More lurid details emerged last week about the U.S. Navy’s “Fat Leonard” corruption scandal. For more than a decade, Singapore-based tycoon “Fat” Leonard Glenn Francis bribed officers from the Navy’s Seventh Fleet with prostitutes, alcohol, lavish feasts and other gifts in exchange for classified information on U.S. warship and submarine movements. While Navy officers enjoyed sex parties on Francis’s dime at Southeast Asia’s finest hotels, Francis’s company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia, used the information they provided to gain lucrative contracts to service U.S. Navy vessels.
The scandal has ensnared hundreds of active duty and retired Navy personnel since Francis’s arrest in 2012. Fifteen Navy officials have pleaded guilty to taking bribes or lying about their ties to Francis, and another nine await trial. An additional 480 personnel, including 60 admirals, have come under Justice Department or Navy investigation for their links to Francis and Glenn Defense. For years, Francis’s Seventh Fleet mole network shielded him from Navy inquiries into cost overruns and inflated work invoices, helping Glenn Defense defraud the U.S. government of at least $35 million.
In the wake of the scandal, the Navy has implemented reforms designed to prevent corruption in its contracting system and strengthen ethical standards. But it has failed to confront the darker history of American involvement in the region that made Francis’s seduction efforts so successful.
The U.S. military has long enjoyed prostitution and indulgence in Asia. In fact, this has been central to the American military presence in the region since at least World War II. While senior American officers may pay lip service to the moral behaviors of their soldiers, their actions have long told a different story. Encouraging sex and good times for the men under their command has been an informal but consequential foreign policy for decades. Military prostitution serving U.S. forces has therefore become a crucial, lucrative part of local and national economies wherever U.S. servicemen have deployed.
American troops in Asia have benefited from a severe disparity between the U.S. and local standards of living. Over 70,000 American troops served in China during World War II, and by 1945 inflation enabled American privates to earn 10 times more than full Chinese generals. Just like Francis 70 years later, many Chinese entrepreneurs discovered that satisfying the American demand for sex and alcohol could be lucrative. Wherever Americans deployed in China, red light districts sprang up around them.
The pattern became Chinese government policy after the war ended, when more than 54,000 Marines landed in China to prevent Chinese Communist forces from seizing control of formerly Japanese-occupied areas. Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek, eager to encourage U.S. forces to stay in China and continue supporting his military, ordered mayors of coastal cities like Shanghai, Tianjin and Qingdao to offer American personnel special treatment and “all kinds of entertainment.”
Residents of these cities needed little encouragement. Some 450 cafes, dance clubs and restaurants catering to the Marines who occupied Qingdao opened by early 1946.
These new businesses boosted both American morale and local economies while relying heavily on sex work. In a letter to his wife in early 1946, Marine Lt. Carl Johnson, stationed in a town near Tianjin, described his surroundings: “The village itself consists of about thirty bars, or cafes or whatever you want to call them. Each one is a house of prostitution [and] there is nothing undercover about it.”
In Japan, plans to provide sexual services and other entertainment to American servicemen began just days after the atomic bombings.
Japanese officials feared that unless American troops had easy access to prostitutes, large-scale rape would accompany the occupation. The deputy prime minister ordered Tokyo metropolitan police to devise a solution. Police from Japan’s capital collaborated with local brothel, nightclub and geisha-house owners to establish the Recreation and Amusement Association (RAA). Within two months, sex workers at RAA facilities and traditional brothels were servicing thousands of GIs each day.
Even more than in China, the money American troops spent on sex played a crucial role in rehabilitating Japan’s economy immediately after the war. This trend continued after the outbreak of the Korean War sent American soldiers pouring into Asia for the second time in less than a decade. American combat troops were entitled to rest and recreation (R&R) leave in Japan every six weeks. This holiday scheme, which soldiers dubbed I&I (intoxication and intercourse), poured hundreds of millions of yen into the devastated Japanese economy.
In the 1960s, South Korean President Park Chung-hee also turned the American hunger for “I&I” into an opportunity for economic gain. Park’s government established special prostitution districts, mostly located near U.S. military bases. It also enacted a tourism promotion law that provided tax-free alcohol to bars and brothels catering to American troops.
Park’s efforts succeeded: U.S. Army intelligence in Korea estimated that spending by American troops accounted for a whopping quarter of South Korea’s gross national product in the early 1960s. Such growth came at the cost of encouraging many impoverished Korean women to enter the sex industry. Korea’s riches depended, in part, on the flourishing of prostitution, with women from poorer countries like the Philippines eventually taking the place of locals.
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military’s R&R program bolstered sex and hospitality industries across the region. Entrepreneurs in Bangkok, many of them connected to the Thai government, built scores of new bars and hotels to attract GIs. Two of contemporary Bangkok’s red-light districts — Patpong and Soi Cowboy — trace their origin to these R&R visits.
Catering to the U.S. military at times caused public backlash against their presence. But, savvier leaders, like Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, leveraged the R&R program to foster well-rounded economic development and better ties with the United States.
More crucially, Lee recognized that the most lucrative target was not the soldiers — but the Pentagon. By the early 1970s, Singapore’s docks serviced more than 100 U.S. Navy ships annually, ultimately paving the way for an influx of American private investment during the 1970s. The security and economic connections Lee forged with the United States helped make Singapore rich, but the partnership began by enticing free-spending GIs to visit the island city-state’s bars and brothels on R&R trips.
So while Francis might be unique in his ability to harness bacchanalia for the purpose of bilking American taxpayers, the high life he offered was simply a more luxurious version of a lifestyle that has always been a perk of military service in Asia.
Senior officials, like Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer, would like us to believe that the actions of American officers involved in the scandal stemmed from personal moral failings out of step with long-standing military values. In reality, however, American servicemen have long counted on Fat Leonards of all stripes — from heads of state down to go-go bar managers — to provide access to sex and good times. This is as much a part of the U.S. military’s legacy in Asia as the courage and sacrifice that brought down Japan’s empire.