Hard Bodies for a Cold War: Conditioning and Prehabilitation, 1945–1957

The Cold War’s advent brought with it an abundance of reasons for sustained interest in the bodies of the United States’ youth, uniformed or otherwise. At first blush, the awesome destructive power of nuclear weaponry might have implied the irrelevance of the individual soldier’s strength and endurance. Every service’s pursuit of high-tech weapons, advanced platforms, and space-age gadgets may likewise have suggested the soldier’s diminishing relevance. However, the Army’s senior leaders did not forget the flesh-and-blood sinews of warfare. Warfighting concepts, revised doctrine, and new force structures, such as the Pentomic Division, consistently emphasized the necessity of fitness on nuclear battlefields. There, success was thought to depend upon dispersion and rapid, aggressive maneuver. Actual combat experience on Korea’s battlefields also reinforced the importance of physical fitness. At the same time, the Korean War seemed to reveal the modern American man’s shortcomings once again. Other national fitness red flags, such as the Kraus-Weber report, published in 1955, also appeared to expose an emergent “muscle gap” with the Soviet Union and the pernicious effects of easy living in a mass-consumer society. Because the Army’s manpower policies relied heavily on conscription, soft citizens meant soft soldiers. Youth and soldier physical training alike thus remained subjects of public and expert interest.

Throughout this period of turbulence, the Army’s physical culture remained consistent. Cultural inertia and institutional continuity minimized change, generally restraining it to the trajectory set between 1942 and 1945. Writing in 1957, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, the Army’s chief of staff and a principal promoter of technology-centric modernization, illustrated the endurance of cultural values and beliefs: “It is a military duty for all officers and men to maintain a high level of physical fitness . . . to perform [their] duties with maximum efficiency,” he wrote, and then claimed that fitness inspired confidence in subordinates and fellow citizens alike by “presenting the model of an alert, ready fighting man.”1 Taylor conceived of fitness in physical terms and as an external manifestation of intangible inner qualities. He also prioritized the average soldier’s fitness, not the “development of muscle men or record-breaking athletes,” while emphasizing the individual before the unit.2 Taylor’s definition of fitness, valuation of exercise, and focus on the individual all aligned with the Army’s World War II–era physical culture despite a decade of technological, doctrinal, structural, and political ferment throughout the service. Institutional continuity complemented cultural endurance in minimizing change. Although responsibility for physical training research and doctrine development changed hands several times between 1945 and 1954, ongoing studies sponsored by Army Field Forces and the US Army Infantry School’s influence kept the physical culture oriented toward basic preparation for infantry combat and responsive to data-driven research. When concerns about soldier fitness arose, cultural inertia and institutional continuity encouraged a doubling-down on the existing physical culture instead of substantial revision.

Much more change occurred in the US government’s approach to prehabilitation. The military’s continuing reliance upon conscription to fill its ranks fixed attention on young, male American bodies. Many of the Army’s senior leaders opined that those bodies tended to be inadequate for modern warfare’s demands and that they needed to be improved before entering military service. In the words of Brig. Gen. Stanley Larsen, the assistant commandant of the United States Army Infantry School (USAIS), the “era of exertion and hardship” of America’s forefathers had given way to “an age of ease and comfort” enabled by technology and consumerism.3 Contrary to Larsen’s interpretation, anxieties over national fitness were not new or novel. They were persistent, but were amplified by new evidence that emerged throughout the 1950s. The government’s responses to these anxieties changed over time, though. During World War II, prehabilitation’s chief vehicles were explicitly martial programs, such as the Victory Corps, in the mold of the interwar Citizens’ Military Training Camps. After the war, prehabilitation advocates attempted to expand mandatory training in a military format through Universal Military Training (UMT) legislation. The Victory Corps and UMT achieved few lasting successes, but they both generated significant resistance, especially among educators. In 1956, the Eisenhower administration introduced a new prehabilitation model with its “advisory state” approach, which the President’s Council on Youth Fitness (PCYF) exemplified. Neither mandatory nor militaristic, the PCYF used public relations and advertising to market and popularize a fitness concept that aligned with the Army’s physical culture. This approach proved more successful and durable, and more palatable to the public, than any that came before, and it remains the government’s preferred approach today.

Between the end of World War II and 1957, the Army’s physical culture changed little despite a larger politico-military context that could have deemphasized the significance of the individual soldier’s physical fitness. Debates about ground forces’ relevance and utility played out regularly during the Cold War’s first two decades. At least until the Korean War, public opinion inclined toward doubt over the need for maintaining large conventional forces. After all, new wonder weapons capable of destroying whole cities had ended World War II. The desire to cash in on a peace dividend in combination with the allure of a new high-tech, push-button concept of war seemed to signal the Army’s limited utility both as a tool of national policy and in any future war.4 To counter this narrative, the Army generally pursued two lines of effort. One sold the service’s relevance to lawmakers and the public while staking out claims to resources in fierce interservice competition through organizational and doctrinal changes aimed at restructuring ground forces around nuclear weapons. The other involved establishing the enduring value of the Army’s core competencies. For instance, Army doctrine writers retained an emphasis on maneuver, decisive engagements, destruction of enemy forces, and the offense in general throughout the 1950s.5 Both lines of effort asserted the soldier’s centrality in warfare, even in an age of missiles and mechanization. In fact, this line of logic often led to the conclusion that soldiers needed to be more fit than ever before to meet the demands new technology imposed.

The means by which the Army sculpted soldiers’ bodies and kept them fit reflected a continuity of thought on the qualities of a “good” soldier and his role in warfare. The edition of Field Manual (FM) 21-20: Physical Training published in 1946 laid out these means and elucidated the Army’s official physical culture at the dawn of the Cold War. Assembled under the direction of the Office of the Surgeon General, FM 21-20 superseded the manual of the same title from 1941 and the wartime publications Training Circular (TC) 87 and War Department Pamphlet (WD Pam.) No. 21-9. The majority of the manual recapitulated the work of Charles McCloy, Theodore Bank, and company. Compared with the wartime manuals, FM 21-20 advanced the same definition of fitness (itself a factor of total military fitness), the same rationale for fitness’s value in an age of mechanization, and a very similar training program in terms of scope and organization.6 FM 21-20 also included an identical testing regime based on data collected by Bank’s team in 1942. However, FM 21-20 also recommended activities that had not been part of physical training doctrine for years. Some, such as boxing and hand-to-hand fighting techniques, reflected historical tendencies during war to incorporate practical combat skills into physical training. The reappearance of tumbling is more puzzling. Cartwheeling and back somersaults had last appeared in Training Regulations 115-5, published in 1928. Even then they were relics of the earlier Koehler culture. Gymnastics’ temporary return illuminates the enduring influence of the Army’s original systematic training culture and of West Point’s physical education department. Gymnastics’ return also indicates difficulties in forming coherent doctrine when responsibility for it did not consistently belong to a single body of subject matter experts. Bank, McCloy, and company had crafted a research-based training system during the war. In contrast, responsibility for the new FM 21-20 formally belonged to the US Army’s Surgeon General’s office, which had not been involved with physical training previously and did not utilize specialized physical educators.7 The result was an odd amalgamation of old and new activities.

Despite covering additional activities, FM 21-20’s actual training system and the definition of fitness on which it was oriented tracked very closely with what Bank and McCloy created during World War II. None of the additional activities was allotted time in either the recommended twelve-week introductory schedule or the maintenance program.8 Drill Number One, known as the “Army Dozen,” and its lesser known sibling, Drill Number Two, remained the foundational set of conditioning exercises. Guerrilla exercises, grass drills, rifle and log exercises, and running added interest-sustaining alternatives and supplements. Likewise, FM 21-20 continued spreading the physical education world’s gospel of overload and progression as introduced in TC 87. Specifically, it advised that strenuous exercise should continue “until it hurts” and that work should intensify over time in a program.9 Likewise, FM 21-20’s definition of fitness adhered strictly to the World War II model, which included five measurable, physiological components: freedom from disease or anatomical defect, strength, endurance (muscular and cardio-respiratory), agility, and coordination.10 These factors differed significantly from the abstract qualities and traits such as smartness, activity, precision, self-respect, neatness, and grace sought in the physical culture’s earlier forms. Development of basic military skills, self-confidence, and a will to win remained likely and valuable by-products of physical training, but not goals in and of themselves.11 Where earlier forms of the culture had emphasized unit discipline as a product of physical training, this one concentrated on the physiological components of fitness belonging to the individual soldier. Focus on the individual was most explicit and visible in the manual’s rejection of “extreme formalism” in training, which was supposedly productive of discipline alone. Instead, the culture promulgated in FM 21-20 of 1946 prioritized “the utmost physiological benefit.”12

While little about the Army’s official physical culture changed between 1946 and 1950, in practice tactical-level organizations increasingly preferred recreational athletics to systematic training. Doctrinal revisions tracked somewhat with this preference. The revision of FM 21-20 published in 1950, still authored by the Office of the Surgeon General, offered no innovation, but its creators removed hand-to-hand fighting techniques, wrestling, and tumbling while adding a chapter on “mass games.”13 The addition of mass games reflected general trends at the small-unit level between 1945 and 1950 that, as one later analyst put it, allowed the “recreational tail . . . to wag the physical conditioning dog.”14 In part, these trends began when units hemorrhaged many of their veterans and shifted to a peacetime footing. They also partly resulted from deliberate policy decisions that originated in a conference in August 1944 called to develop plans for an Army athletic program that would support postwar demobilization. Representatives of the Special Services Division’s Athletic Branch and several civilian sports authorities recommended that programs be put into place that were chiefly designed to help commanders maintain a “high state of morale.” Furthermore, they recommended that “purely military instruction” be reduced to the bare minimum necessary and that as much of the training day as possible be devoted to “comprehensive educational, athletic and recreational programs.”15 The turn away from physical conditioning coincided with declining soldier quality in physical and mental terms (the Army being characterized in one War College study as representing “the bottom of our manpower barrel”) and with the need to address problems of low morale across the service.16 The general preference for recreational athletics over conditioning persisted until at least the Korean War.17

Incidentally, a central school existed that could have facilitated innovation had rigorous conditioning remained an Army priority and had the school been sufficiently empowered and properly oriented. Yet the aptly named Physical Training School (PTS) stayed out of doctrine development and concentrated instead on producing athletic officers through the mid-1950s. As of 1946, when the school moved from Lexington to become a component of the Quartermaster School at Camp Lee, Virginia, the PTS’s mission was twofold.18 First, it trained nearly twelve hundred officers annually as “Physical Training and Athletic Directors” capable of “organizing and administering efficient programs” in their units centered on organized athletics, as had the Special Service officers of World War II. Second, it trained an equally sized pool of enlisted men as “instructors and assistants” to Physical Training and Athletic Director officers.19 The school’s leadership conceived of their mission narrowly. The school trained officers and assistants, but it did not provide input on physical training doctrine or policy revisions, nor did it conduct research. The school’s mission began slowly broadening after September, 1946, when the Army Ground Forces (AGF) assumed responsibility for the PTS and directed another move in search of better facilities, this time to Fort Bragg, North Carolina.20 Simultaneously, AGF reoriented the PTS toward training and conditioning over recreation and expanded its mission by assigning the PTS responsibility for collecting and maintaining data pertaining to “methods of unit physical training and conditioning.” The data was intended for use in preparing material on conditioning for Mobilization Training Programs, and in preparing students to supervise unit-conditioning programs.21 The school did not control physical training doctrine and policy, which the Office of the Surgeon General still owned. However, AGF’s changes positioned the PTS to potentially become the Army’s repository of specialized knowledge on physical training and conditioning, and consequently a major player in the production of the Army’s physical culture.

But before the PTS began exerting its influence, US intervention on the Korean peninsula started catalyzing change in some aspects of the Army’s physical culture. Combat on Korea’s rugged terrain demanded that soldiers be well conditioned, causing officers at every level of command to perceive gaps between battle’s demands and the average soldier’s physical fitness.22 American setbacks on the battlefield, discipline problems throughout the force, and prisoner of war behavior interpreted as inappropriate came to be attributed inside and outside the Army to soft soldiers drawn from unworthy youth. Furthermore, decreasing troop quality accompanied increasing rates of conscription, as it had during both world wars, at a time when the Army already struggled to attract and retain high-caliber manpower.23 Among the many pieces of evidence cited by critics of America’s soldiery in the ideologically charged Cold War environment, perhaps the most unsettling concerned prisoners of war. Numbering more than seven thousand in total, American prisoners held by North Korean and Chinese forces suffered a mortality rate of approximately 38 percent. This far exceeded the rate of prisoner deaths in previous American wars. Furthermore, approximately a third were found to have collaborated with their captors. Few escaped, few resisted, and twenty-one even chose to remain in North Korea after the war.24

In trying to rationalize early failures and ugly reports, an explanatory narrative developed among government officials, senior military leaders, and veterans’ organizations that assigned blame chiefly to junior soldiers and leaders at the regimental level and below.25 According to that narrative, a high standard of living, rampant “mom-ism,” and a mass-consumption society had ruined the young generation fighting in Korea. They had been pampered into failure. America’s fighting men suffered from “give-it-upitis” and were soft, deficient in grit and ingenuity, effeminate, selfish, and so lacking in character as to be susceptible to “brainwashing.”26 This narrative differed slightly among analysts who treated the young generation more fairly and who instead stressed failure to properly train for war.27 But whether America’s “soft” youth or poor training were to blame, explanations nearly always involved critiques of physical fitness. This interpretation of the Korean War experience became a hallmark of arguments for the importance of physical training. For instance, when the authors of the later Field Manual (FM) 21-20: Physical Training, published in 1957, urged units to develop “vigorous and continuous” training programs, they pointed to the “alarming number of casualties” in Korea that they attributed to “the inability of the U.S. soldiers to physically withstand the rigors of combat over rugged terrain and under unfavorable climatic conditions.”28 Four decades later, the authors of the FM 21-20 published in 1998 still referenced American failures in July 1950 as a reason to prepare soldiers for the physical demands of war.29

Whatever the narrative, complaints filtering back to the Infantry School from the front through 1952 suggested that commanders “deplore[d] the physical condition” of men arriving in theater.30 Among the numerous lessons to emerge from Korea, many concerned deficiencies in “combat skills, physical conditioning, and fighting spirit.” When combined with the demands of the future nuclear battlefield predicted by Army concept and doctrine authors, these lessons pointed to a need to get back to “tough training.”31 Additionally, a study of World War II physical training programs released by the American Association of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation (AAHPER) in 1951 even challenged memories of high-quality training between 1941 and 1945. Zeroing in on a lack of command emphasis, the study’s authors found that commanders during World War II had offered “much ‘lip service’” to the importance of conditioning, but little supervision or direction. By and large, company commanders, who were usually inadequately prepared to organize a physical training program, had been “free to carry on whatever activities they desired.” The result was a program inferior to the Navy’s and Army Air Force’s in many ways, according to the study.32 Combined, this study and Korean War experiences resurrected concerns in the Army about declining national fitness and insufficiently rigorous conditioning practices, while turning attention back to combat-oriented physical training. Army leaders and physical culture producers alike sought explanations for the failings. Was the physical training program itself inadequate, or was proper implementation of it a bigger concern?

The latest edition of FM 21-20, published in November 1950, seems to have fueled some dissatisfaction with the program. As noted earlier, the manual was virtually identical to the version from 1946 with two exceptions. First, its authors cut sections on hand-to-hand fighting, wrestling techniques, and tumbling. Second, they added a new chapter on “mass games,” such as kickball, and recommended a “prominent place” for them in any training program.33 These games were different from organized athletics in that they could be played with large numbers of participants, required no advance organization, and needed very little equipment. Few required vigorous activity either. The manual perfectly captured major trends in the Army’s physical culture between 1945 and 1950: torpor, a growing preference for recreational activities over conditioning, and the declining significance of combat-oriented training. Its release four months after American forces entered combat in Korea helped throw questions about the adequacy of the Army’s physical training program into sharp relief.

The Army’s top leadership initially responded by reaffirming support for the existing physical training system, but also by stressing to commanders the importance of rigorous, methodical conditioning in the Army’s physical culture. This dual-track approach was most visible in the issuance of the highly directive Training Circular No. 27 (TC 27) in August 1951, which addressed concerns that FM 21-20 might not provide “adequate guidance and direction” for properly structuring a three-phase conditioning program.34 Issued over Army Chief of Staff J. Lawton Collins’s signature, TC 27 enunciated the physical training mission, policy, doctrine, and tenets of the Army’s official culture—but it did not change anything. TC 27 declared conditioning the key task in the service’s “physical training mission” and its authors identified three mission objectives. First, to “indoctrinate all personnel regardless of branch of service or present duty assignment” with the need for and importance of a “high standard of physical fitness and good posture.” Second, to develop the “highest possible degree of physical fitness” in each individual soldier to adequately prepare him for his duties. Finally, to produce visible outcomes of a “well-conducted physical training program.” While these outcomes included qualities such as self-confidence and the will to win, measurable improvement in the five physiological components of physical fitness received emphasis.35 Ultimately, the circular reiterated every commander’s responsibility for physical training, focused attention on systematic conditioning, and mandated adherence to existing policy.36

Beyond this immediate reaction, Army Field Forces also laid groundwork for mid- to long-term responses by initiating studies based on complaints from the field to evaluate the physical training program.37 The Office of the Chief of Army Field Forces (OCAFF) turned to its specialists at Fort Bragg’s Physical Training School (PTS) in April 1952, who had already undertaken preliminary research, to conduct the study.38 Most of the complaints the PTS specialists considered related to the physical fitness test as prescribed in FM 21-20. Commanders in the field provided plenty of criticisms: scoring the test involved too much “subjective judgment,” the test did not measure “combat related physical skills,” men lacked motivation to complete maximum repetitions in some events, and the scoring table did not “accurately indicate physical capabilities and stamina” of personnel.39 Several of these complaints reflected long-standing tensions within the Army’s physical culture, such as balancing between developing combat skills and foundational physical, mental, and character qualities. On this specific issue, the complaints and study exposed the continuation of a historical divide between commanders and physical training experts. Commanders had tended to favor activities with obvious combat relevance since the 1880s. Physical training experts typically preferred activities geared toward enhancing specific physiological characteristics in accordance with their concept of fitness.

Conducting the study required a massive data processing effort. Between eight thousand and ten thousand cards capturing individual performances on conditioning tests needed tabulation.40 Interpreting and analyzing the information contained in the resulting mountain of IBM punch cards represented the largest data-driven analysis of fitness practices in the Army’s history. This research project catalyzed an expansion of the PTS’s purpose and capabilities beyond its emergent responsibility for developing physical training policy and doctrine, which had grown out of initiatives by Devers and his AGF staff in 1946 that started recasting the PTS as the hub of the Army’s official physical culture production. The testing study accelerated that reformulation. However, such an outcome was not initially intended, as evidenced by OCAFF’s refusal to authorize new funds and personnel for the school.41 Conditions began changing when complications made meeting the study’s deadline of August 31, 1952, impossible. Initial card screening identified discrepancies, requiring units to administer additional rounds of testing and data reporting. Accepted and corrected cards had to be punched on IBM cards that were in turn outsourced for tabulation and analysis.42 The sheer amount of data processing required and the expertise needed to do it correctly eventually justified the creation of the short-lived Research and Analysis Department at the school in the summer of 1953.43

While the Korean War had created conditions in which the PTS began to flourish, the war’s termination rapidly pared growth. In August 1953, less than a month after the United States signed an armistice in Korea, the Army decided to shutter the Physical Training School and reactivate it in a truncated form under the Ground General School at Fort Riley on January 1, 1954.44 In 1949, a PTS staff study had narrowly averted a similar fate by arguing that the school had too much value as a professional physical training nucleus, as a crucial interface with the civilian physical education community, and as a more economical alternative to decentralized training.45 In 1953, similar arguments bolstered by ongoing projects such as the testing study, FM 21-20 revisions, and a training aid film failed to buy the PTS even a few extra months of life.46 Pursuit of “economy of manpower and funds” chiefly decided the school’s closure, which illustrates the Army’s austerity impetus under the Eisenhower administration, given that the school’s forecasted budget for 1954 was a mere $300,000, and its leadership had offered to slash that in half.47 Two years later, analysts studying the physical training program also suggested a cultural explanation. According to them, the move signaled a return to “recreational type” activities reminiscent of trends after both world wars, but at odds with the school’s intensifying association with systematic training and its focus on conditioning.48

Closure of the PTS could have substantially altered the Army physical culture’s evolution, especially if it had led to the erasure of the institutional knowledge and expertise built since 1942. During World War II, the team led by Bank, McCloy, and Esslinger reengineered physical training, grounding it in scientific, empirical study and gearing it to produce specific, measurable outcomes. The PTS staff began reviving this approach after the doldrums between 1946 and 1950. When the PTS officially closed on January 1, 1954, these projects were still ongoing and were therefore transferred to the new General School section.49 However, none of the experts transferred with their projects, except for a single civilian training instructor, Mr. James Dawson.50 There existed a high likelihood of returning to the doldrums without a central body of expertise. Also, closure of the PTS eliminated the Army’s sole mechanism for training and certifying specialists capable of advocating, planning, and executing physical training in accordance with published doctrine. Without these specialists, efforts to align unit programs with the official Army physical culture and administer them optimally would suffer.

However, damage from a loss of expertise was partially averted in the fall of 1954 when the rump General School’s Physical Training Department, including Mr. Dawson, packed up and moved once again, this time to the US Army Infantry School (USAIS) at Fort Benning. Unsurprisingly, the USAIS leadership took its renewed ownership of physical training doctrine and policy seriously. Infantry branch members had long been among the most vocal advocates of systematic physical training. Infantry officers wrote extensively about physical training in service journals around the turn of the century. An infantry-centric conception of combat demands had tended in most periods to dominate discourse within the Army’s physical culture. After World War I, the USAIS had even been home to the short-lived Physical and Bayonet Training Course administered by former members of Raycroft’s organization. When it acquired doctrine and policy responsibility in 1954, the school delegated responsibility for monitoring and implementing physical training Army-wide to the Combat Conditioning Committee under its Ranger Department and assigned it five functions: preparing and delivering training at the USAIS, preparing materials for nonresident instruction, preparing staff studies for the Army, authoring Department of the Army physical training publications, and conducting continual evaluation, research, and development of the physical training program.51 Though the committee lacked the PTS’s robust staffing, its resources were superior to the General School department’s resources and it enjoyed the active support of the influential USAIS. Because of the infantry’s understanding of combat and its relationship to physical fitness, the USAIS’s ownership of policy and doctrine also helped tilt the Army’s physical culture away from recreation and back toward conditioning and combat applications.

The sudden increase in the USAIS’s control of physical culture production coincided with converging concerns in the Army and in wider American society over soldier and citizen fitness. This convergence spurred renewed interest in assessing the state of the Army’s physical training system. A lodestar for such worries, the Kraus-Weber report, reached President Dwight Eisenhower’s attention in the summer of 1955.52 Its central claim was that American youth compared very unfavorably with their European peers in measures of strength and flexibility. Eisenhower’s concern spurred several government and private initiatives to address the nation’s apparently flagging fitness levels. Echoing the president’s alarm, incoming Army Chief of Staff Gen. Matthew Ridgway expressed his suspicion in August 1955 that the Army was “not conducting a realistic physical conditioning program” and that insufficient emphasis was being placed on “soldierly posture and correct dietary habits.”53 Ridgway therefore directed the Continental Army Command (CONARC) to study the adequacy of the existing physical training program and its execution in the field. CONARC in turn assigned responsibility for the study to the Infantry School. Simultaneously, CONARC also directed its six Army Commands to conduct similar studies and forward their results to the USAIS.54 The resulting study, issued in October 1955 along with the long-delayed physical fitness test report, was a sweeping reassessment of the Army’s physical culture.

In the end, the USAIS researchers returned a full-throated affirmation of the Army’s official physical culture as it existed in 1955. With the exception of “certain modifications,” researchers determined that the existing physical training program and physical fitness test were “adequate for the attainment of proper physical condition.”55 Findings related in the study’s final report reinforced central tenets of the existing culture. Conditioning came before all other activities, for instance. Measurable physiological outcomes were valued most, while traits such as self-confidence and discipline remained preferable by-products. Sport endured as a crucial part of the culture, but was secondary and supplemental to systematic training. Proper training required specialist instructors versed in the system, or at least competent amateurs able and willing to follow a program set down by experts. Conditioning could not be left up to individuals because expecting them to build and adhere to a rigorous, progressive program was “unrealistic and ineffective.”56 Instead, conditioning had to be a unit activity under the direction of trained specialists. Finally, the findings stressed maximizing the individual soldier’s physical condition over unit fitness or discipline.57 As with the valuation of outcomes, this focus on the individual reflected continuity with programs developed during World War I and World War II, but broke from the original formulation of the culture that Koehler dominated.

Yet not all was well with the Army’s physical training program according to the report. Its authors did not dismiss concerns about the fitness of the average American or statements of dissatisfaction from the field. However, in allocating blame for perceived problems, the USAIS researchers pointed a finger at the population making many of the complaints. “The major barrier to the attainment of sound physical condition throughout the Army,” they concluded “is the lack of continued command interest.”58 While the report’s authors acknowledged some underlying causes for deteriorating fitness, such as a tendency during peacetime to “fail to realize the need for a high state of physical fitness” and a “growing national tendency to avoid muscular activity both in our work and recreation,” they argued that commanders bore ultimate responsibility.59

The USAIS researchers expanded their case against unit commanders in blunt terms throughout the lengthy report. Physical training was a command responsibility according to Army doctrine and policy.60 Yet too often commanders failed to prioritize training, organize it in a productive way, or hold their trainers accountable for proper implementation. As a result, unit programs were often too easy and did not follow the core doctrinal principles of progression and overload. Consistency across a unit program was often problematic. For example, commanders might run a vigorous conditioning program for three months, and then almost completely ignore it for the rest of the year.61 Competing requirements tended to impinge on training time, which was already inadequate according to the report’s authors and remained so according to 60 percent of officers surveyed in 1958.62 Physical training sessions also regularly departed from doctrine. Instructors, whose lesson plans were apparently rarely subject to inspection, tended to improperly arrange activities. For example, they might schedule an hour of guerrilla exercises when ten minutes was the recommended maximum, or spend a whole week doing nothing but Drill One followed by a week on the obstacle course and so forth.63 At the level of unit commanders and their staffs, inadequate knowledge and training exacerbated the problem of insufficient command emphasis according to the USAIS researchers. Guidance and planning had to be “based on scientific knowledge” and come from “technically trained leaders,” but senior commanders typically left physical training completely up to company commanders, who often lacked “the proper concept of physical conditioning.”64 Furthermore, the prevailing “jockstrap culture” exacerbated competing demands between athletics and physical training by favoring the former over the latter.65 Graduates of the PTS could have offset commanders’ unfamiliarity with the program, but researchers found that these specialists were rarely utilized appropriately.66 The quickest fix, according to the study’s authors, was to sell commanders on the physical training program and convince them of its necessity “despite the fact that, like taking medicine, it is somewhat disagreeable.”67 Unit commanders who insisted “on superior care for the mechanical implements of war” and who knew that entering battle with “rusted, dilapidated equipment” would be “suicidal” needed to be convinced to place equal emphasis on their human implements of war.68 Some irony exists in these findings because the USAIS itself had apparently failed to sufficiently indoctrinate its graduates in the importance and proper execution of a physical training program.

According to the USAIS report, skepticism and ignorance fueled the problem of the physical training system’s insufficient implementation. Skepticism arose from what the authors called an “improper” or “inadequate concept of physical conditioning.” Researchers found that many commanders simply did not know the principles underlying an effective program. Other leaders confessed faith in the old alternative to systematic conditioning—the belief that “ordinary tactical training activities” provided sufficient exercise.69 This latter concept might have seemed especially attractive because, according to the study, commanders faced an enormous number of competing demands when building their training calendars. Achieving two objectives with one event would be appealing. Researchers also found that senior commanders rarely inspected their subordinates’ physical training programs. This sent a message that physical training was less important than other competing demands and allowed company commanders to deviate from the standardized conditioning program without correction.70 On top of all this, existing Army regulations did not require units to conduct or document standardized physical fitness tests, so few mechanisms existed to enforce compliance. Researchers recommended numerous solutions. The most straightforward was to simply insist on command emphasis from the top down. Others involved improving training and access to specialist knowledge, such as increasing time spent in advanced courses on teaching officers to develop and supervise conditioning programs.

One of the most powerful approaches to creating buy-in for physical training among commanders was to force officers to invest personally in their own physical fitness. To accomplish this, researchers proposed that raters and endorsing officials comment on an officer’s “physical condition for combat service” when completing his annual evaluation. Researchers also counseled making these comments part of every officer’s permanent record.71 These recommendations became requirements a year later through a revision of Army Regulation 623-105.72 The Army also issued Army Regulations 600-160: Maintenance of Physical Fitness and Detecting and Correcting Physical Abnormalities among Officers two months later on Chief of Staff Maxwell Taylor’s authority. Although concerned chiefly with “physical or mental abnormality” that might disqualify an officer for “full military duty,” the regulation required officers to exercise regularly and commanders to examine their subordinates. Being “physically incapable of performing the duties of his office, rank, grade, or rating” exposed an officer to risk of separation from the service for physical disability.73 Although the regulations stopped short of mandating that officers participate in systematic conditioning programs, they directed weekly exercise and reemphasized the significance of fitness to individual officers. Officer fitness as a vector for stressing fitness throughout the force echoed turn-of-the-century initiatives from President Theodore Roosevelt and Gen. Franklin Bell, but this time disciplinary measures and regulations took precedence over inspiration and exhortation.

While command emphasis could do much to align unit practices with the Army’s official physical culture, researchers also argued that trained specialists were necessary to advise commanders, design unit programs, and inspect organizations for compliance. The PTS’s closure in 1953 therefore received heavy criticism in the study of 1955.74 In the short term, the Army could leverage its existing specialist corps, certified by the PTS before its closure, if units took time to identify them and assign them appropriate additional duties. But this was not a long-term solution. Once again, producers of the Army’s physical culture argued that a central school was necessary. The USAIS could build cultural continuity and develop doctrine and policy, but the probability of disconnect between policy and practice remained high without certified instructors to implement policy or officers qualified to plan and supervise unit programs.75 In lieu of a PTS-style central school, the study’s authors offered a compromise in the form of Army Area physical training courses. Pointing to a one-week course operated by the Fifth Army at Fort Riley and another at Fort Belvoir’s Engineer School, researchers suggested that such courses could at least prepare unit personnel to lead physical training sessions.76 Yet such schools would eventually run out of trained staff without a central school, and they did not prepare leaders to develop or supervise programs. The central school argument failed to gain traction, however. Comprehensive, skill identifier–granting training for specialists by a central agency would not return until the creation of the Army’s Master Fitness Trainer program in 1983.77

The study’s authors also addressed widespread dissatisfaction with physical fitness testing. Specifically, they reasserted the need for tests even though none was mandatory, revised scoring tables, and provided a new combat-focused test. To revise scoring, researchers completed a long-delayed study, initiated in 1953, that had been plagued by data tabulation challenges and disrupted by moves between Forts Bragg, Riley, and Benning. An updated set of scoring tables resulted that established more realistic expectations, particularly in the three-hundred-yard run event.78 Researchers also responded to the “discontent of combat unit commanders” who felt that a “test better related to combat skills” was necessary by providing a new examination tool—the Physical Achievement Test (PAT).79 Five events made up the PAT: a five-second rope climb, a seventy-five-yard dash, a triple broad jump, a 150-yard man carry, and a one-mile run. The first four events were to be administered on a single testing day, with the mile run conducted the following day or within four days if delayed by weather. Except for the man carry and rope climb, the PAT’s events came from the extended battery that Drs. Charles McCloy and Arthur Esslinger piloted in 1942. The climb and carry events were borrowed from the British Battle Physical Training Test.80 By design, the PAT was supposed to measure combat-related skills in addition to the basic components of physical fitness. Its USAIS creators promised that combat unit commanders could, “with some degree of confidence,” be sure that soldiers were well conditioned if they scored above average on both the standard fitness test and the PAT.81 The PAT subsequently entered doctrine in 1957 and reflected an infantry-centric focus that had long been a dominant strain in the Army’s physical culture, and that had only intensified under the USAIS’s influence.

Finally, the adequacy study’s snapshot of the Army’s physical culture highlighted a noteworthy new element—weight control became a concern to be addressed as part of a physical conditioning program for the first time. Sculpting appropriately sized and shaped bodies had been part of the Army’s physical culture since its inception. Early cultural producers such as Herman Koehler and Edmund Butts had celebrated the masculine, disciplined, uniformed body in their writings. Koehler was especially concerned with sculpting balanced bodies in the late-nineteenth-century mode and measured cadets under his charge to track their progress. Height and weight standards were part of induction exams during both world wars, though cases of underweight recruits were more prevalent than overweight recruits. Induction exams during the 1950s also applied height and weight standards. However, the discourse around physical training policy and doctrine had rarely touched on the problem of overweight service members, or at least male soldiers, before the mid-1950s. The main exceptions to this were members of the WAC who had come under scrutiny for being overweight and had become subjects of diet experiments during the preceding decade. WAC weight issues had been primarily nutritional, having had much to do with the types and portions of food on offer in mess halls and post exchanges. These offerings were calibrated to the needs of young men engaged in physically strenuous daily activity, not to the needs of women performing more sedentary duties.82 But by 1955, obesity was common enough across the entire service to warrant opening new fronts in the fight against fat.

Conceiving of obesity as a problem to be addressed through physical training increasingly gained traction within the Army’s physical culture in the 1950s. Ridgway specifically expressed concern about “correct dietary habits” in initiating the study of 1955.83 Discourse about fat also appeared in service journals. In one example, Maj. Albert Lockhart’s Infantry Journal Quarterly article “Overweight in Grade,” published in 1956, offered advice to the “large segment of the Army engaged in sedentary duties” on a “chairborne tour” about how to lose weight and avoid a negative evaluation per AR 600-160. Writing as Maj. Pear Shape, a self-confessed “Fatso,” Lockhart related the trials and tribulations of an officer desirous of fitness but hamstrung by a packed schedule and competing demands. After an encounter with a general who informed him that “there’s a weight limit for jeeps,” Pear Shape found ways to get fit and shared them with his readers: train on your own schedule, seek competition, eat sensibly, stick with consistent and moderate exercise, and consult a doctor in case of concern.84 Escalating apprehension over weight put the Army at the front end of an American dieting movement in which men increasingly participated in the 1950s. Since the 1890s, dieting and slim bodies had come to be seen in wider American society as a sort of moral compensation for consumerism and a way to display virtue. Overweight bodies became associated with more and more negative issues and qualities in the 1950s: psychological problems, heart disease risk, “softness,” and feminization.85 Because physical training in the US Army had always included moral and gendered aspects, weight control fit naturally as an objective worth pursuing through exercise.

Some harsh words, self-motivation, and a “custom-made conditioning program” of his own design might have been thought sufficient to remedy Maj. Pear Shape’s condition, but the average soldier or noncommissioned officer with whom the Army’s physical culture had long been most concerned could not be entrusted with such responsibility. Accordingly, the adequacy study’s authors recommended that the Army systematically identify and correct obesity in the force. Their prescription was highly individualized and premised on a nuanced reading of the obesity problem. Noting that “true obesity” was “not too common” and difficult even for a physician to diagnose, the researchers recommended thorough evaluations of soldiers thought to be obese rather than simply relying on the height-weight tables.86 Assessing body structure was the first step in such an evaluation. Some soldiers might exceed weight standards but be “heavy muscled, heavy boned,” and without excess body fat. Others of a lighter build might be within the weight table standards, but not “considered as normal in the true sense of the word” owing to “relaxed musculature and disposition of fat.”87 After body build, consideration was also to be given to a soldier’s obesity history, disabilities, and habits of eating, drinking, and exercise. Only after a full evaluation were commanders to prescribe a remedial program that targeted the problem’s roots without endangering the soldier by demanding too much strenuous exercise too quickly.

Researchers endorsed several existing programs as models. They praised one in the Fourth Army that involved close coordination between commanders and installation surgeons, but they explicitly recommended another, developed by the Eighteenth Airborne Corps in 1953, for Army-wide adoption. The Airborne Corps’s program required commanders to send overweight soldiers to the hospital for evaluation, and then enter them into a weight reduction program supervised by the unit’s medical officer. Every month, commanders reported to the commanding general the number of pounds lost by each soldier on their weight reduction programs.88 The report’s authors declared that “the smaller the waistline, the longer the life-line” and that the “degree of over-weight” was “directly proportional to an individual’s efficiency, namely his physical stamina and mental alertness.”89 In doing so, they made a case for a soldier’s weight to matter, just like his strength, endurance, agility, and coordination. Surveilling and slashing excess fat became one more tool for strengthening a commander’s “control over the physical state of his command.”90 Within a decade, the Army endorsed this concept by institutionalizing a weight control program and linking weight to measures of soldier and unit fitness.91

While the adequacy study addressed fallout from the Korean War experience, the FM 21-20 revision cycle moved forward and senior leader dissatisfaction with a younger generation of soldiers simmered. Larger ongoing projects within the Army also continued concentrating attention on soldier fitness. Chief among them was the service’s initiation of a major restructuring of its combat divisions. Labeled the pentomic concept, the reorganization was supposed to give the Army a modern face-lift and prepare it to fight either on an atomic battlefield or in response to limited aggression.92 Army Chief of Staff Gen. Maxwell Taylor (1955–1959) in particular viewed the restructuring as a means of improving the Army’s relevance vis-à-vis the nuclear-capable Air Force and Navy.93 The Pentomic Division, created essentially by Taylor’s fiat in October 1956, replaced the Army division’s traditional regimental combat teams with five battle groups. Each battlegroup contained four or five maneuver companies, each comprising five platoons.94 Theoretical research and highly controlled exercises informed this organization. Army theorists concluded that, generally speaking, nuclear weapons did not revolutionize the battlefield. Maneuver and conventional fighting remained necessary. As the authors of one widely circulated text for mid-career officers asserted, “No weapon, or system of weapons, can ever be a complete substitute for combat units. ‘War without men,’ ‘pushbutton war’—all false shibboleths purporting to wage war without manpower—receive no support from atomic tactics.”95 However, using nuclear weapons and minimizing the effects of enemy weapons required new approaches to maneuver and organization. The Army emphasized three concepts in its adaptation to “atomic tactics”: dispersion, flexibility, and mobility. Dispersion on a nonlinear battlefield to deny the enemy quality targets, flexibility to sustain losses and still operate effectively in chaos, and mobility to rapidly mass and disperse.96

If this was the future of general war between nuclear powers, then the soldier’s physical fitness remained valuable according to the Army’s top officers. Ridgway repeatedly predicted that wars would still be won by men instead of machines, even in the face of unimaginably powerful weapons.97 So long as armies met in conflict and war did not escalate to an exchange of strategic nuclear weapons that would deny all parties victory, soldiers still needed to maneuver as part of units to defeat enemy forces and seize terrain. If anything, the atomic battlefield might demand more in terms of physical endurance. The Infantry School’s assistant commandant, Brig. Gen. Carl Fritzsche, made this case in an article published in 1955. Fritzsche argued that soldiers and their leaders had to be prepared to “operate independently and at great distance” from bases and other units. They would also need to be able to operate for “extended periods under conditions unknown in the past,” which in turn demanded the “confidence necessary for success” that came through good health and physical conditioning.98 Furthermore, Fritzsche predicted that tactical nuclear weapons would accelerate the pace of hostilities, denying commanders the time to recondition men who had “grown soft.”99 Members of the Infantry School’s staff studying the pentomic concept buttressed Fritzsche’s prediction. By 1958, the school’s combat conditioning committee had concluded that the pentomic soldier would have to “move farther, faster, oftener” than his predecessor, yet retain a “reserve of strength from which to destroy or pursue enemy forces.”100 A survey of Army units conducted in 1958 reflected similar sentiments in the field. Of eighty-three units surveyed, leaders in 75 percent of them felt that the pentomic concept increased physical requirements.101 In short, physical fitness in this imagined future conflict remained imperative, and its development could not wait until that war commenced.

In the midst of this organizational and doctrinal ferment and two years after the adequacy study of 1955, the long-delayed, USAIS-led revision of FM 21-20 went into print. Breaking from previous practices, a new technical manual, TM 21-200, accompanied the field manual. Field manuals were high-level guides that presented principles, tactics, techniques, and procedures that were widely applicable. Technical manuals provided very detailed and specific information about the operation and maintenance of a particular piece of equipment, or about the performance of particular tasks. FM 21-20’s target audience comprised commanders and staff officers responsible for planning, preparing, supervising, and inspecting physical training programs. The manual therefore covered subjects such as program planning and construction for various types of units, general human physiology, and fitness evaluations. In contrast, TM 21-200 targeted instructors and provided detailed information about performing exercises.102 Except for a formal weight control program, the new manuals converted into doctrine many features of the physical culture expressed in the adequacy study of 1955. The twin manuals of 1957 reflected a physical culture premised on conditioning, focused on individual fitness over unit fitness, rooted in empirical research, and oriented toward preparation for infantry combat.

In another novel move, the manuals’ authors explicitly framed their system in a historical context and, knowingly or not, engaged in some historiographical interpretation. In relating a brief history of physical training between 1885 and 1957, the specialists at the PTS and at the USAIS who authored the manuals identified trends and turning points, criticizing some and praising others. Critiques and praises provide additional insight into the physical culture these authors belonged to and helped shape in the 1950s. Their history began with the US Military Academy’s hiring of Herman Koehler in response to a perceived glut of physical deficiencies among the men enlisted to fight the Civil War. Every conditioning initiative through World War I was, in their words, Koehler’s “personal endeavor.”103 Between 1914 and 1957, the manual’s authors identified a boom-and-bust cycle. During World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, commanders specifically and the Army in general awoke to the need for rigorous conditioning through combat experience and to encounters with an American populace made soft by “leisure living.” After each war, the Army drifted into complacency and prioritized recreation over conditioning. The authors characterized the need for individual soldier fitness as constant, perhaps even growing, throughout this period despite mechanization and technological advances. Sports also featured prominently in this short history. When praised, sport was employed as a “supplement to the conditioning of soldiers,” as in World War I. When criticized, it competed with and eclipsed systematic conditioning. Other subjects for criticism included the old-fashioned brand of “formal calisthenics” that returned between the world wars, the dangerous practice of letting commanders design their own programs, the inadequate corps of specialists available to support mobilizations for both world wars, and repeated failure to sustain “vigorous and continuous” programs at the unit level.104 On the other hand, the use of military and civilian specialists to craft a “modern program” during World War II earned acclamation, though the work of Raycroft and his team between 1917 and 1920 went unmentioned. The manual’s authors identified strongly with the World War II–era specialists responsible for the third watershed in the history of the Army’s physical culture—creating the first doctrine that “could be scientifically justified by testing procedure.”105

Claiming to be heirs to this “new physical training concept,” the manual’s authors launched into the most technical treatment of physical training to appear in doctrine yet. Based on the premise that the human body, “like weapons and machines,” must be “understood before proper techniques and care can be employed in conditioning it,” nearly a quarter of FM 21-20’s pages were dedicated to a synopsis of body structure and functions.106 Readers could learn about anatomical terms (medial, lateral, superior, inferior, and the like), the body’s major bones, types of joints, muscle actions, major muscles, the functioning of the cardio-respiratory system, and more.107 Beyond the principles of overload and progression that had propelled the training system since 1942, the manual introduced a slew of new technical terms such as hypertrophy, crest loads, and stroke volume.108 One of the theses underlying this highly scientific approach to conditioning was that the system could build bodies better and quicker than could incidental or improvised training. Efficiency and effectiveness were especially valuable given the average recruit’s level of fitness, which was assumed to be very poor. Just as their predecessors had six decades earlier, these new advocates of systematic training guaranteed a rational and rapid path to making bodies, which had grown soft in civilized life, ready for battle.

However, the manual’s highly technical treatise was something new, and it seems to have served two purposes. First, it was an educational tool meant to bridge the gap between a commander’s responsibility for and his ignorance of his soldiers’ physical conditions. Second, the treatise reinforced the expertise of its authors because its content would have been daunting for lay readers, and may in that way have been intended to help sell the system to commanders. After all, could the average commander come up with something better if the human body was so complex?

Selling the program was important, given the adequacy study of 1955’s finding that the system itself was sufficient, but that it was compromised by a lack of command emphasis. As observed before, top Army leaders and physical training advocates alike agreed in the 1950s that physical training was extremely relevant for the atomic battlefield of the future. Given the Korean War example and expectations of future conflicts, commanders would not have time to bring their units up to sufficient levels of fitness before entering combat. Thus, conditioning programs had to be consistent and continuous. The authors of FM 21-20 worked to communicate this need and to make it easy for commanders to establish such programs. Dividing the system across a field manual and a technical manual is one example of this effort. Another can be found in the definitions of fitness each manual offered. Where the technical manual retained the five World War II–era components of physical fitness, the field manual simply located physical fitness as a constituent of total military fitness and made a case for its importance.109 FM 21-20 advanced an argument that commanders should care about conditioning because it prepared troops to meet the demands of combat, improved an individual’s sense of well-being, cultivated an appropriate soldierly appearance, and enhanced soldiers’ mental and emotional fitness, and hence also unit morale.110 After making the case to commanders that they should care, the manual provided examples and guidance for tailoring their own programs to meet a wide range of needs. Individual and unit training both received coverage. So too did programs for specialists and staff personnel, which were often trusted to develop and maintain their own fitness—a practice proven to be “unrealistic and fallacious.”111

Another aspect of the Army’s official physical culture that the system of 1957 reflected was its infantry-centric character. In short, the ability to engage in infantry combat defined fitness at its core. Though notable throughout both the field manual and technical manual, this focus is especially visible in sport’s place within the training system, the technical manual’s revised depiction of fitness, and the Physical Achievement Test’s addition. In regard to sport, the manuals’ authors pushed back against the eminence of recreational athletics in the force. In the 1950s “jockstrap” culture that glorified sport across the service, interunit, interpost, and Army-wide competitions boomed. Commanders often placed athletically gifted troops and conscripted athletes on special duty and on traveling teams, denying them training as soldiers and corrupting unit training in many cases.112 Stewards of the Army’s official physical culture, which was premised on systematic training and conditioning, acknowledged the value of sport in building esprit de corps and as a “laboratory” for character development.113 The manual even included new information about organizing leagues and tournaments in off-duty hours. However, the manual’s authors maintained that athletics should be tightly controlled. Sports should “supplement the more vigorous conditioning type activities, rather than replace them.”114 The primary purpose of physical training was conditioning for combat, not recreation. This position was reflected in a new-but-familiar triangular depiction of fitness capped by a “combat ready” state. Basic military skills, such as crawling and climbing, and traits, such as aggressiveness and confidence, composed the triangle’s two sides and supported combat readiness. Strength, endurance, agility, and coordination formed the foundation atop which everything else was built.115 Physical training purportedly addressed all three sides of that triangle. In discussing “combat readiness,” the Army’s chief physical culture producers tended to frame it in terms of being able to maneuver dismounted on the battlefield. Evaluating combat readiness could be accomplished through the PAT. First proposed in the adequacy study of 1955, this battery tested skills such as rope climbing and partner-carries in addition to raw physical fitness.116 To a degree, the PAT was a concession to commanders who were unconvinced that the regular physical fitness test measured a soldier’s preparation for combat.117 It also helped center the definition of fitness on readiness for infantry combat. Rope climbing, dashes, and mile runs were hardly relevant to tank or gun crews, much less to clerks. This orientation represented less a change and more an intensification of long-term trends favoring infantry-centric fitness and exercise concepts in the Army’s training system. A widely held conception of the infantry soldier as the Army’s basic element enabled the infantry branch to bolster these inclinations as it gained organizational dominance over physical training doctrine.118

A final, notable aspect of the Army’s official physical culture reflected in the system of 1957 was the continued, if gradual, elevation of the individual over the unit as the locus of concern. Contrasting the FM 21-20 of 1957 with its earliest predecessor underscores this trend. The Manual of Physical Training of 1914 ostensibly prioritized the “development of the physical attributes of every individual to the fullest extent of his possibilities,” but only in order to make the soldier into a more effective cog in a larger machine.119 Highly prized traits included discipline, precision, and subordination. As Koehler himself wrote, soldiers needed a spirit that reached “out beyond the individual” to make him “think of himself only in connection with the obligations” that the nation laid upon him. Physical training pursued physical and psychological objectives to render the soldier a “disciplined, interdependent and dependable” component of a larger unit.120 Unit readiness was certainly still an element of the physical culture in 1957, but measurable individual fitness loomed larger than before. According to the field manual, commanders should care about fitness chiefly because it made the soldier better prepared for combat, not just because it made for a more disciplined unit. The technical manual’s continued use of the five physiological components of fitness introduced in 1942 prioritized individual readiness over unit readiness, as did its fitness tests. Similarly, the manual’s caution against extreme formalism was premised on formality’s tendency to stifle a soldier’s spirit and interest, and thereby his physical development.121 Individual health considerations such as proper diet and weight control also moved toward the foreground. In part, concentration on the individual resulted from a more scientific approach to physical training that lent itself to measuring and maximizing a single body’s capabilities. The move also aligned with tactical developments. Supreme valuation of discipline and unit effectiveness derived from the demands of linear warfare that informed military thinking up to World War I. However, dispersed formations and individual movement techniques became more important as new weapons made the battlefield deadlier. By World War II, small-unit success depended far more on the individual’s ability to move and fight under fire than it had in the late nineteenth century, and the individual gained proportional significance within the Army’s physical culture.

Less than a year after the publication of the new FM 21-20, the USAIS convened a physical fitness seminar at Fort Benning to evaluate the suitability of Army physical training doctrine in preparing soldiers for the future atomic battlefield. The seminar provided an opportunity for a wide range of stakeholders to weigh in on the state of Army physical training and to validate the adequacy study of 1955’s findings and their incorporation into the FM 21-20 revision of 1957. Seminar attendees included senior officers from field units and Army headquarters, representatives from various service schools, members of West Point’s office of physical education, civilian physical education specialists, and those USAIS officers most responsible for crafting training doctrine. Specific objectives for the gathering included evaluating how civilian fitness affected the Army, determining relationships between physical fitness and total military fitness, determining the level of fitness needed under the new pentomic concept, and considering the best means for measuring fitness.122 Opening remarks by Brig. Gen. Stanley Larsen, the USAIS assistant commandant, made clear that the whole official Army physical culture was under consideration. In asking, “what should we be fit for?,” “how do we attain fitness?,” and “how do we measure fitness?,” Larsen asked attendees to grapple with the meaning, value, and methods of achieving fitness.123

Few revelations emerged from the briefings and committee reports. Most reaffirmed core beliefs within the culture or were predictable given extant trends, signaling the unlikelihood of significant change in the near term. However, four of the final report’s most prominent ideas help refine our understanding of the Army’s official physical culture as it existed at the dawn of a possible era of warfare defined by nuclear weapons. First, the attendees agreed that individual physical fitness was more important than ever despite technological advances and increasing mechanization. Briefers repeatedly asserted that victory on the battlefield might come down to relative advantages in foot mobility, the soldier’s ability to “outmove and outfight” his opponent in adverse conditions, and characteristics such as self-confidence, aggressiveness, and a will to win.124 Furthermore, everyone needed to be fit to fight because the Korean War experience and the pentomic concept suggested that the “rear area” had “been eliminated” in modern war.125 Second, seminar attendees agreed that the training system expressed in FM 21-20 and TM 21-200 was fundamentally sound. A survey of organizations in the field revealed that units agreed—95 percent responded that the existing literature was “excellent” or “good.”126 Yet not all was well. Those same surveys revealed that as many as 72 percent of units felt that their programs were inadequate for mobilization or combat training. A sampling of responses from a survey of individual officers produced a similar finding. Insufficient time allotted to training was most commonly cited as the reason for unsatisfactory programs.127 The cultural producers at USAIS recognized this gap between doctrine and implementation, the third prominent idea, as had their predecessors in the adequacy study of 1955. In the words of Lt. Col. James Reilly of the combat conditioning committee: “without effective implementation, strong command support and equally strong command supervision the program will fail in achievement of mission and objectives.”128 Remediation recommendations once again included more command emphasis, more “positive control” through supervision and inspections, and specialist training for instructors and program managers.129

Finally, seminar attendees agreed that the “Nation must be awakened to the necessity of youth fitness.” American youth, specifically young men, needed to be “conditioned to meet all demands of citizenship.”130 These demands were manifold, and they included possible military service. However, conference attendees fretted that American youth might not be up to soldiering’s demands. Giving voice to these concerns, Larsen claimed in his opening remarks that the “era of exertion and hardship” of America’s forefathers had given way to “an age of ease and comfort” enabled by technology and consumerism.131 Army leaders again turned their collective gaze externally to prehabilitation when confronted with perceived asymmetries between the demands of war and the ability of America’s youth to meet them. Yet conditions had changed since the time of readiness camps and the Citizens’ Military Training Camps (CMTC). Examining the development of federal prehabilitation programs since the interwar CMTCs shows how fears of totalitarianism and militarism, especially in the early Cold War years, reduced the appeal and utility of martial physical training for youth. Over time, the government had to devise new means and methods for sculpting young American bodies for battle.

Prehabilitation programs changed considerably between 1941 and 1957. The concept of prehabilitation was not new in 1941, but American entry into World War II heightened the perceived need for it. Afterward, Cold War concerns ensured that prehabilitation retained a place in American political discourse, in part because many cultural elites and political leaders intuited a growing “muscle gap” and dangers inherent in a “depleted manhood.”132 Additionally, widespread fears throughout the 1950s about a juvenile delinquency epidemic added a new dimension to the perceived value of prehabilitation. Physical preparation for military service might strengthen and discipline character even as it strengthened and disciplined bodies. Before 1941, initiatives such as the CMTC program and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were martial in character and pursued both citizen- and man-building goals.133 World War II and post-war-era efforts initially followed similar paths, but they encountered more limits. Examining how these efforts changed over time and the boundaries each encountered reveals some constraints on federal power to control and shape citizens’ bodies. Analysis also reveals that while civilian physical educators easily and decisively influenced the Army’s physical culture at key points in its development, the Army proved much less able to influence physical educators and wider American society’s popular physical culture.

In 1940, the urgency of prehabilitation surged as the country moved toward war, largely because Selective Service boards rejected approximately 45 percent of the first two million men to be examined for physical or mental issues. While the Selective Service’s director, Brig. Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, scolded Americans over their softness for which they “should be thoroughly ashamed,” the presumed condition of Axis bodies also heightened anxieties.134 Militaristic German, Italian, and Japanese cultures had spawned youth training programs that appeared to discipline, harden, and toughen future soldiers. In fact, some explanations for early German and Japanese successes circulating in the United States and Britain hinged on perceptions of superior soldiers conditioned for modern combat. Intentionally preparing America’s youth for tomorrow’s battlefield or factory therefore seemed necessary. The US government encouraged the idea of “crisis” spurred by the “deplorable conditions in physical fitness which imperil our Nation.”135 John Kelly’s physical fitness organizations and his “Hale America” campaign were key sources for federal endorsement of the crisis narrative. From its origins in late 1940 to its sponsorship by the Federal Security Agency in 1943 and beyond, Kelly’s organization gradually acquired more resources and influence to advance its mission of promoting fitness. Kelly’s initiatives were always voluntary and advisory, but they sustained national attention on the bodies and minds of American citizens, and especially on young men of military age.136

Stepping beyond awareness and concern generation, the federal government unveiled its main prehabilitation effort, the Victory Corps, in September 1942. A joint effort of the Federal Security Agency (FSA), Office of Education, and armed forces, the Victory Corps aimed to prepare teenagers “for service tomorrow in the armed forces by preparing for service in the high school today.”137 Leaders in each sponsoring agency, such as the FSA’s Paul McNutt, expected the Victory Corps to turn high school students into a trained reserve.138 Interested students enrolled first as general members and later transitioned into one of five special service divisions if they met certain qualifications. Each division aligned with either community service, wartime industry, or a branch of military service.139 Students could display their membership by wearing special Victory Corps caps, which they had to make themselves, or armbands emblazoned with division-specific patches. Regardless of division, the Victory Corps provided training in a variety of areas such as citizenship education, competence in science and mathematics, community service, and more. Nonetheless, one of its most “basic objectives[s]” was to “make the greatest possible number of pupils physically fit to carry on as members of the armed forces or as efficient workers.”140 Physical educators had repeatedly requested guidance from the government to best align their instruction with national needs. The Victory Corps responded by defining the citizen’s obligation to contribute in total war as the rationale for youth fitness, and then suggesting a prehabilitation training system. That system found full expression in the manual Physical Fitness through Physical Education, published in 1942.141

The Victory Corps’s system was a physical training regimen designed to prepare young bodies specifically for military or industrial service. According to military authorities, this approach was necessary owing to the shortcomings of physical education. Col. Theodore Bank, one of the chief agents of change in the Army’s World War II–era physical culture, repeatedly and bluntly spoke about existing shortfalls. In one talk in 1942 to Midwestern educators, Bank told conference attendees that schools had “done a poor job of conditioning the youth of American during the last 20 years.” They were responsible for producing too many “puny” recruits when the military needed young men “with the muscles of a blacksmith, the agility of an acrobat and the stamina of a marathon runner.”142 The Victory Corps program aimed to close this gap with a holistic approach to fitness involving conditioning, education on healthy lifestyle choices, medical intervention to remediate physical defects, and the cultivation of character traits such as a “spirit of aggressive attack” and a willingness to “take physical punishment without flinching.”143 Most youth of either sex could participate in the Victory Corps, but the program concentrated on producing “strong and rugged boys who [could] become excellent soldiers or sailors promptly after entering the armed services.”144

Participation in the Victory Corps introduced boys in particular to the Army’s World War II–era physical culture. Its system included both conditioning activities and athletics, specifically the “vigorous and rugged” instead of the “recreational” varieties. As in the Army’s official physical culture, athletics held value mostly because they were thought to develop certain character traits such as the “spirit of competition” and the “will to win.”145 However, the system’s emphasis was on conditioning exercises. Consequently, most of the manual’s pages were filled with activities designed to improve muscular endurance, strength, and agility while teaching skills such as grenade throwing and basic drill. The Army’s Training Circular 87 directly influenced the Victory Corps’s prescribed running, relay, conditioning, grass drill, and “ranger” exercises.146 Indeed, most exercises came straight from the Army system. A year later, a related manual targeting colleges and universities also extended this physical training and acculturation system to the older brothers of prospective Victory Corps members.147 The Victory Corps physical training system ultimately informed some revisions to school instruction, and the government’s emphasis on fitness resulted in more hours dedicated to physical education courses and increased enrollment in those courses.148 Nevertheless, the Victory Corps did not fundamentally modify physical education thought or practice to the degree that civilian educators had altered the Army’s physical culture in the past.

In its close alignment with the Army’s physical culture and its intervention in America’s schools, the Victory Corps represented the most direct and comprehensive federal attempt at martial prehabilitation to date. And yet, despite great wartime pressures and anxieties about poor national fitness, the Victory Corps floundered. Within a year, surveys revealed that only 22 percent of eligible students were enrolled. Most enrollees remained general members or participated in the community service division. Of this population, the three armed-forces-aligned divisions each claimed less than 2 percent of total membership.149 No federal funding proved forthcoming and the Office of Education considered the whole program a “dead duck” by the summer of 1944.150 Postmortems emerged as early as 1943: some students considered the program childish, others preferred making immediate contributions to the war effort through community service, and many school administrators had too much pressing work and too little incentive to justify reforming curricula that seemed sufficient. Damningly, many educators and administrators also feared that the Victory Corps exemplified the “Great Intrusion of the Federal Government” into education.151 Concerns about the “great intrusion” dovetailed with fears of militarism sparked by the Victory Corps, an organization to which comparisons with the Hitler Youth tended to adhere. Author E. B. White voiced this unease in arguing that “war itself is a Nazifying process,” so dressing students in uniforms seemed “somehow a symbol of defeat, not victory.”152 Even with the unusual demands on society imposed by fighting World War II and anxieties about national fitness, Americans rejected a prehabilitation program premised explicitly on preparation for military service for being too martial in character and purpose.

Universal Military Training (UMT), the next major federal prehabilitation effort, came into being even as the Victory Corps withered and World War II ground toward a conclusion. President Franklin Roosevelt first publicly urged a program of mandatory training in a speech to Congress in January 1945, though at the time his was more an idea than a plan.153 Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, continued his advocacy after the former’s death in April. The Truman administration also began filling out the details of a compulsory service program during its campaigns with Congress and the public between 1945 and 1948, and between 1950 and 1952. The proposed program would require nearly all young men to spend a year undergoing military training after graduating from high school. Advocates of UMT, many of whom were Plattsburgers or members of the interwar Military Training Camps Association, such as Henry Stimson and Robert Patterson, advanced two general arguments about its value. First, the possibility of conflict with the Soviet Union demanded constant preparedness to avoid a disastrous opening campaign in a future war. Universal training could improve preparedness and create a large reserve without incurring enormous expenses.154 A second argument highlighted social benefits for American society in general and young men specifically. Training could impart useful skills, improve health, develop discipline and morality, and deepen citizens’ commitment to their civic duties. In the words of historian Michael Hogan, young men would emerge from the “democratic crucible” of UMT with “bodies hardened, skills honed, minds steeped in republican virtue, and values attuned to the defense of democracy in a dangerous, Darwinian world.”155 This narrative was especially prevalent in the campaign of 1945–1948 for UMT.

Of all the social benefits that advocates claimed UMT would yield, physical fitness was among those cited most often. Military officers frequently pointed to a need to enhance the conditioning of potential soldiers, usually with reference to high inductee rejection rates in the past. As it had since the late nineteenth century, when the US Army discovered systematic physical training, convergence between the deep mobilization required to fight modern wars and the tacit obligation of citizens to be prepared for such service helped fuel the focus on fitness. Commentary from Maj. Gen. Lewis Hershey, the director of the Selective Service during and after World War II, typified this position. Hershey argued that there was no time to waste in remedying physical, educational, and moral deficiencies because future mobilization periods would probably be short due to new technologies and a shrinking world. Furthermore, he alleged that existing educational systems were inadequate, given “public indifference and apathy” and how badly they had failed before World War II, a war in which, “roughly, 30 percent of American young manhood . . . [had] been found physically unfit to bear arms in the national defense.” Because the ability to “carry his full share of the responsibility [of defending the country] efficiently and effectively” was a requirement for every citizen, a mandatory period of service in which young men could be made physically, mentally, and morally ready to meet that requirement was essential, according to Hershey.156 President Truman similarly emphasized improving the physical standards of the nation’s manpower in his messages to Congress beginning in 1945.157 Like Hershey, Truman sold mandatory military service as a way to prehabilitate men before they might be called upon in war. Truman had been shocked as an officer in a National Guard field artillery regiment and later as a US senator to discover just how many Americans were physically unfit or lacked access to health care or physical education. Thus, he resolved to act in order to help Americans “make the greatest machine—the machine that God made—work as he intended.”158 Teaching the nation’s youth “what it means to take care of this temple which God gave us” was among Truman’s top priorities for UMT.159

Despite the Truman administration’s efforts, UMT floundered in Congress against opposition spurred by concerns over costs, militarization, and the injustice of compulsory service. UMT died its first death in 1948 after a blue-ribbon commission in 1947 and an experimental Army UMT program failed to meaningfully advance Truman’s agenda in the legislative branch.160 The Korean War resurrected the idea of UMT in 1950, this time focused more on military need and less on civic improvement. However, an absence of public support and the incoming president Dwight Eisenhower’s antipathy to the program culminated in a vote of 236–132 in March 1952 against UMT in the House.161

Outside Congress, educators composed one of the groups most vocally opposed to UMT. According to one survey of professional groups in 1947, as many as 75 percent of educators were against any program of obligatory training.162 Many physical educators opposed UMT despite their relatively greater embrace of prehabilitation through the Victory Corps system, their profession’s history of involvement with the military’s physical training programs, and their acceptance of partial responsibility for so many rejected inductees. Some of the reasons for this opposition can be gleaned from a series of articles published in 1945 in the Journal of Health and Physical Education. In them, authors took issue with the implicit assumption that one year of exposure to the Army’s physical culture could fix all the nation’s fitness shortcomings. The authors also argued that money for UMT could be better spent in primary and secondary schools by increasing access to physical education, improving and adding facilities, and hiring more faculty.163 Others expressed wariness about militarism and linked UMT to compulsory service in the German military, echoing similar critiques of the Victory Corps. New York University’s Jay Nash expressed this disquiet when he contended that America should not “experiment with the beginnings of a nationalized youth movement.” Instead, he reasoned, the nation should foster fitness, discipline, and citizenship in local communities to preserve the “grass roots of democracy.”164 Americans rejected a martial prehabilitation program even with Cold War tensions, recurring anxiety about American society’s physical decline, Korea’s sharp reminder about the continuing need for fitness in modern war, and a political culture that still defined citizenship reciprocally based on obligations. Both the Victory Corps and the proposed UMT program felt too militaristic and seemed to pose too many threats to American liberties by way of control over young bodies.

Still, interest in prehabilitation of some kind persisted into the 1950s. A general explanation for this persistence exists in the space where the perceived consequences of material affluence and suburbanization overlapped with broad Cold War fears. This combination created a moment of cultural anxiety that one scholar has dubbed the “muscle gap.”165 Historians have shown that Americans in the early Cold War period typically understood the consumerism, abundance, and easy, sheltered nature of suburban life both as symbols of national success and as vectors for effeminizing the nation’s youth.166 John Kelly, the famous Philadelphian who raised concerns about men in World War II, certainly thought as much. He claimed in an article published in 1956 that the United States had become a “nation of weaklings.” “Already today’s youngsters are softer, weaker, and flabbier than the youngsters of certain foreign countries,” Kelly asserted, “and it is obvious that they are growing still softer every year.”167 These allegations of “softness” carried multiple meanings. In one sense, weak youth meant weak soldiers, which constituted a real problem when the nation contemplated a possible future war with the Soviet Union. In another, “softness” suggested potential for Communist penetration and subversion.168 “Muscle gap” anxieties had coalesced to such an extent by 1960 that president-elect John Kennedy explicitly declared the nation’s “growing softness” and “increasing lack of physical fitness” a “menace to our national security.”169 In many ways, muscle gap anxieties echoed the earlier masculinity crisis or “male panic” of the late nineteenth century, which had helped spur military interest in systematic physical training in the first place.

The 1950s also added a new fear of violent and out-of-control youth to other concerns about generational competence. This panic over juvenile delinquency had its roots in the World War II years. Massive disruptions to family life were among the consequences of calling millions of men to military service and of an unprecedented number of women entering the workforce. Many youths also entered the workforce at an early age, thereby earning a new degree of autonomy along with their wages. In the words of historian James Gilbert, “dislocation, disrupted families, and a spirit of abandon had lifted certain restraints from the behavior of young people.”170 Lessening restraints and increased autonomy potentially set the stage for crime, or at least immoral behavior and indiscipline. Fears of a coming crime wave, stoked by authorities ranging from the FBI to local parent-teacher associations and church groups in the 1940s, seemed to be confirmed by expert opinion and leading measures of crime statistics in the 1950s.171 The degree of a juvenile delinquency wave’s actual severity is open to interpretation and debate, but fear of delinquency in the public consciousness was real. An impetus for prehabilitation followed from that fear: beyond strengthening weak and effeminate youth, military service and systematic physical training could discipline wayward youth. Perhaps the most visible manifestation of the “individual reformation by way of military service” narrative was Elvis Presley’s public conversion from “angry delinquent” to “patriotic young adult” during his time in uniform. In this narrative, physical fitness was a major component of the holistic approach that the Army claimed it applied and that it leveraged to help justify conscription.172 Providing physical training to potential soldiers seemed to be a way to simultaneously improve the average conscript’s quality and extend some social benefits of service to a wider swathe of American society. Some of these benefits related to physical health, but many derived from equating physical fitness with moral fitness.

Specific episodes punctuated general cultural anxieties about softness, inadequacy, delinquency, and lack of fitness to sustain federal interest in prehabilitation. For example, the Korean War once again set off hand-wringing and soul-searching about the state of the union’s body politic. Of four million men examined for draft registration between 1948 and 1955, approximately 52 percent were rejected on the basis of physical or mental issues.173 Those who donned Army fatigues scarcely seemed a match for their supposedly hardier forebears. Commanders in Korea bemoaned the poor condition of new troops arriving in theater.174 Army commanders and national political leaders alike tended to attribute high rates of collaboration and death among the prisoner of war population, upward trends in courts martial, and an uptick in desertions to the soft new generation.175 On the fields of friendlier strife, Soviet athletes performed well in the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, and then demolished the US teams at both the 1956 Winter and 1960 Summer Olympics.176 Amid this, the highly publicized Kraus-Weber report that exploded into America’s consciousness in 1955 seemed to lend scientific credence to existing beliefs about the nation’s unfitness. Hans Kraus, a sports medicine professor, and Sonja Weber, a posture expert, tested American youth in the 1940s and 1950s using a six-event battery. Kraus and Weber compared the results to those of Austrian, Italian, and Swiss children and found a concerning gap. Across the board, Americans performed far worse than their European peers. Sixty percent of Americans failed at least one test, and 36 percent failed at least one strength test compared to a European failure rate of only about 1 percent.177

The Kraus-Weber report ultimately spurred a federal response. At a White House luncheon in the summer of 1955 attended by dozens of sports celebrities, the same man who prodded Roosevelt to action in 1940 resumed his efforts with Eisenhower. John Kelly brought Kraus and Weber before the luncheon’s attendees, all of whom watched with mounting concern as the report’s authors detailed their findings. Eisenhower was purportedly aghast. According to one reporter, the presentation convinced the president that the fitness problem was “even more alarming than he had imagined.”178 Eisenhower’s mind supposedly went to his World War II experience, and specifically to his memory of draftee rejection rates.179 For Eisenhower, youth fitness had become an issue of national security. The subsequent federal response developed between 1955 and 1956 through a series of conferences held at the nation’s military academies, foregrounding the project’s martial implications.180 A consensus emerged from these meetings that the federal response had to avoid any whiff of totalitarianism.181 This reflected a desire to maintain contrast with the Soviet Union’s regimentation and to elide the taint of militarism.

Executive Order 10673 inaugurated this new prehabilitation effort, a Cabinet-level body titled the President’s Council on Youth Fitness (PCYF), in July 1956. The PCYF did not intervene in America’s schools, nor did it promulgate a compulsory program, directly sponsor activities, or fund research. Instead, it was essentially a “public relations firm for the notion of fitness.” Shane MacCarthy, the PCYF’s director, described the council as “a catalyst, a stimulator, a coordinator, a persuader, an urger, an idea-dropper, a direction-pointer.”182 The PCYF and its full-time staff of four partnered with media outlets, the Ad Council, voluntary organizations such as the Boy Scouts, and local community organizations such as schools and churches. Typical activities included publishing informational pamphlets, providing staff for television interviews, sponsoring annual Youth Fitness Weeks, and encouraging the adoption of fitness as a theme for state, local, and private organizations’ events.183 By leveraging its social and political capital, the PCYF strove to popularize physical activity, defined broadly and liberally, and to inform and arouse the American public to the issue of youth fitness.

The PCYF labeled the product it marketed “total fitness.” Dr. G. Ott Romney, the council’s deputy executive director, defined this concept for attendees at the 1958 USAIS physical fitness symposium as a combination of physical, mental, emotional, and social fitness. This model aligned remarkably well with the Army’s own “total military fitness” concept.184 But as a prehabilitation effort, the PCYF represented a new indirect approach despite the similarities in definitions of fitness. As Romney told the seminar’s gathered officers, the PCYF was “not born to implement the Defense program,” yet any improvement of youth fitness was “bound to improve the preparedness of youth for military service.”185 Improving preparedness did not require young males to don uniforms or sweat through the Army’s specific exercise system. Instead, it encouraged activity, sport, and education to build a foundation that would prepare boys to “take basic training in stride” and to “accept the rigors [of service] with a grin instead of a whimper.” According to Romney, the PCYF was not in the business of crafting protosoldiers, but at the same time it wanted to ensure that the military would not have to “cuddle and coddle carload lots of softies.”186 This approach, characterized by its advisory, noncompulsory, and civilian nature and its commitment to the general improvement of the population’s health, proved more durable, widely influential, and popularly acceptable than earlier efforts. In fact, the PCYF is still active today as the President’ Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition.187

Between 1945 and 1957, the Army’s physical culture remained consistent despite forecasted conditions on future battlefields that may have seemed to minimize the relevance of the individual soldier’s fitness. New technologies might have modified the service’s force structure and doctrine, but they did not generate commensurate change in the way the Army approached or valued exercise. Senior military leaders remained committed to fitness throughout. Indeed, they held to the trope of improving human resources to match or complement the capabilities of new military technologies. In the face of weapons that were able to level entire cities and whose yields were measured by the kilo- and megaton, the soldier needed to be able to “move farther, faster, oftener” than his predecessor while retaining “a reserve of strength from which to destroy or pursue enemy forces.”188 However, after 1945 a general lull set in at the lowest organizational levels during which recreational athletics reigned and the popular and official physical cultures did not align. The Korean War experience rekindled the Army’s focus on physical training. That conflict demanded a high degree of fitness from front-line combatants and support troops alike. Furthermore, the Korean War pointed to psychological and ideological considerations in Cold War conflict that physical training might address.

After 1952, the Army’s key physical culture producers and its senior leaders agreed that the existing culture and its expression in physical training doctrine were fundamentally sound. Insufficient command emphasis from inadequately educated officers had compromised the application of training since World War II, but the training system itself remained valid. The change that occurred within the culture between 1945 and 1957 was consequently minor. Producers of physical training doctrine consciously identified with the more scientific “new physical training concept” pioneered during World War II. Applying research methodology and empirical data, specialists sought to fine-tune the training system to improve specific performance characteristics effectively, efficiently, and safely. That system reflected a valuation of conditioning above all else. Though the official physical culture still accommodated beliefs about sculpting minds and spirits by way of exercise and sport, those outcomes remained ancillary to physical development, as they had since 1942. Additionally, the individual soldier’s fitness continued accumulating attention within the official culture, but the most important individual remained the average man, not the elite athlete. With the growing focus on the individual also came an increased concern for health issues, especially weight control. For the first time, obesity came to be identified as a problem across the service, and one that physical training could help alleviate. Finally, the official physical culture remained centered on infantry combat, sustained especially by the Infantry School acquiring ownership of training research and doctrine. Publication of the field and technical manuals in 1957, coupled with the conscious decision to reinforce existing approaches and systems rather than change them, signified that the Army’s official physical culture had reached a new level of maturation productive of stability, which it would maintain until 1980.

While the Army’s physical culture did not change dramatically, the government’s approach to prehabilitation did. Concerns about gaps between the quality of the United States’ manpower and the demands of war, and now Cold War competition, endured. In addition to long-held anxieties about the deleterious effects of urbanization, industrialization, and mechanization, military and political leaders alike fretted about the impact of consumerism, abundance, juvenile delinquency, and the softening effects of new technologies on young male bodies. As the USAIS combat conditioning committee’s chairman put it: “Ironically, the important breakthroughs which we have achieved in weapons and equipment, and which magnify our combat capabilities, also reduce our capabilities by contributing to the softening and deterioration of the soldier.”189 Between 1945 and 1957, evidence seemed to accumulate in support of these general worries. High draft rejection rates on physical grounds during World War II alarmed the nation. A lack of conditioning allegedly claimed lives in Korea and rendered servicemen susceptible to brainwashing. Critiques of mass-consumer society claimed that it induced numerous negative effects, ranging from physical, mental, and moral softness to widespread delinquency. The Kraus-Weber report also raised concerns about the physical “unfitness” of America’s next generation of soldiers. The presumed physical unfitness of American youth fueled interest in prehabilitation to close the “muscle gap.” Yet the approach to prehabilitation changed significantly during the 1940s and 1950s. The wartime Victory Corps and postwar Universal Military Training concept were designed to expose young men directly to the Army’s physical culture. This approach generated resistance by spurring fears of militarism and totalitarianism. Eisenhower’s President’s Council on Youth Fitness sidestepped such fears by detaching fitness and military training, and by encouraging rather than mandating participation. Where the Army once took the lead in martial prehabilitation programs, it receded to the background in advisory state efforts. Preparation for military service still motivated federal prehabilitation efforts to a large degree through the 1950s, but broader and less explicitly martial health goals took priority. These made programs more publicly palatable, especially in the Cold War environment.

Mid-century prehabilitation programs hold many lessons for those seeking to address today’s fears about the state of America’s youth and its potential soldiery. First, Americans have proven consistently resistant to overtly martial initiatives. Though relatively more tolerant in times of emergency such as World War II, American society time and again displayed deep suspicion of compulsory, nationally organized, and regimented programs. Second, martial concerns offered persuasive arguments for the need of youth physical fitness, but prehabilitation programs oriented toward preparing youth for military service specifically have enjoyed only limited reach and lifespans. Finally, the most successful programs have leveraged what historian Rachel Moran calls “advisory state” methods to sell, counsel, and inform Americans on the how and why of physical fitness.190 These programs did not just target future soldiers, and they didn’t train youth directly for military service. Instead, they aimed to cultivate a broad awareness of and desire for healthy lifestyles and physical fitness in American society.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!