“Understanding AIDS,” the U.S. Surgeon General’s brochure on “public enemy number one,” has been called the first mass mailing of a federal policy message to every American household. In fact, an earlier administration attempted to meet a very different public danger—nuclear attack—with a similar mail campaign. Comparison of the social assumptions found in each document offers an unsettling portrait of social change in America over the last quarter-century.
President John Kennedy, in a 1961 statement appearing at the height of the Cold War, pledged that “in the coming months I hope to let every citizen know what steps he can take . . . to protect his family in case of attack.” Kennedy proposed mailing a booklet with this purpose to each American home. With 60 million anticipated copies, the document would be—in one aide’s words—”the most widely distributed piece of literature in man’s history outside of the Bible.”
Using contracted editorial assistance from Time, Inc., the Defense Department’s Office of Civil Defense produced a draft circulated among the Kennedy inner circle. Significantly, the document assumed that America was uniformly composed of suburban, middle-class families. In pictures and text, the booklet featured family teams of husbands, wives, and children, in their single-family dwellings, working together to prepare their homes for nuclear blast. They improvised radiation shields in basements, piled dirt around window wells, read books together in tidy shelters, stored supplies in their cabin cruisers, and worked with neighbors to build community fallout shelters which could double as an “after school hangout” for “gregarious teenagers . . . where they can relax with sodas and play the juke box.”
Of course, American social life was more complex than this, and the implied political sociology of the booklet did not pass unchallenged (Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith, on receiving the draft, replied with consternation: “The present pamphlet is a design for saving Republicans and sacrificing Democrats!”). Moreover, the language in the book often shifted to the absurd (one section heading actually read: “A Nuclear Attack Can Kill You but Its Dangers Can Be Avoided”), and the plan was finally downscaled to a printing of 20 million copies, to be distributed through local civil defense offices.
Nonetheless, the document viewed the fabric of American society as solid, moral, and ideal-driven, capable of handling the strains of civil defense. In his own introduction, Kennedy called on American families to remember the frontier experience, “where pioneers lived under the constant threat of Indian attack. If we are to maintain . . . the kind of nation they dreamed of . . . each of us must be willing not merely to die for his country; but to live for it.”
The AIDS booklet from Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, now in the mails to every American home, offers an instructive contrast. The tone of urgency is the same (“you must discuss” these things); so is the enthusiasm (“Above all, keep an upbeat attitude”). The document does make a passing reference to “family” (though it prefers the phrase “those you love”), and it endorses “responsible behavior,” “personal values,” and “sex with one mutually faithful, uninfected partner.”
However, its overall portrait of American society is that of a nation of autonomous, sex-obsessed individuals—a population fairly careless, whether it be while shooting up drugs or adjusting and lubricating condoms. It portrays a people unworthy of their liberty.
In its message to (and by implication about) every American, the document gives attention to the risk of catching AIDS through “oral, anal or vaginal” intercourse, cautioning that the anal sort is particularly “risky.” It offers an interesting description of the passage of “semen or vaginal fluids” through “the vagina, penis, rectum or mouth.” Kissing and touching bowel movements are OK, but “sex with someone you don’t know well” is called “risky behavior,” as is sharing needles.
Adapting the Dear Abby pose, Uncle Sam also offers citizens guidance on casual sex and condom use. Decisions on the former, the document says, should be based partly on the answer to the question, “How many people have they been to bed with?” Cautioning that “condoms are far from being foolproof,” our government endorses the latex over the lambskin variety and suggests using spermicide in the tip and on the outside.
More important, though, are the photos. We see here only obscure groupings or single individuals, offering us warnings and sharing wisdom. Families are nonexistent. Children are primarily a small, special category of victims, their origin unrelated to the body fluids being passed out.
If Koop had mailed this booklet out 75 years ago, he would have been prosecuted under federal postal statutes for distributing obscene material. Even 25 years ago, as the Civil Defense book shows, America’s public face was that of a moral, family-centered people. The AIDS booklet, though, is designed for a nation neither moral nor free. Its creators target the needs of an irresponsible, dependent population, citizens managed by overlords who encourage their pleasures and soothe their pains.
It may not be an accurate picture. The relevant point is that official Washington thinks it is.