During World War II, the United States Armed Forces had a revolutionary idea: to provide lightweight paperbacks to the servicemen overseas. This audacious project, known as the Armed Services Editions (ASEs), was one of the Army’s best morale boosters, offering a bit of light during those dark days. It also helped shepherd in an era of paperback supremacy and create millions of voracious readers in the process.
The Nazis had made books a cornerstone of their strategy in their march toward total power. They banned voices that could undermine their message, plundered vast research libraries to better understand “the enemy,” created a national book club that distributed Nazi-approved reading selections, and gifted Hitler’s manifesto to every newly married couple in the country.
President Roosevelt’s words—“books cannot be killed by fire”—were plastered all over propaganda posters, and it was General Eisenhower who made sure each of the servicemen storming the beaches in Normandy had a paperback Armed Services Edition in his pocket.
The logistics of getting books into the hands of soldiers were tricky. The government tried a book collection drive, similar to how Americans were asked to scour their homes for any bits of tin and copper, but that brought in heavy hardbacks. While those could be used in libraries at the bases in the US, they weren’t exactly deployment-friendly.
The creators of the ASEs wanted to design the perfect book for soldiers to carry into war. That meant designing the paperbacks to match the dimensions of an Army uniform’s pocket, using two columns so as not to strain the soldiers’ eyes with long sentences, and creating vibrant covers so the titles were easy to see at a glance.
The Council wanted to include a wide-range for the boys to enjoy—everything from classics to Westerns to literary fiction were included. The servicemen particularly liked both juicy, scandalous stories and the ones that reminded them of home. The first shipment of the Armed Services Editions was sent in 1943 and they were an instant hit.
The ASE project had been inspired by the foundational idea that books were more than just paper and glue and stories to pass the time. They were a defiant symbol of freedom, a bulwark against fascism, a light in the dark. Through the help of the ASEs, the publishing landscape was nudged toward a slightly more equitable future. Books were no longer just symbols of the land of the free—they could now actually represent a democracy that the men who had so fallen in love with reading had fought so hard to protect.
The Armed Services Editions were more than just morale boosters for servicemen overseas—they were a reminder of why they were fighting, a source of comfort and entertainment during difficult times, and a catalyst for change in the publishing industry. They helped remove some of the wealth barriers that came with buying books, and instilled a reverence for books and a deep appreciation for stories in the minds of millions of men who would never have considered themselves readers. The ASEs are a testament to the power of books and their ability to bring people together even in times of war.