The Moon is Down


In 1940, one year after the publication of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the Nazis had overrun most of Europe. Steinbeck was a clear-eyed, moralistic and political realist who knew that US involvement in the war was an inevitability. He joined several government intelligence agencies voluntarily that were created between 1940 and 1942. Two of the organisations were forerunners for the CIA: The Office of Coordinator of Information (COI) and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). They were both run by Colonel William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, a Republican lawyer awarded the congressional medal of honour during WW1. He was a political conservative, but owing to the nature of the war, was open to fresh ideas. Whilst working for the COI in mid 1941, Donovan asked if he might write a work of propaganda. Steinbeck had been in contact with displaced Europeans from recently occupied countries. He wrote years later about the type of book he was going to write:

The experiences of the victim nations, while they differed in some degree with national psychologies had many things in common. At the time of invasion there had been confusion; in some of the countries there were secret Nazi parties, there were spies and turn coats….all of these factors had to be correlated and understood before an underground movement could form and begin to take action.

By September 1941 Steinbeck had the general plot outlined: an enemy force occupies a small town and eventually the town fights back, proving enemy occupation can never win. The mayor says: “It is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars.”

Originally setting his novel in a nameless American town, he was convinced to change the location to a European one so as not to depress the US population and because setting it in Europe made it far more effective as realistic propaganda. Steinbeck remained ambivalent, he “did not believe people are very different in essentials.”

The title refers to a line in Macbeth Act 2:

Banquo: How goes the night boy?

Fleance: The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.

Steinbeck intended the allusion to be a foreshadowing of Nazi evil spreading across the world. He finished the final draft by Pearl Harbour and Viking Press released it as a short novel by March 1942. It was immediately set up as a play on Broadway and a movie adaptation arrived a year later.

Evidence has recently emerged from war historians that The Moon is Down (which was primarily slated as treasonous by the US critics for making its enemy occupiers recognisably human) that the book was extraordinarily successful as propaganda in occupied Norway, Denmark, Holland and France. An underground network of lawyers, book dealers, military personnel and a host of civilians translated, printed on clandestine presses and distributed the book often under the nose of the Gestapo.

The novel spoke directly to them, the way its occupied characters finally have no problem killing the occupiers, but Steinbeck’s gentle characterisation of the Nazi figures made them human, human enough to kill and win a war against. Steinbeck wasn’t portraying Aryan superman, but simply men with the same weaknesses as any human being.

The Nazis tried to suppress the book, but hundreds of thousands of copies circulated the Norwegian, Dutch, Danish and French underground. Possession of a copy was a death penalty or worse, a trip on the trains to the concentration camps.

Even in the Axis, the book somehow slipped by: years after the war Steinbeck went to Italy and met a Mussolini-opposing Italian who had mimeographed 500 copies for the Italian resistance.

Whilst the novel is weaker now in hindsight than during the heightened tension of WW2, it should be regarded as both a wartime and literary sensation. Steinbeck may well have done his part in winning the war.

The book has remained in print since first publication and been annually successful every year since.

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