Fortress America

How We Embraced Fear and Abandoned Democracy


By Elaine Tyler May

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An award-winning historian argues that America’s obsession with security imperils our democracy in this “compelling” portrait of cultural anxiety (Mary L. Dudziak, author of War Time).

For the last sixty years, fear has seeped into every area of American life: Americans own more guns than citizens of any other country, sequester themselves in gated communities, and retreat from public spaces. And yet, crime rates have plummeted, making life in America safer than ever. Why, then, are Americans so afraid-and where does this fear lead to?

In this remarkable work of social history, Elaine Tyler May demonstrates how our obsession with security has made citizens fear each other and distrust the government, making America less safe and less democratic. Fortress America charts the rise of a muscular national culture, undercutting the common good. Instead of a thriving democracy of engaged citizens, we have become a paranoid, bunkered, militarized, and divided vigilante nation.




Fear is a potent force in America, and it has taken many forms throughout this nation’s history. Perhaps at no point was fear more widespread than in the years after World War II, which witnessed major political, social, and cultural upheavals. In particular, fears of atomic attack, communist subversives, crime, and physical harm at the hands of strangers have affected social norms, election results, public policies, and daily life. This fear has generated the security state defining the place of the United States in the world ever since the early years of the Cold War. At the same time it has fostered a security culture, a bunker mentality, within the country. This book is an effort to understand how that state of mind developed, how it evolved throughout the twentieth century, and what it has meant for the nation and its citizens up to the present day. Why have Americans become so fearful? How has that fear been expressed and addressed in the nation’s culture, institutions, and laws? What have citizens done to achieve personal safety and security?

Americans learned to fear dangers from both inside and outside the country in the early years of the Cold War and the Atomic Age. Citizens came to believe that the government would not protect them, so they had to protect themselves. Over time, they turned their attention to other presumed dangers, especially crime and social unrest. Fear increased far out of proportion to any real threat, leading millions of Americans to undertake security measures that did not make them any safer.

Misplaced fear drove Americans away from true security. To be secure is to be safe, out of harm’s way, and to have the essentials for a comfortable life: adequate food, shelter, and clothing. In the United States, security is embedded in the nation’s founding documents, particularly the Declaration of Independence, which promises the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Traditions of individualism and free enterprise embody the belief that security originates from self-sufficiency. American democratic practices foster an expectation that virtuous citizens who work hard will be rewarded with security, the good life, and the fulfillment of the American dream. Although throughout the nation’s history large numbers of Americans never had the opportunity to achieve this level of security, it has remained an aspirational goal and a national ideal.

There was never a “golden age” of security. But there were moments in the twentieth century when citizens and policymakers believed that the government had a responsibility to create the conditions in which Americans could achieve safety and a decent standard of living. Those moments resulted from two beliefs in particular: that the government was a force for social betterment, and that all citizens shared responsibility for the common good. That vision was never perfect—in fact, it never fully became reality—but it had political, cultural, and social traction, especially in times of hardship.

One such time was the Great Depression of the 1930s. The economic crisis moved large numbers of Americans to abandon the belief in self-sufficiency and turn to the government for assistance. At that time, for most people, insecurity was understood in economic terms. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal offered programs, such as Social Security, to provide a safety net for the many Americans who had lost jobs, income, and opportunities. The New Deal rested on a widely shared belief that the government had a responsibility to assist citizens in need.

The safety net did not reach everyone, however. African Americans who worked as household workers or sharecroppers were not included, for example; nor were many others who labored at the edges of the economy. Indeed, the vision of security that prevailed prior to World War II belonged largely to the white middle class. It rested on hierarchies of race and gender that many white Americans believed to be rooted in biology. The belief that people of color were inferior, and that women were innately destined to be wives and mothers, maintained social arrangements that upheld the power and authority of white men. Those boundaries of race and gender were enforced by both violence and law. Lynching and Jim Crow segregation were among the strategies that kept the racial hierarchy in place; exclusionary practices and gender-based laws restricted opportunities for women and maintained their subordination. The social order that resulted from these discriminatory practices enforced oppression for some while offering predictability and stability for others.

Another pre–World War II source of security for mainstream Americans came from the belief that the nation was safe from attack from abroad. Although the United States had participated in wars, no international wars had been fought on American soil for more than a century, and Europe had taken the brunt of World War I. The oceans on either side of the country seemed to offer protection; civilians did not imagine that war would threaten their safety. But that sense of security was shattered in December 1941 with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into World War II.

War revived the economy, putting millions of Americans to work in the defense and other industries, and thereby ending the Depression. At the same time, the war unleashed a new definition of and new urgency about security. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, national security took on a different meaning rooted in danger emanating from abroad. Security concerns became focused on protecting the nation from foreign enemies as well as protecting individuals from threats to their physical safety.

The war marked significant changes in the quest for security in other ways, too. An uneasy peace arrived in 1945, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, ushering in the Atomic Age. The war was over, but new anxieties emerged. Postwar prosperity eased economic insecurities for many, but the Cold War raised new fears about personal safety, and especially about the threat of nuclear attack from abroad and communist subversion at home.

In this new era of danger, in which the physical safety of civilians was suddenly at risk, national security became the responsibility of the government, while citizens became responsible for their own protection. In the face of possible atomic attack, officials warned Americans that the government could not protect them—they had to protect themselves. By acknowledging that the government was powerless to provide safety in such a dangerous world, political leaders and civil defense authorities unwittingly sowed the seeds of dwindling faith in government, the police, and other public institutions.

Cold War ideology promoted a fierce commitment to self-sufficiency and privatized protection. It wove together several strands of American political culture into a tough fabric constructed to withstand the harsh postwar climate and protect the American way of life. These strands included beliefs in individual freedom, unfettered capitalism, and the sanctity of the home. Many Americans came to see the world as a dangerous place, inside as well as outside the nation’s borders, and became accustomed to the threat of nuclear annihilation, which fueled the development of a militarized society. They also became accustomed to the idea that communists were among them, which prompted suspicions of “outsiders” of every kind.1

During the Cold War, the news media, political leaders, and large numbers of Americans became preoccupied with both national and personal security. The two were profoundly connected. At the dawn of the Atomic Age, protection against external dangers took the form of a nuclear arsenal, while protection against internal enemies took the form of a nuclear family. The United States vigorously opposed international control of nuclear arms, instead choosing to accumulate weapons, helping to cause a spiraling nuclear arms race. Rather than defusing international tensions to achieve a safer world through democratic practices in the global arena, the nation’s leaders chose preparedness in the face of danger.

Americans responded with similar strategies at home. Although some citizens called upon the nation’s leaders to stop the arms race, others acquiesced to the dangers of the Atomic Age by fortifying themselves with privatized protection, constant vigilance, and a bunker mentality—and for some, actual bunkers. They turned to the nuclear family, with a homemaker mother and a breadwinning father, to maintain social stability, nurture self-sufficient citizens, and provide protection in a dangerous world.2

Like World War II, when the nation came together to face its enemies, the Cold War called for national unity. Many scholars have argued that the “Cold War consensus” that prevailed in the postwar era—in which the two mainline parties, Democrats and Republicans, opposed communism, supported a nuclear arms race, and maintained remnants of New Deal liberalism—disintegrated in the 1960s. According to this view, American politics became increasingly polarized over the final decades of the twentieth century and continued along this path well into the twenty-first, leading to a situation in which the two parties are in agreement on practically nothing today. I argue in this book that in fact a new consensus developed over the last half of the twentieth century, rooted in a new definition of “security” that was grounded in fear and that both major parties adopted and most Americans across the political spectrum accepted. While the two major political parties became locked in fierce battles in the twenty-first century, large numbers of citizens retreated from the political process altogether and into their own private lives. As a result, active citizenship declined and the common good withered. The path to our current situation began more than half a century ago.

THE COLD WAR defined the framework of security through the 1950s. The sources of danger began to pivot in the 1960s and 1970s in the wake of rising crime, urban unrest, protests against the war in Vietnam, and the civil rights and feminist movements. Public opinion polls and survey data demonstrate that Cold War anxieties morphed into fears of crime and social disruption. Those fears far exceeded actual threats. Even as the Cold War waned and crime rates fell, fear continued to rise. The fear that developed was neither neutral nor abstract.

Then as now, African Americans were more likely than whites to be victims of crime and violence. They had good reason to fear for their safety and well-being. But many whites in the 1960s watched inner-city black neighborhoods being consumed by flames and worried that the violence would spread to white neighborhoods. Domestic disruption and a growing sense of personal vulnerability led to a new definition of security that was grounded in fear of violence and physical assault. According to this notion, nobody was really safe, regardless of their wealth, race, or gender.

At the same time, the postwar economic boom that had lifted many Americans into the middle class began to falter. The nuclear family, with a father whose income could support a wife and children, and a mother who would provide daily care of the home and family, had been the bulwark of security in the early postwar years. With so much turmoil in the world, many believed that a home in which parents conformed to clearly defined roles and responsibilities would provide stability and a solid safeguard against the dangers emanating from outside. That ideal became increasingly difficult to achieve, both because of changing economic realities and because of the discontent among women and men who felt trapped by their assigned roles. Men found it difficult to support a family on a single income, and women joined the paid labor force to help pay the bills. The nuclear family began to unravel, with declining rates of marriage, soaring rates of divorce, and a declining birthrate. Social, cultural, and political upheavals disrupted the sense of security that the nuclear family had offered, and Americans of all backgrounds and classes felt the ground shifting beneath their feet.

As the family faced new challenges, the home itself became a site of vulnerability. Houses that once provided protection became places that needed protection. Homeowners transformed their houses into barricaded fortresses, with alarm systems, metal grates, fences, and locks. City planners designed streets that reflected “bunker architecture.”

Domestic security appeared to be threatened not only by Cold War dangers, economic woes, and urban upheavals but also by the social and political challenges to the racial and gender status quo that took shape in the 1960s. The economy weakened just as the civil rights and feminist movements began to force the government and employers to grant greater opportunities and a more equitable legal status for racial minorities and women. While the successes of the civil rights and feminist movements changed millions of lives for the better, they also caused considerable anxiety for many whose lives had been ordered by time-honored racial and gender inequalities. Coming at a time of increasing economic instability, these developments gave rise to new fears.

With rising crime and urban unrest making headlines, and feminism, civil rights, the counterculture, and the sexual revolution turning the traditional domestic order upside down, political leaders and the mainstream media fanned fears with calls for “law and order.” They revived fictitious tropes of racial danger that had prevailed for centuries, especially in the South, promoting unfounded assertions that black men were dangerous and white women were vulnerable. Media messages warned women to stay home and avoid city streets, when statistically they were safer outside than in their own homes, where most violence against women occurred. Many women absorbed these messages and changed their behavior in order to avoid attack, or learned how to defend themselves if assaulted.3

Precautions to avoid harm are, of course, a normal part of life. But when fears become exaggerated or misdirected, they can be harmful to individuals and to society. In the United States, “security” in the last decades of the twentieth century came to mean a particular kind of safety, safety from the threat of physical violence from strangers. For the vast majority of citizens, “stranger danger” has never been a serious threat. Most physical harm to Americans comes at the hands of people they know.

Still, most Americans took for granted the daily rituals of security culture: the avoidance of certain streets, the reluctance to walk alone at night, the many locks on doors and the installation of security systems, the private security guards, the importance of personal firearms. Few stopped to think whether any of these measures actually provided personal safety, and whether there might be different strategies for improving the well-being of all.

HOW DID THIS happen? There is no single “cause” of the security obsession that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century. There were many factors involved, and many dimensions to the fears that led millions of Americans to seek safety from perceived dangers. Uncovering this history requires delving into a wide range of sources. Fear is not only a response to reality, such as the development of nuclear weapons, economic insecurity, urban unrest, or the presence of crime. It is also fostered by messages carried in the news media, Hollywood films, and political speeches, and spread by businesses seeking to profit from fear. Hence this book relies not only on public opinion data, but also on the view of American life reflected in blockbuster movies, such as the Dirty Harry films, and not only on crime statistics, but also on the rhetoric of politicians who exaggerated danger to create fear.

Insightful observers have examined various aspects of our nation’s culture of security. Many scholars have studied the impact of US foreign policy, and some have argued persuasively that our military adventures around the world in the name of national security have actually made the United States less safe, while causing untold death, destruction, and misery. Others have written extensively about the many misguided efforts to limit or cut off immigration and seal the nation’s borders, and the disastrous consequences of an unnecessarily punitive criminal justice system.4

Fortress America looks primarily at the personal side of the security quest: the ways in which Americans have endeavored to protect themselves on a daily basis in a world they perceive as dangerous. It builds on the rich body of scholarship that has yielded insights into the domestic ramifications of the Cold War and the militarization of American life that followed in its wake. The central aim of the book is to point out the distance between our fears and reality, to show how unwarranted fears have damaged our country, and to suggest more sensible, humane, and democratic routes to safety and well-being.

The quest for security—and its resounding failure to achieve a safer society—propels the story that unfolds in the following chapters. The book’s narrative is both thematic and chronological. It starts with how Americans learned to be fearful for their personal safety in the early years of the Cold War and came to understand that they were responsible for their own protection against both external and internal enemies. Over time, these warnings, and the fears they generated, took on a life of their own. As a result, large numbers of Americans—especially, but not only, white Americans—began to behave in new security-minded ways. They bought guns and promoted gun rights over gun control.5 They bunkered themselves in their homes and hired private security companies for protection. They retreated from public streets. They promoted draconian laws that resulted in mass incarceration. They turned away from the government, seeing it as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

By the early twenty-first century, because of ill-founded and unjustified fears, millions of Americans were locked up in prisons for no good reason. Millions more locked themselves up behind gates, walls, and security systems—also for no good reason. Americans came to fear strangers who might attack them, retreating to fortified homes. Fear of crime rose, even when rates of crime fell. Parents debated whether to hover over their children like surveillance helicopters or to give them “free range,” allowing them to play freely within their own neighborhoods, or even walk to and from school without supervision, like the parents themselves had been able to do when they were children.

With the dubious distinction of leading the world in both gun possession and gun violence, Americans ignored all the data demonstrating that more guns led to more gun violence, consistently opposing gun control legislation. Citizens remained hostile to government and distrustful of the police. The government and the police did quite a bit to deserve that distrust and very little to earn back public confidence.

Millions of Americans hunkered down in gated communities and fortified homes. Although climate change began to gain public and political attention, affluent, security-seeking Americans drove around in gas-guzzling, military-style vehicles that endangered not only the environment but also those who rode inside them and those who encountered them on the streets.6

Americans believed they were protecting themselves. But they were not. Decades of “law-and-order” policies made the United States a lawless and disordered society. Legislation on gun rights and “stand-your-ground” laws advanced to such an extent that vigilante violence—once the very definition of lawlessness—became legal. In many states, the kind of vigilante outlaws that had been valorized in frontier myths and Hollywood films were legally defined as law-abiding citizens.

Meanwhile, the security obsession caused unintended consequences that harmed our democracy and led to the neglect of real threats to the security of Americans, such as severe and increasing economic inequality; poorly maintained and dangerous infrastructure, such as bridges, levees, and drinking water; environmental degradation and climate change; and threats to the safety of food and other consumer products. In the rush toward self-protection, true security has eluded ordinary citizens.

There has been some pushback. Some citizens and leaders have objected, resisted, dissented, organized, or simply refused to allow misplaced fear and security concerns to affect the way they live. They have participated in a wide variety of social and political movements to dismantle the apparatus of security and strengthen the democracy. But the security obsession endures.

As large numbers of Americans came to believe that their personal safety was more important than the common good, and that safety could be achieved by living life at a distance from public spaces, a thriving democracy and a vibrant, healthy society became increasingly unattainable. As in the realm of foreign policy, where the effort to achieve national security led to questionable results, in the realm of personal security there is no evidence that the relentless quest has made Americans any safer or better off. In fact, the obsession with security over the past half-century has only made Americans less safe and less secure, and the country less democratic.

Our security obsession is unnecessary and counterproductive. The vast majority of Americans have no desire to cause physical harm to others. We do not need to be so frightened of each other. But we have become a paranoid, armed, militarized, racially divided, and vastly unequal vigilante nation. The pursuit of security has damaged our public as well as our private lives and hindered our ability to trust each other and our government. In other words, we face a serious risk that our democracy could be totally destroyed. In order to understand how we arrived at our current situation and where our nation might be headed, we need to look back to the moment when fear began to shape how we live.

Chapter 1


Every Home a Fortress!

Leo Hoegh, head of the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization, 19581

In January 1945, the cover of House Beautiful magazine featured a photograph of a World War II veteran returning to his family at their modest but cheerful home in Beverly Hills, California. As he opens the gate of his white picket fence, his smiling wife waves to him from the front door, and his young daughter bounds gleefully down the path through the garden toward him. The cover asks, “Will you be ready when Johnny comes marching home?” While the photo is idyllic, the question reveals uncertainty about the domestic world to which the veteran is returning. “Will you be ready” to properly welcome him back to a well-appointed private home, in an uncertain postwar world, where he can find comfort and security as the master of his house, with a devoted wife and well-behaved children? This vision of domestic bliss, appropriately set in the postwar paradise of Southern California, offers “the American ideal of good living—one of the ideals these veterans have fought for, and which they can now look forward to attaining.”2

The photo of the returning veteran, carefully posed and staged by photographer Maynard Parker, captures the postwar American dream in all of its aesthetic and ideological dimensions. But it was not a real family. Parker had constructed the scene, and the “family members” were models. Parker’s photographs, mostly taken in Southern California, often reflected the ideal, though not the reality, of suburban domesticity. The photo is benign and optimistic, depicting a private vision of security, self-sufficiency, affluence, and family solidarity behind the picket fence.

The real-life homecomings of American war veterans were rarely picture-perfect. Hidden from this view were the countless men suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (then known as “shell shock”), along with their fears of unemployment, their disconnection with family members after the long separation, the grief endured by those who lost loved ones, shrinking opportunities for women—who had enjoyed lucrative home-front jobs during the war—and the violence inflicted on the men of color who had risked their lives for their country. The joy of victory was dampened by the realization of the horrors coming to light in the wake of the war: the ghastly images of the Holocaust, in which the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews, and the horrifying aftermath of the United States’ decision to drop atomic bombs on two once-thriving Japanese cities and their inhabitants. What would the postwar world look like, and how would Americans adapt to it?

A major motion picture captured the anxiety of the immediate postwar years. The Best Years of Our Lives, winner of seven Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture, in 1946, garnered an audience of 55 million in the United States alone.3 In the film, three veterans return to their small town after the war. They are not the same as when they had left, and neither are their town and their families.

One of the three men is a wealthy banker. In his absence, his daughter has become a mature young woman; his son rejects his war souvenirs and questions him about the horrible effects of the atomic bombs. His wife tends to him as if he were a child and attempts to control his drinking, but without much success. A second man, a soda jerk before the war, returns a hero, but he is shell-shocked. The corner drugstore where he used to work has been bought out by a corporate chain, and he is without a job. His wife, whom he wed just before going overseas, loses interest in him absent the glamour of his uniform, turns to other men, and leaves him. When he spends a fitful night at the banker’s home, it is the banker’s daughter who comforts him and eases his nightmares. The third man, a sailor, has lost his arms along with his sense of self; his devoted and loving girl-next-door sweetheart finally restores his sense of manhood.

Photographer Maynard Parker stages a homecoming scene for the cover of the January 1945 issue of House Beautiful magazine. The scene represented the dream of GIs returning after World War II, complete with the smiling wife, welcoming child, and white picket fence.

Source: Maynard L. Parker collection. Courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

All three come home broken in mind and body, and all three are nurtured back to mental health and manly competence by strong women. In the end, the women’s efforts are successful: they heal their men to the point that they can reassert their proper roles as husbands. The war hero relives the nightmares of combat at an airfield full of abandoned aircraft like the ones he flew during the war, and he is offered a job taking the planes apart and turning the scrap metal into materials to be used to build suburban houses, like the one he hopes to live in with his new wife (the banker’s daughter). But in spite of the happy ending, the world had changed. The couples face new challenges and insecurities, just as the film’s large and appreciative audiences did in real life.4

As reflected in The Best Years of Our Lives


On Sale
Mar 10, 2020
Page Count
256 pages
Basic Books

Elaine Tyler May

About the Author

Elaine Tyler May is the Regents Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Minnesota. The award-winning author of five books and the former president of the American Studies Association, May lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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