A Very Brief Review of When Books Went to War

By Lawrence “Mack in Texas” Hall (Rated G)

“When America entered World War II in 1941, we faced an enemy that had banned and burned more than 100 million books and caused fearful citizens to hide…many more.” -Cover note, When Books Went to War, by Molly Guptill Manning

The “we” is a bit precious; the blurb writer was not in World War II, nor was the author, nor I, nor you. Still, the point is well made: tyrants don’t want people thinking for themselves. Books are dangerous to bullies, whether they are Hitler, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, Vlad the Bad Putin, Chairman Xi, or the Ms. Grundy down the street.

Molly Guptill Manning’s excellent When Books Went to War begins with an overview of what books have been accessible to soldiers, beginning with the American Civil War, and then examines censorship of all media but especially books in the Nazi time.

When American entered the war the average education level among soldiers was the 11th grade, which was the highest in U.S. military history. With an almost universal literacy rate, books would be important for morale and for helping promote critical thinking and a sense of culture for helping democratize learning among all Americans after the war.

The process of making books accessible was complicated, but by 1943 the Armed Services Editions (ASE) of all sorts of books – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and scientific-technical – were being sent to our military all over the world.

These paperback editions were designed to fit a combat infantryman’s pockets, and were bound on the narrow edge rather than the wide. Given that printing presses and paper sourced had to be modified for this format, this was a challenge, but one successfully met.

Ironically, there were strong attempts to censor the content. Title V, the Soldiers’ Voting Rights Act, was burdened with a rider that would have banned any book with even a hint of politics. Although Title V was so botched that very few soldiers overseas were permitted to vote, the censorship was scrubbed. As The San Antonio News said, “One would think that the men who fight the Nation’s battles would be quite able to decide for themselves what they would like to read” (p. 142).

Miss Manning appends the titles and authors of the thousands of ASEs. Many of these are action books: westerns (Hopalong Cassidy Serves a Writ), detective stories (The Postman Always Rings Twice), historical novels (Death Comes for the Archbishop), and a very few war narratives, along with essays, science fiction, biographies, drama. There is a little poetry: Robert Frost, for instance, Carl Sandburg, Whitman, Longfellow, and others, including Robert Herrick, who would now be found only in a university graduate course. There is a Russian novel written by a fellow named Kalashnikoff (as spelt) and German Erich Maria Remarque’s Arch of Triumph.

The ASE’s would in fact represent the holdings of an especially good library in a mid-sized American city or a very large high school.  That is, of course, before all the Ms. Grundys thundered in looking for th’ dirty books.

“…over 123 million Armed Services Editions were printed. The Victory Book Campaign added 18 million donated books to the total number distributed to American troops. More books were given to the American armed services than Hitler destroyed” (p. 194).

Those free and uncensored books were examples of the many things this nation gets exactly right. Thanks to Molly Guptill Manning for reminding us.

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