this week’s oral arguments on California’s Prop 8, Justice Samuel Alito questioned whether the court could take a stand on gay marriage, which, he claimed, was “newer than cell phones or the internet.” Questionable logic aside, Alito’s insistence that wariness represents the appropriate response to any sort of “new” arrangement of sexual politics attracted attention because, well, a Supreme Court Justice articulated it. But this assumption of novelty is neither surprising nor new. Just a few weeks ago, in the wake of the Steubenville rape case verdict, calls to make men responsible for preventing rape received comparable treatment as outlandish, unstudied, and improvident. In other words, instructing men not to rape represented a reckless, “new” idea that might alter social norms in unprecedented and thus terrifying ways.

Except, like gay marriage, ordering men to take responsibility for their behavior is not a new, 21st-century idea.

In 1944, an American military chaplain prepared a pamphlet, “Let’s Look at Rape!”1 Despite the jocular exclamation point, the six-page document was deadly serious. The unnamed author signed his work as “A Negro Chaplain,” and he wrote his warning in response to the troubling racial demographics of the American men accused of rape by French women in the fall of 1944.

A page from a 1944 pamphlet, “Let’s Look at Rape!,” prepared by an American military chaplain.

Over 4.5 months, from D-Day to mid-October 1944, 179 French women lodged rape complaints against American soldiers; 90 percent asserted that their rapist was black. “All of these complaints did not stand up under investigation,” he cautioned. But by October 15, a mere seven weeks after the Allies liberated Paris, 64 African-American men awaited trial for rape, while only 11 white soldiers faced comparable charges. These numbers indicate that the military determined that one-third of the complaints against black soldiers merited courts-martial — compared to two-thirds of the complaints against white soldiers. However, according the chaplain, the numbers nevertheless portended a “disaster.” Striking enough on their own, the statistics were especially distressing given that African American troops comprised less than ten percent of the American Armed Forces in France at the time.

A page from a 1944 pamphlet, “Let’s Look at Rape!,” prepared by an American military chaplain.

That African American soldiers faced significantly higher rates of alleged rape was not, unfortunately, unusual. In the United States, accusations by white women toward black men were neither rare nor unexpected in this period.2 Jim Crow America made the black man’s gaze, speech, and gestures suspect, no matter the reality or intention.3

What is surprising, however, is that the chaplain used his platform to instruct male soldiers how to behave and the military distributed it to all soldiers in the European Theater of Operations, irrespective of race. In other words, at the very moment when racism likely inflated statistics of black men accused of rape, the military insisted that men take responsibility for both their actions and the perception of their actions.4

The pamphlet combined declarative sentences, clear infographics, and pert illustrations to make one overarching point: each soldier was responsible for his own behavior. Even when the chaplain warned men to “beware these women of easy virtue,” the Nazi and Fascists trickster collaborationists who might “accuse you of rape for the purpose of creating racial trouble in the Army and back home,” he insisted that men needed to “cover [their] movements.” The final page of the pamphlet took this logic one step further. It stated, “if you are not covered, you are suspected,” and instructed men to watch their liquor because “drunkenness is never an excuse for YOUR crime.”

A page from a 1944 pamphlet, “Let’s Look at Rape!,” prepared by an American military chaplain.

The pamphlet concluded with a 4-step battle plan for every unit: 1) discuss rape and “determine that it shall not happen”; 2) teach every man the importance of not raping women and not being perceived as rapists; 3) take communal responsibility and “don’t let any man go wrong”; and 4) unite and work together — “You’ll help, won’t you?” — to alleviate the problem. Zerlina Maxwell’s recent call to teach men not to rape echoes these instructions, refined of course, for 2013.

In light of the responses to the Steubenville rape case, this pamphlet is significant precisely because it focuses on men and places the responsibility for eradicating rape on men — exactly what many activists have called for in recent efforts to, as Austin McCoy recently put it, eradicate rape culture. Despite disparaging enemy women as loose ladies, the chaplain neither blames nor shames nor bullies any victims. In fact, he argues that rape is “the vilest crime a man can commit,” an act worthy of the death penalty, and a terror that inflicts itself upon the innocent — both the victim and the rapist’s family.

In other words, the chaplain relentlessly focused on male behavior, on what soldiers could do to avoid compromising situations and fabricated allegations. The pamphlet’s message cautioned men about the consequences of their actions, not as a proto-feminist call to empower women but as a warning born of fear — of the pernicious effects of rampant racism, not of the terror of rape itself. He expressed concern that American “demagogues” would use rape accusations and convictions as a “damnable weapon” to deny blacks civil and human rights. This concern drove a tone of racial uplift, an anti-rape message framed as a necessary condition for rebuffing racism within the military and in America more generally. In a sense, then, the pamphlet’s ideology was conservative and paternalistic, prompted by an instinct to protect black soldiers from white assumptions. Yet by today’s standards, the pamphlet was radical as well, for it insisted that men stop raping women and commanded men, not women, to avoid placing themselves in compromising positions.

Black American GIs in Bristol during World War II. (Paul Townsend/Flickr | CC BY-SA)

The archival record does not indicate how his pamphlet was published. It was marked “restricted,” but nevertheless was mass-produced and distributed across Europe. This much is clear: it reached the desk of Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, the highest-ranking black officer in the European Theater of Operations. On January 23, 1945, Davis issued a memo to the Theater Chaplain advising him that “Let’s Look at Rape!” was “most timely and should be presented to all members of our service.” Three days later, the white Theater Chaplain, L. Curtis Tiernan, attached the pamphlet to the bulletin distributed to all chaplains — black and white — in Europe, noting that the pamphlet was “worthy of the serious consideration of all” and encouraged chaplains to share it with their troops.5

Tiernan’s motives are murky at best. He might have been following the wishes of the Inspector General, for whom Davis worked. He might have viewed rape as a significant moral problem deserving the attention of chaplains. He might have understood the pamphlet as rejecting interracial sex more generally, given that he supported applying anti-miscegenation laws to potential marriages between European women and black soldiers after the war.6 Whatever his reasons, Tiernan used his military authority to ensure that all Army chaplains in Europe received “Let’s Look at Rape!” and, assuming they read it, absorbed a sobering message that insisted men take responsibility for rape prevention.

It is all the more remarkable because, almost 70 years later, the military as an institution writ large has not yet taken responsibility for rape culture within its ranks. The recent documentary “The Invisible War” highlighted the high rates of recurring sexual assault within the U.S. military, much of which goes unreported and under-litigated. Most recently, Air Force Lt. General Craig Franklin pardoned fighter pilot James Wilkerson, who had been convicted of aggravated sexual assault, outraging Congressional legislators, military personnel, and recently confirmed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Legislation introduced in response to Franklin’s pardon may help strengthen the military justice system, but even at their best, courts-martial are responsive, not preventative.

An anonymous African American chaplain looked at rape in 1944 and knew exactly what eliminating it required: individual responsibility for one’s actions, collective responsibility for the actions of a unit, and the expectation that rape is always inexcusable. His language may be dated, but his teachings remain apt.


  1. “Let’s Look At Rape!” Box 12, Folder 2, MS 709: Morris Kertzer Papers, American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio (hereafter, AJA). Return to text.
  2. Of course, black-white intimacy could be consensual as well, but starting in the nineteen century, white Americans began framing interracial sex coercive in order to discipline black men through the threat of and actual violence. See, for example, Martha Hodes, Black Men, White Women: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999) and Diane Miller Sommerville, Rape and Race in the Ninetennth-Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004). Hannah Rosen documents how the rape of black women by white men became a cudgel in struggles over black citizenship during Reconstruction in Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008). Return to text.
  3. The 1955 kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy visiting relatives in Mississippi, for looking or speaking to a white woman, is perhaps the most well known and extreme cases, but black men regularly faced scrutiny for mundane interactions with white women. This unprovoked targeting of black men persists today, with a taped recording of an NYPD supervisor instructing his officers to stop and frisk young black men, aged 14-21 representing one of the most recent. Return to text.
  4. Accusations of rape in war are not uncommon but systemic records are rare, as rape is often used as a weapon of war. Records of courts-martial show that between 1942 and 1946, 458 American soldiers were convicted of rape in the European Theater of Operations — 256 black soldiers and 202 white soldiers. This ratio is certainly more equal than the 9:1 ratio of accusations leveled in France, but as Michael Cullen Green argues, many of the charges against black men stemmed from general concerns about interracial sex and white officers played a critical role in pushing trumped-up charges through the system. Green, Black Yanks in the Pacific: Race in the Making of American Military Empire After World War II (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010), 27. In World War II Europe, rape charges against American soldiers peaked in Germany in April 1945, when 501 soldiers were accused of rape; accusations declined to 241 in May, when Germany surrendered, and decreased to about 45 allegations per month thereafter. The line between rape and sex work was particularly murky in the aftermath of war. See Petra Goedde, GIs and Germans: Culture, Gender, and Foreign Relations, 1945-1949 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 63-65, 84-5 and Anne-Marie Troger, “Between Rape and Prostitution: Survival Strategies and Chances of Emancipation for Berlin Women After World War II, in Judith Friedlander, Blanche Wiesen Cook, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, eds., Women in Culture and Politics (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1986), 97-120. Return to text.
  5. L. Curtis Tiernan, Information Sheet No. 6, January 26, 1945, Box 12, Folder 2, MS 709: Morris Kertzer Papers, AJA. That I found this pamphlet and accompanying documentation in the papers of a white, Jewish chaplain suggests that it was distributed to all chaplains, irrespective of race. What chaplains did with it is harder to determine. Return to text.
  6. Gerald Astor, The Right to Fight: A History of African Americans in the Military (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1998), 315. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Protester carrying a “Real Men Don’t Rape” sign. (Charlotte Cooper/Flickr | CC BY)

Ronit Y. Stahl is a fellow in biomedical ethics in the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. She was previously a postdoctoral research associate at the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in S. Louis and earned her Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan in 2014. Her book Enlisting Faith: How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America is forthcoming from Harvard University Press in Fall 2017.