Everyday Soldiers: The Limits of Militarization in Postwar American Society

AHA Session 110
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Chicago Ballroom C (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Michael S. Sherry, Northwestern University
Laura McEnaney, Whittier College and Michael S. Sherry, Northwestern University

Session Abstract

With the fiftieth anniversary of Dwight Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” speech just past, the question of how the politics of militarization at home spread so quickly and fiercely remains critical to Cold War studies and the broader history of the American twentieth century. Historians have revealed an astonishing scope of responses to militarization during the Cold War, ranging from home bomb shelters to ballooning defense budgets to the spreading language of “war.”  This panel adds to historiographical discussions of militarization by probing the boundaries of three significant examples of military influence on civilian pursuits.

Our papers, which span the height of the post-war period, from the late 1940s through the early 1970s, will offer insight into the specific mechanisms of militarization, the breadth of the military’s reach into civilian life, and the role of public opinion. Most importantly, they promise to rethink the expansion and maintenance of a militarized populace, with a special interest in the often-underemphasized limits of militarization. We explore how average citizens, community leaders, and elected officials all participated in and resisted the creation of the national security state.

Amy Rutenberg of the University of Maryland, College Park, will present “Failure at Fort Knox: Public Opinion and the End of Universal Military Training.” Through an examination of the Experimental Training Unit established at Fort Knox, Kentucky, she contends that the Army and War Department failed to convince Congress and the American public that the military was the proper place to instill ideals of masculine citizenship in all young men, a deficiency that ultimately led to the program’s defeat.  Pennsylvania State University’s Rachel Louise Moran will present “The Advisory State: Physical Fitness through the Ad Council, 1955-1965.” She argues that through athletic training and weight management, the military-oriented President’s Council on Physical Fitness aimed to strengthen the nation for war and work but that it could only accomplish this task through a strong emphasis on small bureaucracy, the minimal use of federal funds, and voluntary programming. Finally, Joy Rohde of Trinity University moves us into the late 1960s and early 1970s with her paper, “The Rise of the Contract State: Privatizing Social Science for National Security.” Rohde argues that leftist student groups’ protests of the militarization of campus life, especially defense-funded research projects, actually fueled the growth of an extensive private sector defense research industry rather than decreasing it influence. The exploration of these policy projects will provoke a fascinating discussion about the limits of public tolerance for military ideals and values in a civilian setting.  How did militarization fit with ideas about belonging in a national community? Just how willing were civilians to become “everyday soldiers?”  

Whittier College’s Nadine Austin Wood Chair in American History Laura McEnaney, who has written extensively on the domestication of military values, will provide commentary. Michael S. Sherry, the Richard R. Leopold Professor of History at Northwestern University, whose work on the post-war militarization of American society has set the standard for the field, will chair the session and provide a second commentary.

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