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  • Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture: Envisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920s–1950s
  • Stephen J. Whitfield
Benjamin L. Alpers , Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture: Envisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920s–1950s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. 405 pp. $59.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.

"It can't happen here" was once the phrase that reassured Americans of their exemption from the despotisms that dominated the Old World. It Can't Happen Here (1935) was Sinclair Lewis's warning to the contrary, with his description of how homespun fascism might be fashioned out of native materials. (His protagonist, a crusty Vermont editor named Doremus Jessup, is nevertheless a survivor and, having joined the New Underground, braces for a counterattack at the end of the novel.) Yet as the 1930s closed with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the threat of totalitarianism loomed so large that even a republic protected by two oceans looked less secure. Even if Franklin Roosevelt might manage to stay out of the war, vulnerability to the tides of tyranny was suggested in the 1940 U.S. presidential campaign button that some Republican voters wore: "Third Reich. Third International. Third Term" (p.4). Nor did Benito Mussolini's crushing defeat and the unconditional German surrender in May 1945 dispel midcentury fears of "a boot stamping on a human face—forever" (p.253), as the torturer O'Brien announces in George Orwell's 1984. That dystopian vision [End Page 157] tapped popular anxieties and made the novel an international best seller. Two years later Hannah Arendt's unblinking look into the abyss, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1951), also captured the sense of how fragile free societies were.

Classics like Orwell's and Arendt's should be inserted at the end of the story of how modern dictatorship has been described—or so this revised doctoral dissertation by Benjamin L. Alpers would have us believe. Alpers argues that putting those books at the beginning makes them weapons in the rhetorical arsenal of the Cold War, but that the context would be ahistorical. The American struggle to comprehend the character of modern despotism, he maintains, can be traced back earlier than the anti- Communism that had become official by midcentury: "We misunderstand the origins of the idea of totalitarianism—and misread American political culture in the 1930s and early 1940s—if we make the common mistake of regarding it as a product of the Cold War" (p.250). The signal achievement of Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture is to reveal the extensive interwar antecedents of "totalitarianism"—at least as a concept, if not necessarily as a word (loaded or otherwise) that would eventually relegate Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to the same category.

To make his case, Alpers operates mostly as an intellectual historian, drawing on works of political and social analysis, such as Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom (New York: Rinehart & Co., 1941) and Bruno Bettelheim's account of the extreme situation of the camps. Surprisingly, however, Alpers does not see any overwhelming influence of refugees from the regimes that were being analyzed in these works. He emphasizes the impact of reporters like Dorothy Thompson (Mrs. Sinclair Lewis) and draws fine portraits of liberals seeking to make their compatriots into grown-ups, either as neo-Augustinians, as in Reinhold Niebuhr's The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), or as continental existentialists, as in Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s The Vital Center (1949). By contrast, James Burnham's The Managerial Revolution (1941) defied liberal pieties altogether.

The attention Alpers gives to novels like Lewis's and Orwell's is more than matched by references to film: Gregory La Cava's Gabriel over the White House (1933) appealed for a strongman who could combine decisiveness with beneficence in lifting the economy out of the Great Depression; and both Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) and Frank Capra's Meet John Doe (1941) were cinematic fanfare for the common man endangered by sinister European powers. As befits the grandson of the Nobel laureate Wassily Leontief, Alpers also shows how economists—from Calvin Hoover of Duke University...