Environments of Domestic War Planning: The Unintended Consequences of Federal Policy

AHA Session 9
Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Chicago Ballroom C (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Eric S. Singer, American University
The Audience

Session Abstract

This panel, Environments of Domestic War Planning, showcases unique and sub-national spaces engineered for war, including auditory and architectural spaces and local civil defense political landscapes.  From these examples, we will illustrate that domestic war planning may have been much more successful in engineering consent than some recent scholarship has suggested.  To some recent historians, air-raid drills and mock-evacuation exercises illustrate the sheer absurdity of war planning.  On the surface, they are right.  That approach argues that civil defense failed because large groups of citizens saw through the "silliness," as Andrew Grossman terms it, and organized campaigns to discredit civil defense plans and planners.  This argument minimizes the unintended consequences of domestic war planning policies.  Even though some Americans dismissed these plans, the language of war planning penetrated the conversations they had, the places they went, the homes they built, the politics they created, the programs they listened to and the films they watched.    

This panel will unearth some of those stories and in the process, identify ways that ordinary citizens interacted with domestic war planning policies and rhetoric.  Did civil defense really fail?  On the surface, perhaps the federal policy did not ultimately achieve its stated objectives.  However, by looking at the culture and local implementation of war planning policies, we will show that civil defense created discourses and products that were much more effective and enduring than some have suggested.    

Perhaps one of the reasons why the “silliness” approach gained so much traction is that much scholarship has primarily utilized Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) records at the National Archives.  While it is certainly important to understand the FCDA’s role in attempting to engineer nuclear consent, it is perhaps more important to evaluate how well or how poorly federal policy filtered down into local agencies, local communities and eventually, into Americans’ ears.  In moving beyond the FCDA, the four papers analyze how both World War II and Cold War civil defense played out in local communities, how civil defense aurality cultivated a new and unique art of listening and how building for the atomic age influenced mid and late twentieth-century architecture.  This panel will be of special interest to scholars of urban history, American Cold War cultural history, music history, architectural history, policy history and planning history.

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