Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture: Envisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920s-1950sby Benjamin L. Alpers
During the early 1930s, most Americans' conception of
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Focusing on portrayals of Mussolini's Italy, Hitler's Germany, and Stalin's Russia in U.S. films, magazine and newspaper articles, books, plays, speeches, and other texts, Benjamin Alpers traces changing American understandings of dictatorship from the late 1920s through the early years of the Cold War.
During the early 1930s, most Americans' conception of dictatorship focused on the dictator. Whether viewed as heroic or horrific, the dictator was represented as a figure of great, masculine power and effectiveness. As the Great Depression gripped the United States, a few people--including conservative members of the press and some Hollywood filmmakers--even dared to suggest that dictatorship might be the answer to America's social problems.
In the late 1930s, American explanations of dictatorship shifted focus from individual leaders to the movements that empowered them. Totalitarianism became the image against which a view of democracy emphasizing tolerance and pluralism and disparaging mass movements developed. First used to describe dictatorships of both right and left, the term "totalitarianism" fell out of use upon the U.S. entry into World War II. With the war's end and the collapse of the U.S.-Soviet alliance, however, concerns about totalitarianism lay the foundation for the emerging Cold War.
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Dictators, Democracy, and American Public CultureEnvisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920s-1950s
By Benjamin L. Alpers
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2002 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
IntroductionThis book is the history of a conventional wisdom. For much of the twentieth century, Americans understood democracy, and their own political identity as Americans, largely in opposition to modern dictatorship. Americans couched many of their fiercest political struggles in the language of opposition to dictatorship, whether engaging in the Popular Front's campaigns against fascism or the second Red Scare's campaigns against communism, whether arguing against Jim Crow laws as akin to Nazi racial policies or opposing the civil rights movement as a tyrannical imposition of centralized authority, whether fighting against Hitler in World War II or against Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. Even President Bill Clinton, in his largely unremarkable second inaugural address, boldly claimed for his first administration the ultimate foreign policy success: "For the first time in all of history, more people on this planet live under democracy than under dictatorship."
Despite their central role in our political culture, American understandings of dictatorship have received surprisingly little scholarly attention. Like much conventional wisdom, the place of dictatorship in American political culture has become naturalized: dictatorship simply is democracy's opposite, though all would probably acknowledge that there have been heated battles over what counts as a dictatorship and what we should consider a democracy. However, there is nothing necessary about the peculiar and central role that dictatorship has played in the political life of this country. In the late twentieth century Americans treated dictatorship and democracy as the only two political options available to a society, as Clinton's claim suggests. Yet for most of the history of Western political thought, dictatorship and democracy were regarded as only two of many possible forms of political organization-among them, tyranny, aristocracy, and monarchy. Although dictatorship and democracy were certainly distinct from one another, they were not complete opposites. In the political thought of the ancient world, dictatorship was a temporary measure that could be adopted by any polity in times of emergency, especially war. This classical notion was invoked even in the United States to justify the policies of President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and President Woodrow Wilson during World War I. Some nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century political theory suggested yet another relationship between dictatorship and democracy. Marxist social democrats embraced the notion of a dictatorship of the proletariat as not only compatible with true democracy, but also a necessary step toward achieving it.
Throughout this century, American understandings of dictatorship have been rooted in interpretations of events abroad, especially in Europe. Of course, many non-European nations have had dictatorships, and these have been of tremendous concern to U.S. observers. However, the regimes of Europe have been the models for American imaginings of dictatorship for a variety of reasons. First, Europe has been the crucible of modern political ideologies. The French Revolution in many ways pioneered modern dictatorship. More recently, Italian Fascism, German Nazism, and Soviet Communism-each a product of Europe-have dominated American understandings of the phenomenon and have underlaid many dictatorships elsewhere in the world. Second, Europe has always loomed larger than other regions in the self-understandings of American elites, whose forebears tended to come from Europe. Although Europe has often been considered to be a cultural exemplar, politically the Old World has often been seen not as a model, but as a warning, a sign of what could happen to the United States if it were somehow to stumble. The modern European dictatorships easily fit into this line of thought in ways that non-European dictatorships never have. Americans have variously feared that the nation might descend the path taken by Germany in 1933 or Russia in 1917; few if any Americans worried in the 1930s that the United States would become like Japan or, more recently, Iraq. These non-European regimes are understood as utterly Other, their danger entirely external (though, as with Japanese Americans during World War II, fear of that danger has led many Americans to deny others their rights as U.S. citizens).
In part as a result of the importance of events overseas, American views of dictatorship exhibit another common quality of conventional wisdom: they have been defined largely by a series of conversations among a heterogeneous set of cultural elites. By labeling something a "conventional wisdom," we acknowledge its constructed or conventional quality. And when we talk of conventional wisdom, at least in its current usage, we are usually referring to the conventions of the political elite. A comparatively small group of men and women has been in a position to interpret events abroad to American mass audiences and suggest an answer to the question of dictatorship. This group has included, among others, professors, policymakers, speechwriters, presidents, filmmakers, novelists, and business leaders. In this work I refer to these people collectively as "cultural producers." I use the phrase not to reduce the various and complicated social roles of the people grouped under this term, but to indicate a social space that was shared by these individuals and denied to others. The production of works about dictatorship in American public culture was limited to a fairly select group of people. Whether by virtue of having special access to one of the mass media (screenwriters or novelists), of having expert status (German refugee scholars, political scientists, or U.S. government officials), or of having both (foreign correspondents), these cultural producers have enjoyed bully pulpits from which to instruct the broader public about dictatorship. Their perspectives were not unquestioned but they were, in the Gramscian sense, hegemonic. They have profoundly shaped American political culture in the mid-to-late twentieth century. They have defined what views were "mainstream" and what views were "extreme."
The history of this conventional wisdom begins in the 1920s. The press praised Mussolini for single-handedly bringing order to Italy's political life. Many saw a similar quality in Stalin's first Five-Year Plan. In the early years of the Great Depression, dictatorship was an important political fantasy for a heterogeneous group of Americans. Although most Americans were not attracted to dictatorship, for some it seemed necessary in light of the socioeconomic crisis, either as a permanent, more efficient solution to the problems of modern life or, in the classical sense, as a temporary measure to put democracy back on course. Barron's, the conservative business weekly, hoped in February 1933 that the newly elected and yet-to-be-inaugurated Franklin Delano Roosevelt might act as a "semi-dictator" to save America from social chaos. Liberal filmmaker Walter Wanger produced Gabriel over the White House (1933), a political fantasy in which a president solves the country's problems by becoming a divinely inspired dictator. The Communist Party (CP), in its ideologically militant "Third Period," declared that capitalist, bourgeois democracy was already doomed and that the only real political choice was between a communist dictatorship of the proletariat and a fascist dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
By the second half of the 1930s this had changed. Dictatorship became the evil against which nearly everyone in American political life struggled. Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) leader John L. Lewis declared in 1936 that the greatest question facing American workers was "whether the working population of this country shall have the voice in determining their destiny or whether they shall serve as indentured servants for a financial and economic dictatorship that would shamelessly exploit our resources." The Popular Front strategy, adopted by many liberals, radicals, and the Communist Party, sought to organize all political effort around the struggle between democracy and fascism. Although it is today correctly remembered as a document entirely honored in the breach, the Soviet Union's Constitution of 1936 formally recognized political and civil liberties and thus enabled communists and the much larger group of those generally sympathetic to Russia to argue that the Soviet Union itself was well on its way to embracing democracy. Their opponents on the anti-Stalinist left and liberal anticommunists argued that the USSR was a dictatorship as brutal as Nazi Germany. Toward the end of the decade, the Roosevelt administration, interested in nudging the country toward intervention in Europe, backed what Leo Ribuffo has called the "Brown Scare," raising fears that America was threatened by a Nazi "fifth column." Anti-interventionists, on the other hand, argued that U.S. involvement in the European war might lead to dictatorship. Republicans saw signs of dictatorship in FDR's 1940 quest for a third term and donned buttons that read, "Third Reich. Third International. Third Term." In an interventionist tract, published just before the collapse of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, William Dow Boutwell, head of the Division of Radio, Publications, and Education in the U.S. Office of Education, captured the situation effectively:
American leaders are united in their distaste for totalitarian governments. Like President Coolidge's minister who was "against sin," they are, with almost no exception, "against totalitarianism." Yet each finds a different "sin" in dictatorship. The men who want wider freedom for corporate business fear totalitarian "collectivism." Writers, poets, artists are against dictators because dictators restrict freedom of expression. To labor leaders the liquidation of unions is the greatest threat. Religious leaders make the issue a holy war. Educator, farmer, scientist, merchant-each finds his central faith and interest imperiled, his own ox gored. They are all against totalitarian rule.
Boutwell's statement captures another aspect of the growing conventional wisdom about dictatorship: by the late 1930s the word "totalitarian" and its substantive sibling "totalitarianism" were regularly applied to the European dictatorships.
Understanding the idea of totalitarianism as a product-and an important component-of 1930s U.S. political culture forces us to reconsider that political culture. To a great extent, our understandings of the political culture of the thirties have been products of a scholarly continuation of many political battles of that tumultuous decade. The era has been a favorite hunting ground for those in search of a usable past. The Popular Front (understood either as a movement led by the Communist Party or as a broad-based coalition of the left), the anti-Stalinist left, noninterventionists, liberal anticommunists, and New Dealers, among others, have each had their acolytes and their detractors among historians. Most recently, the CIO, usually as an object of celebration, has found itself in the center of many understandings of 1930s political culture. These studies have clearly illumined the battle lines in American politics during the decade of depression. Taken together, such studies contribute to a rich understanding of the complexity of those political battles. Indeed, with the exception of World War II, the Great Depression is probably the most studied and debated period in the last century of the American past.
For historians, one of the attractions of the period has been the fascinating and complicated state of American politics. With world economic and political crises calling into question some of the most basic aspects of U.S. social, political, and economic life, it is not surprising that American writers and thinkers, as well as the public at large, adopted a wide range of political views. It is common to describe politics as a spectrum, ranging from left to right. This terminology, derived originally from the way in which parties were seated in the constituent assembly during the French Revolution, is significant, both because it is the way that most modern Western political actors have understood their own politics and because it allows us to draw some admittedly rough comparisons between the politics of our own time and the politics of the past. But if we cannot avoid talking in terms of a left-right spectrum, we should acknowledge the limitations of this model. Politics takes place in many dimensions and cannot be reduced to a single one. Often, people's own descriptions of their politics owe more to the rhetorical requirements of the day than to an unchanging political spectrum: today, politicians avoid the word "liberal" like the plague; in the 1930s few wanted the label "conservative." Moreover, unlike an optical spectrum, which naturally divides into a series of separate colors, we can, and often must, group political actors in a variety of ways. With all these caveats in mind, I will try to provide a roadmap of American politics in the 1930s and early 1940s from left to right.
The American left of the 1930s was large and heterogeneous. Those located on the left in this book believed that modern capitalism was in one way or another fundamentally flawed and urged a radical transformation of American society to distribute goods more democratically. There were many ideological splits within this left. Among the most salient of these divisions-both in later decades and for the purposes of this study-was the division between the Communist Party and its sympathizers on the one hand and the anti-Stalinist left on the other. Although small and deeply opposed to coalition politics at the start of the depression, the CP grew to become the most influential left-wing party in the middle of the decade when it adopted the Popular Front strategy of encouraging most left-of-center parties to band together to oppose fascism. The Popular Front tent ended up encompassing a diverse set of groups and individuals (some more liberal than leftist), drawn together by antifascist, antiracist, and pro-labor politics and a sincere, if misguided, belief that the Soviet Union stood in the forefront of such efforts around the world.
The non-Stalinist (or anti-Stalinist) left was smaller, but even more variegated. Its ranks included Marxist-Leninists who contended that Stalin had betrayed the Russian Revolution: Trotskyists and quasi-Trotskyists, among them many intellectuals associated with the Partisan Review in the late 1930s and the 1940s; Lovestoneites, who were associated with the Bukharinite critique of Stalinism; and a variety of independent Marxist thinkers. Many, like the young Sidney Hook, left, or were expelled from, the CP during the ideological warfare of the 1920s and early 1930s and later drifted in and out of various groups on the sectarian left. The non-Stalinist left also included individuals and groups from other radical traditions, including the old Socialist Party, then led by Norman Thomas. Although much less visible than the Popular Front, anti-Stalinist leftists were intellectually very important in the development of the American critique of dictatorship. Many, though by no means all, of them moved steadily rightward over the course of the 1930s and 1940s.
Liberalism stood at the center of the nation's politics in the 1930s, though it was itself undergoing change. Franklin Roosevelt might stand as a perfect symbol for American liberalism during this decade. First and foremost a political experimentalist, FDR would try a variety of approaches, often simultaneously, to solve the problems facing America in depression and war. While liberals tended to embrace the notion of a vigorous federal government, their other commitments were extraordinarily various. Although some shared the belief that U.S. social and economic life needed to be fundamentally transformed to meet the challenges of the modern world, liberals were generally gradualists. They tended to place a lot of hope in the New Deal and Roosevelt's leadership. Those pushing for radical change often allied themselves with the Popular Front or other parts of the left; I have identified them as "left liberals" in this book. Other liberals-like Dorothy Thompson, who was both one of the leading antifascist voices in the American media and a Republican whose support for FDR wavered on a number of occasions-welcomed an aggressive federal response to the worldwide economic and political crises but were suspicious of fundamental transformations in American capitalism and democracy; I have designated such people "moderate liberals."
Excerpted from Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture by Benjamin L. Alpers Copyright © 2002 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
Alpers' timely book. . . . has some fresh sources and some new things to say.The New Yorker
[This] masterly study of the historical dimensions of this process of polarization is to be welcomed. . . . It is the kind of history that can revitalize our interest in ideas and events that we had long thought we understood.International History Review
Alpers has made visible an important aspect of American intellectual history in the twentieth century. . . . [He] convincingly delineates an exciting intellectual history that has Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin converse with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Joseph Schumpeter.American Historical Review
Well-written and clearly argued. . . . A stimulating and intelligent account.War in History
A first-rate book. Others have told parts of this story, but no one has put it all together as Alpers does. By considering dictatorship generally, he effectively links the response to particular dictatorships that others have considered separately, and by cutting across the divide between elite and popular culture, he brings together and further illuminates material that others have treated in isolation. His readings of oft-analyzed texts such as George Orwell's 1984 and Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism are illuminating and fresh, and he brings to light a good deal of less familiar source material.Robert Westbrook, University of Rochester
Meet the Author
Benjamin L. Alpers is Reach for Excellence Associate Professor in the Honors College and associate professor of history and film and video studies at the University of Oklahoma.
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