Theses Doctoral

The National Security State That Wasn’t: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Fight to Define the Government’s Responsibilities in the 1930s and 1940s

Roady, Peter

“National security” is one of the most powerful terms in the American vocabulary. It commands wide deference and almost unlimited resources, and what counts as a national security matter determines many of the government’s priorities and responsibilities. It is surprising, therefore, that we know so little about how national security came to be defined in the way Americans have understood it for the last 75 years. The problem is one of perspective. Almost everything written about the history of national security approaches the topic with a present-day understanding of the term’s meaning in mind and uses the term instrumentally to explain something else—most often some aspect of American foreign policy. Most of these works assume that national security refers principally to physical security, that national security policymaking is a foreign policy matter, and that it has always been thus.

This dissertation historicizes the term national security. Rather than tracing the present-day conception of national security backwards in time, as has been the norm, it looks forward from the past. This shift in perspective reveals a history of national security that challenges the prevailing assumption that national security has always been a matter of physical security and foreign policy. When Franklin Roosevelt first put national security at the center of American political discourse in the 1930s, he equated it with individual economic security and considered domestic policy the primary domain for national security policymaking. Roosevelt also articulated a broad vision for the government’s national security responsibilities in the final years of his presidency that included economic, social, and physical security to be delivered through a mix of domestic and foreign policy. These findings raise a big question about American political development: why did the United States end up with separate “national security” and “welfare” states rather than the comprehensive national security state Roosevelt envisioned?

To answer that question, this dissertation focuses on the interactions between political language, public opinion, and the institutional development of the American state. Combining traditional historical research methods with text mining, network analysis, and data visualization, this dissertation charts the movement of policy areas into and out of the national security frame. Franklin Roosevelt succeeded in placing domestic policy into the national security frame in the mid-1930s, thereby justifying the expansion of the government’s domestic responsibilities. But this success catalyzed the nascent conservative movement, which launched a public persuasion campaign to limit the further expansion of the government’s domestic responsibilities by removing domestic policy from the national security frame. Roosevelt’s subsequent success putting foreign policy into the national security frame at the end of the 1930s created a powerful foreign policy establishment that claimed the mantle of national security exclusively for its work. The exclusion of domestic policy from the purview of national security policymaking was therefore largely an ironic result of Roosevelt’s two successes using the language of security to expand the government’s responsibilities.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Jones, Matthew L.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 20, 2021