Ira Chernus  



National Insecurity, Homeland Insecurity: The Wartime Discourse of Franklin D. Roosevelt

A Paper Presented at the "War" Colloquium of the Center for Humanities and Arts, University of Colorado

March 4, 2004

Our guest Michael Sherry has written that presidents deserve special attention because "their record is a common and plausible way to give coherence to a crowded history, because they did exercise much power, and because they shaped the moods and opinions of Americans. Their role in history was as much illustrative as determinative."

I am studying Franklin D. Roosevelt to illustrate some of the moods and opinions that have shaped life in the U.S. since the 1930s. For some 65 years we have lived, as Sherry put it, in the shadow of war. But we have also lived in the shadow of a body of discourse, what Clifford Geertz would call a worldview and an ethos, that is often called "liberal internationalism." The actions of the U.S. government around the world in the last seven decades can be understood, in part, as what Geertz called cultural performances, intended to embody and legitimate the discourse of liberal internationalism. The ensemble of those cultural performances created what many call the national security state.

Liberal internationalism and the national security state rose to preeminence simultaneously in the years just before the U.S. entered World War II. Sherry and others have argued persuasively that the discourse and worldview of cold war America were set in place during the prewar years. But today, with the cold war long over, we still live in the shadow of liberal internationalism, which was born in the prewar era and has survived long beyond the end of the cold war.

That means we live in the shadow of anxiety and insecurity. Our national commitment to liberal internationalism created a collective obsession with national security. Obsession with national security, in turn, inevitably produces a state of ongoing national insecurity. Indeed, the national security state might best be seen as a body of institutionalized policies and discursive practices that systematically produce insecurity. So we live in the shadow of the national insecurity state. My current project is to understand the origins of the national insecurity state and its enduring implications, especially in this era of concern about homeland security, by looking at the language that Franklin Roosevelt used to foster it.

On the day he became president, FDR pledged to "wage a war against the emergency." From then on, he often compared the Depression to "a personalized foreign enemy … who had to be defeated in combat." FDR used war language to unite Americans, not only to restore prosperity, but to restore what he called "old-fashioned standards of rectitude … the simple rules of human conduct to which we always go back." He had imbibed them in what he called the "Victorian atmosphere" of his childhood in Hyde Park, where his home "came to represent the safe center of an increasingly tumultuous world."

The president remembered Hyde Park as a safe place because, in his mind, it was a town where people were all good neighbors, taking account of each other’s needs and treating each other decently. He came to believe that "men can live together only on the basis of certain simple, traditional ethical rules. … The turn of the century world seemed to validate these ideas; it was stable, secure, peaceful, expansive."

Roosevelt viewed his own home and neighborhood as the eptiome of civilization. By keeping his moral principles relatively vague, he could make America, the American home and the American neighborhood overarching symbols of a conviction that there were permanent moral truths, and that these truths were uniquely embodied in the superior civilization of Anglo-Saxon peoples,

William Leuchtenberg has suggested that the New Dealers wanted to turn America into "their Heavenly City: the greenbelt town, clean, green, and white, with children playing in light airy, spacious schools." For Roosevelt, this "heavenly city" was, more or less, Hyde Park writ large.

However, Roosevelt and the New Dealers were less likely to talk about attaining the very best than averting the very worst. The key word to denote the averting and forestalling of disaster was security. David Kennedy has suggested that Roosevelt wanted millions to have "a measure of the security that the patrician Roosevelts enjoyed as their birthright." Yet Kennedy also wrote that the basic objective of the New Deal was "stability … balance and equity and orderliness … the kind of predictability … that was the birthright of the Roosevelts and the class of patrician squires to which they belonged."

The key to understanding Roosevelt's discursive structure lies in the interplay between security and stability. He explained that the way to avoid collapse was "to give balance and stability to our economic system, to make it bomb-proof." Security achieved through stability was the new ideal that the New Deal enshrined in public discourse: giving all Americans the kind of stability and security, and therefore moral decency, that the president associated with his own home and neighborhood.

FDR’s discourse made the New Deal an apocalyptic battle to save the United States: "National defense and the future of America were involved in 1917," he told one audience. "National defense and the future of America were also involved in 1933. Don't you believe that the saving of America has been cheap at that price?" By invoking the Wilsonian language of World War I, he cast the New Deal’s promise of security as a way to save not only America but civilization itself. "Nearly all men are agreed," he claimed, "that private enterprise in times such as these cannot be left … without reasonable safeguards lest it destroy not only itself but also our processes of civilization."

While the president spoke of this battle in moralistic apocalyptic terms, he did not describe the goal in the utopian language of traditional apocalyptic visions. He did not urge the nation to eradicate all evil; he did not promise that the New Deal would remove the threat of economic suffering forever. He assumed that the threat would remain. America would be considered victorious as long as it created a permanent stable structure to prevent civilized homes and neighborhoods and their traditional values from being destroyed.

Roosevelt was convinced, though, that the American structure would be stable and secure only if it became part of, and the model for, a global structure. He saw himself promoting the values of a global civilization that could unify the world in one political and economic system, including an open liberal trade system. When he appealed publicly to Hitler, he did not demand any internal changes within Germany. He required only disarmament agreements and "opening up avenues of international trade." The president hoped to persuade the Germans, and the Italians and Japanese, that they could get what they wanted by joining the liberal internationalist order that U.S. leaders intended to build.

Long ago, William Appleman Williams summed up FDR’s vision quite precisely:

The world order would have to be a perfectly predictable order, immune to fundamental change. American recovery and prosperity were made dependent upon the acceptance of American policies by the rest of the world. By externalizing good, so also was evil externalized; domestic problems and difficulties became issues of foreign policy. … As early as 1935, that meant that Germany, Italy, and Japan were defined as dangers to the well-being of the United States. This happened before those countries launched military attacks into or against areas that the United States considered important to its economic system.

Since the early 19th century, externalized evil had never been seen as a threat to the whole U.S. system (except, perhaps, briefly during World War I). The 1930s saw a growing conviction that the nation’s very existence was indeed threatened, not only by the specter of economic collapse, but by increasingly powerful foreign enemies.

But Roosevelt framed the threat in terms of his ideologically-based New Deal discourse. He took areas of life that had once seemed discrete and tied them all together in a single, ideologically harmonious package. So he could tell Americans to "prepare to defend, not their homes alone, but the tenets of faith and humanity on which their churches, their governments and their very civilization are founded. … To save one we must now make up our minds to save all." The crusade for liberal internationalism was a global projection of the New Deal’s war at home: a war for the American home, a war that pitted all that was civilized and American against all that was uncivilized and un-American. Indeed, FDR presented the promise of global stability and security as an essential part of a civilized American way of life.

He was aiming to turn the whole world into one huge decent neighborhood. "Good neighborliness to him was a practical application of the Golden Rule. In his thinking it had begun with the Hyde Park neighbors he had known since boyhood [and] extended out to the United States, the western hemisphere, and already in his rhetoric of the mid-thirties, to much of the world." Yet on the international scale, as on the domestic scale, apocalyptic language that implied a utopian goal was being used primarily to promote a defensive goal of staving off future disaster. When his ambassador in Germany wrote to him, "All the representatives of democratic countries have again and again said, 'the United States is the only nation that can save our civilization,’" Roosevelt responded: "I agree with you." And the ultimate threat, according to the president, was not to the military or political or economic well-being of the United States, but to decent homes and neighborhoods everywhere.

When Germany invaded Poland in September, 1939, Roosevelt feared that his hopes for a liberal democratic world order might be dashed. But he soon saw war as an opportunity for the U.S. to shape the peace and the postwar world. He told Congress that "to open up the trade channels of the world … [is] an indispensable part of the foundation of any stable and enduring peace." The State Department was soon busy making detailed plans for a postwar system of liberalized global trade.

However, Roosevelt continued to put this planning in the larger context of a battle to preserve civilized order. He was sure that Germany was a threat to civilization, and Japan might be, too, if its leaders "fail to speak as civilized twentieth century human beings." He told journalist William Allen White that if the Axis won, "the situation of your civilization and mine is indeed in peril. Our world trade would be at the mercy of the combine."

FDR knew that the U.S. public would not go to war in order to reshape the world political and economic system. He had to appeal to the desire for individual security. For this, he needed no new discursive structure to solve the problem. The one he had already created would work just fine.

Roosevelt presented the German attack as empirical evidence for his dualistic, moralistic view of world events. He stressed that "we seek to keep war from our firesides by keeping war from coming to the Americas." But he asserted that every American was affected by events all over the world. If German aggression threatened the American future, Germany and war itself were two sides of the same overseas peril casting its shadow over every American home. However, since he cast the issue as a protection of moral and spiritual values, the president made opposition to Germany as well as to war a matter of moral decency, too. He linked the defense of civilization with the defense of religion and home. So U.S. self-interest became indistinguishable from moral and spiritual virtue.

A crucial part of FDR’s rhetorical strategy was to insist on American innocence. "No act of ours engendered the forces which assault the foundations of civilization," he proclaimed. This preserved the traditional American sense of home and the homeland as intrinsically pure. It also reinforced the idea that the civilization embodied in the American home was under assault, and that America was the only nation worthy of protecting civilization. Since events and threat around the world were now bound together, moral privilege and duty were also bound together, the president implied. Anyone who wanted to keep America pure and morally superior would have to make sure that the whole world became, and remained, a decent, stable, secure American neighborhood.

American innocence meant that U.S. policy had not contributed to creating the global crisis, so there was no way the U.S. could work together with Germany to ease the crisis. The forces of good and evil had nothing in common. And good was best served by having no mutual interaction with evil. Thus, the forces of good could only protect themselves by building the stoutest possible defensive barrier.

This discursive construction reflected the new vogue for geopolitical "realism." "Realism" took it for granted that the world is inherently dangerous, because nations always seek more power and domination. So there was nothing the U.S. could do to prevent threats from emerging. All it could do was plan ahead for worst-case scenarios. As the influential academic E. E. Earle explained it, national security would now be "active, not passive; it demands foresight and initiative … measures that prevent trouble." But American "realists" justified all their proactive measures as the regrettably necessary defensive policies of an innocent nation, building a wall of security against the "aggressors."

Insistence on American innocence added to the growing sense of helplessness that rippled out from the White House across the country. If war was ruled out, and there seemed no peaceful way to come to terms with the fascists, then there was no way at all to reach out and extinguish the threat. The need to fend off evil would continue, it seemed, perhaps indefinitely. Yet the president insisted that the threat was universal in scope; every moral value that America stood for was at risk. Therefore, the barrier had to be absolutely impermeable and immutable as well as permanent. The defense had to be what FDR called "total defense."

Public support for "total defense" took a quantum leap in the spring of 1940, when the German blitzkrieg swept across northwest Europe and then trained its sights on Britain. The president encouraged Americans to be more afraid, because he was more afraid himself. Robert Dallek has noted that "Roosevelt and most Americans greatly exaggerated the German threat to the Americas in the summer of 1940." Roosevelt's fears were based on planning for worst-case scenarios, not on specific factual information.

In 1940, Roosevelt was determined to avoid both British defeat and U.S. entry into the war. But he had no clear plan for achieving those goals. He was keeping his options open. One way to maintain his freedom of action was to keep the public uncertain and fearful. If he decided that he wanted to bring the nation into war, a heightened state of fear would be most helpful, to say the least. And surely no one would complain if he announced later on that the danger had lessened. So the president had nothing to lose and everything to gain by speaking of worst case scenarios and exaggerating the danger, whether intentionally or not.

But he had much to lose if he appeared to be steering the nation toward war, when a large proportion of the public wanted to avoid that outcome. The obvious course was to legitimate all policy choices in terms of defending American homes, the nation, and global civilization. FDR’s master stroke was to portray homes, nation, and civilization as inseparably fused elements of a single reality. He presented all three as embodiments of the same single set of values, to be preserved by a single policy of defense. In effect, this made all three virtually identical; the nation and civilization itself became extensions of the ideal American home. A threat to one was a threat to all three. The keynote of Roosevelt’s rhetoric for the rest of 1940 was the urgent need to create a secure military buffer capable of warding off that monolithic threat.

By May, the president felt enough public support that he ventured to link domestic security with hope for a reconstructed global order. In a fireside chat, he called on his audience to both "build and defend" America—language that erased the distinction between preserving and changing the status quo. In the same way, he merged spiritual and material values. And he erased the distinction between preserving the U.S. and transforming the world: "We defend and we build a way of life, not for America alone, but for all mankind." Military force was only one block in the wall Roosevelt wanted to build. The institutions of liberal international formed another. They would provide stable security against future disaster, but only if they were global. With threat permeating the world, the U.S. could protect itself only by transforming the world.

The first immediate step to that long-term goal was to insure the survival of Britain. From FDR’s perspective, that would be America’s first victory. Victory now meant simply preserving national security by preventing the disastrous worst case. By August, Roosevelt was persuaded that the only way to avoid disaster was to give Britain 50 U.S. destroyers in exchange for rights to bases in British New World holdings. "Congress is going to raise hell about this," he told his secretary Grace Tully. "But even another day’s delay may mean the end of civilization." To placate the anti-interventionist hellraisers, he had to restrict his concept of victory to a perpetual stance of total defense.

In his annual message to Congress for 1941, Roosevelt lobbied for his "lend-lease" plan by reprising the same themes in a key of greater urgency: "At no previous time has American security been as seriously threatened from without as it is today." He urged Americans to have an "unshakeable belief in the manner of life which they are defending." And he defined that manner of life in terms of the famous The Four Freedoms.

When he spoke of "freedom from want," he meant primarily "freedom of trade and access to raw materials," as he explained to the British ambassador, Lord Lothian. When he spoke of "freedom from fear," he meant primarily "a world-wide reduction of armaments" enforced by the U.S. and Britain, acting as postwar "policemen." In effect, he was proposing that the allies agree to a liberal internationalist postwar regime as the only meaningful structure for human freedom.

It was easy enough for his audience to hear the Four Freedoms as only a call to defend what Americans already had. This reinforced the idea that the new global context of American policy need not entail reciprocal interaction with foreign lives and values. Yet Roosevelt said clearly that the Four Freedoms would prevail at home only if the U.S. led a transformation of the world. He equated American values with "the moral order … the world order … free countries working together in a friendly, civilized society."

All Americans had to choose sides, FDR implied. Those who wanted to keep their homes and nation secure would unite to support the British war effort and the globalization of U.S. policy and leadership. The war would be the gateway to a morally decent world order, an order so stable that it would provide security for all. Such words implicitly globalized the New Deal’s argument. The goal was not to create anything fundamentally new, but to preserve old familiar—and familial—values. New structures of security were needed to keep the old values secure. Now those structures would have to be world-wide; American values could be preserved at home only if they flourished around the world. Only the U.S., led by its federal government, could do the job.

By early 1941, Roosevelt had articulated all the principles and premises of the liberal internationalist national security state. They would have seemed quite foreign, perhaps even unimaginable, to most Americans when FDR was first elected eight years earlier. The continuing, although diminishing, strength of the anti-interventionists showed that Roosevelt's reaction to world events was not inevitable; it was not a necessary response to observed empirical events. It was an interpretation, based on the principles and premises he articulated. World events certainly influenced his frame of interpretation, but the basic structure of the frame preceded the events. The president interpreted the war the way he did, and taught the bulk of the U.S. public to share that interpretation, because he was predisposed to view things that way.

Roosevelt had woven a discursive web that made active fighting seem the only decent, civilized thing to do if American homes were sufficiently threatened. On December 7, 1941, the nation had little trouble slipping into active fighting mode. Yet Americans fought World War II in an almost fiercely anti-ideological frame of mind. Poet Randall Jarrell estimated that "99 of 100 people in the army" hadn’t "the faintest idea" what the war was about. The young playwright Arthur Miller remarked on "the near absence of any comprehension of what Nazism meant." An official survey of Army Air Corpsmen in 1944 found that there was "very little idealism … not much willingness to discuss what we are fighting for." Most Americans did not think they were risking their lives for foreigners’ political freedom. They were willing to sacrifice only because they felt they were protecting the freedom of their own homes.

The New York Times reported that the typical soldier simply thought that "the war must be finished quickly so that he can return to take up his life where he left it." Interviewing soldiers at the front, John Hersey found that they "usually talked about creature comforts, secure routines, even affluence." One GI, answering Hersey’s inquiry as to why he was fighting, gave the immortal reply: "Jesus, what I’d give for a piece of blueberry pie." "Pie was a symbol of home," Hersey added. Most historians now agree that, during the war, civilians as well as soldiers wanted to win as quickly as possible in order to return to ordinary life in the safety of secure homes.

This was the ultimate vindication of Roosevelt’s discursive construction. He had been careful to wrap his ideological rhetoric in the very non-ideological language of home and neighborhood. He could do that so convincingly because, for him, it was all ultimately the same project of keeping civilization and its morality stable and secure. So the nation’s embrace of FDR’s discourse was also, inescapably, an embrace of the liberal internationalism embedded in it. As David Reynolds said, by attacking Pearl Harbor, "Japan had vindicated Roosevelt’s globalist ideology" in the eyes of most Americans. By the war’s end, three and a half years and hundreds of thousands of casualties later, the deal was much more firmly sealed. Mainstream American discourse would accept a globalist ideology, viewing U.S. hegemony as the key to stability and security around the world, because it seemed the only way to imagine keeping the homeland stable and secure.

Yet the project has proved to be impossible, because a profound sense of insecurity was built into the ideology of liberal internationalism from the outset. Certainly, the perceived behavior of Germany, Japan, and Italy added to the anxiety of the public and the president. However, the anti-interventionists were always there to remind the nation that a less anxious, more secure perception was available. The insecurity came in large measure from perception and interpretation. Just as Roosevelt's vague language of idealism allowed America to become a symbol for whatever ideals any individual American held, so his vague language of threat allowed individual Americans to project all their fears onto the enemy.

The nation’s problem was constructed as an apocalyptic battle of good against evil. But FDR offered no concrete plan or promise of ridding the world of evil. The emerging theory of "realism" allowed no expectation of any permanent triumph over evil. There would always be a worst-case scenario to worry about. If the British won the battle for control of the Atlantic sea lanes and British air space, there was no clear indication that the U.S. would challenge German control of continental Europe. Victory now meant simply preserving national security and virtue by building a wall so impregnable that it could prevent the disastrous worst case.

Even before Pearl Harbor, as Sherry wrote, "the dearth of pledges by Roosevelt and others of a war to end all wars implied that there would be no end to the perils the nation now faced. … The nation was slipping into a twilight world of neither-war-nor-peace." Since the evil might well continue to exist, the need to ward off evil would continue as well. Once the war was over, the defensive wall would have to be maintained throughout the world, since every conflict everywhere was now interpreted as a potential threat to Americans. This made threat seem a permanent feature of life. The nation was being primed for a state of constant alert.

The best to hope for was not to extirpate the apocalyptic threat completely, but merely to contain, control, and manage it, perhaps indefinitely. The wall of defense would serve the goal of what I have called "apocalypse management." With every threat in every remote corner of the globe seen as a potential harbinger of apocalypse, stability and security were inevitably translated into a goal of perfect management and total control of world events. That goal was bound to prove impossible. Whenever efforts at control failed, the failure was offered as another proof that American homes would be secure only if the nation redoubled its efforts at stabilizing the whole world.

Today, nearly sixty years after the war’s end, that vicious circle of national insecurity seems so familiar and necessary that it has become part of the very air we breathe. Of course, the homeland feels far from secure. Much of the nation’s problem today is just the problem that FDR had identified in 1933: "fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror"; both the terror directed at us from outside the homeland and the terror generated by our cultural interpretations, arising inside the homeland. Yet that terror is inescapable, as long as the assumptions of Rooseveltian liberal internationalism prevail. Roosevelt insisted, publicly, that nothing was more important than a secure stable home and nation. He made a unified global system under U.S. hegemony a prerequisite to that goal. As long as those premises shape mainstream U.S. political discourse, we are bound to live in a state of homeland insecurity, a national insecurity state.