By Molly Guptill Manning
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2014, 267 pages
Collier County Public Library: Yes
Genre: Historical Nonfiction
“Books cannot be killed by fire.…..No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny. In this war, we know, books are weapons.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
This book is a nice little treat for history buffs and booklovers. It gives a heartwarming and personal perspective on our fighting men as well as some insight into life on the home front during the war years.
After the US began gearing up for the inevitable entry into the Second World War, the Selective Service Act of 1940 interrupted the lives of tens of thousands of men. These new recruits found themselves in training camps that were dismally inadequate and ill-equipped. In many cases, the men had to build the “camps” which were just open land. Faced with many idle hours on their hands, little to no means of recreation, living in tents until they finished their barracks, they were desperate for something to occupy their minds.
The American Library Association was the first to act on the men’s need. They instigated a book donation program, asking Americans to donate books to the armed services. Newspapers across the country helped promote the program, writing editorials and printing the information about donation sites. Ten million books were collected in almost no time, although many titles had to be discarded. Titles such as “How to Knit,” were not considered very useful to young men. Their mostly hardback books supplied libraries at training camps, military hospitals, internment camps, naval ships, isolated installations such as those in the Aleutian Islands. By October 1943, the librarians’ program was decommissioned. No longer able to elicit funding, they had to close their doors.
By this time, the publishing industry had coalesced into the Council on Books in Wartime. The Navy and War Departments worked with the council and a plan for “Armed Services Edition” was born. To meet the needs of the infantry, these books would be printed in two sizes – one to fit in a uniform breast pocket, the other to fit in a uniform hip pocket. They solved the problem of paper rationing by using paper slightly heavier than newsprint, used staples instead of glue to fix the pages (glue would be eaten by insects in tropical climes), and worked out contracts with authors for new books.
To say that the effort to get books to the American GIs and sailors was successful is an understatement. At least 123 million books were made available to American armed forces during the war. Near and after the end of the war, books were translated into some other languages to replenish the 100 million destroyed by the Nazis and also to familiarize the rest of the world with American life and ideals.
It is interesting to know that the effort to get books to the servicemen, as well as to those in our internment camps out West, was actually quite a battleground itself right here on the home front. Two sons of a former US President, Robert and Charles Taft, provided obstructionism. Charles was disdainful of the librarians’ efforts to maintain their book program and threatened to end their funding. In 1944, Ohio Senator Robert Taft wanted to prevent FDR’s re-election and cut Democratic control of the government. He proposed amending the Soldier Voting Bill by restricting amusement distributions to the services, including books, provided by the government which touched on anything political. People could buy and send such books to their individual soldier or sailor but the government should not pay for them. After months of debate and failure to persuade Senator Taft, the Army finally won the day by announcing that they could no longer distribute Official Guide to the Army Air Force because it bore a photo of FDR with his title, Commander-in-Chief. Forty-eight hours later, the bill was law minus Taft’s amendment. The presses rolled with the titles most requested by GIs and sailors.
Ms. Manning uses many excerpts from letters that GIs wrote to authors, sharing how his/her book had touched them, bolstered their spirit, or relieved their despair. Most of these men had no more than an 11th grade education, but the eloquence of their writing would moisten the eyes of all but the most hardened of human hearts. Two favorite books of the WW II combatants were The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (Betty Smith). Ms. Manning provides several examples of Ms. Smith’s correspondence from and to the soldiers. She answered almost every letter she received. Although Ms. Manning credits the American fighting men with making The Great Gatsby into a modern classic, she spends no time explaining or even guessing as to why the men loved that book so much. Up until the war, it had been considered a dismal failure.
In her final chapter, the author covers the story of the GI Bill. Again, congress played politics with the education benefits for veterans. Originally the bill was only applicable to men age 25 and under. Women and African Americans were not included in the original draft nor were veterans over age 25. It included only one school year of benefits. Eager to declare war and get the services geared up to fight the war, the congress was now pretty miserly with these men who had interrupted their young lives to save the world. Eventually, the end result allowed education benefits for all veterans, for up to four years of school to be taken over a 9-year span. The Bill also provided counseling, unemployment benefits, job training, and other assistance to returning veterans.
Other than the letters from the soldiers, my favorite part of the book is the last sections of it – the appendices from pages 198 to 232 which list the Nazis’ banned authors as well as the lists of all the ASE titles.
The writing style of Ms. Manning is easy to read and she has managed to inject warmth into some rather dry historical facts. She does, however, repeat some things, apparently wanting to drive home a point but overstating certain facts. I did not think it took away from the pleasure of reading this little gem. The letters from the soldiers to the authors are both poignant and delightful. Books opened the world to these men. Most did not have the time or opportunity to read before their service, at least nothing other than textbooks or newspapers. They discovered that great books not only entertain and while away the boredom, they actually transform the reader. The reader then can transform his/her world. That is what the returning GIs did – they created the American middle class.
Of note: On this day, 02/20, in 1962, John Glenn was the first person to orbit the Earth. Friendship 7 was his vehicle. Sunday is George Washington’s birthday – a deep curtsy to both of you.
Maggie Gust has been an avid reader all her life. Her past includes working as a teacher as well as various occupations in the health care field. She shares a hometown with Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, but Florida has been her home since 1993. Genealogy, walking on the beach, reading, movies and writing, are among her pursuits outside of work. She is self employed and works from her Naples home.