Book Review: Johnny Got His Gun

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by Dalton Trumbo _____________________________ A Bantam Book Copyright © 1939, 1959 by Dalton Trumbo eBook scanned & proofed by Binwiped 11-22-02 [v1.0]

World War I began like a summer festival—all billowing skirts and golden epaulets. Millions upon millions cheered from the sidewalks while plumed imperial highnesses, serenities, field marshals and other such fools paraded through the capital cities of Europe at the head of their shining legions. It was a season of generosity; a time for boasts, bands, poems, songs, innocent prayers. It was an August made palpitant and breathless by the pre-nuptial nights of young gentlemen-officers and the girls they left permanently behind them. One of the Highland regiments went over the top in its first battle behind forty kilted bagpipers, skirling away for all they were worth—at machine guns. Nine million corpses later, when the bands stopped and the serenities started running, the wail of bagpipes would never again sound quite the same. It was the last of the romantic wars; and Johnny Got His Gun was probably the last American novel written about it before an entirely different affair called World War II got under way. The book has a weird political history. Written in 1938 when pacifism was anathema to the American left and most of the center, it went to the printers in the spring of 1939 and was published on September third—ten days after the Nazi-Soviet pact, two days after the start of World War II. Shortly thereafter, on the recommendation of Mr. Joseph Wharton Lippincott (who felt it would stimulate sales), serial rights were sold to The Daily Worker of New York City. For months thereafter the book was a rally point for the left. After Pearl Harbor its subject matter seemed as inappropriate to the times as the shriek of bagpipes. Mr. Paul Blanshard, speaking of army censorship in The Right to Read (1955) says, "A few pro-Axis foreign-language magazines had been banned, as well as three books, including Dalton Trumbo's pacifist novel Johnny Get Your Gun, produced during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact." Since Mr. Blanshard fell into what I hope was unconscious error both as to the period of the book's "production" and the title under which it was "produced," I can't place too much faith in his story of its suppression. Certainly I was not informed of it; I received a number of letters from service men overseas who had read it through Army libraries; and, in 1945, I myself ran across a copy in Okinawa while fighting was still in progress. If, however, it had been banned and I had known about it, I doubt that I should have protested very loudly. There are times when it may be needful for certain private rights to give way to the requirements of a larger public good. I know that's a dangerous thought,

and I shouldn't wish to carry it too far, but World War II was not a romantic war. As the conflict deepened, and Johnny went out of print altogether, its unavailability became a civil liberties issue with the extreme American right. Peace organizations and "Mothers'" groups from all over the country showered me with fiercely sympathetic letters denouncing Jews, Communists, New Dealers and international bankers, who had suppressed my novel to intimidate millions of true Americans who demanded an immediate negotiated peace. My correspondents, a number of whom used elegant stationery and sported tidewater addresses, maintained a network of communications that extended to the detention camps of pro-Nazi internees. They pushed the price of the book above six dollars for a used copy, which displeased me for a number of reasons, one of them fiscal. They proposed a national rally for peace-now, with me as cheer leader; they promised (and delivered) a letter campaign to pressure the publisher for a fresh edition. Nothing could have convinced me so quickly that Johnny was exactly the sort of book that shouldn't be reprinted until the war was at an...
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