Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Office of War Information and Book Publishers in WWII

An Office of War Information artist sketches out a new poster. November, 1941. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In March 1942 the Office of War Information* was established to coordinate government efforts to influence the public opinion of Americans and citizens of other countries. Essentially, it was a the US department of propaganda. The OWI censored the media’s reporting of the war. It produced and circulated pamphlets, magazines, posters, photographs, films, and radio programs. And, most interesting to me, the office worked to publish books.

*For its first two months it was called the Office of Facts and Figures.

A publicity photo of OWI Chief, Elmer Davis (on right), contributing a book at the beginning of the 1943 Victory Book Campaign. Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review of Literature and member of the National Campaign Board for the Victory Book Campaign, is accepting the book on behalf of the VBC. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Office of War Information split its book efforts into two separate sections based on the region they handled. There was the Domestic Book Bureau (initially named the Book Division) and the Overseas Book Bureau. A young publishing professional, Chester Kerr, was the first to head the Domestic Book Division. Since 1940 Kerr had been director of Atlantic Monthly Press, a book publisher in Boston. Before that his first job out of college had been an editor at Harcourt, Brace, and Company (1936 to 1940).

Government Partnership with Private Publishers

The government’s OWI had a very cozy relationship with the private American book publishing industry. Much of the office’s staff was made up of senior publishing men. Chester Kerr was joined by Harold Guinzburg and Milton B. Glick (of the Viking Press), Archibald G. Ogden (of Bobbs-Merrill), C. Raymond Everitt (of Little Brown), Paul Brooks (of Houghton Mifflin), George Stevens (of Lippincott), Cass Canfield and Simon M. Bessie (of Harper & Brothers), Edward H. Dodd (of Dodd, Mead), John Farrar and Philip Hodge (of Farrar & Rinehart), Trevor Hill (of Doubleday, Doran), and Keith Jennison (of Henry Holt).

In the same month that OWI was activated members of the book publishing industry were meeting to form their own nonprofit organization to help the war effort, the Council on Books in Wartime. In the council's earliest meetings they were joined by OWI’s Chester Kerr.

In August of 1942 Kerr arranged for a committee from the Council in Books in Wartime to come to Washington for high-level meetings. The publishing men spoke with representatives from the Office of War Information, the Department of State, the War Department and the Navy Department (the 1940s forerunners of today’s Department of Defense), the government-published Infantry Journal, the Library of Congress, the Office of Censorship, the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, the Office of Education, the Office of Price Administration, and the Treasury Department. The CBW’s Washington Committee was made up of W. W. Norton (committee chairman), Marshall A. Best (of The Viking Press), Robert F. De Graff (of Pocket Books), Walter W. Frese (of Hastings House), Frederic G. Melcher (of Publisher’s Weekly), and James S. Thompson (of McGraw Hill Book Company).

The basic result of the conference was that the CBW agreed it would help produce, distribute, and promote books and book-related programs** that the OWI deemed important for the American public during the war. While the agreement did put government influence on private business, the CBW reserved the right to reject OWI recommendations. For the next three years Kerr would spend one day each week in New York City so that he could maintain close contact with the publishers.

**For instance, Kerr had suggested to the CBW that it create a national radio program to remind Americans of Hitler’s 1933 book-burning.

The Overseas Book Bureau

The Office of War Information planned to sponsor a series of new books to be published and sold in the US each year. Their first and only project with the CBW was A War Atlas For Americans. In July 1944 Congress removed OWI’s funding for books or pamphlets intended for the US market. Partly a political move, the funding was axed because conservative lawmakers saw it as another of President Roosevelt’s liberal money-wasting New Deal projects. OWI’s book production was allowed to continue in its Overseas Book Bureau because it was considered useful in spreading American influence abroad.

With help from the Council on Books in Wartime, the Overseas Book Bureau wanted to make translated American books available in European bookstores immediately following liberation by the Allies. During the German occupation European publishing had been crippled. Publishers were destroyed and book shelves were stocked with pro-Nazi books. It was decided that American books could help deprogram populations who had lived under Nazi propaganda. And the publishers recognized a side-benefit in opening a new market for American books after the war.

Paperback cover of a French-language 1944 Overseas Edition. This book is a collection of newspaper reports by American war correspondent Ernie Pyle. From my collection.

In March of 1944 Chester Kerr transferred to the Overseas Book Bureau. Kerr and the leadership of the CBW decided to send existing American novels and nonfiction that happened promote America’s form of democratic society. It was thought that commisioning new pro-American books to give out for free would look too much like blatant propaganda. The chosen books were officially published by Overseas Editions, Inc. (OWI and CBW were not mentioned on the copyright page). Books were printed in the US in four languages: English, French, Italian, and German books were the last to be published. Finished books were then shiped across the Atlantic.

The London branch of The Office of War Information, headed by Harold Guinzburg (President of The Viking Press), operated a parallel program: books by American authors for distribution in Europe. Its books were called the Transatlantic Editions. Since these were the first OWI books able to put into action, they were translated into French and Dutch, the languages of the first Europeans to be liberated.

OWI set up a similar book program for the Pacific. Chinese-language books were produced, while Japan was excluded. OWI had been focused on Europe, and it had not planned for Japan sudden surrender. The Psychological Warfare Branch of the American miliary government in Japan handled book programs there, working with their allies the British and Russians. Directed by the US government, Japanese publishers released Japanese-language editions of American, British, Russian, and French books.


While the programs themselves were considered a success (their books were eagerly bought and read), the close cooperation between the government office and the book publishers raised some concern on both sides. Early on the associate director of the OWI accused Chester Kerr of putting the interests of the book publishers over that of the government. Meanhile, book publishers were wary of the government’s influence on their business, and they were anxious to avoid being pereceived as propagandists. Overall, the publishers were pleased to support the war effort, while increasing the market for their books abroad.

Further reading:

"The Office of War Information is Created" on the National World War II museum blog.

Hench, John B. Books As Weapons: Propaganda, Publishing, and the Battle for Global Markets in the Era of World War II.

An interview with author John B. Hench.

I also referenced my copy of A History of the Council on Books in Wartime (1946). This book is long out of print, but it can be found at some university libraries. 

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