A US sailor receives a COVID-19 vaccine.
A service member receives a COVID-19 vaccine at the US Naval Medical Center in San Diego. Image by AP

Claim about long US jail terms for anti-vax soldiers an odd angry shot

AAP FactCheck February 11, 2022

Members of the US armed forces were jailed for 25 years for refusing the smallpox vaccine.


Mostly False. There is evidence of one case, but lengthy prison terms were not widespread.

Anti-vaccine mandate protesters at the Convoy to Canberra rally on January 31 were told members of the US armed forces received 25-year jail terms for refusing the smallpox vaccine during World War I.

A rally speaker made the claim, referring to a book “written by a doctor”. But the assertion is misleading; the book mentions only one case of a serviceman imprisoned for 25 years for refusing the vaccine, and a historian says the sentence was likely reduced or set aside.

The speaker, who identifies himself at the start of his speech shared on Facebook, says in the video: “There’s a book that I’ve used as my avatar ever since I got on Facebook.

“It was written by a doctor in the US to the president of the United States of America begging him to remove the jail term for members of the armed services who would not take the smallpox vaccine. Twenty-five years these men were going to prison for; 25 years rather than have a smallpox vaccine” (video mark 2hr 21 min 20 sec).

The speaker’s Facebook profile picture shows the 1920 book Horrors of Vaccination, written and published by Chas (Charles) M. Higgins. Higgins was not a doctor – he was an ink manufacturer and an opponent of compulsory vaccination.  The book is popular among anti-vaxxers and widely shared on Facebook – see here, here, here and here.

But the book doesn’t document the widespread jailing of US servicemen for not taking the smallpox vaccine, as claimed at the rally.

On page 13, Higgins writes: “In answer to a special request for information on this point, I have been informed by the office of the Judge Advocate General, in a letter dated January 14, 1919, that there was only one instance of court-martial for refusing to be vaccinated in the years 1917 and 1918, and this was held to be a violation of the 96th Article of War, and that the offender in this case was sentenced to be ‘Dishonorably discharged from the service, to forfeit all pay and allowances due or become due, and to be confined at hard labor at such place as the convening authority may direct for twenty-five years’.”

AAP FactCheck could find no other source for claims of 25 years’ imprisonment for vaccine refusal in the US military.

A report in the Elko Independent newspaper in May 1918 records a 15-year sentence for an army member who refused to be vaccinated. A report in the Wheeler Intelligencer from October 1918 documents the case of a soldier sentenced to 10 years of hard labour for refusing vaccination because it would “defile his body”.

Harsh as the sentences sound, Michael Bennett, emeritus professor of history at the University of Tasmania’s school of humanities, told AAP FactCheck the stakes for the armed services in the context of smallpox were high.

“In addition to the health risks, allowing someone to refuse vaccination might encourage more general insubordination,” Professor Bennett said in an email.

“The problem is that we don’t have details of the individual offender who was, in essence, court-martialled for disobeying orders.

“Punishments in military courts in World War I were always severe. Desertion could be a capital offence.”

Prof Bennett said there was public concern after the war about the severity of penalties and any long jail term for a vaccine-refuser was likely to have been “reduced or set aside”.

This Newsweek explainer shows the US military has a long history of vaccine mandates, going back to 1777 when George Washington wanted all troops inoculated against smallpox during the Revolutionary War.

US military historian Bobby Wintermute told AAP FactCheck the preferred treatment of non-compliant military personnel over vaccines has been reduction in grade and pay, non-judicial punishment or dishonourable discharge.

“I can tell you in high confidence that American servicemen are not being sentenced to prison for refusing vaccination,” Professor Wintermute said in an email. “Historically, I have not heard of cases where soldiers or sailors have received lengthy prison confinement for refusing vaccination; certainly not in the twentieth century.”

The Verdict

There is only one recorded instance of a 25-year prison term for a member of the military refusing a vaccine – in a book by a renowned opponent of vaccines. There was no widespread jailing of servicemen for refusing the vaccine, as confirmed to AAP FactCheck by historians. There are isolated accounts of imprisonment for disobeying orders in WWI, during which severe punishments were carried out for insubordination.

Mostly False – The claim is mostly inaccurate but includes minor elements of truth.

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