The AHA in the Second World War: Trying to Win the Peace with Wartime Pamphlets

Robert B. Townsend, April 2009

In continuation of our timeline series in which we have been bringing you episodes from the Association’s 125-year-old history, we print below an essay that describes a curious but little-known role that the AHA played during and immediately after World War II. The essay has been abridged and adapted from a longer version that can be read online. The longer version provides fuller documentation (for all the quotations and references) that has been omitted here for reasons of space.

GI PamphletsStrange as it may seem, between 1943 and 1945 the AHA produced a series of 42 pamphlets at the request of the U.S. War Department. The pamphlets were intended to help smooth GIs transition to peace after the war by fostering discussion on a variety of topics. The titles of the pamphlets convey the War Department’s ambitions, and the wide range of challenges they anticipated GIs returning home would confront--from high politics, such as “What Shall Be Done with Germany?” to the pragmatically domestic, such as “Do You Want Your Wife to Work after the War?”

The Army printed upwards of 200,000 copies of each pamphlet, and distributed them to approximately 4 million American military personnel in war theaters, occupied Germany and Japan, or while being shipped back from overseas and mustered out to civilian life. While we cannot measure their reception, the pamphlets offer clues as to the perceived concerns of servicemen and women as they made the transition back to civilian life, and rather more about the ideals and principles that military and civilian leaders wanted to convey to them. The pamphlets thus help sketch in some of the imagined boundaries of citizenship on the cusp between pre- and postwar America and Americans’ tentative perceptions of the future.

Two questions occur to anyone reading the pamphlets. What did the War Department truly expect to achieve with these fairly simplistic pamphlets? Then the even more curious question: Why was the AHA called upon to produce pamphlets on subjects so far removed from the history field?

In a very real sense, the primary impetus for the pamphlets was fear—the fear of Army leaders that military training and combat might make GIs subject to irrational impulses that would result in retrograde behavior after the war. As early as the summer of 1943, military and civil leaders began to express concerns that after the conclusion of hostilities, the absence of common enemies and goals could unleash widespread social unrest.

Among his many concerns, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, was also deeply troubled about the possibility of a recurrence of events after World War I—when the troops essentially mutinied to speed their return home from Europe. To address these concerns, he turned to Frederick Osborn, the head a branch of the military that would become the War Department’s Information and Education Division (IED). Osborn was an early proponent of harnessing the emerging field of social psychology, which provided new tools for measuring morale and discontent in large groups, and also suggested new means of controlling these aspects of behavior.

Osborn quickly hired a number of social scientists to both track and shape the opinions of the large numbers of young men and women called into service. And as the number of GIs grew exponentially—between 1941 and 1946, roughly 11 million men and women served in uniform and became subject to military discipline—Osborn also trained military personnel to collect social data, and even purchased an early IBM computer to process the increasingly voluminous information.

The studies opened up a number of concerns, most notably that servicemen held negative views of the allies (particularly the British and French, with whom they had the most contact), negative attitudes toward military service generally (almost half felt they would be more effective working in industries back home), and significant concerns about what would become of them after the war. In light of the concerns, Osborn and others in the War Department set about a number of projects to prevent or attenuate the anticipated wide-scale social disruptions after the war, including comprehensive programs of nonmilitary training and education. He had a strong ally in Francis T. Spaulding, the former dean of education at Harvard University, who had been given the rank of Colonel at the outset of the war and assigned as chief of the Army’s education division. The impetus for the GI Roundtable pamphlet series was born in this conjuncture of the social scientist and the educationist, and in early September 1943 Spaulding approached the American Historical Association about producing the materials for these educational programs.

Why Did the AHA Get Involved?

Until Spaulding approached the AHA, historians as a group had been feeling largely excluded from the work of the war, especially in contrast to the social scientists, who were being lavished with funds and resources to use the tools of their disciplines. The historical profession (and more particularly the leadership of the AHA) had been casting about for some way to support the war effort.

The leadership of the Association was, therefore quite receptive to Spaulding’s request. Curiously, even though discussions within the War Department promoted the pamphlets for their value in preparing for a postwar world, Spaulding’s appeal to the AHA focused narrowly on the potential value of such pamphlets for the immediate war effort—to satisfy an interest expressed by the average soldier. He explicitly denied the postwar implications of the program, insisting that “The Army’s job is to educate the men for military and naval pursuits; it is not the Army’s job to educate the military personnel with respect to civilian pursuits.”

According to Spaulding, the AHA was selected largely due to the discipline’s claims to social scientific objectivity, as he praised the profession’s “recognized disinterestedness and impartiality.” At the same time, the AHA enjoyed the added benefit of being free of the taint of being seen by Congress as a social science group. An earlier collaboration with the Social Science Research Council had run into heavy criticism, Spaulding noted, because members of Congress did “not know the difference between socialist, social science, and social worker.”

If the Association’s enthusiasm to aid the war effort was not sufficient, the financial assistance offered its own incentive. The military offered the AHA an annual budget of $32,000 to prepare and edit the pamphlets—almost double the Association’s annual operating budget at the time. A contract with the War Department was signed a few days later, and the War Department quickly publicized the relationship, noting in a press release, “With the birth of the voluntary group discussion forums and its rapid fire spread, the Army is undertaking to provide informational pamphlets presenting basic facts of special concern to the men as evidenced by their own choice of subjects.”

The Association’s Executive Secretary, Guy Stanton Ford, organized a Historical Services Board, modeled on the editorial board of the American Historical Review, and coaxed an old friend out of an academic post to serve as director of the project. Theodore Blegen, dean of arts and sciences at the University of Minnesota, and a four-member support staff would receive advice and peer review from a 10-person advisory board comprised of people holding high academic or leadership posts, which provided a great deal of credibility for the program. The authors initially commissioned to write the pamphlets tended to come from the same spheres, typically senior-level faculty and management in many of the same organizations—but only rarely from the ranks of the history profession. Among the domestically related pamphlets, for instance, Clifford Kirkpatrick, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, authored essays on war marriages and working wives. Francis Brown, assistant director at the American Council on Education, wrote on GIs returning to school. Grayson Kirk, professor of government at Columbia University, drafted a pamphlet on universal military training (which was subsequently censored). Emerson Schmidt, deputy director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, authored a pamphlet on small businesses, and Thorsten Selden, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, authored a pamphlet on the possibility of a postwar crime wave.

Unfortunately, a number of issues cropped up fairly quickly that seriously impeded the project. From the outset, the Board and the War Department differed over the selection of topics for the series. Early on the War Department provided Blegen with confidential reports from their social science surveys on “what the soldier thinks,” with accompanying suggestions on thematic areas for the pamphlets—“our allies,” “foreign affairs,” “national affairs,” and “personal and community affairs”—as well as a number of specific topical suggestions.

From the outset, there was a clear split between the military and the staff at the Historical Services Board about the point of emphasis. It is clear that the military wanted basic factual information that the “leader” would use to “shape” a discussion. The staff on the Board, however, envisioned these pamphlets as ends in themselves, addressing the concerns of service personnel that could stand on their own as a leisure-time activity. As the board soon discovered, however, the military intended to carefully monitor and limit the topics discussed in the pamphlets.

The process of writing the pamphlets was also hampered by the board’s selection of authors, as it gave very little consideration of the intended readership. By selecting authors noted for their scholarly achievements on specific topics—rather than their ability to write for a general audience—the Historical Services Board impeded its ability to produce these pamphlets in a timely fashion. Most of the early pamphlets needed to go through three or four rewrites, and in the end Blegen decided to hire journalists and popular writers to draft the rest of the essays. The peer-review board for the project was relegated to simply reading the manuscripts and offering a few scholarly corrections.

Production of the series was also hindered by bureaucratic inertia. Each pamphlet had to be reviewed by at least five people in the War Department, and was then typically circulated to other government agencies for further review and comment—pamphlets on foreign countries were vetted by the State Department, the Office of Strategic Services, and the relevant foreign embassy, for instance; an essay on postwar crime was reviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The members of the board and the AHA Council were so distressed by the slow pace of review and the censorship exerted over their publications, that Blegen resigned from his post in the summer of 1944 (declaring that he had to return to his post at the University of Minnesota) and members of the AHA’s Council expressed an interest in ending the contract with the Army altogether in June 1944 (just as the first pamphlets were rolling off the presses). The Army viewed these developments with such gravity that it paid to bring the entire AHA Council to Washington for a meeting with Osborn, who made a personal appeal to the Council about the value of the pamphlets and assured them that many of the roadblocks would be eased.

Alongside the practical problems a more fundamental ideological divergence had to be resolved. While both the Historical Services Board and the military described their potential readers as “democratic citizens,” there was a fundamental difference in how they each perceived the term. The historians and social scientists serving as authors and on the board placed the accent on “democratic,” envisioning readers who would read and discuss these in a nonhierarchical way, and could be improved simply in the process of learning, thinking, and discussing their subjects. For the military, the accent was always on the “citizen.” While democracy might serve as a cause and goal for the prosecution of the war, there was no intention of permitting free and full expression on these topics. From the first, the pamphlets were intended to provide the basis for guided discussions in which the service personnel’s role as citizens who had given up certain rights afforded by a democracy were to be clearly understood.

The pamphlets addressing postwar domestic issues all share the same underlying premise, holding up an ideal that was essentially white and middle class for a target audience that was young, white, and male. Not surprisingly, therefore, women are generally excluded from the discussions or they are typically depicted in domestic and maternal roles. Even the pamphlets treating the subject of women directly—Do You Want Your Wife to Work after the War? and Can Wartime Marriages Work?—present them in highly objectified terms. While the texts reflect a measure of ambivalence about the future role of women, the images used in the pamphlets, prepared by military artists, are less ambivalent, and often depicted women in sexualized contexts.

As striking as the marginalization of women in the pamphlets is the near total absence of people of color except in exoticized settings like the Pacific Islands. The only mentions of African Americans, for instance, appear in the pamphlet on crime and in a picture of black sharecroppers in the pamphlet on farming.

Nevertheless, the members of the Historical Services Board clearly thought of themselves as progressive on the issue of race. In 1944 the board’s military liaison, Donald Goodrich, proposed a pamphlet on the issue of minorities in the United States, specifically intended for troops in segregated units. The Board rejected the proposal after a great deal of deliberation, since the military wanted the pamphlet to be framed by a discussion of the superior treatment of American minorities in comparison to minorities in Germany. Thomas K. Ford, assistant director of the project, objected that “there is no getting around the fact that the Nazi racism theories and practices cannot be disproved and disapproved without at the same time doing the same for indigenous American racism.” The AHA’s executive director seconded this response, noting that “the Board could sponsor no pamphlet that was not realistic and objective and in consonance with such a study as that by [Gunnar] Myrdal.”

When the pamphlets finally began appearing in the fall of 1944, the New York Times Magazine devoted five pages to the pamphlets, including a two-page spread showing the covers of all the completed pamphlets. As Spaulding and Osborn had expected, the AHA’s role in the series provided exceptional legitimacy for the Army, as the media coverage generally extolled the pamphlets’ objectivity in sum and detail.

But for the AHA the net results were a significant disappointment—if not an outright embarrassment. The history of the series itself—its creation, development, and ultimate demise—offers an interesting insight into the widespread concerns about transitions between pre- and postwar epochs in the United States. But as the AHA was unable to seize the rare opportunity to demonstrate the value of history scholarship in the public sphere, the series remains mainly as a curious testament to the Association’s weak efforts in the past to engage with the general public.

—Robert Townsend is the AHA’s assistant director for research and publications.