Arsenal of Democracy

The Politics of National Security -- From World War II to the War on Terrorism


By Julian E. Zelizer

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It has long been a truism that prior to George W. Bush, politics stopped at the water’s edge — that is, that partisanship had no place in national security. In Arsenal of Democracy, historian Julian E. Zelizer shows this to be demonstrably false: partisan fighting has always shaped American foreign policy and the issue of national security has always been part of our domestic conflicts. Based on original archival findings, Arsenal of Democracy offers new insights into nearly every major national security issue since the beginning of the cold war: from FDR’s masterful management of World War II to the partisanship that scarred John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, from Ronald Reagan’s fight against Communism to George W. Bushrues controversial War on Terror. A definitive account of the complex interaction between domestic politics and foreign affairs over the last six decades, Arsenal of Democracy is essential reading for anyone interested in the politics of national security.


Praise for Julian E. Zelizer’s Arsenal of Democracy
Arsenal of Democracy is a myth-shattering history of the American national security state since 1945. Zelizer sheds important new light on the fiercely debated issues of the postwar era, and amply supports his core argument: in the United States, foreign policy is always a political matter. A marvelously instructive work.”
—Frederik Logevall, Professor of History, Cornell University, and co-author of America’s Cold War: The Politics of Insecurity
“Extensively researched and vigorously argued, Arsenal of Democracy uncovers the intimate and complex interactions between domestic politics and national security policy in the post-World War II period, exploding the old saw that politics stopped at the water’s edge. Ranging over half a century, this ambitious book sets the standard for understanding the politics of national security policy in modern America.”
—Bruce J. Schulman, William E. Huntington Professor of History, Boston University
Arsenal of Democracy provides a provocative, timely and compulsively readable account of the vexed relationship between foreign and domestic policy and the tangled politics of national security since World War II.”
—Laura Kalman, Professor of History, University of California, Santa Barbara
“Many Americans imagine a past era of bipartisan cooperation in our country around critical issues of war and peace. Zelizer shows that such a golden age never existed in our nation’s politics. Instead, Democrats and Republicans have used foreign policy debates since World War II to push their partisan agendas and their electoral interests. Zelizer does not criticize this process, but he reminds us that successful foreign policy always requires effective manipulation of interests, fears, and aspirations at home. Zelizer offers a compelling account of how foreign policy is really made. Every citizen interested in understanding our nation’s policies would benefit from reading this well-written book.”
—Jeremi Suri, E. Gordon Fox Professor of History, University of Wisconsin

To Sophia and Nathan Zelizer, Two Beautiful People

ON THE EVENING of December 29, 1940, Franklin Delano Roosevelt made one of the most important speeches of his presidency. Over his nearly eight years in office, with his Fireside Chats, he had used radio, the era’s major medium of mass communication, to explain his policies to the American people. This time, he began: “This is not a fireside chat on war. It is a talk on national security, because the nub of the whole purpose of your President is to keep you now, and your children later, and your grandchildren much later, out of a last-ditch war for the preservation of American independence and all of the things that American independence means to you and to me and to ours.” Germany, Italy, and Japan were growing in military strength. While Congress had constrained the president’s ability to take action, Britain was left standing alone to fight fascist aggression. FDR said that the country needed to prepare for war.
The president warned listeners that the Nazi “masters of Germany have made it clear that they intend not only to dominate all life and thought in their own country, but also to enslave the whole of Europe, and then use the resources of Europe to dominate the rest of the world.” Calling on Americans to support the production of munitions and supplies that could be sent to the British to assist them in their war against Germany, so that the nation could avoid having to fight in the war, he said, “We must be the great arsenal of democracy.” He concluded,
I have the profound conviction that the American people are now determined to put forth a mightier effort than they have ever yet made to increase our production of all the implements of defense, to meet the threat to our democratic faith.
As President of the United States I call for that national effort. I call for it in the name of this nation which we love and honor and which we are privileged and proud to serve. I call upon our people with absolute confidence that our common cause will greatly succeed.
The national security address, as the White House called it, had the largest radio audience in history to that time, reaching Europe and the Far East—and was heard by three-quarters of the American people. Though the speech took place on the same night that the Germans conducted a massive air raid on London, Britons were heartened by what they heard. London’s financial markets rallied.
When FDR spoke about “the great arsenal of democracy,” he was thinking primarily about the production of weapons in cities such as Detroit to be sent to an ally. What that arsenal grew into over the next decade, during World War II and the early years of the Cold War, would become something much more immense, a complex network of institutions, policies, ideologies, and political commitments—that is, a permanent national security state. Its central components were the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); the National Security Council (NSC); the National Security Agency (NSA); the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC); a vastly enhanced navy, army (with a permanent draft), and air force; international financial assistance programs; autonomous congressional committees; and a sizable national defense budget. An expanded mass income tax enacted during World War II financed these programs as the number of taxpayers grew from 3.9 million in 1939 to 42.6 million in 1945. Moreover, the national security state was built on the foundation of an ideological commitment to continual engagement overseas, through diplomacy, war, and covert action.
The attempt to maintain an arsenal of this size would create huge and pervasive tensions and shape American politics well into the twenty-first century. The arsenal and the democracy posed threats to each other. For the national security state, the challenge was whether sound policy could be made about war and peace despite the pressures that naturally emanated from a free electoral system with parties, elections, and interest groups. For democracy, the challenge was whether the presence of a permanent national security state would create an insulated elite of policy makers who made decisions outside the political process.
FOUR CENTRAL QUESTIONS about national security and American politics have kept recurring since World War II. They have never been definitively answered, nor is it likely they will.


As national security became a permanent policy challenge at home and abroad, the centralized nature of the executive branch and the president’s constitutional responsibility as commander in chief created more support for placing authority in his hands. The creation of the CIA, NSC, and NSA during the Cold War vastly expanded the executive bureaucracy. Presidents refined their public relations operations and more aggressively used the bully pulpit of the White House to influence public opinion on war and peace. Most importantly, beginning with President Truman’s decision to send troops into South Korea in the summer of 1950, presidents felt freer to enter into overseas conflicts without a formal declaration of war.
The inner struggles of each president since Truman to balance policy and politics have influenced the relationship between sitting presidents and intelligence officials, military subordinates, legislators, and former presidents. One of the touchstones of skillful presidential leadership—John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Richard Nixon and the opening to China, Ronald Reagan and the arms treaty with the Soviet Union—has been the ability to contain certain political pressures as much as possible. These presidents have moved national security away from militaristic policies even at the risk of immense political challenges.
Though presidents wield considerable power in matters of national security, so does Congress.1 In some cases, Congress has decisively driven debates and policies. The anticommunist investigations in the early 1950s were based in Congress, not the executive branch. Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) were part of a broader network that pushed for the expansion of domestic surveillance.
Ironically, negative depictions of Congress as a rubber stamp enable legislators to get off the hook for having taken steps that result in military escalation. Often, partisan strategy rather than blind allegiance to the president is the reason for congressional decisions to use military force. The political scientists William G. Howell and Jon C. Pevehouse have demonstrated that partisan control of Congress has been the most important factor in determining how much support or opposition a president faces in using military force.2
Congress has also played an important role in shaping public debates about national security. Congress possesses a number of methods through which to achieve this objective, including the power of investigation to influence public debate. For example, after House Minority Leader Joseph Martin invited General Douglas MacArthur, whom Truman had relieved of his command for insubordination in 1951, to speak before a joint session of Congress, Republicans used the invitation to stimulate public anger with the administration’s policies. But then Senate Democrats, led by Georgia’s Richard Russell, turned the tables. During closed-door hearings called by Republicans and intended to boost MacArthur’s standing, Russell grilled him in such a way as to cast doubt on the general’s judgment. The hearings finished MacArthur off politically.
The anticipation of midterm elections has been another way through which legislators have pressured the president. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson faced pressure from Congress, both from left and right, and such pressure was crucial to his fateful decision to escalate the war in Vietnam. One of his main fears was that conservatives would increase their strength.
Finally, Congress has used legislation or the threat of it to pressure presidents into taking or avoiding a particular action. In 1978, in the aftermath of Vietnam and congressional investigations into the secret activities of the CIA, Congress enacted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which created strict judicially enforced procedures to monitor foreign intelligence surveillance. Since the 1960s, Congress has taken a more proactive stance monitoring the substance of defense appropriations.


Even during the Cold War, partisan and intra-partisan competition over national security was much stronger than most accounts suggest. 3 The myth that politics used to stop at the water’s edge is pervasive in popular culture. The relationship between Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Republican, and President Harry S. Truman, a Democrat, in 1947 and 1948 is often cited as the bipartisan ideal concerning national security. Truman, who served as president with a Republican Congress from 1947 to 1949, depended on Vandenberg to deliver GOP support for some of the most vital legislation of the early Cold War.
It was Vandenberg who coined the phrase “politics stops at the water’s edge” to describe his vision of Washington in the Cold War. The Republican senator and Democratic president put aside their political differences to fight communism. Bipartisanship, cooperation, and civility are the terms used to describe their relationship.
But Vandenberg and Truman in those short years do not reflect the overriding nature of national security politics in America since World War II. Their relationship was in fact an aberration even in the years when it took place.4 As the 1950 midterm elections approached, Truman wrote Vandenberg, who had become too ill with cancer to work, that it was “unfortunate” that several Republicans had decided to make foreign policy a campaign issue. “You just don’t realize what a vacuum there has been in the Senate and in the operation of our foreign policy since you left.”5
The widespread acceptance of the strategy of containment and multilateralism did not prevent Republicans and Democrats from highlighting their differences on the campaign trail and using minor distinctions to hammer their opponents. At the same time, bipartisan coalitions, such as southern Democrats and Republicans, attacked their respective party leaders on particular issues. The rise of the Republican Right in the 1940s and the response of Democrats in the following decade made Truman and Vandenberg’s bipartisanship difficult to sustain.
Democrats have oscillated between two agendas since 1945: one emphasizing the commitment to liberal internationalism nourished during World War II and the early Cold War; and the other, which, due to wars in Korea and Vietnam, questioned the need for military intervention and domestic surveillance. Liberal internationalism was attractive to many politicians who believed that the United States had to stand firm against totalitarianism and that the government could be effective at creating stability abroad.
There were other motivations, however. Many Democrats were attracted to liberal internationalism because a hawkish position helped them counter Republican arguments that liberal domestic programs revealed a socialist tendency within the party and that Democrats were unwilling to take a tough stand against domestic communism. National security likewise created a degree of consensus within the party when southerners and northerners were divided over civil rights. Whereas skepticism toward military intervention reflected a genuine ideological disposition of many Democrats after Vietnam, this too was a position that provided Democrats some unity as they became fractured over a new set of social issues, such as civil rights and cultural liberalism.
As World War II and the Cold War made isolationism seem stra - tegically intolerable and politically suicidal, Republicans portrayed themselves as the party that was tougher on defense at the same time that they would require less, financially and physically, of American citizens: tougher against communism in the decades that lasted from the late 1940s to the 1980s and then tougher against rogue dictators and terrorists following the collapse of the Soviet Union. They preferred unilateral over multilateral action. The promise of militarism at a low cost and based purely on American interests, rather than on those of international alliances, was produced by the Republican struggle to reconcile hawkish positions with a genuine opposition to government and large civic obligations.
Just as with Democrats, for conservative Republicans the hawkish position was not only ideologically appealing but also politically useful in dampening substantial and sometimes intractable divisions over issues such as civil rights and social policy. For Republicans, the added value of focusing on the investigation of domestic communism was that they could attract southern Democrats on a key set of national security votes. They could also link popular national security arguments about communism to domestic policy debates by attacking liberals as socialists, a step away from communists.
It has been a truism that national security has been one area where Republicans, under the influence of the conservative movement, have consistently done well in political battle. The findings presented in this book, however, are not so rosy for the right, for the hawkish national security agenda has proven to be a devil’s bargain for conservatism.
Most importantly, the conservative agenda has never been as politically invulnerable as its proponents believed and its opponents feared. Liberals have repeatedly been able to weaken the advantage of the right, and when conservatives have controlled Congress and/or the White House, they have had trouble living by their own rhetoric. In recent decades, neoconservatives have often pushed Republicans into extremely ambitious goals for foreign policy that have opened up deep divisions in the GOP and set up impossible tasks. Additionally, the hawkish agenda has pushed conservatives into an embrace of government that has caused significant tension with the movement’s founding principles.
In contrast to the traditional picture of conservative domination of national security, national security politics has in fact been quite dynamic and fluid. Conservatives’ anti-government philosophy has opened them up to attack for failing to devote resources to support their militaristic agenda. Until conservative Republicans achieved significant positions of power in 1981, these contradictions were easier to ignore given that on the campaign trail their agenda was untested. With President Ronald Reagan, all of that changed.6


The expansion of the U.S. national security state agenda brought with it the growth of federal power. Whether it means fighting wars abroad, maintaining adequate forces in times of relative peace, or pursuing alleged subversive forces at home, national security resulted in the expansion of federal government institutions.
Both liberals and conservatives have been uneasy with this expansion, though for different reasons. Most of the major policies crafted during the early Cold War reflected such fears, as politicians jerry-built a national security apparatus that attempted to respect the desire for limited government, minimal taxation and deficits, and constraints on the demands made of citizens.
The tensions evident in the early Cold War remained points of contention into the new century. Since World War II, as Democrats called for an expansion of federal institutions to combat internal subversion, they understood the threats to civil liberties this growth posed as well as the way in which accusations about communism could be used against the left. There was no clear solution other than to strive for some kind of balance.
The other major concern of liberals centered on whether increases in the size of government for the purpose of national security would come at the expense of domestic programs. While liberals in general believed the government could provide both guns and butter, there were strong fears that politics would force a trade-off.
Conservatives as a group were also concerned about the impact national security policies would have on civic life. There was no way around the fact that the national security state required more spending and taxes, more intrusions into the privacy of Americans, increased citizen obligations—including military service—and participation in international alliances.
Conservatives tried to mediate between these objectives through policies that contained government as much as possible.7 They called for reductions in domestic spending and stressed how a unilateral approach to foreign policy could limit America’s military commitments. Conservatives promised that they could fight wars in a less costly fashion by relying on a professional military, as opposed to a draft, and using airpower rather than ground troops to lower the physical cost of war to Americans.


Throughout the nation’s history, its leaders have constantly asked whether the United States should pursue unilateral or multilateral strategies. Up through the early twentieth century, the country engaged in wars abroad and at home, but most politicians preferred to avoid international alliances whenever they made military decisions.8
The unilateral tradition came into question after World War I. President Woodrow Wilson wanted multilateralism to be the basis of foreign policy and tried to win support for the League of Nations. In 1919, he failed to persuade the Senate, and the nation, to join the League. He lost the battle, but public support increased for the argument that foreign policy needed to be constructed along multilateral lines. During World War II and the early Cold War, both Presidents Roosevelt and Truman had more success promoting multilateralism as the United States helped create and then participate in institutions like the United Nations.
Skepticism about multilateralism continued throughout the century. Many conservatives rejected the notion that the United States should make decisions based on anything but the national interest. During the 1970s, both parties moved toward unilateralism. Policy makers were more willing to use force abroad without the consent of allies and to manipulate international institutions as vehicles to justify decisions made in the national interest. Even many Democrats, particularly younger centrists, agreed on this strategy and were willing to allow national interests to dictate actions.
Yet the experience with multilateralism in the 1940s and the success of World War II and the early Cold War made the values associated with it difficult to forget. When national security crises flared, proponents of both approaches continued their debate into the twenty-first century.

BEFORE WORLD WAR II, Americans had never created a permanent national security state. It was not that they were naïve or inexperienced with war. The United States was, after all, forged in a bloody international conflict. Even before the birth of the nation, the domination and destruction of Native American tribes called for military operations. President Thomas Jefferson sent troops to combat Barbary pirates in 1801, and eleven years later, Americans defeated British troops on American soil. In 1846, the United States squared off against Mexico, resulting in the acquisition of Texas and California. And with the Civil War from 1861 to 1865, Americans were subjected to the machinery and tragedy of war.
While Americans were willing to fight when necessary in the nineteenth century and more than comfortable expanding national power through military force, most politicians and citizens were unwilling to commit to a permanent national security state. They would fight a war, and then when it was done, they put away their arms and set their minds to other things. They adhered to a unilateral outlook on foreign involvement in which the United States would do what it needed to do but only based on its own interests.1
Beginning with George Washington, presidents had legitimated the notion of unilateralism through dramatic proclamations extolling the right of the nation to remain free from foreign entanglements. In his farewell address in 1796, Washington said, “Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation.” In December 1823, President James Monroe, with the Monroe Doctrine, proclaimed that the United States would not interfere in the “internal affairs” of Europe and that if Europe intervened in any part of the Americas, that would be considered an act of aggression. Supported by the fact that two oceans separated the United States from Europe and Asia, this outlook justified a national strategy of mobilizing for war on an ad hoc basis.
Presidents of major political parties did deploy military force when necessary, but they relied on temporary mobilizations for each conflict, as with the War of 1812 and the acquisition of western territory. Wartime programs such as military conscription were quickly dismantled once an operation ended. The federal government did not devote extensive resources to the longest ongoing military operation of the nineteenth century, westward territorial expansion, instead relying on a “minimal army” to do a “minimal job,” according to the historian Eric Rauchway. By the twentieth century, the United States was spending far less on military preparedness than the major nations of Europe. In 1918, as the First World War ended, France spent $234.79 per capita on the military, the United Kingdom $187.96, Germany $131.40, while the United States spent only $67.96.2 The United States did not adopt a permanent draft before 1940, and the levels of military spending remained minuscule. As late as 1940, it allocated just 1.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to national defense. This compares to military spending that reached 14.2 percent in 1953, during the Korean War, and 10 percent in 1959.
IN THE LATE nineteenth century, American politicians finally started to reckon seriously with the reality of the wider world and debate the ideas of internationalism. The perceived threat of an international anarchist network that was protesting, and willing to fight, the expanding power of capitalism led many Americans to worry about the connections that existed between the home front and Europe. On May 4, 1886, during a gathering of workers at Haymarket Square in Chicago, organized by anarchist leaders in response to a crack-down on striking workers, a bomb was tossed at a line of policemen as they moved violently to disperse the crowd. Several police were killed by gunfire. “The villainous teachings of the Anarchists bore bloody fruit in Chicago to-night,” opined the New York Times.3 Chicago government officials prohibited further protests, and eight anarchists were brought to trial, with the court convicting them, based on flimsy evidence, for being accessories to murder. Illinois Governor John Altgeld commuted three of the sentences, one of the persons found guilty killed himself, and four others were hanged.


On Sale
Dec 29, 2009
Page Count
592 pages
Basic Books

Julian E. Zelizer

About the Author

Julian Zelizer is a Professor of History at Princeton University. He is the author of Taxing America, winner of the Organization of American Historians’ Ellis Hawley Prize, and has contributed articles to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, American Prospect, Boston Globe, and Huffington Post, among others. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

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