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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Julian Zelizer, Arsenal of Democracy

[Welcome Julian Zelizer, and Host Fred Logevall.] [As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread.  – bev]

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

In an interview in the summer of 1965, McGeorge Bundy, who as Lyndon Johnson’s national security adviser was an architect of the major U.S. escalation in Vietnam then just getting under way, was asked how the actual conduct of American diplomatic affairs differed from his perception of it when he was a dean at Harvard. Bundy replied that the first thing that stood out was “the powerful place of domestic politics in the formulation of foreign policies.”

It’s not a statement that should surprise, and yet it does. It surprises because presidents and their senior aides so seldom make this admission on the record. Sometimes they’re reluctant to admit even to themselves that their decisions in foreign affairs could be affected by cynical partisan maneuvering, by legislative agendas, by election-year imperatives, by careerism. Instead they rush to proclaim fidelity to that favorite adage of politicians first articulated by Daniel Webster during the War of 1812: “Even our party divisions, acrimonious as they are, cease at the water’s edge.”

But Bundy knew whereof he spoke. (Webster did not; the war decision in 1812 had been intimately bound up with party politics and presidential ambition.) Anyone who is skeptical on the matter should read Julian Zelizer’s powerful new book, Arsenal of Democracy, which shows in stark relief just how strong has been the interplay between U.S. domestic politics and foreign policy in the era since World War II. Foreign policy, Zelizer argues, is always a political matter. It’s not always a crass partisan matter—genuine ideological differences sometimes divide Democrats and Republicans, and on occasion these divisions exist also within the parties. But it’s always political.

In the United States of the post-1945 era, Zelizer demonstrates, the jockeying for political advantage never stops. Viewed from a president’s perspective, the next election (whether mid-term or presidential) will arrive all too soon, and presidents are well aware that voters are capable of giving incumbent parties the boot, as of course they have done with regularity. Leaders of the opposing party know the same thing.

Skeptics may wonder if this case is not being made rather too strongly. U.S. elections, after all, seldom turn on foreign policy concerns. Does it not follow that American diplomacy and domestic politics must have only minor influence on each other? Not necessarily, Arsenal of Democracy shows. For one thing, what matters most is what candidates believe the importance of foreign policy in a given election will be or could be, rather than what ex post facto analysis shows it to have been.

Moreover, although it is true that American voters tend to give their chief attention to domestic matters, foreign policy questions have in most years been significant enough to merit the attention of practicing politicians. The professionals in politics have always realized that when domestic issues are in the forefront, diplomatic questions can still shift a few votes in swing districts in critical states. This can mean the difference between victory and defeat for a national ticket, or can decide control of Congress. That, essentially, has always been the politician’s interpretation of the politics of American foreign policy—both for those who are in and those who are out of office.

Zelizer is not the first scholar to offer this line of analysis. What makes his book so important, however, is that he grounds his analysis in deep research in archival sources as well as a thorough understanding of the existing secondary literature. To a greater degree than anyone before him, he is able to puncture the myth of bipartisanship in American politics during the Cold War; in unprecedented detail, he shows that politics seldom in fact ceases at the water’s edge, Daniel Webster’s comforting claim notwithstanding.

I thought of Arsenal of Democracy a couple of months ago when Barack Obama announced his decision to expand U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. The path the president chose, a middle-course option that sends 30,000 additional troops and begins pulling them out in eighteen months, is difficult to understand if the geopolitical stakes in Afghanistan are indeed as high he has said they are.

But if the strategic logic is weak, the domestic political reasoning is compelling. Like Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam, Obama painted himself into a corner with his repeated affirmations, starting in the 2008 campaign, of the Afghanistan struggle’s vital importance; hawks stood ready to remind him of his stark words should he appear to be backing down. By expanding the military commitment Obama could cover his right flank while pursuing domestic goals such as health care reform, jobs, and a new environmental agenda. He could parry right-wing accusations that he was insufficiently committed to the war on terror during elections in 2010 and 2012. At the same time, by stressing clear limits to the war and promising a quick withdrawal, Obama could enhance his chances of keeping disaffected liberals on board.

All of which is to say that Julian Zelizer’s book is not merely a myth-shattering work of history; it’s also a study that has compelling contemporary resonance. I’m delighted to be able to host this salon, and to be able to explore these themes further. The range of potential topics for discussion is vast, ranging temporally from World War II to the Cuban Missile Crisis to Vietnam to Afghanistan. One possible place to begin is with the most recent past: to what extent does our author believe that Obama’s recent escalation in Afghanistan squares with the argument so thoroughly developed in the book? Was the decision in large part about perceived domestic political imperatives?

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Fred Logevall

Fred Logevall

Fred Logevall joined the Department of History in 2004. He previously taught at UC Santa Barbara, where he co-founded the Center for Cold War Studies. A specialist on U.S. foreign relations, Professor Logevall teaches a range of courses covering the history of U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy, as well as the international history of the Cold War and the Vietnam Wars. His current research project is a history of the struggle for Indochina after 1940. In 2006-07 he was Leverhulme Professor of History at the University of Nottingham and Mellon Senior Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge. Currently, he serves as the director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.