When Germany declared war on the United States just after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt realized Hitler also wanted to control the minds of all Americans. That meant books were “Weapons in the War of Ideas.” And he believed America's citizen soldiers needed to understand why democracy was worth fighting for. Early efforts to fill the need through donations proved awkward and ineffective. Paperback books were in their infancy; many bookstores refused to carry them. Yet, convinced troops needed books, editors from four leading publishers worked together to develop paperback books especially designed to be carried into war.
The Navy and War Departments worked with them to design small, flexible books that would fit into a serviceman’s pocket or pack. Sized from 5.5 to 6.5 inches long and 3.325 by 4.5 inches wide, they required not book, but magazine presses. Using lightweight paper, printing two books to a page (one above the other for later separation) and binding them on the short side, they produced flexible books readable even under battlefield conditions. The brightly colored, cardboard covers showed an image of the original hardcover’s dust jacket, with “Armed Services Edition” in a circle below. A banner reading “This is the complete book—Not a Digest,” ran below. Later, some books were shortened for length, without deleting content.
Troops immediately embraced them and begged for more. Men who had last read a book in high school, and that under protest, sought them out. Private “W. E. W and the Gang” explained, “They are as welcome as a letter from home. They are as popular as pin-up girls. I want to say thanks a million for one of the best deals in the Army—the Armed Services Editions.” They read them in boot camp, standing in line for chow, sitting in a foxhole, sweating out a bombing run, in hospitals, on ships. The books provided desperately needed reminders of home, a few laughs, hope and inspiration and courage. Copies were passed around barracks and pup tents, dugouts and bombers until they were in tatters, but they were not thrown away. There were never enough.
Topics included nonfiction, classics, bestsellers, biographies, drama, mysteries, sports, westerns, even essays and poetry. ASEs, published and shipped by the armed forces, were considered as important for morale as good food and equipment. Between 1943 and 1946, there were 123 million copies of 1,322 editions available. Today the complete set is at the Library of Congress. Nearly complete sets exist at several universities. Sometimes copies can be found at used bookstores. See Molly Guptill Manning's excellent When Books Went to War for a complete list of titles.
Nazi Germany destroyed 100 million books in Europe in World War II. The United States printed and freely distributed 120 million.