Review: When Books Went to War

When Books Went to War

When Books Went to WarMolly Guptill Manning. New York: Mariner Books, 2014.

Summary: This history of efforts to supply American servicemen in World War 2 with books.

The war against Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany was not just a war of bullets and armies. It was a war of ideas and books. In 1933, in Berlin’s Bebelplatz, thousands of books were burned. Books by Jews. Books by foreigners. Books that dissented from the views of Mein Kampf. As Nazi armies marched through Europe, they destroyed libraries, and millions of books.

As the United States slowly edged toward war, and then rapidly mobilized after Pearl Harbor, American leaders quickly came to realize that soldiers needed more than barracks and weapons, training and strategy. They needed ideas, and in the many idle hours between intense battles, they needed diversions. They needed books.

President Roosevelt put it well:

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.

Molly Guptill Manning recounts the massive mobilization effort that put over 140 million books into the hands of Americans in the services, and the powerful impact those books had on those who received them.

While libraries existed on posts, those deployed often lacked greatly. The first response was the National Defense Book Campaign, organized by the American Library Association under the leadership of Althea Warren, director of the Los Angeles Public Library. She launched a national book donation drive with a goal of 10 million books. Eventually 18 million were collected in what became the Victory Book Campaign. However, not all the books were suitable for soldiers and most were heavy hardcovers, not idea for someone’s pack or duffle.

Eventually this effort gave way to the American Services Editions, payed for by the military. Cost constraints combined with an effort of mass production of a number of editions led to adopting a paperback format, produced for roughly five cents a book. Each months, sets were sent out to all the service units. They consisted of classics, how to books, modern fiction, history, biography, sports. They were selected with an eye to soldiers interests. They fit in a soldiers pocket and were so popular that they were traded around until they fell apart

Manning recounts how deeply these were appreciated. Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was the all-time favorite, reminding so many soldiers of home. Soldiers could be found reading them on transports and in fox holes, wherever they could find a moments respite. Books weren’t censored for points of view. Some were controversial, like Strange Fruit, an account of interracial marriage, or steamylike Forever Amber. All of these kept soldiers morale up and reminded them for what they were fighting. Eventually, more books were produced than the Germans destroyed, some by those banned authors. In the end, books not only went to war, they won.

Most fascinating to me was how Manning connects this massive book effort with the massive influx of GIs into colleges after the war, and their seriousness about learning. She raises the question of whether the steady diet of good reading the soldiers experienced during the war (which may not have been true of them before) whet their appetites for serious study that “wrecked the curve” for other undergraduates.

I write this review during “stay at home” orders during a pandemic. This is a very different war. We act collectively by isolating. It will be interesting to see the role books play during this war, when so many other forms of entertainment are available on all our devices. Yet books have a power to form ideas, to capture imagination, to re-fashion our world as we enter that of a book. The stories evoked in my minds eye are always richer than the rendering of another. I know the importance of the idea of relief to those on the edge, but I wonder if for some, the chance to have a collection of new titles delivered each month would be a welcome gift. Should there be an equivalent to Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library for adults? Will our “time out” be long enough to foster a lifelong love for this literature?

Perhaps someday, someone will write a book of this time titled When Books Sustained a Nation. One an only hope.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Women Workers During World War 2

rosie the riveter

J. Howard Miller, Public Domain

The woman who was the inspiration for the iconic “We Can Do It!” poster, often nicknamed as “Rosie the Riveter,” died this week at the age of 96. Naomi Parker Fraley was the subject of a photograph that inspired Westinghouse artist J. Howard Miller’s inspirational poster, originally designed to boost morale in Westinghouse plants during World War 2. There was actually some controversy about the identity of “Rosie” and this Time article summarizes how they figured out who the real “Rosie” was. The poster went viral, and has come to be an icon for the empowerment of women in the workplace.

Youngstown was one of the “arsenals of democracy” supporting the war effort during World War 2 and there were a number of “Rosies” who contributed to that effort. My mother-in-law was one of them. She often spoke of her work during the war as an inspector with one of the aircraft part suppliers in Youngstown. She wasn’t a riveter, but rather inspected the riveting work of other workers, many of them women. She talked of getting people angry when she’d send an assembly back because of improper rivets. Her attitude was that the boys “over there” depended on them getting it right.

From what I’ve been able to learn, two of the places where aircraft parts were manufactured were General Fireproofing and Steel Door. At Steel Door, they manufactured fuel tanks for the aircraft. I also found this Mashable site with a color photo spread of real life “Rosies” in aircraft manufacturing during World War 2. Unfortunately, there were none from Youngstown.

Women filled the spaces in the workforce opened up by men who went away to serve. The steel mills in Youngstown ran three shifts and prospered during this time and there were a number of positions filled by women. Women filled between 8 and 16 percent of the production positions, particularly in rolling mills, fabrication, finishing, and shop maintenance.

Helena Auguston was one of the contributors to Youngstown State’s Oral History Program. During World War 2 she worked for a year at the Ravenna Arsenal making detonator caps for artillery shells. Then she worked for the remainder of the war at Republic and Copperweld, mostly as a crane operator. Here is a portion of her interview with William M. Kish of her experience:

OH1236 pdf

Screen capture from Helena Auguston interview with William M. Kish

Some, like Helena, returned to homemaking after the war. But many did not. They joined unions and advocated for women’s rights in the workplace. It clearly changed perceptions of what women were capable of doing and began to break down the divisions of work into “men’s work” and “women’s work.” This also began to change relations between husbands and wives as women no longer depended on a male wage earner, and how children were raised.

These women are some of the “unsung heroes” of World War 2. Youngstown played a huge role in the war effort, and women played a significant part in that effort, one that it seems appropriate to remember with the passing of the original “Rosie the Riveter.”

I’d love to hear some of your stories of women in your family who worked in Youngstown area factories during World War 2.

Review: Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 3: The War Years and After


Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 3: The War Years and AfterBlanche Wiesen Cook. New York: Viking, 2016.

Summary: The third and final volume in this biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, covering her advocacy, friendships, and relationship with Franklin during the war years, and briefly, her accomplishments after his death.

I had often heard that Eleanor Roosevelt did as much to redefine the role of First Lady as her husband did the Presidency, perhaps more. This work, volume three of a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt (who the author usually refers to as “ER”) helped me understand that she did far more than that, in the war years and after.

She was a prodigious writer and her daily columns often and weekly broadcasts sometimes had more influence than her husband’s speeches. She represented her husband not only at various domestic functions but in a number of overseas trips including extensive journeys in the southwest Pacific (at some personal risk) and Latin America. And she hosted countless functions at the White House, and their Hyde Park residence, including a visit from the royal family. Her address to the 1940 Democratic Convention may have saved the day for Roosevelt in that election.

Perhaps what stood out most was her advocacy–progressive even by today’s standards. Most striking was her tireless advocacy for Jewish refugees before, during, and after the war. She was among the earliest to recognize the impending holocaust and struggled against a resistant State Department as well as foreign governments to rescue refugees attempting to flee the Nazi threat. And sadly, as in so many instances since, including the genocide in Aleppo, the U.S. as well as other powers turned away from the most vulnerable. Yet there were many who owed their lives to her.

Cook chronicles her efforts to end the oppression against blacks, including her support for the Tuskegee airmen, trained but sitting at a U.S. air base.  She fought for voting rights against the poll taxes, and even late in life, was one of the foremost voices urging college youth to go south in the early sixties to support voting registration. She argued for social and economic assistance for those in Depression-era poverty, including a basic level of nutrition, housing, and health care, recognizing that deficiencies in these area hampered employment, as well as the fitness of young men to serve in the approaching conflict. Later on, she would propose support for college education, incorporated into the G.I. Bill.

Because she fought so many progressive causes, she often was criticized (and even monitored by the FBI) for ties with Communists. She was actually vociferously anti-Communist in her statements but her support for groups like the American Youth Congress made her suspect. Her visibility made her a target for attacks on her husband’s policies.

The book does a good job exploring her complex relationship with Franklin. She knew of his affairs, including that with Lucy Mercer Rutherford (who was with him when he died), and came to terms with this. He both valued her principled advocacy and was annoyed by it, and sometimes set limits on what she could do for political reasons. She constantly pushed her ideas, and pushed him, and Cook sees some of her language and ideas in his best speeches. Some of the complexity relates as well with the intimate friendships ER had with Lorena Hickock, and the circle of women who were close friends, several including Hickock known to be lesbian . How intimate is not clear here (I appreciated the biographer’s restraint), but plainly her closeness to Hickock, Tommy (her secretary) and others sustained her in the times when for personal or political reasons Franklin was distant.

The bulk of the book (540 pages) concern the war years up to the death of Franklin. Only the last 30 pages discuss the last seventeen years of her life, although not her death. Most of this is focused around her role in the first U.S. delegation to the newly formed United Nations, and to her lead role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that may be as significant as the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence in enunciating basic human freedoms. Articles 1 to 22 in this declaration concern personal and political freedoms that were finally ratified in Congress in 1992. The social and economic freedoms of Articles 23 to 30 never have been. Even today, then, the document stands as a challenge to all governments, including that of the United States, of the high ideals of human freedom, rarely attained in any of our countries.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but Eleanor Roosevelt broke new paths for women, not only in the White House, but in politics, in journalism, in the military, and industry. Her example and advocacy, as well as her stubborn persistence (described well in her work with an all-male U.N. delegation), won her the respect of the men with whom she worked and opened doors for other women.

Reading the final volume made me want to go back to the first two. In volume three, we see who Eleanor Roosevelt had become and at the top of her influence. One almost can’t help but want to trace the influences and decisions that formed a woman like this. Perhaps the publishers will release the biography as a set, now that it is complete. Welcomed or not, it might make a good gift to the incoming First Lady.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.



April 2014: The Month in Reviews

Another month and another pile of books read! This past month I read of pilgrimages fictional and real, and collections of essays on the future of reading, of politics and religion in the past, and the present relevance of a martyred saint. I read books on big questions, worthy dreams and good and beautiful lives. I explored Winston Churchill’s leadership during World War 2, and a text promoting an alternative to the war around ‘origins’. In case you missed any of the reviews, here is the list with links to my review posts.

1. The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read in the Digital Age ed. Paul Socken. This collection of essays is an exploration of the future of reading and the promotion of reading of great literature by those who love to read and love great literature. It is also thoughtful about the impact of digitization on reading.

2. In Search of Deep Faith by Jim Belcher. Belcher recounts a sabbatical journey with his family through England and Europe exploring the lives, and visiting the sites where those lives were lived out, of his heroes of faith–C. S. Lewis, William Wilberforce, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer among them. His vignettes of these people and his “keeping real” the ups and downs of family life on ‘pilgrimage’ made this a great read.

3. Big Questions, Worthy Dreams by Sharon Daloz Parks. This is an oft referenced work on the spiritual longings of young adults and the role mentors may play in faith and values development.

Untitled-6deep faithbig questions


4. Politics and Religion in Enlightenment Europe, James E Bradley and Dale Van Kley, eds. This collection of papers chronicles the relationship between various religious reform movements and the political structures in their host countries during 18th century Europe–an interesting exploration of the almost unavoidable relationship of religion and politics in another setting.

5. The Good and Beautiful Life by James Bryan Smith. This is the second volume in his Apprentice series and explores how the Sermon on the Mount represents the core of Jesus’ teaching on how one indeed can live a sustainable good life. The book includes “Soul-Training’ exercises and is useful for both individuals and group discussions.

6. The Pilgrim’s Regress by C. S. Lewis. This is Lewis’s first work following his conversion and reflects something of his own spiritual journey. As an early work,  it may not be his best but read it if you love Lewis and you are curious about “why regress?”.

regressbeautiful lifeenlightenment

7. Mapping the Origins Debate by Gerald Rau. Rau’s purpose in this work is to delineate the six (not two!) models of origins of the cosmos and life held by different people and how each of these addresses the evidence around the origin of the cosmos, of life, of the species, and of human beings. His does not advocate for a particular view but shows how philosophical presuppositions and one’s definition of “science” shape one’s interpretation of the evidence and which of these models one is most at home with.

8. Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945 by Max Hastings. This is neither strict biography nor war history but a look at Churchill’s leadership as Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War 2. It gives a balanced treatment of Churchill’s indispensable ability to rally his people and woo American support, and the flaws in his relationships with his war commanders and his perception of Britain’s post-war future.

9. Bonhoeffer, Christ, and Culture, Keith L Johnson and Timothy Larsen, eds. This book contains the papers give at the 2012 Wheaton Theology Conference, which focused on Bonhoeffer, and sheds valuable light on his Christ and Word-centered theology, the transforming influence of the Harlem Renaissance in his life, and Bonhoeffer’s decision to participate in resistance against Hitler and how he reconciled this ethically.



That’s the month in reviews. Look for reviews in the next month on a collection of Manhatten Project materials, faith and science in Antebellum America, a new biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a landmark work on genocide and American foreign policy and more! Thanks for reading!

Review: Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945

Winston's War: Churchill, 1940-1945
Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945 by Max Hastings
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“What, another Churchill book?” This was my wife’s comment when she saw me reading this book. I’ve read Churchill’s own account of World War 2 as well as several other biographies. So, beyond my admiration for Churchill, what possible reason was there to pick up this book?

What Hastings does is focus particularly on Churchill’s leadership of England from his ascent to Prime Minister in 1940 during England’s darkest days, to his ignominious departure from office in July of 1945, shortly after Allied victory in Europe. What Hastings gives us is neither a hagiography nor a hatchet job. Rather I found this a balanced treatment that justly celebrates the qualities of character that made Churchill the “indispensable man”, at least up to 1943, as well as delineating the less seemly aspects of his leadership.

Among the latter was his conservatism, which he had to overcome in dealings with Stalin, and resulted in his lack of connection with the domestic concerns of his own people, particularly in post-war life, which accounted for his unceremonious turning out from office. He was also an infuriating dabbler in military strategy, particularly with the British Army, whose leadership frustrated him. He avoided the castastrophic errors such as invading the Dardenelles that brought him down in World War 1 but was often thwarted in diverting forces from the D-Day invasions by the Americans who had to put up with repeated proposals for actions other theaters. He also could not see, as did Roosevelt, the end of Britain’s colonial empire.

All of this, and other flaws, pale in the light of the fact that Churchill was a warrior, more than most of the war-weary military leadership in England. He recognized that Nazi tyranny could never be compromised with, and from early 1940 until America’s entry in the war in late 1941, led Britain in standing alone in the face of possible invasion threats and the air Battle of Britain that convinced Hitler to turn eastward in the fatal decision to invade Russia. Hastings, more than others I’ve read, recognizes that while Churchill and Roosevelt were not nearly as close as often stated, Churchill’s major success was in bringing the US into the European War when it would have been easier to focus our attention in the Pacific. He also argued persuasively for the importance of Allied action in 1943, so that Russia might not be seen as fighting Germany all alone.

One of the things Hastings book explores more thoughtfully than most is this dilemma of allowing Russia to bear the brunt of fighting Germany, arguably a military necessity in light of the weakness of British military forces and the necessary buildup of American forces. Churchill perhaps agonized more than most at the postwar consequences this would have in Eastern Europe, accentuated by his inability to awaken the Americans to these concerns. Consequently, apart from rescuing Greece from communist forces, there was little he could do but protest incursions and broken agreements.

What Hastings book points up for me are the differences between peace time statecraft and warcraft. It seems these may require different kinds of leadership, and that the same person may not always be able to do both. Perhaps that was the distinction between Churchill and Roosevelt. What is clear is that when war comes, nations need leaders who can lead with courage and resolution to “see the thing through” and can impart that courage to their people, something Chamberlain could not do and both Churchill and Roosevelt did.

View all my reviews

Why I Am Praying for Putin–and Obama

I am a history buff. I’ve read a fair degree of European history and military history–probably just enough to be dangerous! As I’ve followed the events in the Ukraine these past weeks, it has dawned on me that this is something not to be taken lightly. The Crimea is not simply some place far off in Eastern Europe. It represents a number of places in Eastern Europe that were both once part of the Soviet empire and that have Russian populations. And what is trickier is that many of these countries, including Ukraine now are engaged in NATO alliances, which at least theoretically involve obligations to intervene militarily if they are attacked. And of course, the US continues to have significant NATO obligations.

Vladimir Putin Attribution:

Vladimir Putin

I suspect there are some who are better historians who can tell me how this is different from the conditions that led to the folly of World War 1, when a flashpoint assassination activated a series of military alliances that led to a full scale European war that drained the life blood of a generation. Then, as now, everyone seemed to think that in the end, diplomacy would save the day, until it was overwhelmed by the momentum of events.

Barack Obama Attribution: By Pete Souza, The Obama-Biden Transition Project [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Barack Obama
Attribution: By Pete Souza, The Obama-Biden Transition Project [CC-BY-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m also troubled by the reality of a great nation, Russia, humbled by the crumbling of the former Soviet Union, stripped of what they perceived as their western buffer, devastated economically, now experience something of a resurgence of its power, at least regionally under a strong leader. While the formal humiliation was not, perhaps, as severe as that of Versailles, it occurs to me that the same similar dynamics could be at work in this situation.

It is almost 70 years since the end of World War 2 and many of us grew up thinking that another European conflict, particularly under the threat of nuclear weapons, was unthinkable. Sadly, the story of what Barbara Tuchman once called “The March of Folly” is that people and societies will do the unthinkable and irrational–all very rationally to appearances.

And so I found myself praying today for both Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama, and the decisions each will make in the days ahead. They could make the difference between peril and peace, and it seems that wisdom from on high wouldn’t hurt.

[BTW, I welcome comments but I won’t approve/host those which are simply partisan rants!]