THE NEW YORK TIMES COMPLETE WORLD WAR II 1939-1945 – Review by Mark Barnes

The Coverage from the Battlefields to the Home Front With Access to 98,367 Articles
Edited by Richard Overy. Forward by Tom Brokaw
Published by Black Dog & Leventhal
ISBN: 978 1 57912 944 6

About a million years ago, or at least that’s how it feels to me, somebody decided to reproduce facsimiles of British newspapers in a series called The War Papers. Being steeped in the newspaper tradition by my father and having an interest in the conflict, I collected quite a number of them and they made for fascinating reading. Many of the subtleties were lost on a teenaged reader, but the plain fact is newspapers were a weather vane of the war and the events and moods of it could be picked out with little difficulty. Political allegiances varied between left and right and just like today in Britain the stance of particular papers in support of the worker, the common soldier and elements of the elites were not difficult to separate. Many of these papers are still with us, though most have new owners and different agendas. This great pile of copies sat in my loft for many years until we converted it and they had to go.

This old format was OK, but where do you keep the flipping things? They are fine for a short time but soon become a burden and you know they will end up in the recycling eventually. This fantastic book from the New York Times saves a lot of the grief – you get all the content and atmosphere of the time without needing a spare room to keep it in.

This huge book gives you a fascinating window into the war and better than that, some of the writing is truly timeless in it’s quality. The New York Times didn’t always get everything right, her correspondents sometimes misread things and took the wrong conclusions; but this was true of all newspapers hampered by secrecy and censorship. In this 24 hour rolling news world with those endlessly scrolling breaking news strap lines flickering on our screens it makes me wonder how the war would have been covered today. There might have been news crews swarming over the battlefields and elsewhere drowning us in updates with this mad urge for telling us all how we feel and what it is like to be starved, bombed and shot at. They are often masters of the bleeding obvious whereas the press of seventy years ago took the sensibilities and common sense of their readers largely for granted and got on with telling us what was happening… as far as they were allowed.

Another aspect for me, as a British reader, is the American perspective of my own country and this is a bonus from a book that just keeps on giving. The editor is a British historian, but he has assembled a truly international view of the conflict with accounts from all corners of the world at war. Like a lot of my favourite books this is one you can dip in and out of as and when it suits you. Having the added CD-Rom with all 90,000 related articles published by the paper surely makes this a fascinating tool for education and it should be in all college libraries. It would be nice to see other newspapers of the period presented in this way. It illustrates the continued confidence in the authority of the New York Times.

For all this, there is something missing and that is a greater slice of the brilliant photography of the paper’s snappers during the war. So, please, Mr Publisher, can we have a volume of the photographs from the New York Times’ archive of original material to accompany this book? Photographic books are going great guns at the moment and one from the paper would be icing on the cake.

This book does exactly what it says on the front. It is great value, a stunning piece of history and real education. It does all the things books are supposed to do. I’m a newspaper man and a bit biased, but it all works for me and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.