Title

Defending a way of life: Civil defense in the United States, 1940--1963

Date of Award

2005

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

History

Advisor(s)

David H. Bennett

Keywords

Civil defense, Federal power, Militarization, Homeland security

Subject Categories

American Studies | Arts and Humanities | History | Political Science | Social and Behavioral Sciences | United States History

Abstract

Civil defense, in any form that could have been truly effective, was rejected in the United States because it was inconsistent with American liberal values and incompatible with the American temperament. This rejection was an assertion by the American public of what it believed to be important in life, including prosperity, individual freedom and a refusal to live in fear. It was made possible by the fact that Americans had been spared a homeland invasion in both WWI and WWII. Americans were not willing to sacrifice their peacetime way of life or the health of the American economy in order to prepare for a diminished post-war existence.

Civil defense could have been at least partially effective against a nuclear attack if it had taken the form of dispersal of cities, mass evacuation or shelter building, but none of these options was compatible with Americans' temperament or wishes. Civil defense was equally repugnant to both the right and left of American politics. Critics on the right objected to the aspects of government paternalism, the threat of expanded federal power, and the higher tax burden that would be entailed by serious civil defense. Critics on the left saw civil defense as contributing to a warlike mentality and objected to the diversion of government expenditures from positive social programs into paramilitary activities. Critics on all sides objected to possible military encroachment on civilian life.

Opposition most often took the form of non-participation or non-funding. The executive branch refused to propose anything that would radically disrupt the American way of life. Congress slashed funding for what little was proposed and the vast majority of American citizens declined to volunteer or to invest their own money in shelter building. These actions reflected a broadly shared feeling that civil defense was not worth the economic, political or social cost.

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