Journal of Cold War Studies 4.2 (2002) 137-139
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Civil Defense Begins at Home:
Militarization Meets Everyday Life in the Fifties
Laura McEnaney, Civil Defense Begins at Home: Militarization Meets Everyday Life in the Fifties. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000. 240 pp. $31.95.
Laura McEnaney's Civil Defense Begins at Home: Militarization Meets Everyday Life in the Fifties is an important book that examines both the historical roots of Cold War political development in the United States and the effects of domestic Cold War mobilization on American society. McEnaney uses the national program of the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) as a crucial case for examining how a liberal democratic society mobilized its homefront for the Cold War. As the title of the book suggests, the FCDA's paramilitary organizational planning rested on the theory that civilian defense preparedness programs would become part of everyday life. The antinomy between the militarization of everyday life and American liberal democracy is the central puzzle that frames McEnaney's historical analysis.
In McEnaney's view the FCDA program was only partially successful. The public generally accepted and participated in displays of pseudomartial activity, but privately the self-help message of the FCDA and its militarization of domestic life were resisted or ignored. The divide between the public acceptance of FCDA plans and their individual internalization is elaborated throughout the book in a clear and insightful manner. McEnaney persuasively argues that even though the FCDA was not totally successful in militarizing the private life of individuals, its programs were not abject failures. She establishes that the FCDA deployed a public education program that informed the citizenry about nuclear weapons (albeit with departures from the truth) and about anti-Communism and the meaning of Cold War loyalty. Finally, and perhaps most important, the American public was subjected to a federal operation in which low-level and long-term preparedness training was set up by the FCDA through public school systems, the workplace, the home, the church, and community [End Page 137] associations of all stripes. According to McEnaney, the administrative and institutional architecture for Cold War mobilization (of which the FCDA was but a part) left its mark on postwar American political development, a contention that would be hard to dispute. The book reflects McEnaney's historical sensibility and a clear understanding of how multifaceted the FCDA's homefront mobilization actually was during the 1950s. The book does not engage in the wrong-headed approach of using the civil- defense program as a zany artifact of Cold War social history. Instead, McEnaney illustrates with a careful analysis, drawing on a plethora of primary sources, how vital the homefront was to the U.S. strategy of containing Soviet power. A prepared and vigilant American society was deemed essential.
The book falls a bit short, however, in its historical periodization and its grasp of the political realities and distribution of power within Congress during the Truman administration and the consequences for FCDA planning. The book conflates the different waves of civil-defense planning (there were three in the 1950s) and thus generally reads as if the FCDA and its predecessor agency, the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization, planned public policy at an early stage of the Cold War and never had to revise it. This is not the case. FCDA planning before 1954 had more traction with the public than after that date, in part because of the integration of thermonuclear weapons into military planning, and in part because the Eisenhower administration was fundamentally different from the Truman administration in its approach to civil defense planning.
Another small drawback, regarding domestic politics and the Congress, is also connected to the periodization problem. In a very interesting section on race and civil defense, McEnaney includes almost no discussion of the intrinsic relationship between policy planning, sectionalism, and the constraints placed on Harry Truman by the southern Democrats who held sway in Congress. The southern veto, as it has come to be known, could make or...