Knowing More Wins the War

World War II is usually remembered as a war of lethal weapons—great powers using bombs, artillery, and other weapons to win victory. But the war was also a struggle for information. Knowing what the enemy knew and what plans were being laid was crucial. Up until World War II, America had no organized structure for gathering information from foreign sources, but as the Nazis gained power in Europe, the need to know became imperative. Franklin Roosevelt recognized this need and appointed William “Wild Bill” Donovan to head up a new operation, which became known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). It was an office that became a crucial part of the war effort.  

Fortunately, the need for increased information occurred at a time when scholars were discovering how to preserve and share documentation in dramatic new ways. Microfilm was a new medium that could record information in a format that could be hidden in diplomatic pouches and shipped overseas cheaply without attracting much attention. Although we now remember microfilm as a dull and outdated medium, during World War II and the Cold War, it became a vital weapon against threats from foreign governments.  

In her recent book, Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded together in World War II Europe, Kathy Peiss tells us about some of the people who participated in the hidden war for information. Donovan turned to Archibald MacLeish, the Librarian of Congress, who recruited librarians and scholars from across the country to hunt out and transport papers, journals, and books from Europe to the United States. Their efforts during the 1940s and early 1950s shifted the balance of information between Europe and America and shaped the postwar information revolution that has changed our world. 

Peiss’s book is crowded with stories about individuals who made a difference to the war and to the postwar society that developed out of it. We learn about their activities as they pursued leads to bookstores, publishers, and libraries seeking written records of the events and publications that led up to the war. Even Nazi propaganda and popular books designed to encourage loyalty to the Nazi regime were collected and shipped to the United States. The book tells a fascinating story of a band of brave and dedicated men and women who were willing to carry out this dangerous work.   

We can easily understand how all these sources of knowledge became important historical records, but for those of us who have no firsthand knowledge of how chaotic Europe was during those years—what the streets and shops these information hunters visited were like—it is hard to visualize what the information hunters were up against during their searches. There is something about a visual reconstruction of the scene that makes it come alive. And as I read Peiss’s book, I discovered that visual reinforcement in a movie—Orson Welles’s classic The Third Man.   

Although the plot of the movie had nothing to do with the librarians and scientists who inhabit the Information Hunters, the movie shows us the rubble-strewn streets of Vienna and the weary and frightened people who inhabit the city. Seeing those streets makes the adventures of the information hunters come to life. We can feel the chill of fear that visited each of them as they sought documents and books that had been hidden away in cellars, buried under the rubble of bombed out churches, and stored in warehouses through the war years.  

Sometimes it takes more than one medium to make history come alive. For anyone who is interested in understanding World War II and the impact it had on the world we live in today, I strongly recommend reading Peiss’s book and perhaps supplementing it with the movies, pictures and music that make history come alive.