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The Politics of Catastrophe: A History of American War Politics

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Legal historian Mary Dudziak is Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law at Emory University and 2015 Kluge Chair in American Law and Governance at the Kluge Center. A scholar whose work touches upon war history, civil rights history, constitutional law and foreign policy, her research at the Kluge Center has centered on how the American experience of war in the 20th century has shaped American war politics today. She sat down with Jason Steinhauer to discuss her latest work.

Hi, Mary. Your research at the Kluge Center examines the history of American war politics during the 20th century. Could you explain what that means?

By “American war politics” I mean the political engagement of Congress and the American people in decisions to go to war. I am especially interested in how the American people came to be politically disengaged with questions of war and peace. We might think of this as the political side of a broader military-civilian divide.

What’s new about your approach to this issue?

There is an extensive literature on American war powers, but it is missing the corporeality of war – what war does to human bodies. War accomplishes many things, but at the ground level it involves the production of dead bodies. Important recent scholarship reveals the impact of death and dead bodies on culture and social life, which was tremendously important in Civil War America. The central question in my book project is what happens when the United States goes to war, but the death and dying happens in other countries. This is the 20th century experience of American war. I’m exploring how this affected American war politics.

Your lecture on December 10 will focus specifically on World War I. Did the geographic distance of the war matter?

After the Civil War and the “Indian Wars,” there have not been large-scale wars within the continental United States. World War I is an example of how the United States went to war in the 20th century – fighting battles far from the American mainland. Because the conflict was far away, proponents of war had to convince the American people that a distant war mattered to them. The need for mobilization was more apparent in the Civil War. In World War I, in essence, the war had to be marketed.

Mobilization for distant war was enabled by what I call a politics of catastrophe. The catastrophes in 1917 were ships sunken by German U-boats that killed Americans. Some American travelers sailed on armed British ships carrying contraband. Instead of criticizing them for the risk, dramatic stories of the sinkings filled newspapers, and submarine sinkings were melodramatic plotlines in silent films. President Wilson pledged that a German “overt act” would result in strong American action. So with each sinking, the world press asked whether it qualified as the overt act that would take the country to war, which increased the pressure on Wilson. Finally, the sinking of a British liner resulting in three American deaths tipped the balance and counted as the “overt act.” But catastrophes, in World War I and after, have been more important for mobilizing the American people than for informing decisions by American leaders to go to war.

Your research has uncovered that a handful of Congressmen in 1917 were veterans of the Civil War. How did that experience shape how they viewed the outbreak of World War I?

Many veterans and civilians of the Civil War approached World War I through the lens of their earlier experience. They did not all share the same view about the war, but they shared the palpable experience with what war felt like. By 1917, what they brought to the debate was a reconfigured memory of the Civil War, however. For supporters of U.S. entry into World War I, the new war was an occasion for the celebration of reunification.

What documents or resources have you uncovered in the Library of Congress that shed light on US entry into World War I?

The Woodrow Wilson Papers in the Manuscript Reading Room make clear how tortured President Wilson was in the weeks leading up to a declaration of war. Pamphlets in the Library’s collections show the way stories of submarine sinkings were used to keep Americans mobilized during the war. Access to biographical sources on members of Congress, and assistance from Historians of the House and Senate, have helped me track down the stories of Civil War veterans in Congress.

As you look back on World War I, is there evidence that our entry into that war laid the ground rules, as it were, for entry into foreign wars since? What is the historic import of looking at how the U.S. entered that conflict?

Since World War I was a distant conflict, U.S. entry into that war helps us to see how Americans could be mobilized for distant war. What it took was a politics of catastrophe. An example is the war in Vietnam. President Lyndon Baines Johnson decided to ask Congress for a war authorization in the spring of 1964. A draft of the authorization was circulated to congressional leaders, but the administration planned to wait until something happened that would galvanize political opinion. They knew they needed a catastrophe. When American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin reported that they had been fired on in August 1964, LBJ rushed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution through Congress. Of course, in the aftermath, it’s clear that there wasn’t a catastrophe after all, but LBJ still had the war authorization he thought he needed.

World War I and Vietnam are of course very different. For Vietnam delay and critical deliberation would have been important – letting the emotional reaction to an alleged catastrophe subside. Twenty-first century American war politics have been complicated – with a motivating catastrophe in the September 11 terrorist attacks, followed by a slow-moving catastrophe that was the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Most important to the 21st century, however, is the core issue at the heart of my book: the distance between the battleground and the polity. What began as a geographic divide was exacerbated by a social and cultural divide fueled by the elimination of the draft, reliance on military contractors, and new technologies of war. As professional armed services do the work of war death on behalf of an isolated and comfortable public, catastrophe appears to have become less important to presidential war powers. Without a catastrophe, a president can rely on his executive powers, and without a concerned public, Congress has little incentive to insist on their role in authorizing the use of armed force.

Mary Dudziak delivers her lecture “A Bullet in the Chamber: The Politics of Catastrophe and the Declaration of World War I” on Thursday, December 10 at 4:00 p.m. at the Kluge Center. The talk is co-sponsored by the National History Center of the American Historical Association. It is free and open to the public.


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