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

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

By Julian E. Zelizer

New York: Basic Books, 2009

583 pp. $35

ISBN: 978-0-465-01507-8

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According to realism, the dominant form of American international relations theory since the discipline first emerged, countries act primarily in response to the anarchical structure of the international system. In Arsenal of Democracy, Julian Zelizer subtly aims to upend that belief. He argues that, far from being an incidental factor in foreign policymaking, domestic factors have always been prominent: "Even during the Cold War," that sup posed golden era of bipartisanship, "partisan and intra-partisan competition over national security was much stronger than most accounts suggest" (p. 4). From Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, there has rarely, if ever, been a period of national consensus over international affairs, Zelizer claims.

Zelizer, a Princeton political historian, argues that Democrats have oscillated between two foreign policy agendas--one emphasizing the FDR- and Truman-nourished commitment to liberal internationalism, and the other more skeptical toward military intervention after Vietnam. Republicans, meanwhile, have bounced between an isolationism wary of foreign commitment and a large security state, and a unilateral internationalism bordering on militarism (pp. 5-6).

Zelizer is a Democrat who clearly favors the liberal internationalist approach he outlines, but he recognizes that it is not without flaws. Because it prioritizes alliance and diplomacy, a traditional liberal foreign policy is particularly susceptible to demagogic charges of softness and even treason from the right wing. In the book's telling, the midterm elections of 1950 destroyed the Democrats' sense of self-confidence: "The wounds that Republicans inflicted during these elections would not heal for many decades. Psychologists talk about how entire generations can be emotionally scarred as a result of living through war. The story is much the same in these formative years of the Cold War. Democrats would not for decades feel secure with the issue of national security as they had under FDR and, for a while, under Truman" (p. 120). The election also permanently transformed the Republicans: the "GOP, internalizing the arguments of the Republican Right, crossed a threshold in how far it was willing to go in calling Democrats weak on national security and in making partisan use of the issue."

The 1950 election traumatized two Democratic Senators (and eventually Presidents) of particular note: John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Both men were terrified of appearing soft on national security, and as a result felt unable to retreat from Vietnam (though Zelizer is clear that Johnson also believed abandoning South Vietnam would be disastrous for national security reasons). …