Published Date

February 23, 2002

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series

From Constructing a Postwar World: Background and Context (2002)


The Military and Social Context

These pamphlets arose from impulses that are generally overlooked in the celebratory historiography of World War II. In a very real sense, the impetus for the pamphlets was fear—fear among military and civilian leaders that enlistees formed a potentially restless, dangerous, and uncontrollable group (particularly among those stationed overseas) who were likely to have difficulty adjusting back to civilian lives.

Social unrest among enlistees after World War I provided some cause for caution, but their concerns were substantially heightened and reinforced by new and extensive efforts to poll and test the mood and morale of the service men and women. Sociologists working for the Army found that servicemen were deeply ambivalent about the war, uneasy about their relationship with the civilian population, and deeply concerned about their lives after the war. In this respect, the emergence of the field of social psychology was critical, as it created new tools to measure morale and discontent in large groups of men and suggested new means of social manipulation.

The records of the Army’s Information and Education Division (IED) demonstrate that as early as the summer of 1943, military and civil leaders became concerned that after the conclusion of hostilities, the absence of common enemies and goals might unleash widespread social unrest.3 The definition of the problem and the resulting efforts at a solution were shaped by two important factors—the particular personality and background of the division’s commander, Frederick Osborn, and the emergence of social psychology as a discrete discipline with its own institutional imperatives.

As commander of the division raising many of these concerns, and a key figure in the production of the G.I. Roundtable series, Osborn played a critical role by actively promoted the use of the social sciences as tools of social manipulation before, during, and after the war. As a child of privilege, Osborn retired at a young age to pursue a deeper interest in eugenics and social science.4 Despite his eager embrace of eugenics, he rejected many of the racial connotations of the field (particularly after 1933). Instead, he emphasized other “social and biological” traits that could be measured by social scientific research, and “improved” through targeted education and social regulation (particularly directed at discouraging the lower classes from reproducing).5 Through the 1930s Osborn produced a series of essays for sociology journals calling on the social sciences to “develop the material adequate to an understanding of what changes are actually taking place and what forms of social control might be effectively employed to improve succeeding generations.”6

As the threat of U.S. involvement in the war grew, Osborn eased into government service, chairing a joint Army-Navy committee on potential morale issues in wartime. As a result of his work on this commission, (and undoubtedly aided by his relationship with his boyhood friend Franklin Roosevelt), in the summer of 1940 he was given a commission in the army and appointed to head of a new branch of the service focused on issues of morale, training, and education.7 Osborn found Army Chief of Staff George Marshall quite receptive to his ideas of bringing social science techniques to bear on the analysis of morale. Marshall was deeply concerned about avoiding perceived mistakes at the end of American involvement in World War I—when the troops essentially mutinied to speed their return home—and supported Osborn’s initiatives with resources and the occasional exercise of hierarchical pressure.8 With Marshall’s support, Osborn quickly hired a number of young social scientists to begin measuring and testing the growing number of young men and women being called into the service.

Between 1941 and 1946, roughly 11 million men and women served in uniform and became subject to military discipline. Given the large and fairly disparate population brought into service, who were then thrown together quickly and under high pressure circumstances, it is not surprising that military leaders would endeavor to exercise control over such a large mass of men. However, the novelty of the tools they used, the scale and scope of the problems that elicited their concerns, and the often contradictory language they used to describe their efforts remain under-explored.

As a field that was still in its infancy during the World War I, the fields of psychology and social psychology were largely marginalized to a fairly meager supporting role in the United States and Europe.9 However, as Ellen Herman and James H. Capshew have detailed, by the Second World War these fields had become both specialized and institutionalized to a point where they had specific services to offer and professional organizations that could apply institutional pressure on the government to utilize them.10 However, both of them largely limit their work to the disciplinary boundaries of psychology, focusing on the techniques that were applied and the inevitable jockeying over the best methods for their work. As a result, the efforts at social control that resulted from such psychological work remain undeveloped.

As Osborn noted quite forthrightly after the war, “For the first time on such a scale, the attempt to direct human behavior was, in part at least, based on scientific evidence.”11 To that end, Osborn instituted a program to train military men to gather information for the Research Branch, and purchased a computer to tabulate their data. Given the breadth of support, access to a vast research population, and the opportunity to experiment with new ideas and techniques, it is little wonder that this is still viewed as something of a “golden age” in the fields of sociology and statistical research.12 As Capshew demonstrates, leaders in the discipline were well aware of this as a remarkable opportunity for their discipline, and actively organized and lobbied for additional funding and support.13

The reaction to these surveys was quite ambivalent at first, and the issue of how they gained significant legitimacy by the end of the war is still unclear. Nevertheless, it is obvious that Osborn went to great lengths to proselytize on their behalf to officers of all ranks.14 It is probable that the highly scientific form of their presentation gave increased the Research Branch reports an added measure of credence. Moreover, the surveys generally confirmed the pre-existing expectations of military leaders, who assumed at the outset of the war that a large increase in troops , particularly draftees, would produce a sharp reduction in troop quality, and an increase in anti-social behavior.15

Among the recurring concerns in the analyses and supporting memoranda by Osborn to Marshall, three key issues would recur throughout the war and into the immediate postwar years—that servicemen had a negative view of the allies (particularly the British and French, with whom they had the most contact), a negative attitude 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.16 With only a few exceptions, the polling research was not intended as a straw poll of the intentions and expectations of the men and women in the service, eliciting advice in democratic fashion on areas for improvement. Rather, as the attached recommendations for change make clear, these studies were more focused on measuring the level of retrograde behavior. Given that the military leadership did not intend to “listen” to the voice of the masses evidenced in the polling data, they were left with little choice but to channel potentially negative behaviors without inflaming greater discontent.

As early as the summer of 1943, Osborn and others in the War Department were tying these issues together, and pointing to the need to ameliorate wide-scale social disruption after the war. They were particularly concerned about the period between the end of fighting and the moment when the servicemen could be shipped home. In a memorandum to the chief of personnel, Osborn noted the experience of the services after World War I, which “amply demonstrated that without an adequate substitute for military training, administered with vigor and conviction, cases of absence without leave, desertion, insubordination, petty misdemeanors, and even serious crises mounted week by week.” The solution offered by Osborn’s staff was a comprehensive program of nonmilitary training, recreational and athletic activities, and an educational program in which the G.I. Roundtable series would be a featured component.17

Next section: Planning

  1. The Information and Education Division went through a series of name changes over the course of the war, beginning as the Morale Branch in October 1941 and becoming the Morale Services Division in June 1942, the Special Services Division in November 1942, and the Information and Education Division in February 1944. Since the two components of the division—the Research Branch and the Education Branch—were parts of the same organization at each stage, this paper will avoid confusion by referring to the division by its name at the end of the war, and the name under which most of its records are to be found. []
  2. “Osborn, Frederick,” in Current Biography: Who’s News and Why 1941 (New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1941), 640–41; and Frank W. Notstein, “Frederick Osborn: Demography’s Statesman on His Eightieth Birthday,” Population Index 35 (October 1969): 367–71. []
  3. Frederick Osborn, “Characteristics and Differential Fertility of American Population Groups,” Social Forces 12 (October 1933): 8–16. []
  4. Frederick Osborn, “Development of a Eugenic Philosophy,” American Sociological Review 2 (June 1937): 397. These themes were further developed in Frederick Osborn, “Significance of Differential Reproduction for American Educational Policy,” Social Forces 14 (October 1935): 23–32. []
  5. However much one might want to make of Osborn’s early interest in social control, the records of the division in its earlier incarnations (as the Morale Branch and the Social Services Division) indicate that a lot more time and energy was spent during the war’s first two years on the administration of commissaries and sports equipment. []
  6. Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Ordeal and Hope, 1939–42 (New York: Viking Press, 1999): 245-9 and V.R. Cardozier, The Mobilization of the United States in World War II (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland Publishers, 1995), 98. []
  7. James T. Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) and Nancy K. Bristow, Making Men Moral: Social Engineering during the Great War (New York: New York University Press, 1996). []
  8. Ellen Herman, The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) and James H. Capshew, Psychologists on the March: Science, Practice and Professional Identity in America, 1929–69 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999). []
  9. Frederick Osborn, “Foreword,” The American Soldier: Adjustment During Army Life, vol. 1, Samuel Stouffer et al., Studies in Social Psychology in World War II . . . . Prepared and Edited Under the Auspices of a Special Committee of the Social Science Research Council (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1949-50), ix. The question of why military men would give such credence to these studies merits further attention. []
  10. John A. Clausen, “Research on the American Soldier as a Career Contingency,” Social Psychology Quarterly 47 (January 1984): 207–13; and William H. Sewell, “Some Reflections on the Golden Age of Interdisciplinary Social Psychology,” Annual Review of Sociology 15 (1989): 1–6. []
  11. Capshew, Psychologists on the March, 44–56, 125–27. []
  12. Some mention of the significance and value of these surveys was apparently a fixture in every one of the addresses that Osborn made to meetings of officers.  For example, see “General Osborn’s Speech at Conference of Commanding Generals,” 18 December 1942, Records of Headquarters Army Service Forces, Army Chief of Special Services Division Record Group 160, Box 457, National Archives at College Park, MD (hereafter cited as Special Services Files); and “Transcript of Talk by Major General Osborn to General Lee’s Staff, E.T.O.,” 23 April 1944, Papers of the American Historical Association, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Box 384 (hereafter cited as AHA Papers). []
  13. R. Palmer, B. Wiley, and W. Keast, The Procurement and Training of Ground Combat Troops, vol. 2 of United States Army in World War II: The Army Ground Forces (Washington, D.C.: Historical Division, Department of the Army, 1948). []
  14. Memo from Frederick Osborn to Chief of Staff, “Morale of the Army,” 27 August 1943, IED Files, Box 309. []
  15. Frederick Osborn to Col. G.S. McCullough, Chief of Personnel Branch, “Plans of Special Services Division upon Demobilization,” 1 June 1943, IED Files, Box 309. []
Robert B. Townsend
Robert B. Townsend

American Academy of Arts & Sciences