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Defenseless Under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and the Origins of Homeland Security, Matthew Dallek

Reviewed by Jeremy L. Strickler


In the post–September 11 era, Americans have become accustomed to the politics of “homeland security.” While recent controversies over increased surveillance and airport screenings come directly to mind, the broader commitment to “security” behind these issues raises a more fundamental tension between providing for the nation's defense and general welfare and protecting citizens’ rights and freedoms. As historian Matthew Dallek captures in his book Defenseless Under the Night, the origins of this contemporary struggle over liberty and security can be traced to the period of the late 1930s and early 1940s and the growing movement for “home defense.” A generation before the war on terror and the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, “collective fears that the home front would be attacked” in the early years of World War II led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD) (p. 5). According to Dallek's historical narrative, the emergence and wartime politics of the OCD—an agency that had 9.5 million registered volunteers at its peak—exhibits a microcosm of the changing dynamics of postwar liberalism and national security.

While historians and political scientists have written much on the overall linkage between war and New Deal liberalism, Defenseless Under the Night offers a more confined yet provocative look at this relationship. Dallek draws particular attention to the question of domestic security during World War II, noting the underappreciated fact that “the politics of home defense emerged as a flashpoint nationally for the first time and rippled across society as Americans experienced physical vulnerability as a significant source of concern” (p. 15). The emerging debate over how the government should respond to the newfound fears of insecurity frames the book's 13 substantive chapters (spanning 1938 to 1943). Utilizing a rich collection of archival sources, the author identifies two competing visions of home defense at the center of this debate, “national security liberalism” and “social defense liberalism,” articulated, respectively, by New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia, the OCD's first director, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, OCD assistant director.

As the book's narrative unfolds, the reader learns how these two prior advocates of liberal reform came to offer divergent assessments of what constituted proper government defense and security as concerns about preparedness and military mobilization intensified. Roosevelt supported a “wartime New Deal,” arguing that home defense required more than military means, including physical fitness, education, public health, and a devotion to democratic community engagement. In contrast, La Guardia stressed an emerging ideology that gave precedence to militarized security and regimentation, at the expense of social reform objectives. As Dallek makes clear through vivid tales of clashing personalities, political controversies, and ill-advised actions, by 1943, the often-ambiguous mission of the OCD had come to reflect the more militant vision promoted by La Guardia and his successor, James Landis. While it sponsored a host of social defense-related activities, the OCD most notably participated in air raid drills, simulated attacks, and supplied cities across the country with emergency response equipment.

For those interested in a fresh take on the home front politics of World War II—especially Eleanor Roosevelt's behind-the-scenes role during this critical period—this book is worth the read. While Dallek provides an in-depth historical analysis, scholars hoping to ascertain the prospects for Roosevelt's social defense liberalism in today's politics of heightened national security will have to make their own conclusions, since Dallek does not draw out the implications of his narrative. However, any observer of modern American government will appreciate what he reveals about the politics of fear and the omnipresent issue of security.

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