The great appeal of history is its ability to surprise and challenge what we think we know. Online publication of the G.I. pamphlet series of the American Historical Association provides just this sort of appeal, as it forces us to rethink the hard and fast divisions historians and the general public typically make about the 20th century. Between the depression era and the Cold War, the war years are typically depicted as a time when all other considerations except the prosecution of the war were swept away. However, the G.I. pamphlet series was prepared under the direction of the Army’s Division of Information and Education between 1943 and 1945 “to increase the effectiveness of the soldiers and officers as fighters during the war and as citizens after the war.” The accent in the pamphlets is on what the postwar world would look like, and reassuring servicemen that they would have a place in postwar America. As I note in my review of somewhat similar sites on the web, this is strikingly different from the way the war years are generally presented online, where all eyes are turned toward the military events, and even the home front is generally depicted only in relation to the battlefields of Europe and Asia. These pamphlets provide an intriguing indicator that the postwar world was being seriously considered and developed fairly early in the military campaign. Even if historians of the present want to divide the 20th century neatly at 1945, the series reminds that at the time, many people were looking to the pre-war years as a guide to build what was to come after the war.
When completed, this Web archive will consists of the 42 pamphlets the Association prepared for the War Department, and a variety of supporting documents that describe the process for selecting the topics, preparing the pamphlets, and making them available to service men and women around the world. The pamphlets themselves will provide students of the period with contemporaneous glimpse at the issues people were considering at the time, on topics ranging from economic and cultural anxieties at home—particularly around women, crime, and jobs—to foreign policy issues in a postwar world. The domestic pamphlets offer a fairly detailed social scientific analysis of the state of affairs on the home front, and an early glimpse at the issues overseas that Americans would deal with over the next few decades. However, as the background documents will attest, an important part of the way the topics were selected and the pamphlets were ultimately written was through the manipulation of historians’ ideals of objectivity. Not surprisingly, the “objective” norms the military advisors pressed on the authors of the series reflected their white upper-middle-class frame of reference. As we note in the larger analysis, the AHA tailored its pamphlets to paint an idealized image of a postwar world that was essentially free of minorities, where women happily moved out of the factories and back into the kitchen, and where America would largely dominate the world stage.1
Beyond their value as an archive of primary documents, the pamphlets and background materials invite further exploration on a number of largely unexplored topics in contemporary historiography of the Second World War. The series is highlights a novel effort by military leaders to assess troop morale through polling and to address soldiers’ concerns through a process of “democratic education” modeled on progressive models of education and corporate morale-building techniques. Contrary to the image of self-sacrifice that now seems to prevail in the historiography of the period, the pollsters found a high level of ambivalence about the war, and widespread ignorance about the government’s intentions.2 Drawing on new social science models linking education with morale, the Army launched an extensive program aimed at boosting morale by encouraging conversation around selected topics and publications. As the list of titles reflect, the subjects were far removed from the specifically military purpose of the enterprise. The archives contain a number of items from the businessman in charge of the Army’s Morale Branch, which clearly describe how he intended to apply social science processes and techniques developed in a business environment to the military.3 Regardless of the overt references to its democratic character, the pamphlet series was a key part of a process aimed at developing a sense of identity in a larger hierarchical culture.
The digital medium provides a unique opportunity to share this series and the materials that expand our understanding of how and why they were written. The series itself was printed on exceptionally cheap paper that is beginning to degrade and seems unlikely to last much longer without transfer to an electronic medium. Similarly, the online environment provides the prefect opportunity to make them available to a much wider audience than they could ever receive in print.
1. This deficiency did not go unnoted at the time, as a number of newspapers took issue with the fairly misogynistic portrayal of women in Do You Want Your Wife to Work After the War?. See, for instance, “Help Wanted!” Christian Science Monitor (September 18, 1944), 1 and “Incredible Temerity,” New York Herald Tribune (September 13, 1944), 24.
2. These findings were based on a series of surveys conducted by the Research Branch of the Special Services Division of the Army. Particularly three reports “What the Soldier Thinks: Quarterly Report, with Charts, of Research Studies Indicating the Attitudes, Prejudices, and Desires of American Troops,” Number 2 (Washington, D.C.: Army Service Forces, War Department, August 1943); “What Questions Would Soldiers Ask Their Commander-in-Chief?” (January 25, 1943) and “Survey of Soldier Opinion, Number 2: United States Army Forces in the Middle East, July 21-August 7, 1943,” AHA Papers, Library of Congress Manuscript Reading Room, Box 382. Perhaps most surprising, almost a third of those polled expressed more interest in their place in America after the war than they were about the prosecution of the war or their more immediate day-to-day concerns.
3. In a speech to delivered to the headquarters staff in the European Theater of Operations, Major General Frederick H. Osborn, Director of the Army’s Morale Branch, compares the Army to a large national corporation and notes how these large businesses are now engaged in internal public relations directed at employees, to remind them that they belong to “a great organization that is rendering a great public service” and that “they have a sense of their own personal part in this great job of public service.”