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

By Benjamin L. Alpers | Go to book overview

9

A BOOT STAMPING ON A
HUMAN FACE—FOREVER
TOTALITARIANISM AS NIGHTMARE
IN POSTWAR AMERICA

As World War II came to a close, William Henry Chamberlin looked back angrily on the Soviet alliance: "Here is a war that is supposedly fought against totalitarianism. But it has made the first of the totalitarian states, the Soviet Union, the strongest land power in Europe and in Asia. It has extended the realm of totalitarianism to include large areas of eastern and possibly central Europe and, in all likelihood, much of East Asia." 1 However, Chamberlin's indignation was misplaced. Whatever World War II had been fought against—and there were many different ideas of what the greater enemy beyond the armies of the Axis nations was—few U. S. observers had claimed, after the collapse of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, that it was waged against totalitarianism. Indeed, "totalitarian" could not have been used to describe the enemy in a war in which the United States was allied with Soviet Russia, because by 1941 "totalitarianism" was almost invariably used to link German Nazism and Soviet Communism.

The concept of totalitarianism was largely dormant during the war, but afterward it quickly came to even greater prominence in Cold War America, far exceeding the large role it had played during the years leading up to Pearl Harbor. After 1945, it became far and away the dominant foundation for American understandings of dictatorship. The association of totalitarianism with the Cold War became so great that all of the scholarly and public debates over the usefulness of the term that raged in the last four decades of the twentieth century were limned by Cold War politics. 2 Yet, as this study has shown, we misunderstand the origins of the idea of totalitarianism— and misread American political culture in the 1930s and early 1940s—if we make the common mistake of regarding it as a product of the Cold War.

Nevertheless, the idea of totalitarianism was extraordinarily useful for U. S. supporters of the Cold War. The revival of the concept could clearly

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