Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture: Envisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920s-1950s

Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture: Envisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920s-1950s

Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture: Envisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920s-1950s

Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture: Envisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920s-1950s


Focusing on portrayals of Mussolini's Italy, Hitler's Germany, and Stalin's Russia in U.S. films, magazine and newspaper articles, books, plays, speeches, and other texts, Benjamin Alpers traces changing American understandings of dictatorship from the late 1920s through the early years of the Cold War.

During the early 1930s, most Americans' conception of dictatorship focused on the dictator. Whether viewed as heroic or horrific, the dictator was represented as a figure of great, masculine power and effectiveness. As the Great Depression gripped the United States, a few people--including conservative members of the press and some Hollywood filmmakers--even dared to suggest that dictatorship might be the answer to America's social problems.

In the late 1930s, American explanations of dictatorship shifted focus from individual leaders to the movements that empowered them. Totalitarianism became the image against which a view of democracy emphasizing tolerance and pluralism and disparaging mass movements developed. First used to describe dictatorships of both right and left, the term "totalitarianism" fell out of use upon the U.S. entry into World War II. With the war's end and the collapse of the U.S.-Soviet alliance, however, concerns about totalitarianism lay the foundation for the emerging Cold War.


This book is the history of a conventional wisdom. For much of the twentieth century, Americans understood democracy, and their own political identity as Americans, largely in opposition to modern dictatorship. Americans couched many of their fiercest political struggles in the language of opposition to dictatorship, whether engaging in the Popular Front's campaigns against fascism or the second Red Scare's campaigns against communism, whether arguing against Jim Crow laws as akin to Nazi racial policies or opposing the civil rights movement as a tyrannical imposition of centralized authority, whether fighting against Hitler in World War II or against Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. Even President Bill Clinton, in his largely unremarkable second inaugural address, boldly claimed for his first administration the ultimate foreign policy success: "For the first time in all of history, more people on this planet live under democracy than under dictatorship."

Despite their central role in our political culture, American understandings of dictatorship have received surprisingly little scholarly attention. Like much conventional wisdom, the place of dictatorship in American political culture has become naturalized: dictatorship simply is democracy's opposite, though all would probably acknowledge that there have been heated battles over what counts as a dictatorship and what we should consider a democracy. However, there is nothing necessary about the peculiar and central role that dictatorship has played in the political life of this country. In the late twentieth century Americans treated dictatorship and democracy as the only two political options available to a society, as Clinton's claim suggests. Yet for most of the history of Western political thought, dictatorship and democracy were regarded as only two of many possible forms of political organization—among them, tyranny, aristocracy, and monarchy. Although dictatorship and democracy were certainly distinct from one another, they were not complete opposites. In the political thought of the ancient world, dictatorship was a temporary measure that could be adopted by any polity in times of emergency, especially war. This classical notion was invoked even in the United States to justify the policies of President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and President Woodrow Wilson dur-

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.