Here’s something you won’t find every day — a 1943 pamphlet about wartime prostitution written by Eliot Ness, director of the Division of Social Protection, Office of Community War Services, Federal Security Agency.
Yes, that Eliot Ness.
Of “The Untouchables.”
The rare typescript, written (with a racier title) for the U.S.O. and Y.M.C.A. that took care of servicemen and women, turns up in our Baruch Library Archives’s Luther Gulick Papers in three boxes of folders on Public Affairs Pamphlets, an historic experiment in educational publishing, progressive civics and consumerism.
Starting in 1935 and for at least the next half century, through the turbulence of the Depression, World War II, cold war and twilight of Communism, the Public Affairs Committee Inc., at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, financed principally by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, turned out more than 30 million of these colorful little booklets on everything from race relations to how to buy life insurance to making good in college.
They cost 10 cents each in the early 1940s ($1.39 in today’s money) and a $5 subscription ($69.55 today) bought you the entire library of all 70 titles, with hundreds more to come.
And who chaired that committee through 1943 — even as he was called to Washington to oversee small-plant war production and refugee relief?
Of course, Luther Gulick. He remained on the board even after relinquishing the chairmanship to Ordway Tead, of special interest to us here at the City University because he also headed the New York City Board of Higher Education from 1938 to 1953 to supervise what were then four municipal colleges (City College, Hunter, Brooklyn and Queens; CUNY was formed in 1961). Serving with Gulick and Tead on the Public Affairs Committee was another prominent educator, Harry D. Gideonse, president of Brooklyn College from 1939 to 1966. (He quit over a dispute with the Board of Higher Education which had voted to end the longstanding policy of free tuition.)
The editor, from 1936 to 1986, was Maxwell Slutz Stewart, an editor at The Nation from 1934 to 1947, who died at 89 in 1990.
Besides providing a fascinating snapshot of American homelife, the pamphlet files offer a revealing look at the issues haunting America in a momentous era.
One preoccupation throughout the war was demobilization — known as D-Day (long before the 1944 Allied invasion of Europe). How would the troops be re-integrated into a peacetime economy? Would civilians who escaped service get preference for jobs while soldiers waited overseas to be brought home?
Also high on the list was race.
In October 1943, the committee received the draft of an unsparing look at the Detroit race riot that broke out on June 21, killing 25 blacks and 9 whites, injuring hundreds and causing millions in property damage. Detroit, with its auto plants turning out tanks and planes, was the nation’s most vital war production center, and, as author Earl Brown wrote, “Obviously there was much joy in high circles in Berlin and Tokyo when the news of this riot was first received.” The authorities were remiss in addressing simmering racial grievances and were unconscionably slow in requesting federal troops, Brown wrote.
But nothing stirred an uproar like “The Races of Mankind.”
Co-written for the U.S.O. by the prominent anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Gene (Regina) Weltfish, the pamphlet which found that the differences between blacks and whites were cultural not biological, stirred up a storm. The U.S.O., calling it a political tract with an agenda offensive to southerners refused to accept it.
To its credit, the Public Affairs Committee stuck by its guns, deploring the U.S.O. position. The Writers Board, including William L. Shirer and Oscar Hammerstein II, also condemned the U.S.O.
But the House Military Affairs Committee denounced the pamphlet, saying wartime was no time for “presenting controversial issues or promoting propaganda for or against any subdivision of the American people.” The Public Affairs Committee pushed back against this too.
“The Races of Mankind” was eventually published, to minimal circulation, but later banned as subversive. Weltfish was investigated by Congress for “un-American activities”, terminated by Columbia University and blacklisted.
Undaunted, the committee also published “The Negro in America”, editor Maxwell Stewart’s pamphlet summary of Gunnar Myrdal’s groundbreaking racial study, “An American Dilemma.”
Sometimes, the committee was accused of promoting…socialism!
Which Gulick, to his credit, dismissed.
Among the subjects the committee was bold to tackle was wartime venereal disease. This too drew protests.
But Gulick and his committee prevailed.
The pamphlet dispelled the myth that regulating prostitution in supervised brothels was an effective strategy against the spread of syphilis and gonorrhea and extolled the 1941 May Act which gave the federal government the authority to step in and police areas adjacent to military facilities.
The committee also published Eliot Ness’s “special manuscript” for the U.S.O. and Y.M.C.A.
Ness had joined the Treasury Department as a Prohibition agent in 1927 and been instrumental in the successful prosecution of Al Capone for tax evasion. When Capone tried to bribe Ness with $2,000 on his desk every Monday morning, and was rebuffed, Ness and his team got their nickname, later exploited in a book, television and film franchise, “the Untouchables.”
From then on, Ness’s life started to sadly unravel. He spent the war in Washington supervising “social protection” and died of a heart attack at home in Coudersport, Pa., in 1957. The Untouchable was only 54.