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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
. 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.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States