Springer on Howell, 'Soldiers of the Pen: The Writers' War Board in World War II'

Thomas Howell
Paul Springer

Thomas Howell. Soldiers of the Pen: The Writers' War Board in World War II. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2019. 336 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62534-387-1

Reviewed by Paul Springer (Air University, Air Command and Staff College) Published on H-War (November, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55835

In Soldiers of the Pen, Thomas Howell analyzes the role of the Writers’ War Board (WWB) in shaping US public opinion during World War II. The WWB, comprised of twenty prominent New York cultural leaders, incorporated the efforts of thousands of volunteer writers to produce, promote, and publish almost unlimited amounts of propaganda. The WWB leaders had direct access to media outlets, giving an outsized influence to their quasi-governmental propaganda efforts. Although the federal government provided resources to continue the effort, and made requests of specific topics to be covered, the WWB selected its own outlets, crafted its own arguments, and ultimately decided what it would support in the overall effort.

Howell makes three primary assertions in his work. First, he argues that the WWB constituted an “aggressive and unfettered purveyor of government propaganda” (p. 11). However, the WWB chose its own venues, projects, and arguments, establishing a certain degree of plausible deniability for the US government. Second, Howell finds that “the board was a vital force in the domestic culture of wartime America” (p. 12). The WWB’s wide variety of publications and interests, as well as its practice of providing material with no requirements for credit and copyright, meant that the board had a massive audience for its products. Third, Howell notes, “the board played an influential role in promoting liberal democracy, especially after Congress recognized the OWI [Office of War Information] and curtailed its activities in that cause” (p. 13). However, the goals of the WWB often far outstripped those of the Roosevelt administration, and the divergence between the board and the official US government positions created an increasing amount of friction as the war progressed. In particular, the WWB’s attempts to shape the postwar international order led to a complete break with the federal government.

Howell sees the Committee on Public Information, formed during World War I, as the first widescale propaganda effort in the United States. Ironically, he missed the history of Francis Lieber and the Loyalist Publication Society, whose membership and activities during the Civil War closely paralleled that of the WWB more than seven decades later. However, this is a rare misstep for Howell, whose approach is otherwise meticulous and well-reasoned in proving and supporting his arguments.

Howell supplies a fascinating series of character sketches of the key members of the WWB. Of particular note were the six original members: Rex Stout, who chaired the organization for its entire existence; Russell “Buck” Crouse; Clifton Fadiman; Oscar Hammerstein II; Pearl Buck; and John P. Marquand. These core members remained heavily engaged with the organization and subscribed to most of the political positions espoused by Stout. For his part, Stout was pro-war prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, and he pushed an extremely hard line against Germany and its citizens at all times.

The WWB did a remarkable job of placing material in existing publications. In particular, they used corporate newsletters and Army publications to reach targeted groups of readers. In order to increase the prominence of its efforts, the WWB often attached ghostwritten pieces to well-known celebrities who agreed to use their notoriety to increase the reach of specific pieces created by the board. In addition to pushing its positions, the WWB relentlessly attacked any contrary opinions, to include coordinating negative reviews of printed books and trying to block publication of competing views. In this type of activity, the WWB seemed to essentially abandon its commitment to the support of liberal democratic principles, at least in the short term, and Howell takes them to task for their willingness to embrace censorship.

The WWB supplied a substantial amount of recruiting propaganda, often targeting specific military roles of interest to the armed services. Thus, rather than providing general recruitment items, the WWB typically supplied calls for service as pilots, navigators, bombardiers, aerial gunners, or mechanics, by extolling the virtues of service in each role. By adopting this approach, the WWB also served as a mechanism to educate the population about the different types of service available within the military and the needs of the war effort as a whole. WWB recruitment efforts often singled out various population groups within the United States and made appeals designed to draw attention within smaller communities, often along ethnic lines. The board also provided substantial assistance in the recruitment of women for wartime service, although members were often frustrated by the weak response. As a part of the recruitment effort, the WWB sought to shape public opinion on social issues, particularly race relations. Attempts to improve military morale came in the form of camp and USO shows. Strangely, although the WWB promoted blood drives, it did not wade into the issue of segregating blood donations according to the race of the donor. WWB writers publicized the wide variety of military jobs but also lionized the efforts of war workers on the home front, all as part of the broader propaganda campaign on behalf of the military.

The WWB made a major push to increase the sale of war bonds and stamps on behalf of the Treasury Department. However, because the Treasury refused to provide stipends to WWB writers, the amount of volunteerism within the campaign quickly declined. Nevertheless, Howell finds that the war bonds posters were both creative and effective, keeping the message both fresh and clear. A side campaign sought to reduce black-marketeering by supporting the rationing program. One major element of the war bond drives was the incorporation of propaganda supporting racial equality, which was subtly included in much of the bond material.

When the WWB waded into discussions of the international situation, it was through a dual campaign of anti-Axis and pro-Allies propaganda. Demonizing Germany and the Germans was a relatively straightforward affair, although the WWB shied away from discussions of the Holocaust, a position Howell hints might demonstrate an anti-Semitic bent within the board. Oddly, despite the public rage after Pearl Harbor, the WWB was slow to turn its attention upon Japan. The board found it very difficult to support the Soviet Union, and thus most pro-Allies material focused upon the efforts of Western allies, especially Britain. The long-term effects of this approach can be seen in decades of US history textbooks that minimized the contributions of the Soviets to the eventual defeat of Germany.

Howell notes that the demonization of the enemy continued long after the surrender of both Germany and Japan. WWB pieces argued that Nazism could not be separated from the German citizenry as a whole, which many board members saw as inherently evil and cunning. This single-minded focus led many to distance themselves from the WWB. President Franklin D. Roosevelt considered the approach counterproductive, particularly when WWB propaganda began calling for the mass execution of Germans affiliated with the Nazi Party. Members of the WWB attempted to censor any contrary positions, and if censorship failed, turned their full efforts to undercutting any sources of dissent. As evidence of the Holocaust became more available, the WWB used it to maintain the hatred of Germany by the American public.

The WWB position on what the postwar world should be started with support for Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr.’s proposals. In particular, the WWB advocated a massive effort to weaken the German economy and split the nation. Eventually, the WWB drew up a more radical plan, calling for a perpetual world government as well as a Pledge for Peace concept to prevent future wars. The WWB never determined a mechanism to secure US public support for such an organization, but it did offer substantial support for the Dumbarton Oaks and Bretton Woods proposals, as well as the San Francisco Conference that established the United Nations. Before the end of 1944, the US government began shutting down its propaganda organs, including the WWB and the Office of War Information. The WWB tried to continue its activities without government resources but could not maintain its efforts in the postwar period.

Howell devotes very little space to assessing the primary critiques of the WWB and its activities, and this is a disappointing finish to an otherwise outstanding work. Ultimately, he finds that the WWB was comprised of members who genuinely wanted to help the United States by offering their talents for the duration of the war. In many ways, its most important successes were from changing opinions via argument rather than deceit. However, once FDR and the war were gone, the purpose that underpinned the WWB was also gone, and it quietly closed down with little fanfare. Howell assesses the WWB as a very influential, positive force in US society, worthy of study and emulation.

This work is well written, excellently documented, and presents a clear argument that includes a pleasant blend of analysis and anecdote. It deserves a place on the shelf of any reader interested in information operations, propaganda, or the relationship between war and society in the United States during World War II.

Citation: Paul Springer. Review of Howell, Thomas, Soldiers of the Pen: The Writers' War Board in World War II. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55835

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