“What these men had to say is a page of the history of the war and of the history of America.”
—Samuel Stouffer, from chapter 1 of The American Soldier: Adjustment during Army Life (Studies in Social Psychology in World War II, Volume 1)
Intertwined with its mission to advance the social sciences, the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) has, at times, been a historical actor as well as observer. Starting with the creation of Social Security and the study of its impact, the Council’s work in its first decades occasionally intersected with research and projects conducted by the US government to better understand the nation and its inhabitants from a social science perspective. Following on this path, after World War II the Council established a special committee to compile and analyze a vast archive of surveys and data collected during the war by the Department of War into a four-volume series.1The four volumes are Vol. I: Samuel A. Stouffer, Edward A. Suchman, Leland C. DeVinney, Shirley A. Star, and Robin M. Williams, Jr., The American Soldier: Adjustment During Army Life (1949). Vol. II: S. A. Stouffer, Arthur A. Lumsdaine, Marion H. Lumsdaine, R. M. Williams, Jr., M. Brewster Smith, Irving L. Janis, S. A. Star, and Leonard S. Cottrell, Jr., The American Soldier: Combat and Its Aftermath (1949). Vol. III: Carl I. Hovland, A. A. Lumsdaine, and Fred D. Sheffield, Experiments in Mass Communication (1949). Vol. IV: S. A. Stouffer, Louis Guttman, E. A. Suchman, Paul F. Lazarsfeld, S. A. Star, and John A. Clausen, Measurement and Prediction (1950). This series, Studies in Social Psychology in World War II, would come to be known as The American Soldier.“Stouffer did not want the work of the Research Branch to simply end after the war.”
Samuel A. Stouffer, alongside the SSRC, played an instrumental role in the crafting of the volumes as well as in the Research Branch of the War Department’s Information and Education Division,2→Joseph W. Ryan, “Samuel A. Stouffer and The American Soldier,” Journal of Historical Biography 7 (Spring 2010): 113.
→John A. Clausen, “The American Soldier 40 Years Later,” Items 43, no. 3 (September 1989): 71. which conducted the research during the war. An SSRC postdoctoral fellow (1931–32) and associate,3Stouffer had worked previously with the Council, producing a series of monographs on American society and the Great Depression, when Frederick Osborn, future director of the Information and Education Division, asked the Council to bring him from the University of Chicago to Washington, DC. See Ryan, “Samuel A. Stouffer and The American Soldier,” 112–113. Stouffer did not want the work of the Research Branch to simply end after the war. John Clausen in his 1989 retrospective (below) emphasizes Stouffer’s drive to develop these data further, going beyond their military application to understanding the relations between soldiers (according to rank, class, race, service length, etc.) and their attitudes regarding the war, as well as exploring a range of methodological issues.
This vast amount of data and responses started being collected a day after the attacks on Pearl Harbor. The Research Branch, only formed a few months earlier, dove headfirst into their goal of assessing the attitudes of the American soldier. Over the course of the war, they would collect data from over half a million men, employing some 200 questionnaires, many with over 100 items. These were declassified and handed over to the SSRC’s special editorial subcommittee, headed by Stouffer, not only to preserve them for the historical record but to further analyze their implications for broader social science scholarship and future generations of researchers.“As historical documents, The American Soldier volumes introduce us to the men who fought the Axis powers.”
As historical documents, The American Soldier volumes introduce us to the men who fought the Axis powers. Their concerns and insights are preserved as both data and occasional candid quotes. The sample pools included men from all walks of life, parts of the country, races, and education levels, providing a (male-centered) microcosm of American society at the time. Though the data was obtained for pragmatic reasons—to better understand soldiers’ retention and comprehension of information imparted by the Army, as well as their attitudes on a wide range of issues—it proved to be a treasure trove for social scientists to better understand these men and the techniques employed during this period.
Beyond the immediate interest and application of the research at the time—regarding, for example, the GI Bill or troop demobilization point system, known as the Advanced Service Rating Score—components of the project continue to resonate today, not least on questions of race and media.
Chapter 10 of Volume I focuses on Black soldiers in the Army, asking about their stake in the war and their grievances. In a time of Jim Crow and rampant racial discrimination, these men used the Research Branch’s surveys to voice their concerns over discrimination inside and outside the Army. For the researchers, this effort pushed them to reassess their research approach, such as using Black interviewers over white interviewers,4Samuel A. Stouffer et al, appendix in Measurement and Prediction, vol. 4, Studies in Social Psychology in World War II (Princeton University Press, 1950), 720–721. and also revealed white soldiers’ ignorance regarding racial inequality.
Addressing education as well as indoctrination, Volume III, Experiments in Mass Communication, addresses how the Research Branch studied soldiers’ responses to the Army’s education and indoctrination efforts through a variety of media, focusing in particular on the “Why We Fight” film series. In the present debates over social media and “fake news,” chapter 8, in particular, examines how soldiers reacted to being presented with one or both sides of an argument when changing opinions on controversial subjects, a revealing look into the possibilities for impartiality 80 years ago. (For a more in-depth look at this volume, read the archive piece listed below by Volume III’s authors.)
In an effort to make the voices of these men heard once again, Ed Gitre, a professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, obtained the thousands of pages in which soldiers answered the Research Branch questions and digitized them. Gitre provides greater context for this project, The American Soldier in World War II, in an essay on Parameters, the essay forum of the SSRC’s Digital Culture program.
Fulfilling its mission to promote the social sciences, the Council has granted the Virginia Tech project the rights to republish, as open access, the digital volumes of The American Soldier. The pieces below from the Items archive provide but a taste of the rich historical and social science potential that can be found in The American Soldier project and volumes.
“Experiments on Mass Communication”
by Carl I. Hovland, Arthur A. Lumsdaine, and Fred D. Sheffield. Published in June 1949.
“The American Soldier 40 Years Later”
by John A. Clausen. Published in September 1989.
Banner photo credit: National Archives.
→John A. Clausen, “The American Soldier 40 Years Later,” Items 43, no. 3 (September 1989): 71.