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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 ColdWar, 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 side of things, 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 have divided the 20th-century at 1945, the historians at the time were looking to the pre-war years as a guide to build what was to come after the war.
For the purposes of this proposal, the goal of this project is simply to create an archival web site that will publish the text and images from the 44 pamphlets that were ultimately produced. Admittedly, the pamphlets initially seem to be no more than an amusing glimpse into the past. Certainly, the tackiness of some of the images and topics, like the pamphlets on “Do You Want Your Wife to Work after the War” and “Will There Be a Plane in Every Garage” are the sort of cringe-inducing embarrassment that allows Americans in the new millennium look back with a certain smugness on bygone eras. However, aside from the latent misogyny in a couple of the essays, the pamphlets are generally quite serious in their tone and suggest a serious and thoughtful consideration of the issues. In all the series produced pamphlets on topics ranging from economic and cultural anxieties at home—particularly around women, crime, and jobs—to foreign policy issues in a postwar world. And each of them offers a fairly detailed social scientific analysis of the state of affairs on the home front.
Cover of Will There Be Work for All?
Beyond an archival interest, the series also opens to interesting lines of analysis that could serve as a basis for further exploration in an essay or two. On the one hand, they provide an interesting way of assessing the rather topical issue of what role intellectuals (and particularly historians, of course) can and should serve in a time of national mobilization and crisis. The rather embarassing way in which some of these pamphlets have stood the test of time suggests the need for caution, as does the complaints about the problems encountered in their battles with government bureaucrats and censors (detailed in some of the background documents).
Beyond those issues, I would also like to further explore my intuition that what we now think of as postwar culture was deeply rooted in the war years, and dividing the 20th century around 1945 requires some further consideration. An admittedly cursory review of the secondary literature suggests that this subject has received very little attention. Alan Brinkley's End of Reform is fairly typical of those that touch on the subject; treating it as a policy question that largely took place only among the power elite in Washington. The trajectory from in war planning for the postwar world, and what we now conceive of as cultural phenomenon of "the fifties" remains largely unexplored.
Obviously there is a significant problem in framing the topic this way, particularly the extent to which it can be seen (or at least described) as an effort to diminish the value and sacrifice of the men who fought and died in the war. However, as the close interest of the Army's Division of Morale attests, a close attention to life after the war was viewed as an essential part of their success in battle. At the same time, given some of the other types of histories I've noted on the Web, I think there is some clear evidence that this can have a wide appeal for those who are curious about what was going on at home during the war--the pamphlets offer a rich array of facts and figures about the war years--as well as those interested in exploring the roots of the postwar world.
The digital medium is the ideal format for this, given the rather daunting costs of creating reproduction of the print version of these, many of which were printed on exceptionally cheap paper that is beginning to degrade--yellow and crack--and seem 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. Looking at it realistically, this can only appeal to a very narrow and specialized audience. The electronic medium also makes it much more feasible for this audience to find them through the larger database functions of the World Wide Web.
So while it will the series offers no shattering insights, and certainly offers little appeal to the History Channel crowd, the series merits publication online for all those curious about an important time of transition in U.S. history.