Categories: Great Depression and World War II, Literature, World War I

Winning the Great War without Some Books

World War I broadside referencing Kaiser Wilhelm's Willing Helpers, ca. early 1900s from the Connecticut War Exhibit
World War I broadside referencing Kaiser Wilhelm’s Willing Helpers, ca. early 1900s from the Connecticut War Exhibit – Connecticut Historical Society

President Wilson’s war speech before Congress on April 3, 1917, did not catch Connecticut divided and complacent. State munitions industries were operating at full capacity to satisfy Allied contracts. Governor Marcus Holcomb had won reelection in 1916 on a “preparedness” platform. In February, he authorized a State Military Census and, in March, the formation of a Home Guard for protection against saboteurs. After the Declaration of War, Holcomb created the State Council of Defense, one of 48, to mobilize citizens, industries, labor, and organizations to win the war.

“Truth” is said to be the first casualty in war; freedom of speech and print declined under the pressure of anti-German war hysteria and paranoid suspicion that foreigners were enemy agents. In April 1918, Governor Holcomb designated English as the only language to be used in teaching and prohibited schools from employing “alien enemies.” Amid this excessive patriotism and resurgent nativism, Connecticut’s librarians supported campaigns to raise money to purchase books and to collect books for use in military base camps and field hospitals in the US, Europe, and Asia. Books, according to one ALA (American Library Association) poster, were the basis of civilization that the war intended to protect. However, it followed that some books were not suitable.

George Seymour Godard, State Librarian 1900-1936

George Seymour Godard, State Librarian 1900-1936 – Connecticut State Library

Books Suspected of Pro-German Bias Earn Scrutiny

In January 1918, State Librarian George Godard expressed concerns to Joseph W. Alsop, Secretary of the State Council of Defense. “I feel, somewhat sure that some material that is really a German propaganda is not looked upon by such by some of our librarians.” He suggested that Council members visit their public libraries and examine the collection for pro-German works. He sent a questionnaire to public librarians to determine the degree of the problem. His survey yielded poor results. Only 50 librarians responded and according to the Hartford Courant, provided little information. In March, the Hartford newspapers carried a story that Trinity College Professor Edward F. Humphrey had found enemy propaganda in the Hartford Public Library. Calling for the removal of Thorstein Veblen’s Inquiry into the Nature of War on the Nature of Peace,  Humphrey asserted that “every day I am finding things like this in our libraries, and if some of them are not treasonable, they are dangerously close to it.” “Certainly,” he advised, “we should not countenance them.” [Humphrey or the newspaper appear to have misidentified the title of Veblen’s tome, An Inquiry Into the Nature Of Peace And the Terms Of Its Perpetuation.]

Still there was no official campaign to enforce censorship. Standards for unpatriotic literature did not exist. The public viewed libraries as patriotic centers for exhibits and community meetings, not plans of espionage. In June 1918, the National Council of Defense issued the inevitable list of unpatriotic literature. In a memorandum marked “Confidential,” the Council justified the list by stating that it had been annotated and approved by the American Library Association. “Great care should be exercised in the use of this list,” the memo warned. Only librarians should receive it. Books on the list should be ‘”withdrawn temporarily from circulation.” Moreover, the loyalty of authors whose works were published before the war should not be questioned. The memo warned that “an argument or controversy over a book would give it the very publicity which it is deemed advisable to eliminate during the present period.”

Officials Call for “Unpatriotic” Literature to be Pulled from Shelves

In July, the list and a letter from the State Council of Defense were sent to public and academic librarians in the state. Thirty-six responded. Most had removed one or more of the books on the list. One librarian wanted to remove all suspicious books, but her office already was filled with other titles. Some responded that they handed the list and letter to trustees for action. A few reported total cooperation. The list confused many respondents because many titles in their removal were pro-Ally. The State Council advised that each librarian should exercise his/her own professional judgment. The most defiant answer came from Andrew Keogh, the distinguished Head Librarian at Yale University. He wrote that the list appeared to be intended for small public libraries and not academic libraries like Yale’s. He labeled the recommendation that all biographies of Frederick the Great and Bismarck be removed as “absurd.” “It might interest you,” he continued sardonically, “to know that practically all the books in the list are already in our possession; the few that are not here will be obtained as quickly as possible, if for no other reason, as curiosities of censorship.”

Four months later the war ended. Connecticut’s brief experiment in official censorship produced mixed results. More librarians failed to respond than replied. Did this mean that censorship was unpalatable or had they already engaged in their own brand of removal in order to avoid the protests of local jingoistic patriots? We simply do not know.

Mark Jones retired from his long-tome position as the State Archivist at the Connecticut State Library in 2013

© Connecticut State Library. All rights reserved. This article is excerpted and originally appeared in The Connector Vol. 1/ No. 3, November 1999.

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Websites

“Governor Marcus H. Holcomb.” Connecticut State Library, 2016. Link.

Documents

“Finding Aid to the Council of Defense Inventory of Records, 1917-1919: RG030.” Connecticut State Library, 2016. Link.

Books

Connecticut State Council of Defense, and Richard M. Bissell. Report of the Connecticut State Council of Defense. December 1918. Hartford, CT: Printed for the Council, 1919. Link.
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