How did we get here, Homeland Security? It’s the Q Matthew Dallek puts to paper, tracing our historical steps to the conundrum of personal/privacy concerns & safety/liberty debates of today. The lens is almost 100% focused on our near past, where, as Billy Wilder once put it “Hindsight is always 20/20”. The author examines the interactions of NY mayor and security obsessed La Guardia with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Their interplay and subsequent tensions are where Dallek finds his A’s.Defenseless Under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and the Origins of Homeland Security by Matthew Dallek
on June 1st 2016
Buy on Amazon
In his 1933 inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Yet even before Pearl Harbor, Americans feared foreign invasions, air attacks, biological weapons, and, conversely, the prospect of a dictatorship being established in the United States. To protect Americans from foreign and domestic threats, Roosevelt warned Americans that "the world has grown so small" and eventually established the precursor to the Department of Homeland Security - an Office of Civilian Defense (OCD). At its head, Roosevelt appointed New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia; First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt became assistant director. Yet within a year, amid competing visions and clashing ideologies of wartime liberalism, a frustrated FDR pressured both to resign. In Defenseless Under the Night, Matthew Dallek reveals the dramatic history behind America's first federal office of homeland security, tracing the debate about the origins of national vulnerability to the rise of fascist threats during the Roosevelt years. While La Guardia focused on preparing the country against foreign attack and militarizing the civilian population, Eleanor Roosevelt insisted that the OCD should primarily focus on establishing a wartime New Deal, what she and her allies called "social defense." Unable to reconcile their visions, both were forced to leave the OCD in 1942. Their replacement, James Landis, would go on to recruit over ten million volunteers to participate in civilian defense, ultimately creating the largest volunteer program in World War II America. Through the history of the OCD, Dallek examines constitutional questions about civil liberties, the role and power of government propaganda, the depth of militarization of civilian life, the quest for a wartime New Deal, and competing liberal visions for American national defense - questions that are still relevant today. The result is a gripping account of the origins of national security, which will interest anyone with a passion for modern American political history and the history of homeland defense.
I love Eleanor Roosevelt. I have to admit that I chose to review this book, simply because she was on the cover. I’m a total geeky, fan girl for the woman who helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So for me, Dallek delivers further 411 on my long time heroine in the form of a lesser known aspect of Eleanor, her domestic policy work. I found myself shaking my head yes, a lot (that’s what fan girls do).
If there were aspects of Eleanor I was unaware of, I knew even less of La Guardia. What a character! So that’s where the namesake of La Guardia Airport is derived! I love ER, but I can and could sympathize with Fiorello La Guardia, the “Eeyore” of the piece who traveled the country sharing his views of imminent doom and gloom. But did he run about like a chicken with his head cut off? Not quite! Or maybe? That little man was quite the doer, and yet a cautionary tale for those of us who might spread ourselves too thin.
Dallek won’t tell you what to think or how to deal with our modern day woes, but at least he points to a problem America addressed in the past and confronts in our today. How do we distinguish between valid concern and alternately hysterical/paralyzing creeping paranoia? There’s no blueprint in this book, only examples.
This problem of fear on multiple levels is quite the pickle. If the reader focuses his or her own lens on the various layers of these tensions be it applied personally and privately or publicly on a national or (yikes) international scale, one cannot sit quite comfortable. If you find the problem difficult personally, you’ll find it sure ain’t easy on a national or global level either.
When I lose something, my mother always admonishes me to retrace my steps. If you worry that some American security policies are in danger of losing sight, join Matthew Dallek in peering into the past in Defenseless Under the Night:the Roosevelt Years and Origins of Homeland Security. If you took Advanced Placement History Courses as a youngster and liked it, this book could be just the thing for you.
My last review was on Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, a good read and a nice book to doze off too. This book is not one to read before napping, unless you find accounts of air raids and public confusion soothing. Somehow even history can be more jarring than any disturbing fiction. Let’s always remember Eleanor’s wisdom: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ Hear, hear America!