Category Archives: Non-Fiction

“When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II” by Molly Guptill Manning

91VwThQMaLL._SL1500_When Books Went to War is a book that makes you want to voraciously read every book in sight, just out of gratitude that it can be done. The book is generally the story of the role books played during WWII – the Nazis burned them and the Americans struggled to send enough books to the millions of men serving – but it is most specifically about the unprecedented printing of over 100 million Army Service Edition books that were shipped overseas and became as necessary to the men as cigarettes, candy bars and letters from home.

Author Molly Guptill Manning begins her book in 1933, when Nazi students burned books in a giant bonfire in Berlin. It was estimated that the Nazis destroyed around 100 million books, in Germany and in other countries. Any books written by Jewish authors (Albert Einstein, Heinrich Heine), Communists or socialists (Karl Marx, H.G. Wells) and even authors like G.K. Chesterton and Helen Keller were banned and ordered removed from library shelves.

America took the opposite tack in fighting WWII. It was not done consciously as a response to Nazi book burning, but is highly illustrative of the two governments. It first began with the Victory Book Campaign. Organized by the American Library Association and encouraged by the government, the VBC worked to get people to donate 10 million books for servicemen. For many men, there were no other forms of recreation and relaxation available, especially overseas, and there was a surprising hunger for books.The VBC was a beginning, but ultimately they could not muster the number of books needed for so many men and the books were often large, hardback copies, not practical in wartime situations.

The Army Service Edition (ASE) of books came into being when a group of men from many of the big publishing companies came together to talk about what they could do to help the war effort. They began with radio programs, but eventually had the idea to publish small, light and portable paperback editions of books for the servicemen. They got funding from the military and within 7 months were shipping out their first batch of books, containing 30 different titles by authors like Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, Herman Melville, James Thurber, Carl Sandburg, C.S. Forester, Joseph Conrad and Ogden Nash. The council tried to make their monthly selection a blend of contemporary fiction (which made up the majority of the books), classics, biography, history, essays, poetry and technical books.

The editions themselves came in two sizes and were specifically designed to fit in a serviceman’s jacket pocket or pants pocket. They were bound with staples on the short side of the book, with printing in two columns on the page for easier reading. They were said to be the most comfortable style of book to read while lying on your back in a hospital.


Books were printed in twos and then cut apart. These two ASEs were not separated, however – source: wikipedia

The books were a sensational success. Men loved them. There would be new titles printed every month and the military did their best to make sure men were supplied with them. Whenever a box of books arrived, men would swarm around them like they were candy. They would read and pass the book on or get in waiting lines for popular books or trade cigarettes and candy bars to move up in the line. Men who had never read before were suddenly reading insatiably.They talked of how it was their one means of escape from the terrible conditions they lived in: it made them laugh, reminded them of home, gave them courage, gave them hope, talked of how they identified with certain characters and it gave catharsis from their experiences that they could not talk about. 

The most popular ASE was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, followed by other slightly surprising authors like Katherine Anne Porter and Rosemary Taylor, who wrote A Chicken Every Sunday. They were books that reminded them of home. One soldier even compared reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to receiving a letter from home and another wrote Smith to tell her how reading her book while in a hospital helped him out of depression and restored his ability to feel and care again. Soldiers would write to their favorite authors and often the authors would respond, especially Betty Smith. She not only wrote back, but even corresponded regularly with them.

Other books that were popular were Forever Amber and Strange Fruit, partly because of the more explicit than usual sex scenes they contained, (though Strange Fruit was a book about interracial romance and lynching, was recommended by Eleanor Roosevelt and was not just a tawdry tale). The men were particularly gleeful about reading Forever Amber because it was banned in Boston. It became something of a joke about books banned in Boston.

The ASE’s made lifelong readers out of men who had scarcely ever touched a book before. And it inspired many men to go to college after the war and pursue different careers they had read of or were interested in. One solider wrote Helen MacInness to tell her that her book While We Still Live was the book that turned him into a reader and when he went on to earn a PhD he dedicated his dissertation to her.

You can tell I loved this book. There are so many stories of how books affected the lives of the men reading them and it made me inexpressibly grateful for the access I have to books. It is also extraordinary to read how authors, who weren’t necessarily setting out to write great classics, could have such a profound affect on others. War is such an unmitigated tragedy that it is lovely to read about one thing that was done well during the war – the printing of the books and the council’s broad choice of titles and decision not to censor them – and to read of one thing that was an unmixed good.

For further information on ASEs and a list of all the titles printed, see


Posted by on April 29, 2015 in Non-Fiction


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Propaganda in American Films During WWII: and a brief review of Five Came Back (2014) by Mark Harris

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in William Wyler's Mrs. Miniver

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver

I’ve always been fascinated by the presence of propaganda in Hollywood movies made during WWII. It fascinates me because the propaganda is supposed to be for a good cause (to defeat the Nazis – what could be better than that?), but it always faintly annoys me when I encounter it in movies. Is this because it doesn’t fit in the story? I’ll be watching a movie and then suddenly, from way out in left field, somebody will start preaching and I’ll nod my head and say, “Yes, this is so a WWII movie.” Is it because the propaganda is so heavy-handed, obvious, and poorly incorporated into the film? Is it because I do not connect with the message they are preaching because I didn’t live through the war? Or is it because propaganda is, in and of itself, a bad thing?

I haven’t decided. I do like the movie Mrs. Miniver (1942) and that movie was purposed expressly by director William Wyler to be a propaganda piece, all about the brave British resisting and standing firm, who are made stronger when attacked. Even Hitler’s Propaganda Minster, Goebbels, thought it was an excellent example of propaganda. Wyler himself seems to have been mildly embarrassed by it (partially because he later went to Britain and was embarrassed by certain inaccuracies in his portrayal of the British). It seems to have been a movie that resonated with the movie going public, however. Is propaganda necessary? Was it necessary to win the war, to keep the American people engaged throughout the war?

I suppose what complicates the propaganda issue is the clumsiness of it. Because, of course, America not just fighting the Nazis. They were fighting the Japanese. Caricatures of the enemy, especially the Japanese, could be quite crude, if not outright racist. Appeals to patriotism, although estimable, provide an often rosy and inaccurate view of warfare.

And then there’s the obvious question of aren’t all movies just a form of propaganda anyway? George Steven, I read in Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back, came to believe that was the case. If that is the case, is it merely a question of how obtrusive the propaganda is? Is it only obvious propaganda that is bad, or propaganda that we happen to disagree with? According to The American Heritage Dictionary propaganda is “the systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those people advocating such a doctrine or cause.”

In that sense, I think I disagree with Stevens. I do agree that there is no such thing as a movie free of bias, opinion, belief, doctrine, but I think a useful way of looking at it would be a movie that is about the characters (or even just about the story) as opposed to a movie that is about a doctrine or belief with characters to support it…or perhaps I’m simply falling into the trap of saying that if the propaganda is well done, you won’t notice because the characters make sense and therefore it’s okay.

Frank Capra

Frank Capra

I’ve always liked to think about this topic, but what made it slightly more urgent to consider was reading Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. It is about the way that Hollywood responded to the war, but mostly about five directors who put on hold their careers so they could enlist in the military. John Ford, John Huston, Frank Capra, William Wyler and George Stevens all enlisted, though their jobs turned out to be a little different than what they had anticipated. It turned out that the military was also interested in propaganda. It wasn’t meant to be malicious, but it was meant to align with military goals (such as not blaming Emperor Hirohito too much for the war because they thought they might need to keep him as emperor after the war and they didn’t want Americans to hate him). The military didn’t want to show too much death and loss to the American public, or to dwell on military reversals. Compromises were repeatedly made and all of the directors found themselves staging reenactments of battles to present to the public as fact.

The war changed them all, though perhaps Frank Capra less so. He remained in Washington D.C. and put together his famous Why We Fight series. However, John Ford was at the Battle of Midway and at Normandy. John Huston made a documentary at the Aleutians and was in Italy some. William Wyler flew on bombing missions to get film and lost his hearing as a result. But no one was more affected than George Stevens. He was known for his delightful comedies, such as Woman of the Year, but when he returned he never made another comedy. He was at Normandy, as well, and he was there to film the liberation of Paris. But he was also there when America liberated Dachau and he was the one to put together the films that were shown during the Nuremberg trials as evidence of the atrocities committed against the Jews and also to show that the atrocities were part of long-established policies.

When he returned, he never talked much about what he saw and he could never go back and watch any of the footage that he had taken.

Although the book is mostly about the five directors, Harris does also deal a bit with the movie studio’s reaction to the coming war and to the war itself. Before WWII, Hollywood studio heads tended to avoid any reference to the European situation. This was partially because they sold a lot of movies overseas and they didn’t want to alienate any of their foreign markets (such as Nazi Germany) and also because many of the studio heads were Jewish and were leery of being accused of not being sufficiently American and dragging America into foreign affairs and only being interested in Jewish concerns – accusations that they had heard before.

Harris implies that the studios, actors and directors were essentially burying their heads in the sand because their movies did not reflect the very real international concerns, specifically regarding Nazism and their treatment of the Jews. There was virtually no mention of Nazism in any of the films until the war began. This, I thought, was an interesting question. Does the movie industry have a duty to address social issues or international issues or only certain issues that are particularly pressing and how do we judge which issues are particularly pressing? Should the movie industry have also addressed the Ukrainian Famine in 1932-1933 when millions of Ukrainians died during a famine that was caused deliberately by Stalin’s regime? Should they have addressed the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931? Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-1936?

Of course, what most movies during WWII were doing was not highlighting world realities but attempting to rally Americans to the cause and pep them up with patriotism. They rarely ever saw any of the disturbing images that were taken by Steven’s team during the landing at Normandy or afterwards at Dachau. John Huston’s documentary about veterans returning from the war who were suffering from psychological trauma was also suppressed by the military.

Of course, it is also true that documentaries containing reality can be structured for propaganda purposes. Even George Stevens’ footage of the liberation of Dachau could be used for propaganda, thought it is not itself propaganda. It is reality; harsh, horrifying, inescapable reality.


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