Source of book: I own this.
My wife was given this book by one of her family members. It looked interesting, so I decided to read it too.
In many ways, World War Two is the defining moment of the 20th Century. It was the last gasp of nationalism as a justification for war in Western Europe - really, the last strong assertion of 19th Century political philosophy, and the final fall of dictatorship in that region. True, it would live on in the nationalistic dictatorships of the USSR for another 50ish years, but Germany and Italy would transition to constitutional democracies thereafter, and Western Europe would enjoy an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity.
I have written before about how similar Nazism and Communism are to each other before. Both embody the idea of a nationalistic utopia attainable by totalitarianism and the rejection of globalist ideals - and ideas. In both cases, it was deemed necessary to purge the nation of “un-German” or “un-Soviet” books. This idea of ideological (and usually racial) “purity” is central to all totalitarian systems, including religious ones.
Thus, in 1933, after the Nazis took over German, mass book burnings took place. It is estimated that over 100 million books were destroyed. That many of the books deemed unacceptable were written by Jews was not coincidental. The parallel with Communism is likewise unmistakeable. Ideological purity demands the revocation of freedom of speech and freedom of thought. I will also mention that the cult group I spent my teens in recommended burning of certain books - and toys - that were deemed too evil to exist. (Such as, to name one author, J.R.R. Tolkien.) The totalitarian instinct is the same however it is expressed.
History is important...
When it became apparent that the United States would enter the war, certain visionary individuals realized that the war was not just one fought by weapons and bloodshed. It was, at its core, a war about ideas. As the Council on Books in Wartime - the organization founded to provide reading material to US soldiers - noted in an essay kicking off their effort, the fighting wasn’t just taking place on the field, but in the realm of ideas. They correctly noted that the single most destructive weapon in the war wasn’t a bomb, it was Mein Kampf. That book caused an entire nation - an educated nation no less - to burn the great books. And that book furthermore caused millions of otherwise decent people to turn on their countrymen and viciously exterminate millions.
The types of books the Nazis destroyed are interesting. Goebbels specifically targeted books deemed “progressive,” singling out books about pacifism, socialism, reform, and sexual freedom. Is it any surprise that today’s right, which tolerates - even embraces - open Nazi slogans and symbols wishes to target these same ideas? One of the startling things about reading the Nazi propaganda is just how similar it is to the “traditional values” propaganda today - the bullcrap the Culture Wars people keep peddling. Return to the glory days of the past. Racial and cultural purity. Women belong in their place and need to have more babies so that the “foreigners” don’t out reproduce them. Stop feeding the inferior races and classes. And so on. Nothing has changed - this poison is back with a vengeance right now.
And so it was back then. In the days before the war, there were a surprising number of Americans who were sympathetic to Nazi ideals. (Not least of which was the KKK - which today likewise is in sympathy with neo-Nazism.) White Supremacy was pretty open in society back in the 1930s and 1940s. As Selden Menefee’s book (and later radio dramatization) noted, “large segments of the population are more interested in keeping the Negro in his place than in keeping Hitler and Tojo in their places. The resulting dissention must be very gratifying to Dr. Goebbels.” In another telling segment, a Southern politician tells Menefee that there is no “racial question.” “There is white supremacy, and there always will be white supremacy. We have no patience with fellas in Washington, with their anti-lynching bills, their anti-poll-tax bills, and their anti-discrimination clauses in war contracts.” Again, it has been disturbing to see this basic idea raise its head - and come to power again.
Even some of those who weren’t openly pro-Nazi instead adopted isolationist ideas. The US should just stay out, and look out for its own interests first and last. (Sound familiar?) Men like Wendell Wilkie argued the opposite, that countries need to cooperate with each other in order to achieve lasting peace and mutual prosperity. (In other words, a more globalist view. I am shocked that, after a half century of relative peace, this idea is controversial. Back even a decade ago, conservative politicians at least agreed that mutual trade relations helped support a peaceful world. Make profit, not war, right?)
To counter these poisonous ideas which very nearly destroyed free society 75 years ago, a group of people set out to make sure that the fighting men of the US military had free access to the world of ideas - particularly those which the Nazis deplored. And they succeeded in an amazing way. Furthermore, these idealists hoped to counteract the forces of White Supremacy in our own country. When Books Went to War tells this story.
The story is pretty compelling. There certainly was a demand for books by the soldiers. The war (as with most modern wars) consisted of hours of waiting punctuated by moments of terror and chaos. Those long hours needed to be filled by something other than thinking about dying or killing, and books were the perfect solution. So books needed to be provided.
There were two main phases of the effort. The first was a volunteer collection of books from private individuals. Millions of books were donated and sent to the military units. This was both good and inadequate. The books filled a need for a while, but they worked best at training camps and headquarters - not so well in the field. First, most books at the time were larger hardbacks. They were difficult to carry, heavy, bulky, and didn’t stand up to combat well. Eventually, it became clear that more was needed.
With that in mind, the Council convinced Congress to appropriate funds, and the major publishers to provide books at a very low cost, and the Armed Services Edition series was created. Eventually, millions of copies of over 1300 titles were distributed in light, compact, durable paperbacks to the troops.
Titles were carefully selected to represent a broad range of topics, taste, and genre. Poetry, westerns, classics, non-fiction, bestsellers, and more were all part of the series. Care was taken to find titles that were in demand, and that the soldiers enjoyed.
One interesting and gratifying result of this program was that many soldiers who were not readers before the war became addicted to reading. There wasn’t much else to fill the time, and peer pressure also helped encourage everyone to read. As a result, the men who came back from the front were generally better read and informed than they would have been otherwise, and an entire generation discovered literate reading.
[Side note: unfortunately, this effect failed to take hold in subsequent generations. The Baby Boomers were the first television generation, and even today, they are the generation least likely to have read a book in the last year, to have read a book since college, and so on. Millennials are actually more likely to be readers.]
There were some interesting books among the many titles. Perhaps the most beloved was A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. Also popular for nostalgic reasons was Chicken Every Sunday by Rosemary Taylor. I might have to seek that one out. Also notable was The Great Gatsby, which had been languishing in obscurity prior to the ASE program, but became wildly popular after it was “discovered” by the soldiers. I also have a fondness for the very first ASE book: The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N by Leo Rosten (originally under the pseudonym Leonard Q. Ross), one of my favorite humorous books - and one that humanized immigrants to me in a very real way.
There were some hiccups, however, in book selection. And, as is always the case when it comes to book controversies, the challenges came from the usual suspects: politics and religion.
On the politics side, the Republicans, horrified at the idea that Roosevelt might win a fourth term, snuck a bill through that essentially prohibited books with political ideas from being part of the ASE program. This was part of the greater fight over voting by soldiers - since most of them supported Roosevelt, active efforts were made to suppress their votes or influence their opinions in one direction or another. In what has to be one of the most impressive counteroffensives, libraries, publishers, and the armed forces leadership all pushed back against the bill. As the Council chairman at the time, Archibald Ogden, said, given the restrictions, all they would be able to publish was the Bobbsey Twins and Elsie Dinsmore. (That last one is darkly hilarious in retrospect. The Elsie Dinsmore books were super popular in the most Fundie homeschooling circles, of course. But they are far from free of politics. Rather, they are deeply racist and authoritarian. As in, if they are good Christians, black people will get to be white in heaven level racist. As in obey your abusive father and marry a man twice your age authoritarian.)
Fortunately, this counter effort was successful, resulting in the repeal of the bill. If anything, the Republican effort at suppression of political ideas backfired, particularly after it came to light that a German professor had predicted back in the 1930s that the Americans would ban their own books - the Nazis wouldn’t have to do it.
The other threat came from religion, specifically in the form of moralizers worrying about sexual content in some of the books. Some of these were not particularly high art, such as Forever Amber, a pulp bodice ripper. But the other book that came in for special censure was Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith, which told of an interracial relationship. Both books were at one time banned by the USPS - until Eleanor Roosevelt (rapidly becoming one of my heroes…) insisted the bans be lifted. In addition, the city of Boston banned them. Just in case you wondered where the phrase “banned in Boston” came from. Ogden stood firm on the subject, armed with the knowledge that the servicemen were on his side. He quoted one infantryman’s letter as follows:
“Pay no attention, absolutely no attention, to whatever organization tries to influence your selection of books. If the legion of decency approaches you, please leer at them in your most offensive manner, and tell them to stuff it.”
And the books that were challenged sold - as they generally tend to after an attempt to ban them. Ogden quipped, “It’s beginning to look as if all an author has to do to get into the armed forces library is to be banned in Boston.” Needless to say, this censorship attempt failed rather dramatically.
There was one issue, however, that did cause great consternation and loud complaints on the part of the soldiers. Occasionally, something would go wrong, and a book would turn up missing pages. I feel the pain, believe me. Nothing could be worse than getting partway through a book and not being able to finish it. Such mistakes were corrected, and soldiers which had an issue were given replacements.
The book concludes with some interesting information about the aftermath of the war. One of the key pieces of post-war legislation was the G.I. Bill, which provided free education to (most) veterans. Combined with the new-found love for books that the returning soldiers had and a thirst for knowledge (to the point where younger students complained they were wrecking the grading curve), the G. I. Bill led to a boom in skilled and educated workers in the 1950s - surely one of the contributing factors to the economic boom which ensued.
That said, the author correctly notes that not everyone was included. Because of segregated schools, African Americans did not have much in the way of opportunities to take advantage of the bill. Thus, racial inequality was increased. Likewise, women were not just ineligible, they were actively pushed out of the workforce to make way for the men.
Perhaps the best lesson to draw from this, though, is that investments in education and literacy pay dividends. Again, I am shocked that this is even controversial these days, and that state universities continually have to fight for adequate funding. But perhaps this too is a symptom of what ails the Boomers. Not valuing books much themselves, and benefiting from the prosperity the previous generation created, they haven’t been eager to pare back their own lifestyles to invest in the the Millennials, preferring to whine about how bad the kids all are. But, if they took a good hard look at the past, they might note that making America great requires an educated public, skilled workers, and investment of the public resources to make that happen.
It is mostly coincidence that I happened to finish this book at the beginning of Banned Books Week. But it fits.
The pattern of totalitarian systems of any age has been to suppress knowledge, eliminate dissent, and burn or ban books. In the war of ideas, knowledge is key - and empathy too. The best defense against the onslaught of fake news and hatemongering is real knowledge, real facts, and the ability to empathize with people outside the tribe. Books have always been crucial in this battle of ideas. Unlike clickbait articles or 140 character sound bites, books allow a bigger picture to be seen, people to be fully humanized, and ideas to be fully developed. Infowars and Stormfront are the Mein Kampf of our time, and the ideas haven’t really changed. They have just been re-packaged. One of the things that gives me optimism for the future is that younger people are more likely to be readers.
As this book shows, it isn’t just enough to have freedom to read. We must actually read, or we are missing the point. There is much for all of us to learn, and access to great ideas has never been easier. We owe it to ourselves, to others, and to our children to continue to learn and explore, and cultivate a love of knowledge, wisdom, and learning in our children.