“How much did Americans know about World War II”
“How much did Americans know about World War II” is the third post of KHS’s From the Archives blog series by KHS archivist Deana Thomas. Check back on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month for more from this series!
One of the lines of inquiry that has always interested me in regard to World War II is, “How much did Americans know about Germany, Italy, and Japan’s aggression in the run-up to the outbreak of the war in 1941?” At the very least, the Salyers family was paying attention. The first mentions of international relations/news that can be linked to conditions in the interwar years are in scrapbook 8 (which covers 1921-28).
On pages 21 and 22 of scrapbook 8 are clippings encouraging Americans to buy stamps to save lives in China. Between 1920 and 1921, 500,000 people died due to famine in five northern Chinese provinces. At the time, China was struggling through a civil war, massive crop failure and drought. Although the country tried to support the hardest-hit regions, by mid-1921 they could no longer stem the tide on their own. As a result, a large international relief effort began and the clippings provide evidence of that campaign. On page 25 of scrapbook 8 is a hand-drawn map of China. The map was drawn by Mary Alice Salyers as part of her course work in the seventh grade.
Written underneath the map is, “China map ‘ain’t what she used to be (in 1921-22) since Hirohito came around.’” It’s not clear when the caption was added but I think it’s safe to say that it was likely added between 1926 (when Japanese Emperor Hirohito came to power in December) and 1928 (when the scrapbook was “finished”). If it was written prior to the beginning of America’s involvement in WWII, I find it to be remarkable. A woman (the scrapbooks were primarily created by either Sarah Eva Howe Salyers or Mary Alice Salyers Hays) in a small town in Kentucky knew who the Japanese emperor was and knew that his rise to power came at a time of Japanese aggression towards China.
Interest in international affairs continues on page 52 of Scrapbook 13. On that page there are a number of newspaper clippings; the most interesting to me is a clipping with the headline, “Hitler named Chancellor of German Reich.” Although the individual clipping is not dated, at the top of page 52 is a clipping from The Lexington Herald newspaper dated January 31, 1933, which is a day after Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor.
To me, the likelihood that the creator of the scrapbook understood the significance of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 is powerful evidence that average Americans knew (or at least it was widely reported, so the average person could have known) of his reputation and how it was likely to impact Germany and Europe’s interwar situation. Based on the clipping, it’s clear that his rise to Chancellor was not initially seen as a precursor to war.
On page 21 of scrapbook 14 is a postcard which reads,
“Dear [drawing of closed upside-down umbrella],
Away with your puny appeasement policy. Nothing short of a conference at Munich (or Somerset) will satisfy [followed by a small basic illustration of Hitler’s head]”
Although the postcard is not dated, it was likely written and sent sometime in 1938 since the Munich Conference to which it refers took place on September 30, 1938. In essence, the postcard is telling someone (likely Mary Alice Salyers who lived and worked in Somerset, Ky.) that a meeting in Somerset is the only thing that will make them happy. (Although the postcard isn’t signed, I suspect that Mary Alice Salyers’ future husband, Richard Hays, wrote it to her since he lived in Anchorage, Kentucky at the time). The postcard highlights that, again, average people in Kentucky knew about the Munich Agreement and the policy of appeasement that was favored by the French and British governments. Additionally, while there is no overt pro or antiwar sentiment in the scrapbooks, the opinion that appeasement is “puny” signifies the disagreement with that policy which leads me to believe the couple were likely not.
Further evidence of the family’s attitude toward the situation building abroad can be found in scrapbook 16. First on page 33 is a Time Magazine cover with Josef Beck on it from March 6, 1939. Under the cover is a caption that reads, “How the trouble began – invasion of Poland.” Then on page 56 are clippings of cartoons related to the impending crisis between the Allies (France, Britain and Poland) and Germany and the tense situation between the United States and Japan.
The clippings from page 56 are dated August 6 and August 31, 1939, which is of significance since WWII officially began with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. A caption on the page reads, “Bad times for the world, Sept. 1939.”
While all of the aforementioned that I found in the scrapbooks was surprising, the most surprising thing was what I did not find; I did not find any mention of The Holocaust (which occurred between 1933-1945 ). In my review of the collection, I focused on clippings and not the correspondence; so it’s certainly possible that the family mentioned the Nazi persecution of Jews in their correspondence. Ultimately, the lack of newspaper clippings related to The Holocaust leads me to believe that it was not the main motivation for war for the Salyers.
What isn’t surprising is that the scrapbooks do not provide enough evidence to reach a conclusion on many fronts. Scrapbooks tend to reflect snapshots of a person’s life or experience. In many ways, a scrapbook is similar to a person’s social media page. Little moments and comments that reflect a part of how an individual thinks and/or experiences life.
Scrapbooks 8, 11, and 16. Howe-Salyers family scrapbook collection, circa 1910s-1970s, MSS 253, Kentucky Historical Society.
Fuller, Pierre. “North China famine, 1920-21.” DisasterHistory.org, (undated). Accessed September 11, 2020. https://disasterhistory.org/north-china-famine-1920-21
Rothman, Lily. “Truth Behind the Myth of American Ignorance on the Holocaust.” Time. Time, February 26, 2019. https://time.com/5327279/ushmm-americans-and-the-holocaust/.
Gritz, Jennie Rothenberg. “Early Warnings: How American Journalists Reported the Rise of Hitler.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, March 13, 2012. https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/03/early-warnings-how-american-journalists-reported-the-rise-of-hitler/254146/.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Accessed September 11, 2020. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-united-states-isolation-intervention.