CROSS-POSTED REVIEW: H-Net Review [H-Diplo]: Doenecke on Dallek, 'Defenseless under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and the Origins of Homeland Security'

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Matthew Dallek.  Defenseless under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and

the Origins of Homeland Security.  New York  Oxford University Press,

2016.  360 pp.  $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-974312-4.

 

Reviewed by Justus Doenecke (New College of Florida)

Published on H-Diplo (February, 2017)

Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

 

Given the many controversies over homeland security in light of 9/11,

with fear of foreign attack now pervading American life, it is

important to learn how "the greatest generation" coped with national

defense, particularly after the Pearl Harbor attack. Matthew Dallek

begins his fine account with the hysteria generated by director Orson

Welles's "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast of October 30, 1938,

when many gullible citizens panicked upon hearing a "realistic"

dramatization of H. G. Wells's famous novel. His narrative ends in

1945, when President Harry Truman issued an executive order

terminating the wartime civilian defense program.

 

Much of Dallek's account centers on the Office of Civilian Defense

(OCD), established in May 1941 by Franklin D. Roosevelt's executive

order. For the first time, the United States possessed a single

federal department dedicated to the physical protection of 180

million Americans. The president appointed New York's colorful mayor,

Fiorello La Guardia, as director. That September Roosevelt made his

wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, assistant director.

 

Although both figures possessed a long record of humanitarian reform,

the "Little Flower" repeatedly clashed with "ER." The first lady

stressed "social defense liberalism," envisioning the OCD's primary

task as extending the New Deal. She had conceded in February 1939

that her husband's domestic program had yet to "solve fundamental

problems," having "merely bought us time to think" (p. 28).

 

Conversely, La Guardia concentrated on a "national security

liberalism" that would focus on defense. The mayor stressed the need

for public safety, downplayed individual liberties, and in general

sought to infuse martial values into domestic society. To him the OCD

was a fourth branch of the military, in its own way as crucial as the

Army, Navy, and Marines. By this process, Dallek argues, His Honor

was transforming the very meaning of liberalism itself, which now

became synonymous with the militarization of the government's core

functions. Little wonder ER soon balked.

 

Dallek effectively conveys American anxieties generated by the advent

of air power, which began with Zeppelin raids on London during World

War I. Indeed, the author reinforces Michael Sherry's claim that an

"apocalyptic mentality, consisting of expectations of ultimate danger

and destruction" existed several decades before the Cold War (p.

268n34). Events in Ethiopia, Spain, and China merely reinforced such

fears, and Edward R. Murrow's wartime broadcasts from London made the

blitz vivid to American listeners.

 

Though Dallek does not delve into the matter, Franklin Roosevelt's

anti-interventionist foes also made arguments based on air power. A

strong air arm, they argued, would protect the Western Hemisphere

while avoiding dependence upon a conscript army. Furthermore, German

bombers could not reach the United States, as round-trip flights were

far too risky. Any invasion of ground troops could be quickly

repelled, attacking ships being bombed out of the ocean before they

could land.

 

Admittedly, as Dallek notes, there was no evidence that Germany

possessed aircraft carriers and air bases capable of launching raids

on East Coast targets. After the United States entered the war, the

continent experienced only minor attacks. In June 1942, Japanese

submarines shelled a town on the Oregon coast. That September they

shelled the coast of Santa Barbara while a seaplane bombed a forest

in Oregon.

 

Dallek concludes that La Guardia effectively mobilized hundreds of

thousands of Americans, drew positive notice for his drills, and

taught much of the East Coast to cope with air raids and sabotage.

Furthermore, his "campaign to spread public fear" (p. 172) was rooted

in a sincere belief that an Axis attack was imminent. His reportorial

trips to London were by no means propaganda ploys but sincere

fact-finding missions.

 

But with La Guardia there was a price to be paid. The Little Flower

endorsed spying on civilians he personally considered subversive.

Once Pearl Harbor was attacked, he prohibited all Japanese nationals

and Japanese Americans from meeting publicly, confining them to their

homes and detaining many on Ellis Island. On New Year's Day, 1942, he

called his critics "Japs" and "friends of Japs" (p. 197). Indeed,

there were few public officials who better epitomized what Leo P.

Ribuffo has called "the brown scare," in which "fifth-columnists"

were ubiquitous and anti-interventionists were branded as pro-Axis

subversives.[1]

 

At times one had the sense of energy in a vacuum. La Guardia launched

an unpopular "Freedom Sunday" campaign that involved clergy preaching

a canned sermon written by the OCD. In 1941 he predicted that German

bombers could soon fly over the capital. Touring the nation, he

recommended distributing fifty million gas masks, which included two

million "Mickey Mouse" masks for children. He suggested that

occupants of skyscrapers lock themselves in their offices so as not

to add to the panic on the streets below. As an executive, Gotham's

Paul Revere was totally disorganized, firing employees on sheer whim,

chastising aides, and melodramatically running from one city to

another.

 

Three days after the strike on Hawaii, La Guardia was in San

Francisco, warning its inhabitants that they must expect that combat

would reach their very homes. Because of a false alarm concerning an

air strike on Hempstead's Mitchell Field, New York City experienced

sheer panic. When the mayor returned to Gracie Mansion, Dallek

writes, he revealed himself as both hotheaded and inept. On February

10, 1942, Roosevelt secured his resignation.

 

Ultimately, the OCD's new director, James Landis, proved little

better. Until this point, Landis had been an able New Deal

administrator and defender of civil liberties. Yet Dallek finds the

Harvard law professor outdoing his predecessor in forging "the home

front into aspects of a police state" (p. 230). Landis "strained to

militarize civilians," trafficking in "a message of fear." Urging his

countrymen to "think war, sleep war, and eat war" (p. 13), he, too,

predicted the impending of bombing of American cities. Landis

championed the removal of Japanese Americans to "relocation camps."

In the face of all evidence, he claimed that spies and saboteurs

jeopardized the nation's security. Procedures for establishing the

loyalty of enemy aliens were downright Byzantine.

 

Continually warning of enemy attack, Landis warned Southern

Californians, "We ought to have the guts to fight with our bare

hands" (p. 235). "Get ready to be bombed," he told _American_

_Magazine_ readers in May 1943 (p. 253). If the Germans reached the

African coast, they could, he warned, acquire enough bases to

endanger Chicago before anyone realized it. In fairness, Dallek does

praise Landis for espousing some "social defense" opinions, such as

that hunger and poverty were evils akin to Nazi militarism. His OCD

did promote nutrition, foster physical fitness, and establish day

care centers.

 

Dallek gives Eleanor Roosevelt much attention. He notes her

conversion from pacifism to interventionism. In 1935, she had

written, "the war idea is obsolete" (p. 21). Within three years she

was claiming, "Force is the only voice which carries conviction and

weight with certain groups" (p. 23). The coming war, she predicted,

would be fought for control of land, sea, and air space. As the CDO's

assistant director, she saw in the agency a chance to advance her

reformist agenda. In her post she led a program that ultimately

recruited over ten million volunteers, who did everything from

providing medical and child care to planting victory gardens .

 

Yet at times ER betrayed certain intolerant and imperious tendencies.

Though far more dedicated to aiding Jewish refugees than most of her

countrymen, she wrote a German friend in 1939 that "the ascendency of

the Jewish people" should be curbed (p. 26). In 1940 she urged

Congress to pass legislation mandating national service for all young

Americans. Contributing to the brown scare, she compared

"isolationists" to Nazi appeasers. Adding to wartime hysteria, she

wrote in January 1942 that Axis air attacks on America were

inevitable.

 

ER's position became untenable when, early in 1942, she hired a

professional dancer to help build children's morale. The OCD gave one

Mayris Chaney, who had performed in a night club as a "fan dancer," a

$4,600 annual salary at a time when the average soldier was drawing

$21 a week. Even Eleanor's husband could not rescue her and she was

immediately let go.

 

This work engages in occasional demythologizing. Dallek writes that

despite the Court-packing fiasco, major Republican gains in the 1938

elections, and efforts at wartime preparation, many progressives held

firm to New Deal liberalism and sought to go beyond Roosevelt's

reforms of the mid-1930s. Eleanor Roosevelt envisioned recruiting

virtually all American women as volunteers to provide food, shelter,

and health care to every citizen. In a sense, the president's 1944

"Economic Bill of Rights" served as the logical outcome of her

vision.

 

Overall, De_fenseless Under the Night_ is well written and its

conclusions cogent. Dallek has engaged in a prodigious amount of work

in such sources as the records of the OCD, the diaries of Interior

Secretary Harold Ickes, and the papers of Eleanor and Franklin

Roosevelt, La Guardia, and Landis.

 

Errors are few. The Wright Brothers takes a plural (p. 42). In May

1940 ER spoke to the American Youth Congress, not Conference (p. 55).

Franklin Roosevelt could not have been fighting for Lend Lease in

1940, as the bill was only debated in early 1941 (p. 75). Dallek

might want to note that OCD staffer Paul Kellogg already had a

distinguished career as a progressive editor and reformer. Though it

might be impossible to quantify, one wonders how much OCD attention

was devoted to social defense in comparison to its military defense

efforts. Despite the continuation of New Deal rhetoric by certain

progressives and despite some reformist measures of the OCD, how much

lasting social change took place under its aegis?

 

Dallek provides us with a haunting account, one highly relevant to

the anxiety-ridden nation of today.

 

Note

 

[1]. Leo P. Ribuffo, _The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far

Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War_ (Philadelphia:

Temple University Press, 1983), chapter 5.

 

Citation: Justus Doenecke. Review of Dallek, Matthew, _Defenseless

under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and the Origins of Homeland

Security_. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. February, 2017.

URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=48116

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons

Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

License.

 

Just an anecdote comment about Soouthern California and the WW II coastal defense; this volume quite expected focuses upon the overall, national history, but does not include reference to what was experienced necessarily on the spot of the local areas to So. Cal.

My parents used to tell me about hearing tanks rumbling down Long Beach Blvd., from LA area, to take up positions along the beach areas of Long Beach. They lived near the Blvd. then. This transit happened at nighttime.

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Continually warning of enemy attack, Landis warned Southern
Californians, "We ought to have the guts to fight with our bare
hands" (p. 235). "Get ready to be bombed," he told _American_
_Magazine_ readers in May 1943 (p. 253). If the Germans reached the
African coast, they could, he warned, acquire enough bases to
endanger Chicago before anyone realized it. In fairness, Dallek does
praise Landis for espousing some "social defense" opinions, such as
that hunger and poverty were evils akin to Nazi militarism. His OCD
did promote nutrition, foster physical fitness, and establish day
care centers.