The Best-Read Army in the World: the Power of the Written Word in World War II

Exhibition Poster for The Best-Read Army in the World, curated by Molly Manning, exhibited at the Grolier Club

During World War II, one of the most important weapons U.S. troops wielded was the written word. At a time when propaganda and censorship choked free thought, the U.S. military fought against these repressions by disseminating over one billion books, magazines, and newspapers to troops worldwide. “As popular as pin-up girls,” these publications provided an escape from war, information that would diffuse falsehoods, and reminders of home. Reading was so prevalent among the troops that the New York Post declared that the United States had “the best-read army in the world.”

On display are the panoply of publications read by America’s foot soldiers during World War II. Small, lightweight, and ubiquitous, these literary novelties include miniaturized versions of popular magazines and newspapers, propaganda leaflets, and the smallest mass-produced paperbacks in history, the “Armed Services Editions.” With these books tucked in their pockets, American soldiers invaded Europe bearing titles and authors that had been banned and burned by the Nazis. When Congress attempted to ban certain books from the military, troops and the American public vehemently resisted, and the law was swiftly amended. Words were weapons, and the best way to fight repressions was to read.

Molly Guptill Manning, Curator