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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Rubber Wars

posted by on January 25 at 14:45 PM


One of my favorite anecdotes about World War II involves condoms and cooperation between nations. I think my father first told it to me. The story goes like this:

During the war, Russian soldiers would place condoms over the barrels of their rifles to prevent water damage. As the war grinded on, condoms were in short supply, leading Stalin to send a request to president Roosevelt for a shipment of “standard small U.S. condoms.”

Roosevelt agreed, with one request of his own: The condoms were to be extra large in size and stamped with the words “Standard U.S. Size.”

At least, that’s how I had heard the story. But after recounting the anecdote to a friend the other night, who found it all very dubious, I decided to do a little investigating. Wikipedia told me nothing, but some time with Google led me to a comment posted here by one “markm”:

In WWII, the Russians complained about the condoms sent with the Lend-Lease supplies. Stalin claimed they were too small. Finally, Roosevelt had extra-extra large special ordered—and shipped in packages marked “Texas Medium.”

This is similar to the story I’d been told, save for the “Texas Medium” bit. But after a bit more sleuthing I found this comment on a site called Creative Cow:

Ran across this in a “Straight Dope” article. Don’t know if it is true but it’s the Cold War in a nutshell:

Seems that in the latter part of the cold war Russia was allowed some limited trade with the U.S. Some nameless institution ordered 50,000 condoms from an American plant (located in Texas, I like to think).

The order specified that the condoms were to be 11 inches long. The Americans scratched their heads, called the Russians to verify the measurement, and were rudely told that the order was correct, all of the condoms should be 11 inches long.

So the Americans proceeded to fill the order and shipped the Russians 50,000 11-inch condoms—in boxes labeled “medium.” Heh heh heh.

Again, similar, only this time the tale has been transferred to the Cold War. And seeing as how I couldn’t find one reputable source to verify my story, I was beginning to think it was all horsehockey—a feeling backed up when I came across this:

There is a story—probably untrue—that during the war, one soldier learned how to keep his gun’s firing mechanism warm in freezing weather by stretching a condom over it. News got back to Churchill, and it was suggested that Durex be approached to manufacture 18 inch condoms. Churchill is said to have agreed, on two conditions—that the condom be labeled ‘Made in Britain,’ and ‘Medium.’

And then this, from the site Anecdotage:

During World War II, British soldiers discovered that placing a condom over a gun’s barrel would keep the weapon dry and prevent it from corroding (near the sea) or icing up (in winter conditions).

No such condoms existed for larger weapons, however, and it was suggested to Winston Churchill one day that 18” long specimens be made to cover larger artillery pieces. Churchill agreed, with two stipulations. First, the larger condoms would clearly be labeled “For Use By British Servicemen.” And second? The condoms would also be labeled “Small.”

So it appears my favorite WWII anecdote is complete trash—and if something close to it did happen it probably belongs to Churchill, not Roosevelt. Which is too bad, because the one I thought was true was funnier.

Still, Googling “Franklin Roosevelt + condoms” did turn up this bit of history:

One of the most intense policy debates during the war was whether to provide American troops with condoms. The secretary of the navy, Josephus Daniels, rejected the idea, fearing that it would corrupt the troops’ morals…While Daniels was on vacation, however, his undersecretary, Franklin Roosevelt, authorized prophylactics for sailors.

So there you go.

RSS icon Comments


OK, this requires checking I can't at work because it's blocked, but when i get a chance...

Posted by longball | January 25, 2007 3:15 PM

The soviet PPSh 41 ( below) which was standard for world war 2 Soviet infantry couldn’t possibly be fitted with a condom or if it could, it wouldn’t really help with the push in Stalingrad and the freezing winters when the Soviet Army pushed forward. Rain wasn’t really a concern in Stalingrad, I’ve fired the PPSH 41 before ( long story, the 80’s Central America) it tends to jam a lot and it’s a lousy gun, prolly one of the worst in world war 2, thus it was quickly replaced in the 1950’s with the Kalashnikov 47, which mos def can not take a condom over it. The only one that could arguably hold a condom would be the Simonov, which is the standard soviet sniper rifle for that era, but it was replaced by the tokarjev when the Russian army made its push. The M-1 Garand which US soldiers used in world war 2 could take a condom, and probably would have been helpful in the Pacific. Most likely another story told by North Americans to try to hide the fact that if it wasn’t for Stalingrad and the 20 million Russians that died in world war 2, Germany would not have been defeated as quickly as it was. Not to say that US sacrifices and push from France were not huge in determining the war, but very small compared to the Russians’ lost in human life and battle field victories. .

Posted by SeMe | January 25, 2007 3:30 PM

Goddam right the sailors needed the condoms. Those guys will put their wieners anywhere (said as the proud grandchild of a WWII Navy-man).

Secondly, SeMe, you're kind of scaring me.

Posted by The_Pope_Of_Chili_Town | January 25, 2007 3:47 PM

Nah pope, its all good, you know that life be taking you places.

BTW, From the account of German women who were brutalized by the Red Army in Berlin, the Soviets didnt use condoms.

Posted by SeMe | January 25, 2007 3:52 PM

I tried snopes and came up with zilch using "condom." Weird because I've heard the story too (the Texan version).

Posted by elswinger | January 25, 2007 4:08 PM

Yeah, I understand. Maybe I'm just jealous because me life hasn't taken me to a place where I get to fire automatics with revolutionaries/terrorists (tomato/to-mah-to).

And I’m not being sarcastic here, I'm sure there is a great story behind that.

Posted by The_Pope_Of_Chili_Town | January 25, 2007 4:09 PM

In actual practice, there was a standard issue rubber cover for rifles used for WW I and WW II - if you had to fire it and needed a replacement, you used your standard issue condoms.

This could be the "origin" of the story. They're fairly thick rubber covers - a condom would tear way too easily for long duration usage, however, based on my field experience with them.

Posted by Will in Seattle | January 25, 2007 4:30 PM

brad, it's still a good story, and a genius marketing scheme. not to mention a fine example of why most wars are started in the first place -- it all comes down to cock waggling.

as a responsible single woman, i have a fine assortment of condoms in my War Chest (nightstand drawer). i've noticed that gentleman callers almost always go for the magnum.

unfortunately, it is rarely a necessary choice.

Posted by kerri harrop | January 25, 2007 4:41 PM

Interesting Will. Never heard or seen pics of such rubbers from WW2. I of course beleive you, but now Im curious. Links?

Posted by SeMe | January 25, 2007 4:41 PM

what, the rubber covers? they used WW II vintage rifles in Canada for militia training and those had standard issue rubber covers for field exercises. even had some for some WW I rifles (used mostly by people who liked Lee-Enfields) for the local gun clubs found in each city.

I presume if they existed for multiple models that the same would also exist in the US market. Condoms just work as a makeshift field repair - if you fire it you blow out the end part, and then cover it with a rubber or cram it down the barrel but not below the flash supressor slots.

Posted by Will in Seattle | January 25, 2007 5:26 PM

Um, just for the sake of clarity, the Naval condom debate was from WWI not WWII. Roosevelt was undersecretary of the Navy during that war. He was obviously president during WWII.

Posted by j-lon | January 25, 2007 5:38 PM

Excellent research on this urban legend (note, urban legends do not have to be false; this is a UL because there are so many variants of the story.) Fascinating how it changes. Good luck finding actual confirmation from a reliable source on such a delicate topic!

Posted by Fnarf | January 25, 2007 6:26 PM

so this story raises a question: just when did condom manufacturers actually start producing different size condoms?

I was never much of condom user prior to AIDS, but my recollection of those days was that variety was incredibly limited (Trojan or Trojan?) and that it was only after the AIDS inspired explosion in condom usage that different colors, flavors, sizes, etc. became common.

Or was I just oblivious?

Posted by gnossos | January 25, 2007 7:49 PM

One of my favorite anecdotes about World War II...

And that's exactly where I stopped reading.

Posted by Boomer | January 25, 2007 10:33 PM

and yet, you still had to post. poor boomer.

totally cracking up at kerri back @ 8...a couple of sex worker pals were lamenting this same issue over drinks one evening. One said something about how all her tricks insisted they needed magnums when snugger fit would've been perfectly adequate.

The other pulled out a regular old Lifestyle, opened it and fit it over her hand and most of her forearm. She said she did this one night w/a guy who said he couldn't use condoms cause they were too tight...she told him unless you're bigger than this there's no problem. Poor guy couldn't get it up after that.

Posted by gnossos | January 25, 2007 11:28 PM

If you send this to, they wuill investigate it.

Posted by Blacksheep | January 26, 2007 10:57 AM

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