Rationales of Violence in the American Empire, from the Early Republic to the Late Cold War

AHA Session 241
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Room A601 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Elizabeth Borgwardt, Washington University in St. Louis
Gretchen A. Heefner, Northeastern University

Session Abstract

This panel explores the persistent tension between American professions of democratic governance and the realities of imperial violence. State violence has been central to U.S.  political and economic life from the nation’s founding to its emergence as a 20th Century superpower. Regardless of whether war commanded assent or provoked opposition, the reality of killing and injury posed political, ethical, social, and aesthetic questions that could not be easily dismissed. We explore the ways diverse groups of Americans struggled to define "good," or at least justifiable, uses of violence from arms manufacturing in the early republic, to the mass mobilization of the 1940s, through the multiple fractures of the 1970s. Their visions were based on both inward assessments of circumstances and interests in the American polity, as well as on an outward gaze that compared foreign countries' fighting forces, histories, and moral personalities to their own. More than merely strategic or legal questions, debates over military force in U.S. policy became a way for Americans to negotiate the terms of citizenship at home, and define the nature of American power around the world. This panel will appeal to scholars interested in how “civilians” have played a key role in justifying the military’s place in American society, as well as the ways that the global projection of violence reworked the contours of domestic life, deepening the mutual imbrication of the U.S. and the world just as the state made its strongest claims in the name of the sovereign nation.

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