Conflicts of self-interest

In the Shadow of War
July 26, 1996

War is everywhere in American history and in the American mind. For centuries, settlers battled aborigines for possession of the land. War and revolution crystallised nationhood in the 18th century. Since then, Americans have spent much of their history in violent conflict with other nations and with one another. Military leaders transformed themselves into political ones, beginning with Washington, and the pattern steadily continued until Theodore Roosevelt in the 20th century, as political parties courted "heroes" to carry their colours. The revolution and civil war became touchstones of national memory, celebrated and venerated by succeeding generations of patriotic organisations. Even social crusades, designed to better life, have been described and justified with the metaphor of war. Thus we have wars on poverty, drugs, Aids, smoking, crime and cancer.

The prospect of war for much of the 20th century inevitably led to the militarisation of American society. Michael Sherry chronicles this phenomenon in a brilliant synthesis that stretches far beyond conventional military history. Surveying the past 60 years, he traces the pervasiveness of militarisation and how it has touched and shaped so many aspects of American life. It has been an agent of destruction; yet at the same time it has driven an economy that created an enviable standard of living. It has enlisted universities and intellectuals in its pursuits; yet, it has freed them to pursue other goals for the betterment of life. It has adversely affected the lives of every social group, repeatedly impairing civil liberties in the name of national security, yet blacks, ethnics, and women also have been empowered and liberated in important ways as a result. It is a fitting irony that one of the most popular Americans today is the black general, Colin Powell, the architect of the so-called victory in the Persian Gulf war.

Sherry pinpoints the beginnings of militarisation in the great depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt's invocation of war metaphors to fight. FDR mobilised unprecedented national and executive authority to combat the hard times as if he were dealing with the "emergency of a war", and he talked about exercising power as if the nation had been "invaded by a foreign foe". The analogue of war conveniently reflected the nation's and FDR's experiences in the first world war, an event of short duration for the United States in which it played a decisive, if not dominant role. The second world war is the golden moment for American military power when the United States lost less and gained more than any of the great nations involved in that struggle. Militarisation in the US grew apace after the war as it confronted the Soviet Union, seemingly the only power threatening American interests or security. Eisenhower made real attempts to control the galloping militarisation of the American economy and society, but it was too little, too late. When he issued his famous warning about the military-industrial-scientific complex in his 1961 farewell address, that fight was over and lost.

Three decades of militarisation reached crisis proportions with the Vietnam war, an event that scarred the American landscape for contemporary generations as much as the great depression and the second world war had done for previous ones. Robert McNamara and General William Westmoreland insisted that more men, more firepower, and higher body counts would win the war, no matter the political context or terrain. The Vietnam war could not be lost without an accompanying loss of faith and confidence by Americans nurtured on myths of invincibility. As Nixon took office in 1969, he had every intention of finishing the war on his terms. When that proved unattainable, he kindled dormant cultural wars, drove himself and his administration to the immolation of Watergate and helped shape the ugliness that has characterised American domestic politics for more than 20 years.

Since Vietnam, the US has grappled alternately with a recognition of limits to its power and long-heard siren calls towards being number one - whether in military, economic, sporting or any other kind of power. In any event, the winding down of militarisation has proven perhaps more formidable than its creating. The end of the Vietnam war, unfortunately, produced no major reassessments for at least a decade. The costs and risks seemed too great, especially in political terms. We were "running an arms race with ourselves", a key scientific leader recognised. The defence industry, think-tanks, labs and defence bureaucracies that thrived on military spending were not about to dismantle their welfare troughs or, to put it more politely, "military Keynesianism". Perhaps Sherry exaggerates when he suggests that Nixon had a post-cold war vision of a very different US; certainly, there is no denying he lacked the will, energy and, above all, the integrity to do anything about it.

Ronald Reagan at the outset pursued a vocal and expensive remilitarisation policy, yet it proved illusory in gaining the desired results. The ostentatious American build-up in missiles, ships and nuclear weapons had no discernible impact on Soviet policy. Likewise, Reagan's sloganeering had no great effect: the Nicaraguan contras, he said, were the "moral equal of our founding fathers"; on the contrary, it was the Nicaraguan people, who exercising universal suffrage, a concept quite alien to the men of 1787, turned out the Sandinistas. Furthermore, the bloated military outlays swelled the federal debt, raising serious doubts about the administration's economic course and the wisdom of its policies.

Sherry curiously finds the roots of change in the appalling lapse of the Iran-contra affair. That debacle forced the Reagan administration to revert to more traditional ways of diplomacy, especially in the light of the president's new-found and widely trumpeted view that nuclear weapons were a terrible, immediate threat. Sherry rightly raises the possibility that Mrs Reagan's influence may have been decisive. In 1984, she reportedly expressed the wish that her husband be "remembered for having lowered the risk of nuclear war". Important, too, were changes in the Kremlin that resulted in Mikhail Gorbachev's recognition that militarisation had debilitating short-term demands and risky long-term burdens. How convenient, for at the same time the burdens of militarisation became increasingly unacceptable in the US.

Sherry's reading of the past 60 years offers a fresh retelling of familiar history, and one filled with extraordinary insights. His militarisation theme enables him to roam widely, illuminating diverse strands of American life. This is about much more than arms races, budgets, technological advances and military leaders. Sherry gives us a sensitive understanding of how this phenomenon of militarisation pervaded American life - how it benefited (sometimes) different races and ethnic groups, how women profited and lost from the process, but most of all how military considerations touched every facet of our cultural lives and perceptions. Military needs, real or alleged, offer the easiest rationalisation for apparently unpopular, expensive or controversial policies. Witness, for example, in the 1950s when the Eisenhower administration based the development of the interstate highway programme and federal higher education aids on national security justifications. Clinton projected no further defence cuts for the post-cold war era than those established by his predecessor. Yet militarisation rhetoric remained a convenient political tool as he justified his elaborate health care programme in the name of national security. In 1994, as the nation moved toward recognition of Vietnam, market considerations and the need to reconcile with a former enemy offered logical reasons; yet military needs were brought to bear as numerous senators and policy makers spoke of the "Vietnam card" as a necessary counterweight to growing Chinese strategic power in Southeast Asia.

Sherry skilfully builds on his reconstruction of the past to finger its usages amid our current battles. Was militarisation a means, an excuse, to wage our internal cultural battles? Senator Jesse Helms (Republican, North Carolina) virtually declared war on Clinton when he warned him to stay away from his state because his record of draft avoidance, his stand on homosexuals in the military and his contributions to the decline of American defence capability might endanger his life. Irving Kristol, who has managed a career as a Trotskyite and as guru to what passes for modern American conservatism, has rejected any notion that the cold war is over. "There is no 'after the cold war' for me," Kristol has said. "So far from having ended, my cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos I . " After all those years of exhortation, the Soviet Union, the "evil empire", and "godless communism" were not the real enemy; instead, some vaporous, evanescent, permanent liberalism - the "enemy within" - was the enduring menace to the American way. Sherry is right on the mark: "The most intractable legacy of the age of militarisation was not so much armies and defence budgets but the warlike states of mind that many American indulged about one another."

In the Shadow of War is not an easy read. Sherry's research is prodigious; its presentation is dense and tightly argued. Nevertheless, this is an immensely rewarding work. Sherry has synthesised many narrowly focused issues into a meaningful whole. Anyone who wants to come to terms with the complexity and meaning of American history in the 20th century must confront this book. An impressive achievement indeed.

Stanley I. Kutler is professor of American institutions, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In the Shadow of War: The United States Since The 1930s

Author - Michael S. Sherry
ISBN - 0 300 06111 0
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 595

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