A guest post by David Vonnegut Chambers
The creation and distribution of the Armed Service Editions (ASE) paperback books to soldiers fighting in World War II represents an important period of publishing history that benefitted not only US publishing houses, but the general war effort and the mental health of soldiers on the front lines. The ASEs distributed throughout the 1940s signify the beginning point of the paperback book industry in North America. By the end of the war, the ASE’s physical role in the second World War (WWII) had solidified the paperback book as a tested and economical format for future US book publishing, but it had also created a new white, male readership, positioning many soldiers for success in university and future careers back home.
David Vonnegut Chambers is a writer and photographer from southern Oregon. You can find his work at www.davidvonnegutchambers.com.
While other global militaries involved in WWII understood the importance of reading material and its affect upon soldier morale, many of these foreign powers involved in the war within European theaters (British, Germans, Soviets) failed to provide an affordable, portable alternative to the hardcover book during the war. But the United States military created hip-pocket sized paperbacks to provide ideas, education, and mental reprieve from war. It was hard for the US government, at the outset of the war, to conceive of books as an integral part of wartime strategy. But, by 1943, the United States Army Library Services (ALS) had begun to collaborate with the Council on Books in Wartime (an advisory group to the federal government composed of publishing industry leaders and professionals).
Thus, between 1943 and 1946, using an adapted rotary-press, the collaborative effort published 122 million copies of 1,322 paper-cover titles, specifically designed to fit inside the pockets of a G.I.’s uniform. It was described by the Saturday Evening Post in 1945 as “the greatest book-publishing project in history,” and it was the first instance when a nation put forth such a monumental effort to publish and distribute portable books for its military service. Before this, the Victory Book Campaign (VBC) had collected thousands of old, unwanted books in a monumentally sincere but unwieldy effort to provide US soldiers with reprieve from the mental and physical rigors of war. Current scholarship has treated ASEs in the second World War as an isolated event, and according to Christopher P. Loss, this approach failed because it focused on the financial interests of the publishing industry while failing to account for the ideological role of book distribution to soldiers. The creation of portable reading material for soldiers overseas was a technological and social innovation that not only helped the US to win the war, but helped to bring US soldiers home again after victory.
And, of course, ASEs did contribute to a budding paperback industry. In fact, it was the problem of soldier morale that led the sudden creation of a paperback book industry in the US. Before the problem of soldier morale overseas, neither the ALS nor the Council had truly possessed “the ability to transform copyrighted classic and contemporary bestsellers into portable paperback editions. The distribution of ASEs was just as economically important for the future publishing industry (because it allowed prior experience and a degree of clout) as it was for US foreign policy and the national ideologies which celebrated the political and cultural differences between fascist, aggressive states and the US model of democracy. Never before had a publishing endeavor covered such ground, and never before had books been ideologically positioned as “weapons in the war of ideas.” At home, by the time the Council had begun working with the US military branches, the initiative also provided a limited form of “democracy in action,” because the publishing industry was forced to put its reputation on the line in order to amend a Voting Act that had hampered book distribution with several months of outright censorship (an act sponsored by Senator Taft). All in all, however, the monumental publishing project—started by the VBC and expanded upon by the Council—had a core purpose: US soldiers wanted and needed reading material. The delivery of paperback books provided mental and emotional support for those on the front lines. One American soldier wrote to the Council while stationed in Italy, explaining that “there are many times when the only entertainment, relaxation, and mental stimulation is reading, so you can see how welcome the ‘Armed Services’ books are.”
Distribution and Readership
Paperback books seem today like an obvious idea, an easy solution for the G.I. abroad: the physicality of war necessitated the removal of all “unnecessary” items from soldiers’ packs in an attempt to keep them lighter and less cumbersome. Aside from the practicality of portable books, the real driving force behind paperback book printing and distribution to troops was money-savings and the seemingly democratic virtues of the mass-production of information. In 1939, less than two hundred thousand paperbacks were sold in the US. Pocket Books was the first US publishing house to demonstrate that paperback bookselling could be profitable: this was achieved by printing smaller volumes that required less paper. The Council on Books in Wartime (The Council) eventually collaborated with the US military to create specially-sized, foldable, pocket paperbacks. The two-up style in which the books were printed, in two small sizes, with double columns and light paper (something dictated by material and technological constraints), required that the Council and the ALS collate titles more or less the same size and the same length in order to insure printing uniformity. Distribution, something that had plagued the ALS and the VBC in early years of the war, was made easier by the uniform size and relatively light weight of paperback titles. Covers were specially-designed as well, in order to ensure soldiers that their copies were the same as the editions that their friends and family might read back home. The gaudy design featured images of the original hardcover, and also included a special form of rhetoric on the back, often a summary of the narrative in connection with its patriotic values, and how these coincided with those of the author.
But titles varied widely. There was much more than just fiction. The Council included selections of history, science, philosophy, racier titles (albeit not racy at all), as well as a slice of more “serious” literature, as decreed by the Council. Ninety-nine editions of the ASEs were reprinted because they were so popular. There was censorship by the army only when the leadership encountered something that seemed to “infringe” upon democratic ideals. Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, as an example, was not included in either of the Council’s “long” or “short” lists. Soldiers’ ASE paperbacks, following their distribution, were prized possessions: they were often traded, split, or swapped. They were always cherished in moments of peace and quiet. Many authors received hundreds and even thousands of letters in response to their work. In the case of Willa Cather, the ASEs cemented the author’s popularity well after her own death.
While for many returning veterans the ASEs had only provided a distraction from the horrors of war, many soldiers who had read the paperbacks voraciously became a part of a specific, new male readership in a distinct period of American literary and cultural history. The Council, for its myriad motivations, had known how important the availability of knowledge was for not only troop morale but also for the course of the war itself. They could not have known, however, the change to come in the US education system following the close of the war, or how the returning soldiers would play their part in a changing model of education and a swelling of the middle class. But the Council and the ALS overcame shortages of material, federal obstacles, and the task of distribution, knowing that the narratives they were shipping overseas were truly indeed “instrument(s) of power.” And the soldiers were grateful: they all had a story to tell about the ASE publishing project, and most of these stories had a similar tone—“these little books are a great thing … they take you away.” One soldier claimed that the distribution of ASEs in Europe to American serviceman was like “making it rain in the desert.” Amidst the horrors of war, these small books were not only instruments of power, but instruments of salvation, of a sort.
Redistribution, Post-War, and the G.I. Bill
As fighting in Europe came to a close, soldiers were ready to go home. 400,000 troops were left in Europe to oversee the transition of power. Of the 3.4 million men who had fought on the European continent, however, 3.1 million were destined for the South Pacific theater. The islands were infamous, and most soldiers were less than overjoyed about their re-deployment. Morale began to suffer again, and so the army and the navy turned once more to the Council for redistribution in the years following 1945. Distribution had increased that year, from 20 million books to 50 million books, but even that amount was deemed not enough. Soldiers were “starved” for titles, according to one officer in the Special Services Division (charged with, among other things, the triage of soldier morale). This same officer observed that there “never seems to be enough.” One Lieutenant Colonel Trautman had noted that “when a soldier with a monthly pay of $55 is willing to pay 500 francs or 10 American dollars for the privilege of being next in line to read a particular Council Book they are pretty scarce.” Trautman, on a visit to a platoon of combat engineers stationed in the South Pacific, had observed himself how precious remaining, readable ASEs were. This certain platoon had a collection of only ten ASEs, and the commander had ordered that men were to read together, in groups, so as to “reduce the wear and tear of multiple handlings.” Facing down a lack of funding and an overwhelming demand, reprinting was ordered (sometimes numbering around 155,000 copies per print run), and the ASE paperbacks were created for the first time without stapled covers.
As the American forces closed in around Japan, soldiers serving both in the South Pacific and Europe began to ponder their futures. As Molly Guptil Manning put quite plainly, “some men wondered whether it [home] would measure up to the ideals they had projected onto it.” The idea of home, known for so long only by depictions that had provided sustenance overseas via countless narratives, was becoming unsure. While some soldiers simply wished to return to the same life they had left behind, some soldiers were especially concerned about future employment opportunities. During training, many enlisted men had enrolled in courses using “mathematics, science, and technical books,” and they did not wish for this knowledge to go unused. While novels in the immediate post-war years did not provide fresh reading material for those still stationed overseas, troops in transition enjoyed a selection of new, practical titles intended to address the return to life in North America. Some examples include Darrel and Frances Huff’s Twenty Careers of Tomorrow, and Campbell and Bedford’s You and Your Future Job, printed at the behest of the Army. Returning veterans were interested in a range of potential futures, including legal professions, entrepreneurial pursuits, and jobs that enabled economic growth: Huff’s Twenty Careers of Tomorrow addressed everything from working in plastics, fabrics, and recycling, to careers in publishing, television and radio, and the automobile industry. Veterans were also, for the most part, critically aware of advances in medical technology, and many of them were inspired by select ASEs to pursue a career in medicine. As the war drew to a close, the demand for ASEs dropped to around 15 percent of wartime ASE production. By 1947, ASE production of fresh titles had ceased. Veterans and soldiers still serving active duty began to hoard and collect their favorite titles.
President Roosevelt began planning to address the accessibility of higher education in 1944. College enrollment was something reserved for the upper middle class or the elite in US society at the time. The American Legion, a veteran’s organization, was responsible for drafting the “Serviceman’s Readjustment Act,” which became the “G.I. Bill of Rights” by June 22, 1944, when it was passed unanimously in the House and the Senate. The bill provided counseling services, unemployment and disability benefits, as well as home and business loans, and two years of college or job training. White men were the group that benefitted the most from the G.I. Bill, whereas women generally benefitted the least from the legislation. The nonwhite, minority experience with the G.I. Bill was obviously different than that of white men, because of the segregated, racist nature of US society at the time. Nonwhite veterans often encountered the same “barriers to advancement” that they had encountered before, even after enjoying the positive financial and educational benefits of the G.I. Bill back home. This topic requires its own paper, but scholars have so far concurred that black veterans who obtained college education through the GI Bill were more likely to become involved with the “struggles through which civil rights were won” in the US during the later 20th century.
Veterans were successful in college, but their attendance was slow to begin. Their eventual success stories would bolster the middle class and actually change the face of university and college education in the US. This breaking down of preconceptions about the eliteness of college attendance was one of the effects of the G.I. Bill, and it was of course due to the fact that many veterans were eager and well-read. Many veterans of this new, male readership were even excited enough about reading and writing in immediate post-war years that they began seeking the opinions of the Council with regard to their various book proposals, which were often centered on personal experience in wartime overseas. This new, white male readership began challenging “prewar assumptions of who could benefit from a college education.” Advertising in the immediate post-war years even reflects this shift in perception about college enrollment, but by the 1950s, advertising had shifted again to focus on family structure and consumer culture. But the role that veterans played in shaping higher education in the US cannot be understated. Images of the G.I. succeeding in a college environment provided the “average” American citizen with a new model (a more accessible model) of “social, economic, and cultural mobility” that would ultimately foster greater civic engagement. Universities in the US began to transition more and more towards practical and vocational curriculum, and this was due, at least in part, to the demands of veterans studying and working within higher education. The paperback book would continue to play an important role for publishing houses and a wide range of institutions within the US, and these small books are even more prolific in their availability today. Randall Stewart, in 1959 (then Chairman at Vanderbilt), probably captured their novelty the best: “You want to gather them up by the armfuls, put them on your shelves, and start reading (or re-reading).”
In conclusion, it is important to grasp the importance of ASEs within multiple contexts. ASE creation and distribution represented timely technological and economic innovation by the publishing industry, and it also set a unique precedent of literary cooperation between the private sector, the public, and the US military. Not only did paperbacks take veterans “away” from the horrors of war—the portable books also helped to bring them home again. This appreciation for the written word, for the book, provided a solid base from which many white, male veterans could access vocational and educational resources. In a way, the paperback book has had no small role in helping along the development of a productive, civically engaged middle class, of which veterans comprised a healthy percentage.
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