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Wartime Washington recruited even typewriters

Washington Goes to War, by David Brinkley. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 286 pp. $18.95 On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, all military officers stationed in Washington were ordered to wear their full uniforms. This was an unexpected command in what had become - in peacetime, isolationist America - a mufti officer corps. The result, David Brinkley reports in this droll and engaging book, was chaos.

``On Monday morning the corridors of the army and navy buildings were filled with officers who looked a mess. Some wore uniforms and parts of uniforms dating to 1918, many of them now two sizes too small. Others were dressed in clothes partly military and partly civilian. There were wool leg wrappings from the 1918 war and other outfits equally outlandish and topped with garrison caps, field caps, and campaign hats. It was a rummage sale called to war.''

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The scene is both a symbol and the very embodiment of the lack of preparedness with which the United States - and its capital city - entered World War II. This book, by the veteran Washington journalist, is the story of how a small, sleepy, Southern city transformed itself into the command-and-control center of history's greatest conflict.

As in a play, the war itself occurs offstage. The front in Brinkley's war is not in North Africa, but at the Office of Price Administration; the steamy, enemy-infested jungles not on Guadalcanal, but on Capitol Hill; the refugees not those streaming through Europe, but the thousands of new typists and paper pushers who, drawn to Washington to staff the mushrooming bureaucracies, searched frantically for beds in the teeming city.

Between 1940 and 1945 Washington nearly doubled in size. Ugly temporary office structures were built on both sides of the Reflecting Pool, linked by two covered bridges. The Pentagon was thrown up in a year. There were chronic shortages of equipment: Consider the ``typewriter crisis.'' ``The Office of War Information organized a campaign, one of the most extensive of the war, around the slogan, `Send your typewriter to war.' Radio stations played a jingle, `An idle typewriter is a help to Hitler.'''

Though Washingtonians were far from the fighting, many yielded to a kind of ``tomorrow we may die'' (or, at least, tomorrow we may be out of meat) fatalism that, among other things, gave rise to frenzied partying. For the rich and powerful, there were nightly affairs in embassies and Georgetown salons; for others, there were USO dances and nightclubs.

Meanwhile, the seeds of social revolution were being quietly planted. At war's end Washington was still as segregated as the rest of the South, but blacks' contribution to the war effort caused many in the federal government to be less complacent in officially sanctioned racism than they had been a decade earlier. And Wilma the WAC and Flora the File Clerk, just as much as Rosie the Riveter, were harbingers of the modern women's movement.

Brinkley's method is largely anecdotal; fortunately, he's got a good eye. What could better illustrate the makeshift arrangements required in the confused months after Pearl Harbor than his account of how Axis diplomats, recognized as potential spies, were confined in elegant detention at two Shenandoah resort hotels, the Homestead and the Greenbrier, until they could be repatriated?

Despite its comical aspects, though, this book - unlike so many these days about the ``last good war'' - is not sentimental. The ironic detachment that informs Brinkley's on-air manner is evident throughout. He is stern in some of his judgments about America's civilian leadership, not exempting Franklin Roosevelt.

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In wartime Washington, Brinkley suggests, brilliance and heroism were as strictly rationed as gasoline. But the city, like the rest of the nation, produced hard work and common sense in abundance. These, with the gale winds of history behind them, enabled Washington to prosecute the war successfully and to emerge as the vigorous capital of the postwar world.

It is a good story, well told.

James Andrews is on the Monitor staff.

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