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Books as Weapons: Propaganda, Publishing, and the Battle for Global Markets

John B. Hench

(Cornell University Press; US: Jun 2010)

“Books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. 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”—President Franklin D. Roosevelt


Books used to be important. Good old fashioned books. Made out of real paper. Sigh.


Of course, the books John B. Hench is talking about in Books as Weapons: Propaganda, Publishing, and the Battle for Global Markets in the Era of World War II weren’t necessarily important for the best reasons. Hench’s book focuses on the “vital partnership between American book publishers and the U.S. government to put carefully selected recent books highlighting American history and values into the hand of civilians liberated from Axis forces”.  More specifically, Hench relates that “the government desired to use books to help ‘disintoxicate’ the minds of these people from the Nazi and Japanese propaganda and censorship machines and to win their friendship.” Hence the title of the book and the thought of books as: “the most enduring propaganda of all”.


Hench’s history starts during World War II, and he succinctly notes: “War changes everything—even books.” Paper was, of course, in short supply and what little paper was available was often consumed by the government: “At the height of the war effort, official publications utilized one hundred thousand tons of paper on an annual basis, while less than twenty-five thousand tons was available for books.”


The first three chapters of Hench’s book focus on the publishing industry during WWII and often have, as much of the book does, a geographical slant. Book publishing in Great Britain is contrasted with book publishing in the United States. For example, only US publishers had the audacity to “combine saving grace with physical protection by marketing steel-covered Bibles as ‘a Shield of Faith’ against bullets.”


German philosophies toward publishing and books along with the Chinese book market are also covered. Interestingly, Hench relates that the German authorities allowed European publishers to issue reprints of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, and Eric Linklater’s Juan in America “because the Nazis believed them to be anti-American. According to the publisher, the Dutch people simply ‘rejoiced to be able to read a good book from the other side of the ocean’ and snapped them up.”


In Chapter Four, Hench turns to books and the role they would play after the end of WWII. He opens Chapter Four (“Books Are the Most Enduring Propaganda of All”) by stating “The significant role that American books were called on to play overseas during the war derived from the government’s need to find solutions to a series of challenges that would arise as combat gave way to an uneasy peace.” How best to accomplish this and find these solutions—form lots of committees that go by acronyms; Hench lists them all. There was the NBC (National Book Council), the PWB (Psychological Warfare Branch), the CBW (Council on Books in Wartime), the SCAP (Supreme Command for the Allied Powers), the USIBA (United States International Book Association), and the most referenced groups: the OE(s): Overseas Edition(s) and the OWI: Office of War Information.


The book covers publishers, publishing houses, the publishing process as well as translating and shipping concerns. Chapter Six, as the title “‘Everyone Except the Janitor’ Selected the Books” suggests, details the selection process and considering the number of participants required, it’s almost surprising that any books were ever selected. Cleverly, the committee wanted the OEs to be books already in print because “It [was] the opinion of practically everybody, regardless of class or group, that the best Allied propaganda is No propaganda.”


This is part of what Hench does so masterfully—he displays each micro-managed, bureaucratic, committee-based, agonizingly over-thought decision. Just consider some of the quandaries: “These difficulties included the definition of exactly what OEs were to be, decisions on where to print the books, the convoluted and protracted process by which titles for the series were selected, financial problems, impediments in the way of obtaining translations, production bottlenecks, and larger political controversies involving OWI as a whole, especially roadblocks to gaining necessary congressional appropriations.”


Hench describes in detail the thought process behind each book selection, translation, shipment as well as how these thought processes varied depending on whether the books were being shipped to the “neutrals,” the Germans, or the Japanese. He further notes that, ultimately, many of these decisions were “made at the highest levels, that is, with both General Eisenhower and President Roosevelt involved”. 


The epilogue to the book opens “The ‘inside track to the world’s bookshelves’ that American books took after the Second World War was frequently obstructed by hurdles, potholes, water hazards, and competitors’ elbows.” Hench certainly guides his audience through these labyrinthine years, often with style and wit.


The book is full of interesting details—for example, books had to be sold to POWS; forcing the POWS to read these books might have violated the Geneva Convention. As the chapter titles and subtitles (such as “Everyone but the Janitor”) indicate, there is even some humor. However, at times the book feels a little heavy and gets bogged down with a touch too much detail. Still, it has an important story to tell, and while some of the reasons and rationales motivating the book publishing trade during this time might have been sketchy, the tagline “books are weapons in the war of ideas” is a difficult thought for a book lover to resist.


Just consider the introduction and conclusion of the book. Books as Weapons opens with the quote from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, above, and it ends with a powerful thought from Hench himself:


In this complex and tense world of the early twenty-first century, the public/private model for the export of representative American books might still prove useful. President Barack Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, are on record for increasing the channels of soft power in the nation’s diplomacy. Shouldn’t books be part of the nation’s tool kit and become, once again, weapons in the war of ideas?


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