Books in Wartime: The Fight Against Censorship During World War II
By Molly Guptill Manning
In 1933, in towns across Germany, heaps of books were set aflame. Most of these books were written by Jewish authors or contained liberal ideas antagonistic to the Nazi platform. These book burnings marked the beginning of Adolf Hitler’s “war of words.”
As Germany’s army and the destruction of books spread across Europe, American librarians began a crusade to protect books. While their colleagues in Europe were forced to purge their shelves to comply with Hitler’s bans, American librarians began the fight to protect the freedom to read.
Those who would face Germany’s army would need the most armor. American librarians began a campaign to provide American servicemen with millions of books – of all titles and viewpoints – to protest Germany’s actions and provide portable entertainment for the troops’ leisure hours. Forming the Victory Book Campaign, virtually every librarian in the United States worked together to collect millions of donated books for American soldiers. In the process, they stressed the importance of books in wartime, and how exercising the freedom to read was the best way for Americans to defend themselves against the propaganda-laden war of words.
By 1943, American servicemen were fighting on fronts around the world, and while they treasured books for their ability to remind them of home and provide a much-needed distraction during their free time, hardcover books were impractical on the front lines. American publishers learned that soldiers were reluctantly tossing hardcover books because they were too heavy and large to carry in their packs. Believing books were an important component in fighting the war, American publishers formed an organization called the Council on Books in Wartime to publish books especially suited for America’s soldiers and sailors.
Armed Services Editions
In short order, the Armed Services Editions were born: miniature, lightweight paperbacks that were specially designed to fit the hip or breast pocket of standard issue military uniforms. There was a title for everyone, ranging from The Republic of Plato to The Sad Sack (comics), and nearly everything between. Each month, bundles of books were delivered to units around the world. As soon as they were loosed from their packaging, titles were eagerly snatched up. These books were the troops’ ration on pleasure. The Armed Services Editions were pegged the most successful morale program of the entire war.
Yet, Congress stepped in and censorship began. And it took the unsuspecting form of an absentee voting bill for soldiers. After Congress passed an almost useless bill on absentee voting in 1942 (under which fewer than one percent of soldiers were able to cast a ballot), Congress was under tremendous pressure to pass meaningful absentee voter legislation for the 1944 presidential election.
Polls revealed that the majority of servicemen would vote for Roosevelt. For example, a 1944 poll taken in the South Pacific revealed the 69 percent of American troops favored a fourth term. As this information became common knowledge in Congress, the soldier voting bill became a partisan issue. Democrats were incentivized to create a ballot that would make it as easy as possible for those in the services to cast a ballot (for Roosevelt), while Republicans were tempted to make voting difficult for those serving overseas. After all, Roosevelt had won his third term by a margin of only five million votes. With nearly 12 million Americans serving overseas in 1944, the soldier vote could sway the election.
Republicans became concerned that the Democrat-led government would distribute political propaganda to the armed services to assure that all would vote for Roosevelt. Ohio Senator Robert Taft, a Republican who despised Roosevelt, championed an amendment to the 1944 soldier voting bill, Title V, that prohibited the government from delivering any magazines, newspapers, films, literature, or “other material” that contained “political argument or political propaganda of any kind designed or calculated to affect the result of any [federal] election.” Punishment for violation of the law included a fine, one year of imprisonment, or both. With hardly any debate, this amendment was slipped into the bill and became law.
Immediately, the Armed Services Editions felt the pinch. Yankee from Olympus, a best-selling biography of Chief Justice Holmes was banned, apparently because one page of the book described a casual conversation between the Chief Justice and President Roosevelt. Charles Beard’s The Republic could not be printed, most likely because it provided a political history of the United States. Many other titles were banned, as were Army and Navy textbooks (because they displayed a photo of Roosevelt captioned “Commander in Chief”), newspapers that covered politics, and films such as Wilson (a movie about the former president).
American publishers refused to be restricted in their book selections and decided to fight Congress. After considering hiring a top constitutional lawyer to wage a legal battle, publishers instead commenced a trial in the court of public opinion, believing this would achieve faster results. The publicity departments of nearly every American publisher made sure that every newspaper and magazine in the United States ran stories on Congress’s censorship of soldiers’ reading. It was remarkably successful. “If it is to be left to the Adjutant General to decide what the Army is to be permitted to read then we might as well join the Nazis and stop fighting them,” Virginia’s Lynchburg Daily Advance declared. Perhaps those in the services “would rather skip voting this year than to have their reading material censored,” the San Antonio News said.
The public fiercely opposed the law; letters and telegrams to legislators expressed displeasure with the law in the most colorful of terms. Publishers demanded a meeting with Senator Taft to discuss amendment or repeal, and the embattled Senator agreed. After the meeting, Taft injudiciously remarked that he did not think those in the services should be permitted to vote, as they “were out of touch with the country, lacking knowledge of issues and candidates,” and likely to vote for Roosevelt. With these words, Taft became a congressional pariah. His colleagues distanced themselves and promised immediate action to change the law. By August 1944, the political propaganda provision of the Soldier Voting Act was repealed.
It was one of the finest hours in the history of American publishing. In the words of Archibald Ogden, the executive director of the Council on Books in Wartime, “it is a refreshing example of democracy in action to bring a complete turn-about in both the Senate and the House within the space of less than two months.”
Editors’ Note: Molly Guptill Manning is the author of the newly released book, When Books Went to War, which tells the full story of how books served a pivotal role in fighting World War II.