Newly Relevant: How Americans Responded to the Fear of Enemy Attacks in World War II

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tags: WWII, interview, Matthew Dallek

Katherine DeFonzo is a student at Fordham and an HNN intern.

Related Link How Should Politicians Address the Legitimate Fears Voters Feel? By Matthew Dallek

Matthew Dallek is an associate professor at George Washington’s Graduate School of Political Management. In this interview he discusses his new book, Defenseless Under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and the Origins of Homeland Security. In the book Dallek discusses the establishment of the Office of Civilian Defense and explores the differing approaches taken by Eleanor Roosevelt and New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to national defense during the Second World War. The interview was conducted by email.

Why did you write this book? 

I wrote the book because I wanted to explore ideas and themes that seemed pertinent through much of the 20th century as well as in our post-9/11 times. I thought a book focused on the fear of enemy attacks during World War II—and the reaction of political leaders and the public to what appeared then to be a fresh set of threats—would resonate. It would reveal how Americans responded to a national security crisis amid widespread concern about enemy attacks.

Eleanor Roosevelt was especially intriguing to me. Her push to establish a wartime New Deal had not garnered the in-depth research that I thought it deserved. How she campaigned to update the New Deal and meet the nation’s wartime needs struck me as an engaging historical problem and a problem that’s still relevant, given our many years of fighting war in the Middle East.

I also set out to give a distinct take on Fiorello La Guardia’s national security liberalism, a strain of liberalism that in my view hadn’t been fully mined. I was interested in how La Guardia, America’s most prominent urban New Deal liberal, transformed himself into the leader of a movement to militarize citizens, establish a de-facto fourth military branch, and keep Americans safe in an age of “total war.”

And the debate during WWII about “defense”—what did “defense” mean? Did “defense” include economic and social protections in addition to military security?—sparked my intellectual curiosity.

When did you get the idea for the book? Did you have an epiphany?

I didn’t have an epiphany, although the Sept. 11 attacks did play an indirect role in the genesis of this book. On nine-eleven, I was working as a congressional aide in my office in the Capitol Building (during a brief detour from the historical profession and academia). In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, I saw up close how fears fundamentally shaped American politics and policy, informing the debates about the Patriot Act, the Deptment of Homeland Security, and authorizing the war in Iraq. Years later, when I was thinking about a topic for another book, I concluded that a book on WWII-era “home defense” would be an opportunity to explore a different moment when Americans felt afraid due to enemy threats.

But the idea also came about as a result of other interests. As I read about the World War II period, I noticed that Eleanor Roosevelt and La Guardia’s time at the Office of Civilian Defense was typically given quick treatment, garnering a few pages or a relatively short section in a larger book. Their clash was most commonly characterized as an interpersonal misadventure; often, it was depicted as a sideshow to the main themes and events of the WWII-home-front. Thus, I saw what I considered a hole in the literature, and I wanted to fill it.

Most importantly, I thought the ER-La Guardia debate reflected a larger debate about liberalism, national security, and democracy itself during wartime. Several questions appealed to me: How did the United States confront the existential fascist threat on the home front during the late 1930s and early 1940s? What steps did liberals take to preserve and extend the New Deal’s legacy while simultaneously preparing the nation to go to war? How did the federal government work with cities and states to prepare communities for the age of total war, in which all civilians seemed to be on the front lines? And how did citizens respond to the threat of fascism in their communities?

Is there a lesson you want readers to take away from the book? 

I want readers to take away from the book the ways in which hysteria about enemy threats can easily run roughshod over bedrock American principles. Fiorello La Guardia, for example, was so terrified by the notion of an air raid on New York City (and nationwide) that he campaigned to mobilize the citizenry by whipping up fear of enemy attacks. He contributed to the atmosphere of fear that made interning Japanese-Americans and Japanese nationals possible. As the nation’s home defense leader, La Guardia warned that in an air raid in Los Angeles, residents would be “dropping like flies” and “bleed[ing] to death in the streets.” The loss of rational thought amid the fears of fascist incursions led to the government’s unjust and unconstitutional abridgment of civil liberties.

What can reform politicians learn from ER and LaGuardia's struggle to strengthen military defense while also implementing social reforms?  

Progressives can take away the idea that virtually any war must also be accompanied by a set of larger democratic goals that can sustain the fighting. Eleanor Roosevelt’s vision of social defense coupled with military defense kept the idea of reform at the center of the political debate during much of World War II. She insisted that in wartime Americans had to live their values. By erecting a just, more prosperous democracy, the United States would give more citizens a stake in defending their way of life. The government and the people would make life more worth living, and democracy, therefore, would be more worth defending.

Thus, progressives should consider how Eleanor Roosevelt married liberal internationalist goals to the quest for social reform and uplift on the home front. Her reform vision in particular remains relevant in the post-nine-eleven age.

Historically, is there a political leader who you think has done an admirable job of alerting his nation to a threat while avoiding the unnecessary spread of fear?

Both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were voices of reason even if their rhetoric was also tinged with alarmism during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Both of them used fear to alert Americans to the fascist peril, but they also effectively channeled Americans’ fears into (mostly) constructive, rational activities.

FDR, for example, deserves credit for insisting that World War II had to be about not only defeating fascism militarily but also about providing, as he so memorably put it, “freedom from fear.” He did not always get the balance right, at times exaggerating the threat Americans faced. His great failure was his decision to intern Japanese-Americans and Japanese nationals in the United States without any evidence that they posed an actual threat. His decision voided constitutional protections and, in doing so, spread fear unnecessarily.

Eleanor Roosevelt struck an even more careful balance, alerting civilians to the fascist threat while seeking to calm people’s nerves as best she could. She often told the American people that she was fearful, and that like millions of other American women in particular, she could not escape a “clutch of fear in [our] hearts.” She observed that her children were in danger—she had a son on a destroyer and two children living on the West Coast in the aftermath of the attacks on Pearl Harbor. In publicly discussing her own fears, she offered a strikingly empathetic voice of honesty and reason to which millions of Americans could readily relate.

She insisted that the fascist threat was existential and absolutely genuine. But she also argued that fear must not be allowed to paralyze the American public into a state of apathy. Rather, she argued, fear must be acknowledged, confronted, and overcome. Every citizen, she said, could contribute to the war effort and make life better for their fellow Americans. She argued that people’s fears ought to become a motivator for them to participate in public life and do meaningful jobs that advanced both military and social defense. “Wake up each one of you to the two fronts on which our defense must be built!” she implored.

Neither FDR nor ER always struck the balance right (for reasons I detail in the book). But, at times, they did use public fear for constructive ends, and any presidential candidate or national leader today could study their example and take away a reasonable model for how to talk to the public about threats without spreading fear unnecessarily.

While reading Defenseless Under the Night, I was struck by the eagerness of many Americans to find ways to volunteer during World War II. Do you think this was directly the result of the hard times that accompanied the war, or does it suggest something more fundamental about the American people?

Several factors were at work. Americans had found a level of trust in the Roosevelt administration that is simply unimaginable in our anti-big-government times. They trusted both Roosevelts’ leadership, and that trust made it easier for Americans to respond to calls from them and their government to volunteer en masse during wartime.

The New Deal likely conditioned Americans to volunteer in the war effort. During the early and mid-1930s, for example, millions of people directly benefitted from working for the government, building roads, bridges, and buildings, for instance. Thus, given the positive views of the New Deal, it’s not terribly surprising that Americans would volunteer to do jobs in the defense program as the threat of fascism loomed larger.

Equally crucial, “total war” was becoming etched on the public psyche. The idea that all civilians occupied the front meant that they had no choice but to volunteer and participate in their own defense. If their lives were on the line, as at least some Americans felt, then they had to take ownership of their own security. In addition, Americans and their government hailed the notion of volunteer participation as an antidote to top-down fascist regimentation. Volunteering enabled Americans to feel as if they were shoring up democracy in a democratic way. Rather than the state forcing citizens to “volunteer” in defense roles, citizens were participating on their own accord; that contrast—fascist regimentation versus volunteer participation—appealed to Americans and inspired some people to join the volunteer ranks.

You begin Defenseless Under the Night by discussing the chaos that resulted from the War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938. Both LaGuardia and ER were concerned with preventing panics during moments of crisis. Given how quickly information travels today, do you think this is something that should still concern government officials?

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, public officials were concerned that Americans could become so terrified and panic-stricken that democracy would unravel and a strongman would ascend to power. Today, thanks to digital communications technologies, the spread of fear, fed by rumors, and the potential for panic could be even swifter during a moment of widespread crisis. If there was a catastrophic event involving multiple cities or an entire state (say, a major California earthquake) that required some kind of military response to save lives and restore order, it’s not clear that Twitter and Facebook would be sources of reassurance; in fact, they would likely enable people to foment misinformation and spread hysteria.

Government officials today have got to be concerned that chaos and panic would be unleashed during a catastrophic event. Would official government communications be able to tamp down mass fears during a catastrophe? It seems unlikely.

Eleanor Roosevelt's decision to hire dancer Mayris Chaney caused a scandal that ultimately contributed to ER's resignation from the Office of Civilian Defense. Was there merit to her opponents' criticism, or was her decision to hire Chaney blown entirely out of proportion?

Both things are true. Much of the criticism was merited, and much of it was blown out of proportion. The context of the scandal mattered. When the news broke that Eleanor Roosevelt had hired a dancer to teach dancing to children, Pearl Harbor had been attacked just two months earlier. The United States had recently entered the war. Millions of people were being asked to volunteer their time, and millions more were either volunteering or being drafted into the Armed Forces, risking their lives for relatively little pay compared to what Mayris Chaney was earning. The “optics” (to use a contemporary term) were simply awful. A first lady had put a dancer-friend (Chaney had actually invented a dance in ER’s honor called the “Eleanor Glide”) on the government payroll at $4,600 annually. It was hard to defend the move politically, and some of the criticism (ie, that soldiers risking their lives were earning much less than Chaney; that the government was asking Americans to make countless unpaid sacrifices) were rooted in legitimate feelings that a Roosevelt friend was being given a well-paid government job not directly tied to war mobilization. (I try in the book, however, to understand the reasoning behind ER’s decision and put it into proper context.)

Nonetheless, the criticism was also over-the-top and reflective of the intense hostility in the culture toward women in positions of power. Eleanor Roosevelt was beloved by millions; she was also an object of scorn and ridicule. The revelation that she had hired Chaney opened the floodgates to scathing, misogynistic broadsides leveled against the first lady (Go back to your knitting, some critics said). Critics also bashed ER’s decision as proof that the New Deal was corrupt and an abject failure.

Such criticisms were hyperbolic. The scandal created an opportunity for long-suffering anti-New Deal columnists to attack New Deal liberalism as un-American. The criticisms of ER ultimately reflected extreme social prejudice against women in public life. ER faced particularly harsh scrutiny because she was a woman. The Chaney scandal brought to the surface the worst gender biases that prevailed at the time, and the blistering letters and newspaper columns (cited in the book) demonstrate as much.

You use the image of "guns and butter" to help illustrate the key differences between Eleanor Roosevelt and Fiorello LaGuardia's approaches to civilian defense. Why is this particular motif so effective?

“Guns and butter” offers a sort of shorthand that hopefully captures the essence of the debate between Eleanor Roosevelt and Fiorello La Guardia. La Guardia reflected the “guns” side of the argument, urging a militarized home front in response to the dangers of modern war. ER was an architect of “butter,” insisting that “social defense” was as crucial to the war effort as military security.

La Guardia saw the war as a chance to militarize society in order to preserve law and order and keep people safe in their cities. ER viewed the crisis as an opportunity to strengthen social democracy and give Americans skills so they could find jobs, expand civil rights and women’s rights, and achieve economic security. (It should be noted that “butter” fails to convey the debate about civil liberties that was also important to the struggle over home defense during World War II.) “Guns and butter” – even if the term isn’t used much today – remains a flashpoint in the debate about the proper role of government in wartime society—and it is likely to remain central to the character of wartime democracy in the decades ahead.

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