Words at War

When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II, by Molly Guptill Manning, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 288 pages, released December 2, 2014.

I first learned about Armed Services Editions (ASEs) when my mother brought an ASE copy of Anna and the King of Siam home from a book sale. She’d picked it up, not because of the particular title, but because it was an ASE: one of the books sent free of charge to service members during World War II. It represented the best this nation was capable of and—it was a book, always a valuable commodity in itself in our home.

Molly Gupta Manning’s When Books Went to War offers a detailed, engaging history of the production and distribution of ASEs. An outgrowth of book drives to provide service members with reading materials (which gathered far too many outdated and unwieldy books), ASEs became a symbol of what the U.S. was fighting for.

Part of the Nazi agenda in Europe was the eradication of books considered insufficiently Aryan. This movement began with book burnings in Germany led by college students. The German Government created the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), an office charged with assessing the contents of libraries (and museums and other cultural institutions) in newly occupied territories. Desirable books we confiscated and sent to Germany for use there; undesirable books were destroyed.

The extent of the ERR’s work was horrifying. Manning tells readers that “In Eastern Europe, the ERR burned a staggering 375 archives, 402 museums, 531 institutes, and 957 libraries. It is estimated that the Nazis destroyed half of all books in Czechoslovakia and Poland, and fifty-five million tomes in Russia.”

In contrast to this cultural holocaust, the U.S. produced millions of books for distribution to service members. These books were published in lightweight, small (but unabridged) versions, designed to fit into the pocket of a military uniform and to weigh no more than a few ounces. The choice of titles was deliberately broad, ranging from classics to contemporary literature to how-to manuals. Despite a Congressional effort at one point to limit the topics acceptable for ASEs, these books were chosen to represent a range of viewpoints. Some titles, such as Strange Fruit, were released as ASEs even as they were being banned in some U.S. cities.

The ASEs were extraordinarily successful. They gave soldiers a form of occupation during the war’s “hurry up and wait” moments; they were read in hospitals, chow lines—any and every situation service members found themselves in; they were even, yes, read in fox holes between bombardments.

As Manning explains, the ASEs lead to significant changes in U.S. society after the war. The popularity of ASEs was one of the inspirations for the GI Bill granting service members educational benefits. The GI Bill democratized U.S. higher education, which had largely been an upper-class purview until then. ASEs also ushered in the era of the pocket book. These small, portable editions remained popular with soldiers and also were embraced by the general public because of their low prices and portability.

For any lover of books, any reader of U.S. history—When Books Went to War is an essential delight. This part of our country’s story deserves to be better known. Fighting fascism with presses yielded benefits we still enjoy today.