Other Days, Other Ways: American book censorship 1918-1945

James J. Martin

When Secretary of War Newton D. Baker issued his directive of late summer and early fall of 1918 ordering the removal of 47 published works from U.S. Army post and camp libraries as unfit for the soldiery to read, he opened up an immense subject, potentially. This was especially true after his action spilled over into the civilian sector, and public libraries about the land, without official direction, began to weed out, impound and/or destroy these same 47 publications. The Armys action was obviously not intended to have this result, but, as it worked out, it had perhaps an unexpected public-sector compliance with serious implications for general civil rights and civil liberties, even if public awareness of this at the time was almost imperceptible. What Secretary Baker really achieved was to open up the vast topic of what the citizenry of the United States might read about many aspects of the war-during the war. It is amazing that there was no real measurable contemporary reaction to this, no extended speculation as to its possibilities and general implications. It is equally alarming that the whole matter was settled simply by neglect, undoubtedly assisted by the general feeling of relief and euphoria set loose by the ending of the war just a few weeks after the entire incident was initiated and precipitated.

One of the more obvious implications of the Army's move against the stipulated 47 published works was that what remained in libraries or elsewhere after these had been removed were perfectly satisfactory for the armed forces to read, and that the book stacks had been officially cleansed.An active enemy propaganda ministry, had there been one, would have exulted in high glee over this entire affair, as the censorship decision overlooked a formidable library of works with a far greater potential for infecting the readership with unwanted views and convictions than what had been formally suppressed. In this number of the submerged and the low profile were at least three dozen books with known or suspected sponsorship by the German government through American representation itself, let alone an immense swath of publications by Americans with no known German sympathies at all who simply expressed views and convictions mainly or entirely out of sympathy with the war, the way it was being conducted, and those who were conducting it. The political and ideological variations in all this literary product were astounding, and bewildering; the variations emanating from the pacifists and the “Peace” movement alone almost defied analysis and categorization. One stands in amazement and amusement at the pretensions of these essentially political-amateur dabblers in censorship, upon contemplating what a mere scratch on the surface of the problem they were etching. However, what should have disturbed and unsettled contemporaries was the potential for what was not done, and what might have been done, had there been in charge an element which really knew and understood what they were doing.

The failure of this incident to arouse interest from chroniclers of the war may be due in part to the relatively undramatic nature of the episode when ranged against the far more absorbing and distracting contemporary tales of combat, and, later, the complicated postwar world politics which captured popular attention. Secretary Baker and the entire cast of this intellectual interlude are missing from the substantial book by H.C. Peterson and Gilbert Fite, Opponents of War, 1917-1918, though there is excellent coverage of other aspects of censorship during the 19 months of American war involvement. The entire incident is also missing from the famed compendium Banned Books by Anne Lyon Haight (New York: R.R. Bowker, 1955). Though this is here and there interested in books banned in wars, in the main it is concerned with censorship for other reasons and at other times. Some later compilers of bibliographies of suppressed books are also completely ignorant of this affair. The whole business quickly slipped away and interest in the momentarily notorious book lists evaporated to the point where one might imagine they ended up in an Orwellian “memory hole” designed just for them. It would be a very tiny club indeed were one to gather together whatever industrious souls as could be found who had recollections of these authors and their forbidden works.

Despite the feebleness of memories and the abysmally short fashion of historical memorialization, there is a recurring psychologico-political phenomenon involved which should attract attention. Wars follow wars, and there are broad general courses of action which reappear even if they never quite follow in precise details. Differences may induce those who experience them and the intellectual impositions they incur to think that nothing previous to their time matched what they went through, which may be one of the reasons that during the “light-switch” statecraft of the adversarial-confrontational state system the same impositions or even worse variations thereof can be made generation after generation as the war seasons come and go. What gets banned or suppressed may change profoundly in content but the procedures remain the same. There is a tendency for them to become more sophisticated with aspects of covert psychic intimidation of varying degrees of subtlety carried out in such a way that there is little awareness that censorship and suppression of intellectual freedom is taking place at all. There are analogous things taking place in war propaganda itself, changing from a bald-faced telling of lies to a telling of just part of the truth, or a simple total suppression of news or fact without any perceptible indication of this one way or another.

We might for instance examine a few of the on-going tendencies in book suppression in the quarter of a century or more after the events we have concerned ourselves with above. Mrs. Haight did devote parts of two pages of her treatise on book-burning-and-banning to the famed ceremonial conflagration in National Socialist Germany, initiated on May 10, 1933 (Banned Books, pp. 121-122), while the purely political gesture involved was underplayed. One of history's outrageously over-exaggerated events, looked at from the perspective of 55 years, surely has been this incident in 1933, immensely exploitable because it was so explicit. But compared to the conflagrations involving literature across the centuries including the era previous to printed books, which have involved countless libraries in many lands burned to the ground (a fire in the U.S.S.R. National Academy of Sciences in Leningrad on February 14, 1988 destroyed or badly damaged 4,000,000 books), this event in Germany would barely rate a footnote. The exigencies of world politics since then have resulted in the assigning of a value to this incident as though it were the only event of its kind. Like other footnotes in history which have been tortured and bent out of shape to replace the main text it persists in the repetitious conditioning so peculiar to the photographic 20th century, gawked at over the decades of television-watching, and less understood every year it is recalled. Against the total backdrop of literary suppression for all reasons across the ages it is a mere curiosity. However, as do all suppressions, for whatever reason, this one has given some of its targets an intellectual life far beyond what several of them had any right ever to expect.

But Mrs. Haight went on to demonstrate indirectly that this event in terms of total achievement in the destruction of politically undesirable books was an inconsequential bagatelle when compared to the achievements a decade later of the Anglo-American adversaries of Germany in yet another war, when “Allied” saturation bombing of the famed German “book city” of Leipzig destroyed a vast number of books, far more than any zealous supporter of Adolf Hitler had ever dreamed of torching in May, 1933. Mrs. Haight also proceeded to discuss actions of the Coordinating Council of the American Military Government in postwar Germany in directing wholesale removal and pulping of books, from stores and libraries, which reflected favorably upon the defeated National Socialist regime, or even upon the older traditional German nationalism, for that matter. However, her prize commentary was reserved for the Communist regime of East Germany two decades after the 1933 bookburning incident, in 1953, when Communist cultural watchdogs removed from book stores, schools and libraries five million books, an action which reduced the Nazi ceremony of May 10, 1933 to the level of a mere prank by comparison (Banned Books, p. 123).

Americans were not total strangers to the practice of suppression and large-scale destruction of books, but for reasons quite apart from the political. The career of Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) had ended just a short time before the U.S. Army action was precipitated in 1918; he was the most zealous and indefatigable pursuer of “immoral” or pornographic literature the land has ever known. As a special agent for the U.S. Post Office between 1874 and 1915, Comstock had been known to confiscate such printed works at the rate of over 30 tons in one year or another, probably much of it borderline or questionable when it came to being explicitly offensive according to the standards maintained by the postal services in harmony with public law of the time, particularly in the quarter of a century after Reconstruction.

But this was part of a long, ongoing program, and though execrated by recent generations of liberal critics it did have extended and broad public support in the time it was sustained as public policy. This campaign resulted in constant trials of authors, publishers, distributors and dealers of literature considered morally reprehensible. Comstock claimed to have prosecuted and secured the conviction of almost 4,000 persons in four decades, though publicity also sharply increased sales and demand for titles, which drew public attention during all these proceedings in court.

These legal actions also had a long period of influential impact afterward, especially in the operations of various urban organizations enforcing “decency” by pursuing “vice” incorporated in books, best known through such as Boston's Watch and Ward Society and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. At the time of the furor over the political action against Communist and other books in Germany in 1933 there was simultaneously an intense campaign being waged against “obscene” books in New York City and State, by the Legion of Decency. It was the New York City Public Library which had removed George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman from its shelves in 1905, and it was in the same city where the most vigorous efforts were being made to prevent the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses in 1933.

In the U.S.A. the relatively coarse and inexact pursuit of political and ideological sin imbedded in books which has been observed in the narrative of the transactions in the closing months of World War I was not repeated in the war of 1939-1945, about 30% of which was also sat out of as a non- belligerent. But there occurred a silent attack on literature this time which started almost with the European war declarations of September 1939 and which program still needs its chronicler. Just between December, 1940 and December, 1941, the last calendar year of American “neutrality,” U.S. postal authorities seized over 600 tons of foreign publications at West Coast ports alone, which were “destroyed at these ports of entry,” according to the bible of the publishing industry, Publishers Weekly (September 5, 1942, p. 832). The story went on to complain that, in addition, “Many libraries, particulary university libraries, had consignments of books from abroad seized and destroyed from September, 1939 down to Pearl Harbor” [December 7, 1941]. This separate annihilation of books obviously dwarfed anything attributed to the German enemy this second time around in less than a generation.

In addition to the remarkable diligence and energy of the Post Office Department in destroying books from abroad at U.S. ports of entry, there was another form of interference, again hitting the university and research facilities: the quarantining indefinitely of periodicals, with nothing said as to when they might possibly be received by addressees. Porter Sargent, in No. 35 of his famous Bulletin newsletter (February 9, 1940), revealed:

Scientific periodicals now, as during the last war, are cut off from us. The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, which customarily acts as a clearing house for foreign exchanges, has forwarded no periodical since August, 1939. The War Documentation Service, Philadelphia, R.H. Heindel, Director, tells us that a Joint Committee on Foreign Relations, N.Y. Public Library, has arranged for foreign agents to hold in storage scientific and scholarly periodicals that cannot be forwarded because of the embargo.

And the country was still almost two years away from involvement in the war as a formal belligerent. From belligerency onward, the interception and destruction of vast quantities of printed works from abroad at all ports of entry can only be imagined in terms of scope and volume, let alone value.

Domestically, however, the program ran quite in the opposite direction, operationally. During 1941-1945, American books were not amassed and destroyed after publication. They were “burned” in manuscript, i.e., they were simply suppressed by prospective publishers while in typescript or holograph form, and did not get loose to illuminate the citizenry and bedevil and upset or anger the wartime establishment (several books critical of America's Stalinist “ally” did not make the light of day until well after the end of this war). This of course was a policy of self-censorship on the part of the publishers; there was no official policy requiring this.

A major statement in how this was to work was made as early as March, 1942 by Bennett Cerf, president of two major publishers, Random House and Modern Library, and head of the largest book-distribution organization in the United States, the Book of the Month Club. Part of his effort was in laying down the ground rules for the coming brainwash of the country with respect to Stalinism and the Soviet Union, now that the fortuitous course of hostilities had thrown the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. into their queasy comradeship of an unstable military alliances of sorts. On the general book business in war and the agency of self-censorship in behalf of political and military compliance, Cerf had this to say:

Book publishers, in single contrast to some of our most powerful newspaper proprietors, have been meticulous so far in keeping from their lists any new titles that might contain sly or poisonous propaganda. Scripts are read with rigid care. In some cases, books already printed and bound have been junked at the last minute, and the resultant losses written off without a murmur. Booksellers, too, should maintain a constant vigil over new publications. If any one publisher inadvertently or by design, slips through a single book that preaches a creed inimical to the war effort, the retailer will be performing a service to his country by deliberately sabotaging that book. (Cerf, “War and the Book Business,” Publishers Weekly [March 28, 1942], p. 1248.)

And following up that ferocious totalitarian credo, Cerf delivered himself of this closing testimonial which helped readers of Publishers Weekly to understand the ideological origins of his entire position in support of his bid to become our prime literary commissar:

The publishers and the bookseller should check backlists carefully. The fortunes of war have brought into being alliances that looked incredible only a short time ago, and have proven that some of our most cherished theories were utterly false. Our old conceptions of the Russian purges and trials, for instance, and the Russo-Finnish war, evidently, were mistaken, and books that encourage those beliefs should be taken off sale immediately. Russia is a friend in need to us today. People who dangle the menace of Russian Communism constantly before us are increasing our chances of losing the war. Let us deal with our so-called menace of American Communism after the war is over. I say, “so-called,” because, in my opinion, American Communists are a singularly ineffective and insignificant minority. (Cerf, op. cit., p. 1249.)

With people such as Cerf in control of the book publishing business, one need not wonder that the U.S.A. in World War Two needed no censorship apparatus nor a corps of printed word bloodhounds to sniff out and destroy anything within book covers which might incense or affront the sensibilities of those directing the “war effort,” whether Stalinophiles or not. Six months later the editors of Publishers Weekly felt that the message needed to be re-asserted in general terms, while pointing out that just negative repression had been abandoned as a control device in favor of a positive employment of the publishing business to sell the wartime Government's program rather than as a damper upon the expression of independent ideas on that or any other view which might come up in this land of irrepressible individualism:

During the course of the war much of the book censorship which will be brought to bear will be silent and inarticulate … The book trade will wisely try as much self policing as possible, and make official action unnecessary. The democratic censorship of responsibility can be made to work in the Second World War as it did in the first … Publishers will keep a sharp eye on books which might run afoul of the censor, but their main emphasis will be on books as morale building agencies. This dynamic and positive aspect of the role of publishers in wartime is instanced in the creation of non-governmental organizations, of which the Council on Books in Wartime is an important example. (Publishers Weekly [September 5, 1942], p. 833.)

The First World War in the U.S.A. was an era of the wildest proliferation of intellectual freedom imaginable compared to World War Two. Nothing within a light year of the Government's program in the First was ever dreamed of in the Second, as the expert techniques in the formation of lock-step perfected in the 25-year interim precluded any possible independence of mind to get loose for more than a few moments, let alone flourish even to the degree in which it did in 1917-1918. The relatively chaotic unconformity of the former time never came within a peep of repeating in the latter. The mass compliance which prevailed, had it taken place in an era or a land with a social system based on chattel slavery, would have been looked upon by its main political beneficiaries as the answer to a slave-holder's dream. Americans will be a very long time getting over the psychic drag created and built in by World War Two, let alone hope ever to live in a political world which has escaped its shadow.

If one chooses to retreat deeper into the past instead of working forward while examining the phenomenon of book destruction, perhaps a different perspective will be gained, and a somewhat more genial estimation of one's own time may result. Since we are dealing with a brief incident in a topic which would result in a library-sized stream of volumes if the entire subject were examined by the required multitude of investigative scholars, the total picture since the perfection of any kind of writing probably could not be even read in a lifetime, let alone written in the lifetimes of the many hundred who might be required to have done the writing. What can we make for instance of the campaign of the Manchu emperor Kao Tsung, who undertook to expunge totally from the literature of China all works containing critical or derogatory references to the Manchus and their “northern predecessors"? Between 1774 and 1782 he is credited with the direction of a book-hunt which resulted in the extirpation of over 2,000 titles from the book collections of the country; the total number of individual volumes involved cannot even be wildly guessed at (An Encyclopedia of World History [Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1948], p. 541). Hoping to learn of every such event since anyone ever recorded anything for posterity is undoubtedly just one of many possible intellectual exercises which would dizzy even the most imaginative. Stopping grievously short of such an achievement, in full understanding of what might possibly be the “full” story, is a practical way of concluding such an investigation as this.


(The above article appears as the Afterword [pp. 66-75] to An American Adventure in Bookburning in The Style of 1918, which is available for purchase from Noontide Press.)


Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 133-141.