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

By Hitchcock, William I. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2014 | Go to article overview

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


Hitchcock, William I., Presidential Studies Quarterly


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, 2010. 583 pp.

Taking its title from Franklin Roosevelt's December 1940 radio address to the American people, Julian Zelizer's book explores the growth of the national security state and its impact upon domestic politics. Americans have struggled to balance their desire for a powerful and globally influential state with their equally fervent desire to protect the principles of small-town democratic, transparent self-government. As Zelizer puts it in the introduction, "the arsenal and the democracy posed threats to each other" (p. 2), and it is his hypothesis that American politics and foreign policy must be understood as the interaction and rivalry between these contending forces.

If this sounds familiar, it is probably because these assertions typically form the guiding themes of most undergraduate surveys in twentieth-century U.S. political and diplomatic history. Zelizer's account is brisk, fresh and fast-paced, based upon authoritative knowledge and wide reading. Yet it also covers well-trod ground in a conventional manner and like many survey lecturers, Zelizer is more interested in getting the large narrative nailed down than he is in penetrating deeply into the details. Nonetheless, this is an excellent survey text that is made up of pithy summaries of the battles that postwar presidents faced as they sought to balance security against democracy.

Zelizer's chief architect of the postwar national security state is Franklin Roosevelt, whose administration steered the nation through World War II and also sought to institutionalize many of the basic structures that were required to sustain American global power even after the war. Zelizer posits Roosevelt as the architect of "liberal internationalism" (p. 52), a conception of a nation that could balance progressive policy reform with the need for a stronger and permanent national security state. Zelizer takes us on a predictable but enjoyable ride through the Truman years, reminding us how intense the domestic battles over defense, foreign aid, and the Soviet threat were. And he hammers home the point that for all the partisanship of the era, public officials agreed that the demands of a global Cold War required a huge new security apparatus including the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, and an expanded Defense Department.

Zelizer gives a perceptive treatment of the politics of national security in the 1950s: passionately anti-Communist, the Right of the Republican Party had to swallow its aversion to large government programs and large budgets in order to wage the Cold War. …

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