When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning

(The most popular book read by American GIs during WWII)

As a professed bibliophile I was intrigued when I learned of the publication of When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning.  The concept of the book was fascinating and it seemed to me that the topic, the impact of reading on American military personnel during World War II has never been given much attention.  Now, with Manning’s monograph we have a short history of the role of books during the Second World War ranging from Nazi book burnings, the ideological war between Nazism and Democracy, the diversion provided to American soldiers that allowed them to endure, and the impact on the publishing industry that led to the production of the mass market paperback.   Manning has written a wonderful book as she integrates her theme in relation to the important events that took place during the war.

(Nazi book burning, May 10, 1933)

According to Manning there was no escape from the fear of dying during World War II.  Whether on land, sea, or in the air American GIs faced the likelihood that they or someone very close to them would not survive.  Any diversion from the anxiety that soldiers faced on an everyday basis was welcomed.  As Manning describes it, “the days were grinding, the stress was suffocating, and the dreams of home were often fleeting.  Any distraction from the horrors of war was cherished.  The men treasured mementos from home.  Letters from loved ones were rare prizes.  Card games, puzzles, music, and the occasional sports game helped pass the hours waiting for action or sleep to come.  Yet mail could be frustratingly irregular—sometimes taking as long as four or five months to arrive—and games and the energy to play them could not always be mustered after a long day of training or fighting.  To keep morale from sinking, there needed to be readily available entertainment to provide some relief from war.” (xiii-xiv)  The answer that evolved was the creation of book editions designed for soldiers; portable and accessible for those in combat, rehabilitation, or other wartime situations.

Manning begins her narrative with a Nazi book burning rally on May 10, 1933.  The purpose of the rally organized by Adolf Hitler’s Minister of Public Enlightenment, Joseph Goebbles was “to ensure the purity of German literature” and rid Germany of ideas “antagonistic to German progress.” (2)  The works of Sigmund Freud, Emile Ludwig, Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, among many others were tossed into the fire, no longer available to German students.  Thousands of book burnings took place nationwide including major universities.  It is estimated that the Nazis burned over 100 million books during their reign of terror.  This set the stage for an aspect of the war that was apart from the battlefield as Hitler fought to eliminate democracy and free thought.  The American Library Association (ALA) described Nazi actions against intellectual freedom as a “bibliocaust,” their weapon of choice was to encourage Americans to read, and once the United States became an active belligerent supply books to American soldiers.

(An American GI relaxing with a book in Guadalcanal)

Manning reviews the history of how America organized the distribution of books to American soldiers.  Beginning with conscription and the military training that followed the ALA and other organizations were created to gather and distribute books to American GIs.  At first, the effort was based on collecting donations from the public at large, but when that was deemed inadequate; because of the increasing number of men in the military, the fact that hardcover books which had been the staple of the American publishing industry before the war were much too heavy to be taken into combat, also, the supply of books was being exhausted, and finally many books that were donated did not meet the needs of the troops.  The Victory Book Campaign (VBC) which had been in charge of book donations turned to the American publishing industry to solve the problem as one company, Pocket Books had already begun publishing paperbacks.  The magazine industry had developed miniature editions for servicemen and they were very successful, so why not the book industry.

The key for infantry soldiers and those near the front was to travel as light as possible, and at the same time meet the needs of soldiers who craved reading to make the non-combat time go quickly.  Manning provides details how the paperback volume evolved and how it caused a revolution in American publishing.  Publishers joined together to create the “Armed Services Edition” (ASEs) of hundreds of titles under the auspices of the Council of Books in Wartime.  Problems did develop in the production and distribution of these volumes but once these problems were solved millions of books came off the presses and were distributed overseas and to military facilities at home.  One of the more interesting insights that Manning provides centers on unpopular books before the war that would emerge as best sellers later on.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are cases in point.  The impact of these books on soldiers was profound.  Manning includes numerous letters written by GIs during the war extolling the virtues of the books they read, and the need they filled.  GIs were interviewed after the war and expressed similar feelings.

As men waited on Landing Craft in the English Channel for the D Day landing, many turned to books.  A.J. Liebling, a war correspondent for New Yorker magazine wrote that one infantry man told him “these little books are a great thing.  They take you away.” (99) Many soldiers developed a relationship with the authors they read.  Katherine Anne Porter’s Short Stories touched the hearts of many soldiers and she received over 600 letters.  Betty Smith, the author of A Tree grows in Brooklyn received 1500 letters a year and answered each one.  As one private wrote, “Books are often the sole means of escape for GIs….I haven’t seen many a man who never before had the patience or inclination to read a book, pick up one of the Council’s and become absorbed and ask for more.” (111)  In fact many soldiers would become lifelong readers because of their experiences during the war.  Manning deftly captures the emotions that soldiers felt as they identified with the literature they read.  It brought them home and gave them hope for the future, and helped them deal with the present.  Manning must have scoured many sources to come up with the letters she integrates into the narrative and it provides tremendous insight for the reader into the minds of the soldiers who fought. The program to supply books did provoke some controversy, particularly as the 1944 Presidential election approached.  Senator Robert Taft amended the Soldier Voting Act which created a partisan battle over the ballots that soldiers would use.  Taft’s amendment, titled Article V stated no book could be sent to soldiers funded by government funds that “…contained[ed] political argument or political propaganda of any kind designed or calculated to affect the result of any election.” (136-7) The Council responsible for choosing titles and the War Department afraid to run afoul of the legislation trimmed the approved list and books such as Charles Beard’s The Republic, Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Yankee from Olympus, and E.B. White’s One Man’s Meat, along textbooks for military education courses were no longer available.  The Council led the opposition arguing that books available in the United States now were not available overseas for American soldiers.  Manning characterizes the conflict as nothing more than a Republican attempt to hold down Roosevelt’s vote since 69% of GIs polled said they would vote for a fourth term.  Whether accurate or not Manning presents both sides of the argument, as Republicans were forced to amend the legislation, ostensibly overturning Article V.

Once the war ended there was an obvious correlation between the success of the Council on Books in Wartime and postwar developments.  Under the GI Bill of Rights veterans were allowed a free college education.  Eventually 7.8 million veterans took advantage of this opportunity and many did so because of the reading habits they developed during the war.  For those who were not avid readers before the war, the Victory Book Campaign was responsible for showing men they could thrive at book learning and studying after the war.  “After all, if they could read and learn burrowed in a foxhole between shell bursts, surely they could handle a course of study in the classroom.”  Further the American publishing industry continued publishing paperbacks revolutionizing the industry.  Numerous publishers began producing paperbacks and sales went from 40 million in 1942 to 270 million in 1952, and by 1959 hardback sales were overtaken by those of paperbacks, changes directly related to the ASE’s of the war. (191)

Molly Manning has examined a different aspect of World War II and its influence on post war America.  Her thoughtful approach and reasoned analysis has produced a wonderful story that needed to be told.  It is a reflection of American values and deserves to be read by a wide audience.

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