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

By Benjamin L. Alpers | Go to book overview

6

THIS IS THE ARMY
THE PROBLEM OF THE
MILITARY IN A DEMOCRACY,
1941-1945

In the years leading up to U. S. involvement in World War II, American cultural producers from filmmakers to political theorists had crafted an image of totalitarianism in which the military played two crucial, related roles. First, it provided the dominant model for all aspects of the new totalitarian order, or at least one important metaphor for American commentators: totalitarianism regimented society. Second, totalitarianism was often seen as necessarily militaristic. American cultural producers argued both that the totalitarian state had to conquer any and all democratic nations to survive internationally and that it had to wage war frequently to survive at home.

To protect American democracy from these threats, interest in citizenship education, which had declined in part because of the many restrictions placed on immigration in the 1920s, increased. Educating the citizenry— even native-born Americans—in the ways of democracy, many felt, was a crucial, nonmilitary response to the world crisis. In the late 1930s the National Education Association (NEA) inaugurated the Educational Policies Commission, a Washington-based group that devoted much of its time to pondering the role of education in democracy and the ways in which American educators could improve citizenship and save the nation's democratic "way of life" from foreign and domestic foes. 1 Following intense lobbying from educational groups, Congress passed a resolution declaring the third Sunday in May national "I Am an American Day." 2 Citizenship education often stressed the essentially peaceful and voluntary nature of American life, attributes that were the exact opposite of the militarism and regimentation of the European dictatorships. Indeed, mere participation in a war could threaten to turn a democracy into a totalitarian state. A decade of revisionist accounts of World War I and strong anti-interventionist sentiments in the late thirties fueled this idea. A 1938 publication by the NEA's

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