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Reviewed by:
  • Defending America: Military Culture and the Cold War Court-Martial
  • Michal R. Belknap
Elizabeth Lutes Hillman , Defending America: Military Culture and the Cold War Court-Martial. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. 240 pp. $29.95.

Several years ago this reviewer chaired a session on military law at the annual meeting of the American Society for Legal History. Although the panel included a distinguished foreign visitor and two leading American scholars (one of whom later became the president of the American Society for Legal History), it was larger than its audience. Apparently, not even other specialists in legal history considered military justice very important. As Elizabeth Lutes Hillman accurately observes in the introduction to this marvelous book, it is a subject that has been "almost completely overlooked by scholars of American history and law" (p. 1). As she brilliantly demonstrates, those who overlook it have been making a serious mistake because courts martial provide valuable insights into many facets of American social history during the Cold War era.

Hillman uses the court martial as a vehicle for exploring topics such as race, gender, class, and, above all, sexual orientation that were largely ignored by the traditional battles-and-leaders school of military historians. For her, military justice is worth studying because the political and social changes that transformed America during the Cold War years rippled through the armed forces with special intensity. The racial hierarchies, class distinctions, and models of masculinity that had always distinguished military culture made it especially sensitive to the forces that were transforming the broader society. Because these factors did a great deal to determine whom the armed forces prosecuted and on what charges, court martial records provide unique insights into the dynamics of Cold War society.

Hillman uses them for that purpose. She has mined with incredible thoroughness the published opinions of military courts, as well as of civilian ones that decided cases involving members of the armed forces. Like any good lawyer, she makes extensive use of the relevant law-review literature, but unlike most legal scholars Hillman has also examined both military and civilian archival collections, the holdings of three presidential libraries, doctoral dissertations, and oral histories. She demonstrates a superb command of even marginally relevant secondary literature. In short, this is an extremely impressive piece of research.

What Hillman has done with her research is impressive too. She begins with an outstanding overview of demographic changes in the armed forces from the end of [End Page 145] World War II to the 1970s and an overview of how the military justice system both operated and evolved during this period. This introductory chapter argues that as the composition of the armed forces changed and as the services adjusted to the demands of the new Uniform Code of Military Justice (introduced in 1951) the military function of the court martial changed, becoming less a means of disciplining miscreant individuals and more a demonstration of military values.

The most important of these values, Hillman seems to feel, was heterosexuality. But court martial records reveal that the Cold War military also supported masculine privilege and esteemed both racial exclusivity and authoritarian leadership. Hillman follows her introductory overview with five chapters that demonstrate these values at work in various kinds of cases. The way she groups these types of cases together is, to say the least, unusual. Indeed, most lawyers, accustomed to categorizing cases under standard legal headings, such as crimes against property and crimes against the person, will find it downright weird. Historians are likely to find her approach consistently creative but sometimes productive of results that are not entirely persuasive.

A case in point is chapter 3, "Threats to 'the Very Survival of the Nation,'" which deals with what Hillman characterizes as "political dissent" and "sexual dissent." In it she discusses prosecutions for homosexuality, along with those of spies, defectors, Korean War prisoners-of-war accused of collaborating with the enemy, and dissenters within the Vietnam-era armed forces. Counterintelligence agents viewed individuals in all of these categories as likely to compromise military secrets, but it is doubtful that anyone else would see much connection between gays and the others–or at any...


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