When Hitler launched his war he didn’t merely launch one of tanks and planes, he also launched one of ideas. With Mein Kampf he began a campaign called total war, designed to take over not just the city and the body, but the mind as well. By the time the United States entered the war, the Nazis had banned and burned over 100 million books.
To combat the messages coming from Germany, the United States launched a nationwide book drive. For two years, the American Library Association and people from all over the country combined forces to deliver books to servicemen wherever their training posts might be. By 1943, large, heavy hardbacks no longer made the cut. They were too big to carry into battle, too heavy for already overloaded packs.
Enter the war department and the publishing industry. In an unprecedented move, these two disparate partners joined forces and created 120 million small, lightweight paperbacks that were sent around the globe. The ASEs (American Service Editions) of history, poetry, fiction, short stories, biographies, mysteries, and westerns were designed to provide a means of escape to people who were stuck where they were in more ways than one. Titles were picked to appeal to a wide range of tastes, to expand ideas, to make men laugh, to give stressed soldiers a little breathing room, and they may have been one of the most significant factors in winning the war.
Servicemen said that you weren’t in complete uniform without an ASE in your pocket. Soldiers read them in foxholes, in the hospital, while waiting for orders. Sailors read them on voyages through U-boat infested waters. Pilots read them while flying milk run flights. Books passed through ranks, with some trying to make bribes to get to a copy sooner. Authors became as popular as movie stars, getting and responding to fan mail. Men who had never read before became life-long readers, and credited the ASEs with helping them maintain sanity.
When Books Went to War is the fascinating story of the ASEs and how they were created. The book includes a complete list of all titles that were distributed.