THE NEW YORK TIMES COMPLETE WORLD WAR II:
1939-1945: All the Coverage from the Battlefields and the Home Front
Edited by Richard Overy
(New York: Black Dog & Leventhal)
Hardcover: 480 pages (+ CD-ROM)
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
Seventy-five years after the start of World War II one often wonders how the war was reported at the time in newspapers.
The New York Times Complete World War II gives readers a unique insight into how a major American newspaper, then regarded as one of the most reputable in the English-speaking world, reported the events of World War II as they unfolded.
The editor, Richard Overy, is an award-winning British historian who has published extensively on the history of German Nazism and World War II. He has taught at Cambridge and at King’s College, London.
The book provides some valuable pre-history of the milestones which led to war. It commences with the aftermath of World War I — the so-called war to end all wars — and reproduces an article reporting on the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, in which the victorious Allies imposed harsh reparations on Germany.
Other events covered in the book include Hitler’s unsuccessful attempt to seize power in Munich in 1923; the rise of the Nazi Party, which, as the 1930s economic slump took hold of Germany, greatly increased its representation in the Reichstag; Hitler’s appointment as German chancellor in 1933; and other events that ultimately led to Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939.
When reading the New York Times articles selected for this volume, one is struck by the general accuracy of the reports. This is despite the military censorship imposed during the war, and the difficulties the paper had to overcome in order to gain information, for example, on some of the campaigns waged by the Japanese against the Chinese.
In other instances, news reports followed hard on the heels of the action. For example, the Battle of Bardia in Libya (January 3-5, 1941) — noteworthy for being the first battle fought by Australian troops in World War II — was reported as early as January 6.
Perhaps by coincidence (or design), on the eve of this battle, on January 2, the New York Times reported a statement by a British official, C.J. Radcliffe, the then acting controller of the press and censorship divisions of the Ministry of Information, that the aim of censorship was to deny the enemy access to information that could aid him.
Given the need for censorship, it is surprising that American newspapers were allowed to cover such things as the training of Native American Navajo First Peoples — who live in the south-western United States, particularly in Arizona and New Mexico — as signallers, so that they could communicate in their native language (and therefore speed up communication, as there was no need to encrypt and decrypt messages).
Once this was reported in the press, the Japanese would immediately have become aware of it.
What is surprising is that newspapers, despite their difficulties in obtaining certain information, were able to report as much as they did.
For instance, in December 1940, the New York Times published the first report of the Nazis rounding up the Jews of Warsaw and confining them to the city’s Ghetto.
Although this particular report did not describe the horrible conditions the Jews were forced to endure, it was part of a broader series of articles, included in this anthology, which educated its readership about the Nazis’ mistreatment and persecution of Jews, dating from Hitler’s accession to power in 1933.
On November 25, 1942, a New York Times article published shocking details of the mass murder of Jews, and the names of some of the death camps in occupied Poland.
The reader can readily follow the progress of important battles by consulting the maps provided in this volume.
Dr Overy, in his introduction, notes that the New York Times had a deliberate policy of not publishing graphic photos of, for example, British civilians killed in the Blitz.
Some of the articles are amusing, notably, one published on October 10, 1939, warning Americans of a likely shortage of Scotch whisky, should German U-boats attack two particular cargo ships then en route to the United States!
This large coffee-table-style book comes with a CD-ROM containing all 98,367 New York Times articles on the war, unabridged. The disk is compatible with Microsoft computers.
The size of this book might at first appear daunting to the reader. That having been said, the book’s contents are so absorbing that even if you only open it at random, let alone look up specific details of battles or incidents in World War II, you will find the book very hard to close again.
Michael E. Daniel is a Melbourne-based writer.