I suspect I’m like many people with a stack of books 10 feet high next to their beds or on their desks. Currently I am reading four books which I do intend to finish and review on my blog in the next couple of months. I worked so much in the fall completing client books there was just no desire to read anything else even though this book in particular grabbed my attention.
When Books Went To War The Stories that Helped us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning was a fascinating read. A part of World War II history I had barely heard of and knew nothing about. I am a lover of books and feel rich when I’m surrounded by them so a book about books was exciting to find! And, one which centers on World War II – even better!
Manning takes the reader on a journey through World War II from 1933 when Germany was banning and burning books to the late 1940s after the programs ended. Librarians and other groups of U.S. citizens were appalled by the Nazi book banning and burning across Europe and fought to first obtain donated books for our U.S. troops when we entered the war. Our troops were on one hand, fighting a war of ideas learned in books. Our country is about democracy, free speech, the spread of ideas and education, all to build a better country. What better way to accomplish this than providing books to our troops, many of which would have never attended college or likely picked up a book after their early education was finished.
Manning explains the history of the Victory Book Campaign (VBC) which obtained books through public donation, which was the first attempt at providing troops with books. She then moves to the changes which occurred with that program and publishers across the country to produce the Armed Services Edition (ASE.) The ASEs were small, paper, pocketbooks, easily manufactured and small enough to fit into a soldier’s pocket. These books were distributed to the troops before they departed the U.S. for overseas and millions of books were shipped overseas.
Throughout the histories of the book campaigns, the global war, and life on the homefront, Manning sprinkles in many examples and portions of letters sent to the publishers and authors about the books. Soldiers overall felt these books were one of, if not THE, best thing the military could have done to boost morale. During downtime, travel, or as one soldier wrote, he read while pinned down and injured in a ditch while bullets and shells exploded around him. All he could do was escape through his book until the fighting ceased and someone was able to find him. Many soldiers wrote letters telling the publishers they were never interested in books until the ASEs and were now readers for life.
One book was repeatedly mentioned as a favorite, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I have not read this book and had not heard of it until now but I plan to read it. The author does provide a lengthy appendix of all the ASEs produced by year and series number. Many books were reprinted year after year because of demand from the soldiers.
The program did have issues throughout the war as politicians and others tried to ban or censor what was read by the troops. Some books were seen as too arousing to send to troops. Books like Strange Fruit were banned in Boston (yes BANNED in a country fighting banning and book burning!) Strange Fruit was seen as scandalous with too many sexual scenes and therefore inappropriate. Ultimately the soldiers view won and the books similar to this were printed.
Late in the war as FDR was preparing to run for his Fourth Term, Congress wanted a bill passed to allow servicemen and women overseas to vote absentee. As part of this bill, the Taft brothers, both Republicans, began to toss in roadblocks. Title V was added to this bill restricting ANY publication and distribution to troops of literature, media, pamphlets or anything else that had any political issue or slant to it. the Republicans did not want FDR to have his Fourth Term so did all they could to make the bill and Title V a pain for everyone. Title V was meant to prevent political media to be sent to troops and the Army took this literally and removed all books from their curriculum with any political information, including classes and important training manuals. Publishers had to adjust which books were printed. Many groups fought for the right to read anything and not censor what the troops read overseas.
I laughed out loud at one section of this debate regarding the Soldier voting bill thinking about current events between the Democrats and Republicans. A poll was taken overseas and based on the results, FDR would have been re-elected. The author stated, “Thus, there was a political incentive for Republicans to complicate the procedures for overseas voting, while Democrats strove to simplify it.” If you think about political events the last few years, it seems history repeated itself. In the end, the Army and other major publishing and governmental forces made the Taft brothers look so bad, Title V was amended and all but repealed.
In the end, the ASEs were a resounding success and the author explained how reading helped win the war and go on to educate thousands of men after the war. With the help of the G.I. Bill, many who prior to the war would have never attended college, were able to go. The veterans WANTED to go and overall were better students than the civilians. The books they read for leisure, escape, to remember home, and learn something along the way, helped create a new future for them and our country.
I highly recommend this book even if you are not interested in World War II. It will provide a lesson in how important books are, not just for education, but for our spirits and hearts. Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you plan to read any of the ASEs listed in the appendix?
© 2015, Jennifer Holik, Woodridge, IL