Books as Weapons: Propaganda, Publishing, and the Battle for World Markets in the Era of World War II


Only weeks after the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, a surprising cargo—crates of books—joined the flood of troop reinforcements, weapons and ammunition, food, and medicine onto Normandy beaches. The books were destined for French bookshops, to be followed by millions more American books (in translation but also in English) ultimately distributed throughout Europe and the rest of the world. The British were doing similar work, which was uneasily coordinated with that of the Americans within the Psychological ...

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Only weeks after the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, a surprising cargo—crates of books—joined the flood of troop reinforcements, weapons and ammunition, food, and medicine onto Normandy beaches. The books were destined for French bookshops, to be followed by millions more American books (in translation but also in English) ultimately distributed throughout Europe and the rest of the world. The British were doing similar work, which was uneasily coordinated with that of the Americans within the Psychological Warfare Division of General Eisenhower's Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, under General Eisenhower's command.

Books As Weapons tells the little-known story of 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 hands of civilians liberated from Axis forces. 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. This objective dovetailed perfectly with U.S. publishers' ambitions to find new profits in international markets, which had been dominated by Britain, France, and Germany before their book trades were devastated by the war. Key figures on both the trade and government sides of the program considered books "the most enduring propaganda of all" and thus effective "weapons in the war of ideas," both during the war and afterward, when the Soviet Union flexed its military might and demonstrated its propaganda savvy. Seldom have books been charged with greater responsibility or imbued with more significance.

John B. Hench leavens this fully international account of the programs with fascinating vignettes set in the war rooms of Washington and London, publishers' offices throughout the world, and the jeeps in which information officers drove over bomb-rutted roads to bring the books to people who were hungering for them. Books as Weapons provides context for continuing debates about the relationship between government and private enterprise and the image of the United States abroad.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Hench (The Press and the American Revolution and Printing) has written a specialized account of the role American publishers played in winning hearts and minds for the Allies during WWII. The war-induced reduction of book publishing in Britain, France, and China, and the descent of German publishing into Nazi ideology, led to an unparalleled opportunity for American publishers to expand markets and gain dominance in the worldwide book trade. More importantly, the creation of the Office of War Information made publishing an arm of the American propaganda effort with both military and political significance. Books by American and antifascist European and Asian authors were produced in a variety of special editions and were made readily available to servicemen and to the book-starved, freedom-deprived populations of occupied countries. After the war, the American publishing effort also assisted the re-education and rehabilitation of the defeated enemy nations. This subject is not the most exciting aspect of WWII, and the book at times is overly detailed, but Hench's account provides valuable information on the role cultural production played in the Allied victory. Photos. (June)
From the Publisher

"Hench demonstrates how many publishers internalized the creed 'books are weapons in the war of ideas,' first coined by the chair of W. W. Norton and later popularized by FDR. Like film and poster propaganda, the effective utilization of books by the Allies depended on the cooperation of private corporations and government bureaucracies. Hench nicely balances the publishing history of the war years with an analysis of the propaganda goals of the Anglophone world."—Choice

"Books As Weapons offers more than is promised by the title: its coverage extends well beyond the era of World War II and shows how solutions designed for short-term problems have had unforeseen consequences in a world of shifting political allegiance."—Valerie Holman, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America

"World War II was a good war for American publishers. Wartime devastation and disruption ended the historic domination of the book trade by Britain, Germany, and France, and U.S. publishing companies profited from their demise. . . . So argues John B. Hench in this fascinating study of how the publishing industry's quest for global domination became intertwined with the battle for hearts and minds. Weaving economic and diplomatic history into a complex narrative that explores the broad international dimensions of the book trade, Hench has written a thoughtful and important study that draws on a wide array of archival records, including those of government agencies, publishers, and trade associations."—Journal of American History

"John B. Hench analyzes how publishers and the American government tried to advance their compatible, but sometimes conflicting, interests during and immediately after the war. After the intellectual blackout that had descended on Axis countries and their conquests, OWI officials sensed a golden opportunity to promote positive views of U.S. government and society. . . . Hench ably untangles the sometimes mind-numbing negotiations required to fuse public policy and private interests. His book is thoroughly researched, well written, and clearly argued. . . . Hench laments the declining use of books in advancing 'soft power.' In an age of blogs and videos gone viral, his work, perhaps unintentionally, inspires nostalgia for a time when books seemed to be a winning cultural weapon."—Clayton Koppes, American Historical Review

"In a breathtaking history of wartime editions, this book presents a rich history of a relatively brief period in American publishing. . . . This is a book about war but it is also a book about the diplomacy of books. As an international and comparative history of wartime publishing, it presents deeply contextualized accounts, offering multiple contemporary perspectives, a true mark of scholarship that constructs the book trade as an international phenomenon. It will for sure make its mark in many fields, but it is deeply embedded in our own."—2010 George A. and Jean S. DeLong Book History Book Prize Citation

"Hench's account of the role American publishers played in winning hearts and minds for the Allies during WWII provides valuable information on the role cultural production played in the Allied victory."—Publishers Weekly

"Books and propaganda, for many Americans, don't mesh. Books educate. Propaganda lies. But there was a time when the United States had no qualms about using books as 'weapons in the war of ideas'—in the phrase made famous by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In Books as Weapons, John B. Hench recounts this chapter in America's efforts to defeat the enemies of democracy during World War II. . . . Hench's meticulously researched monograph is a gem."—Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2010

"John Hench's new book is a significant contribution to book and publishing history. It tells the fascinating story of the various ways in which American publishers mobilized books for the war effort and, in doing so, provides insight into a range of important issues for considering the history of the book and publishing in the twentieth century. . . . Books as Weapons is an enjoyable read, not only for book historians but for anyone interested in the cultural history of the Second World War."—Amanda Laugesen, SHARP News (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing), Spring 2011

"Making excellent use of a wide range of archives, John B. Hench argues that World War II was a turning point for American publishers, forcing them to undertake more strategic and cooperative planning across the industry than had been their wont and prompting them to see the world beyond their own borders as a viable and valuable marketplace. The war heightened publishers' sense that they dealt in ideas even as it raised their awareness of the value of the commodity in which they traded. Hench maps the results in a nuanced treatment of the trade's approach to wartime and postwar publishing. His exploration of the industry's distinctive mixture of mid-twentieth-century patriotism and entrepreneurial zeal marks a bygone era—one whose effects nevertheless continue to ramify today."—Trysh Travis, University of Florida

"Hard on the heels of GIs at Normandy Beach arrived crates filled with American books, published expressly for them and for the people they came to liberate. Thus begins this riveting analysis of the overseas expansion of the once-provincial American publishing industry during and following World War II, aided and abetted at all turns by the federal government. Meticulously researched, adroitly conceived, briskly told, Books As Weapons provides an authoritative account of the dissemination of American ideas and values through print as part of its fast-growing, postwar hegemony."—Ezra Greenspan, Edwin and Louise Kahn Chair in Humanities, Southern Methodist University

"John B. Hench's invaluable book helps to fill in another piece in the jigsaw of war. It brilliantly essays the high ambitions governments, publishers, and organizations had for the book as a repository and an arrowhead of civilization and education in World War II—and how these were realized."—Juliet Gardiner, author of Wartime: Britain 1939–1945

"'In the four quarters of the globe,' sneered Edinburgh Revieweditor Sydney Smith in 1820, 'who reads an American book?' A century and a quarter later, on the eve of their American-led liberation from Nazi occupation and fascist tyranny, millions of Europeans and Asians hungered to do so. That, at least, was the expectation of U.S. planners and publishers, and to meet the anticipated demand, they joined together to produce books for the immediate postwar market that would inform about American life, detail U.S. contributions to ending the war, and spread democratic values. The product of that collaboration were two now little-known book series—Overseas Editions and Transatlantic Editions—whose story John Hench reconstructs for the first time in this thoughtful inquiry into a unique public-private partnership. Books As Weapons shows us an American book trade just beginning to glimpse a world of shrinking borders and expanding sales, as the United States was ascending to superpower status. At that crucial moment of transition, publishing encountered both opportunities and challenges abroad still facing us today: openness to American ideas and goods and resistance to U.S. economic dominance and cultural imperialism. Hench’s deeply researched account is at once a balanced assessment of public efforts to export American culture and a significant step forward in creating a truly international history of the book."—Robert A. Gross, James L. and Shirley A. Draper Professor of Early American History, University of Connecticut

"In Books As Weapons, John B. Hench tells of the U.S. effort during World War II to deploy books against an enemy known for burning them. Hench explores the public-private collaboration between officials and publishers who sought to 'disintoxicate' occupied Europe by replacing Axis ideology with American values while at the same time paving the way for postwar markets overseas. It contributes to our understanding of the political, diplomatic, legal, and logistical challenges involved when using 'soft power' for purposes of pacification and reeducation. To counter the Nazi portrayal of Americans as crude and cocky gangsters determined to rule the world, these 'books as weapons' aimed to free minds, win friends, and show the United States in 'the best possible light' even if it did intend to rule the world."—Susan A. Brewer, University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801448911
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2010
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,066,625
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Table of Contents



List of Abbreviations and Acronyms

Introduction: Books on the Normandy Beaches 1


1 Modernizing U. S. Book Publishing 11

2 War Changes Everything---Even Books 19


3 Publishers Organize for War and Plan for Peace 43

4 "Books are the Most Enduring Propaganda of All" 68

5 Seeking "an Inside Track to the World's Bookshelves" 82

6 "Everyone but the Janitor" Selected the Books 94

7 Books to Pacify and Reeducate the Enemy 109

8 Making the "Nice Little Books" 131


9 Liberating Europe with Books 151

10 The Rise and Fall of the United States International Book Association 178

11 The Empire Strikes Back 198

12 Books for Occupied Germany and Japan 225

Epilogue: American Books Abroad after 1948 257

Appendix A Overseas and Transatlantic Editions 269

Appendix B Titles in the Bucherreihe Neue Welt Series 275

Notes 277

Bibliography 313

Index 321

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