Author’s note: All of the articles from the World War II Diary series, from Pearl Harbor to this latest installment, can be accessed at ww2diary.wordpress.com.
It was a festive occasion, like a giant party, on a damp spring night in Berlin, in 1933. Thousands of students had gathered to burn books banned by Adolph Hitler's Nazi government, books that did not fit in with the new government's fascist, totalitarian ideology. Volumes written by Helen Keller and Winston Churchill, among many others, were reduced to ashes.
A steady stream of Berliners brought their offerings to be cast upon the raging bonfire, while infamous Nazi propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, worked the crowd to a fever pitch, condemning Jews and touting an evil, perverted form of nationalism. Before the night was over, tens of thousands of books would go up in flames in Berlin, and highly publicized, well-attended book burnings would spread all across Germany. As the world looked on in horror and disgust, Nazi Germany would eventually destroy over 100 million books across occupied Europe before war's end. Among these were priceless, irreplaceable volumes from some of the finest libraries on the continent.
A war of ideas
Many have rightly observed that World War II was actually fought on two levels. On the one hand, there was the massive, deadly physical conflict stretching from Europe to the islands of the Pacific. On the other hand, at a deeper level, there was an even more deadly war of ideas that was being fought. The future of human civilization literally hung in the balance.
Ultimate victory on the physical battlefield would allow Germany and Japan to force their ideologies of dictatorial control, racial superiority and genocide upon the world. The book burnings in Germany, the widespread propagation of Hitler's hate-filled memoir “Mein Kampf” and a vast Nazi propaganda network were all evidence of just how vigorously this war of ideas was actually being fought.
On the other side of the great conflict, American democratic ideals, freedom of speech, religion, press, and thought, valued and cherished the place of books in a free society. Books were seen as a vital avenue for the expression of thoughts and ideas, which, in turn, could be considered, debated, and then either accepted or rejected. The widely publicized Nazi book burnings sent a chill through the collective American conscience.
Books go to war
Not only did American society in general esteem books highly, but our nation, at the outset of World War II, had already established a history of placing special value on books and reading in time of war. During the Civil War, sensing a deep need to help soldiers temporarily "escape" the horrors of the battlefield, volunteer groups collected and distributed used books to them. The overall effort was not extensive enough to offer widespread support to battle weary troops. But, those few that benefited were clearly grateful.
During the First World War, various organizations, such as the Red Cross, the Knights of Columbus, the Jewish Welfare Board and the Salvation Army, ran individual book campaigns and altogether collected and distributed several million books for the use of U.S. soldiers in training camps. After the war, ambitious plans to establish over 200 permanent libraries at Army bases across the country soon fell on hard times, due to a lack of funding.
By 1940, the Second World War was spreading all across Europe. Though not yet involved, America instituted a draft of able-bodied young men during the same year, an attempt to ensure some sort of preparedness in the eventuality that she was drawn directly into the fighting. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, that possibility became reality.
With the institution of the draft in 1940, local organizations and libraries put together book drives to support soldiers and sailors at nearby bases. Most were relatively successful. The War Department tried to revive its support of base libraries, but, once again, actually achieved very little because the funds were simply not there.
In 1941, just prior to America's entry into the war, the American Library Association made plans for a nationwide book drive for soldiers, initially named the National Defense Book Campaign (NDBC). As soon as Pearl Harbor occurred, it was renamed the Victory Book Campaign (VBC). Commencing on Jan. 12, 1942, its goal of 10 million used books was achieved by May. Despite hitting its lofty target for donated volumes within four months, the VBC, however, did not seem like an adequate approach for what lay ahead.
The books collected during the VBC were generally large hardbacks, too big, too heavy and mostly too decrepit to be carried by service members to battlefronts all across the globe. Additionally, many of the donated volumes represented older, less desirable titles, books that Americans generally did not mind parting with. Some were even cookbooks and juvenile works. On top of all this, continuing drives for more and more donations would certainly become increasingly difficult.
A new approach
A new approach was badly needed to supply quality reading materials to a mushrooming American military force, which would number well over 12 million by 1945, the war's final year. As the strenuous, patriotic efforts of the VBC slowly stalled out, a new group was formed. In early 1942, a committee of publishing executives met and formed the Council on Books in Wartime (CBW). Their goal was to determine a way to print and distribute millions of largely unabridged paperback books to America's military at pennies per book.
What ensued was nothing short of a miracle, an episode in American history that is incredibly moving to remember, yet is essentially forgotten today. In September of 1943, the first Armed Services Editions (ASE) were printed and sent out to the troops. They were lightweight paperbacks, durable, oddly wider than they were tall, double-columned, and an instantaneous hit with the troops. Produced at slightly less than 6 cents per copy, approximately 5 cents covered production costs, and author and publisher received only a half cent each in royalties.
A selection committee carefully chose an assortment of the best books available for publication each month, not cheap, tawdry tales. There were works of fiction and nonfiction, new books and classics, all together covering a variety of topics, something for everyone. With 30 to 40 books chosen each month, published in quantities ranging from 50,000 to 155,000 per title, the ASE system ultimately produced and gave away to American servicemen a whopping 123 million books. The program ended, almost two years after the cessation of hostilities, in 1947.
Some 1,300 different books were chosen for inclusion in the ASE program during the 46 months of its existence. Authors included John Steinbeck, Willa Cather, C.S. Forester, Carl Sandburg, Esther Forbes, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and hundreds more. The most popular title was “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith. Others included “My Friend Flicka,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Yearling,” “The New York Yankees,” “The Robe,” “Miracles of Military Medicine,” “The Fireside Book of Dog Stories,” “Adventures of Superman” and over a 1000 more.
Legacy of the ASEs
Anywhere you found an American GI, you were likely to find an ASE book. Fitting neatly into uniform shirt or pants pockets, they were found in foxholes on the front lines, in barracks around the world, on aircraft during bomber runs, in hospitals, at command posts and onboard Navy ships. Each man was allowed one new book at a time. Whenever a new shipment arrived anywhere in the world, you were likely to find a mob, each serviceman clamoring for his latest treasure. ASE books were passed from one man to another, designed and produced to handle at least six readings.
Soldiers and sailors, seeking respite from the horrors of combat, turned again and again to the ASE books. In them they found escape, entertainment, enlightenment, instruction, comfort and inspiration. Many were deeply touched by certain books and wrote to express their thanks to authors and publishers. Hundreds of pen pal relationships developed between writers and American servicemen.
While the Nazis burned books and sought to snuff out a man's ability to think for himself, Americans tackled a seemingly insurmountable publishing mountain to get books, lots of books, to their boys. The miracle of the ASEs was a blessing to countless lonely Americans, many in the midst of unfathomable carnage and death, far away from home. They also reminded them of what they were fighting for, the opportunity for people to think and to live freely. In fact, the motto of the Council on Books in Wartime (CBW) was, "Books are weapons in the war of ideas."
Tell your children and grandchildren about this bright and shining episode in America's not so distant past. Remember books at war ...75 years ago.
P.S. I just ordered a vintage, original WWII ASE book on eBay. I plan to keep it, as a reminder to me and my family that America is indeed a very special place.
"If we forget what we did, we won't know who we are," Ronald Reagan.