Monday, February 09, 2015

Distant War and the Politics of Catastrophe

Mary L. Dudziak

My earlier musing on this blog are finally turning into a book that puts war death into the history of the war powers. More particularly, I am taking as my point of departure Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. During the Civil War, an intimacy with death and dying, and a close experience of war’s brutal after effects, would transform the United States, Faust argues, creating “a veritable ‘republic of suffering’ in the words [of] Frederick Law Olmsted.” If the experience of war death was somehow constitutive of the republic itself during the Civil War, I have been puzzling over how American identity and politics might be affected or even constituted by its comparative absence.

Initially, I thought that all the important action in the story happens after World War II, and especially after Vietnam, when three developments isolate most Americans from the direct experience of war: the absence of a draft, the rise in military contracting, and changes in war technologies. But I’ve come to understand that the entire 20th century requires rethinking as a century of distant war.

There was deep and broad-based engagement of Americans in the two world wars, but geographic distance mattered to the politics of war declaration and authorization. In essence, distant war required a politics of catastrophe, in which presidents made decisions, and then waited for a disaster of sufficient proportions to generate political support to get strong backing from Congress for what had already been decided. Catastrophe didn’t generate a decision for armed conflict, but instead facilitated political mobilization.

This easily fits the Spanish American War, with a war declaration coming on the heels of public uproar over the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor, mistakenly attributed to the Spanish. And the World War II chapter of my War Time book illustrates the way this fits WWII (though I don’t develop this argument in that book). What was surprising to me was how well it fits World War I.

The important story comes before Woodrow Wilson sought a formal war declaration, in his failed effort to get an “armed neutrality” bill through Congress (which failed not due to the policy but due to Wilson’s political missteps). The bill would have enabled Wilson to arm merchant ships that would, in certain areas, fire upon German U-boats without warning, and would have certainly launched the U.S. into the war. Amid continuing reports of sunken ships and American deaths, Wilson had announced that an “overt act” by Germany would move the United States closer to war. Wilson, his close advisers, and the press then contemplated whether particular sinkings were the “overt act” he had in mind. Ultimately the “overt act” was the sinking of the Laconia, with only three American deaths. Wilson used the incident to build political momentum. Biographer Arthur Link wrote that  “Wilson’s decision to capitalize on the incident was apparently part of his strategy for focusing public pressure on Congress.” Others were puzzled, since many more were killed in previous incidents that had not been the magic “overt act.” This illustrates an important role of catastrophe in war politics. The terrible event doesn’t always lead to a new policy. Instead, a catastrophe is needed for political reasons: to generate support for a decision already made. And catastrophe itself is defined by politics, not by the event itself. Public opinion scholar David Berinsky has written that “the facts of war do not speak for themselves.” Neither do the facts of catastrophe.

I am continuing to work this out. In the meantime, if you are in the SF Bay Area and want to see how it all turns out, my David M. Kennedy Lecture on the United States and the World, May 12 at Stanford, will be on The Politics of Distant War: 1917, 1941, 1964. You can RSVP here. I'll give a similar lecture at the University of Washington on May 21.

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