Published Date

February 23, 2002

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series

From Constructing a Postwar World: Background and Context


Negotiating the Series into Existence

At a disciplinary level, the contrast between the involvement of the history profession and that of social psychologists is quite instructive. While social psychologists were provided an abundance of resources to apply the tools of their discipline, the history profession was feeling largely excluded from the work of the war. The historical profession and particularly the leadership of the AHA were casting about for some way to support the war effort. Even before war was formally declared, the papers submitted for the AHA annual meeting in December 1940 were dominated by discussions of war, and the analogical evidence that could be brought to bear on the forthcoming conflict.26 The subsequent correspondence of the AHA’s executive director, Guy Stanton Ford, over the first two years of the war reflects a clear sense of frustration at the marginalization of the profession, which had enjoyed a prominent role in World War I.27

Given this perceived loss in status, the leadership of the Association was quite receptive to Spaulding’s request. Curiously, even though discussions in the War Department described them only 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, and described the Army’s interest in the program as intended to satisfy an interest expressed by the average soldier. He was apparently quite explicit in denying 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.”28

According to Spaulding, the criteria for selecting the AHA were largely based on the discipline’s pretensions to social scientific objectivity, which he praised as the profession’s “recognized disinterestedness and impartiality.” At the same time, the AHA had the added benefit of being free of the taint of being seen by Congress as a social science, noting that an earlier collaboration with the Social Science Research Council ran into heavy criticism because “Congress does not know the difference between socialist, social science, and social worker.”29

As compensation for the Association’s assistance, the division offered the AHA an annual budget of $32,000 for the preparation and editing of the pamphlets—almost double the Association’s annual operating budget at the time.30 If the members of the Council had any reservations about the arrangement, they are not recorded in the minutes of the meeting or related correspondence in the AHA’s papers, and a contract was signed with the War Department a few days later.

The War Department was quick to publicize the relationship, noting in a press release that, “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.”31 In a rather fulsome review of the new program (which also fails to note the significance of the program to postwar planning), Fortune magazine expanded on this, stating,

The men who are behind the orientation program …want above all, and with the greatest disinterestedness and democratic faith in the world, to make the American soldier conscious. They have no desire to give him political notions; they do want to give him a democratic-mindedness, a faith in what he is fighting for, equal to his pride of outfit and his physical courage. They do not ask him to take sides; they ask him to be aware of the fact that there are sides to be taken in the world, and that some principles can be as lethal as weapons.32

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 four members of a support staff would receive advice and peer review from a 10-person advisory board comprised of people high academic posts or leadership posts in academic and social science organizations, and provided a great deal of credibility for the program.33 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. Among the domestically related pamphlets, for instance, Clifford Kirkpatrick, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, would author essays on war marriages and working wives. Francis Brown, assistant director at the American Council on Education, would write on G.I.’s returning to school. Grayson Kirk, professor of government at Columbia University, would draft a pamphlet on universal military training that was subsequently censored. Emerson Schmidt, deputy director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, would author a pamphlet on small businesses, and Thorsten Selden, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, would author a pamphlet on the possibility of a postwar crime wave.34

Unfortunately, a number of issues would crop up fairly quickly in the preparation of the pamphlets that would seriously impede the project. From the outset, disagreement developed over the selection of topics for the series. In addition to a list of “suggested topics,” the War Department also provided Blegen with a number of the Research Branch reports providing data on “what the soldier thinks.”35 Accompanying the reports is a précis from staff in the Education Branch suggesting four 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, one sees a clear split between the military and the staff at the Historical Services Board, which reflects a difference of emphasis between the two organizations about the point of emphasis. In the correspondence from the military, it is clear that they wanted basic factual information that the “leader” would use to “shape” a discussion. The staff on the board, however, clearly envisioned these pamphlets as ends in themselves, which would address the topical concerns of the men and could stand on their own as a leisure-time activity. Throughout the brief history of the board, this unexplored tension would lead the historians astray on a number of subjects.36 As the board would soon discover, these were more than mere suggestions—they clearly delimited the topics that the military was willing to allow for discussion. For reasons that aren’t made clear in the documents, they are never really explicit in this, and allowed the board to develop a number of essays that they clearly had no intention of publishing.37

Moreover, the structure of an academic journal was not conducive to swift production of a large number of pamphlets (the War Department expected them to be able to produce at least one a month). Even though this quickly became apparent, the AHA never changed the structure of the program, and indeed quickly fell into squabbling with their military liaisons about who was responsible for the delay. The process of writing the pamphlets was further hampered by the board’s selection of authors, as very little consideration was initially given to the audience as readers. By selecting authors noted for their scholarship on specific topics—rather than their ability to write for a general audience—the Historical Services Board would further hamper their ability to produce these pamphlets in a timely fashion. As Blegen would note in a comment to the Council, “I cannot escape the impression that scholars generally have too seldom learned to write clearly and interestingly, no matter how vital and fascinating their subjects.”38 Osborn would echo this sentiment in a letter to Blegen, observing that “I am bothered, however, by the feeling that the presentation is at a very high level, and to be effective requires a degree of interest and intelligence on the part of the leader which would not reach down very far in the Army. … [W]e cannot put out many pamphlets as heavy as this, as we would feel that their use would be too limited to justify their expense and the very arduous work you are doing on them.”39 They were fortunate at least in hiring a former newspaper writer as assistant director of the project, who was hard pressed to revise the submissions to make them more accessible. Most of the early pamphlets would go through three or four re-writings to bring them down to a level where they could be read by the common G.I., and in the summer, Blegen decided to change strategies and tried to hire journalists and popular writers, leaving it to members of the board to review the manuscripts and provide scholarly corrections.

Alongside the sometimes glacial pace of scholarly peer review, production of the series would be further hampered by bureaucratic inertia, as the pamphlets moved into production. Each pamphlet had to be reviewed by at least five people in the War Department—starting with the board’s military liaison Major Donald Goodrich (another recent civilian, who came into the service from a position heading a private boys’ school) and up through four layers to Osborn, who maintained a continuing personal interest in the project. In addition to review within the War Department, the pamphlets were typically circulated to two or three other government agencies for further review and comment—pamphlets on foreign countries were typically vetted by the State Department, Office of Strategic Services, and the relevant foreign embassy; an essay on postwar crime was reviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As such the pamphlets can be said to reflect a fairly extensive range of elite opinion in Washington.40

However, the staff of the Historical Services Board grew increasingly distressed by the slow pace of review, as well as the censorship exerted over their publications. So much so 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 Association’s Council expressed an interest in ending the contract with Army when it came up for renewal in June 1944 (just as the first pamphlets were rolling off the presses). The issue was viewed with sufficient gravity by the military that the Army paid to bring the 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.41

Alongside this problem one finds a more fundamental ideological divergence over the intended audience for the pamphlets. While both the Historical Services Board and military described their potential readers as “democratic citizens,” there was a fundamentally different way in which they each conceived of 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 non-hierarchical setting, who would be improved simply in the process of learning, thinking, and discussing their subjects. For the military, the accent was always on the “citizen,” in the term. 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 their role as citizens who had given up certain rights afforded by a democracy were to be clearly understood.42

Benjamin Alpers recently offered an interesting argument about the importance of such differences over democratic ideals, but encloses the military’s rhetoric within wartime concerns and a dualistic juxtaposition of democracy and totalitarianism. The G.I. Roundtable series offers evidence that the differences between military and civilian patterns of thought extended beyond immediate military and ideological issues, and suggests the need for a more nuanced examination of points convergence and disagreement among those trying to define these ideals for a postwar world.43

Next section: Content

  1. Almost 40 percent of the 1940 AHA meeting, which was held after Pearl Harbor from December 27-30, addressed military topics, American Historical Association, Annual Report, 1940 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1941). []
  2. David D. Van Tassell, The History of the American Historical Association (unpublished manuscript, held at the AHA’s Business Office). []
  3. Undated confidential memo, Col. Spaulding to AHA Executive Committee, 2 September 1943, Box 384, AHA Papers. Emphasis in original. []
  4. Spaulding to Executive Committee. The AHA’s 1889 congressional charter was cited as a third factor in their decision. []
  5. American Historical Association, Annual Report 1943 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1944), 98–102. []
  6. War Department, Bureau of Public Relations, Press Release, “Soldiers Exercise Freedom of Speech in Self-Organized Discussion Forums” 6 December 1943, Box 384, AHA Papers. []
  7. “Army Orientation: To Make Men Think About Why They Fight Is Now An Official Army Task,” Fortune, 28 February 1944, 151. []
  8. Members of the Board were Shepherd B. Clough, Robert E. Cushman, Ford, Dixon Ryan Fox, Waldo G. Leland, Edwin G. Nourse, J. Salwyn Schapiro, Arthur Schlesinger Sr., Robert R. Wilson, and Donald Young. []
  9. For reasons that will be discussed below, the authorship of the pamphlets was highly contested, and the Historical Services Board ultimately chose to list the pamphlets without authors. []
  10. “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); Unpublished report, “What Questions Would Soldiers Ask Their Commander-in-Chief?” 25 January 1943; and Unpublished report, “Survey of Soldier Opinion, Number 2: United States Army Forces in the Middle East, July 21-August 7, 1943” Box 382, AHA Papers. []
  11. Interestingly, the notes Blegden wrote upon reading the reports show that he immediately identified the main issue as that of preparing soldiers for the postwar world, even though Col. Spaulding and others had not raised this as an issue. []
  12. In the end, 16 pamphlets submitted to the War Department would be rejected, most on domestic issues, such as the regulation of prices and labor unions, immigration policy, and congress. A seventeenth was produced on universal military training, which was censored after 200,000 copies had been printed. Guy Stanton Ford to Historical Services Board (October 10, 1945), AHA Papers, Box 384. []
  13. Theodore C. Blegen, “Report on the G.I. Roundtable Series,” 21 August 1944, pp. 7-14, Box 384, AHA Papers. []
  14. Frederick Osborn to Theodore C. Blegen, 3 August 1944, Box 384, AHA Papers. []
  15. Osborn to Blegen. The pamphlets went through eight steps of review and revision before they went to the War Department. []
  16. Guy Stanton Ford to Frederick Osborn, 26 June 1944, Box 382, AHA Papers. []
  17. Unpublished report, “Demobilization Training Program: Status of Plans and Preparations,” 1 February 1944, contained in memo from Waldo Shumway, 20 January 1944; and unpublished report, “Analysis and Planning Branch of IED, Post-Armistice Morale Problems in U.S. Army (Preliminary),” 6 September, 1944, Box 309, IED Files. []
  18. Benjamin L. Alpers, “This is the Army: Imagining a Democratic Military in World War II,” Journal of American History 85: 129–63 and idem, “Understanding Dictatorship and Defining Democracy in American Public Culture, 1930–1945,” (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1994). []
Robert B. Townsend
Robert B. Townsend

American Academy of Arts & Sciences