Civic Security

Why FDR's bottom-up brand of civic defense should inspire progressive plans for homeland security today.

By Matthew Dallek

Tagged CivicsHistorynational security

In a June 2002 nationally televised address, President George W. Bush announced his plan to establish a Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It wasn’t exactly a new idea–Democrats had proposed creating a Cabinet-level agency several months earlier. Nevertheless, Senator Edward Kennedy praised Bush’s announcement as a “positive step,” while House Democratic Whip Nancy Pelosi said that such a department will “hopefully take some of the fear out of [people’s] lives.” This spirit of optimism soon disappeared, though, as both sides descended into name-calling during the 2002 midterm campaign. In debating the prospects for the new department, Democrats described Republicans as fear-mongers; Republicans accused Democrats of being soft on terrorism.

The actual workings of DHS have further sapped observers’ enthusiasm. Since its inception, the department has been an uneven, questionable enterprise. Hurricane Katrina was its most famous failure: DHS was clearly unprepared to handle a natural disaster. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Michael Brown, whose agency had been moved to the DHS stable, became a poster boy for departmental cronyism, and Bush’s bureaucratic approach proved incapable of providing even the most basic needs, such as drinking water, and performing core functions, such as search-and-rescue operations. It also failed to coordinate its lackluster operations with state and local officials.

Katrina was only the most obvious example of DHS failure. Domestic security officials have mismanaged the bureaucracy, and misplaced priorities have tarnished DHS’s mission. In 2003 DHS Secretary Tom Ridge quixotically urged Americans to buy duct tape so they could seal their windows in case of a chemical attack, and the Administration repeatedly and inexplicably raised the terrorism-alert threat level in 2004 in what seemed a crude attempt to scare voters. The Washington Post summed up DHS’s problems in late 2005 when it reported that the department suffered from “haphazard design, bureaucratic warfare, and unfulfilled promises.” The problem, however, is not just about individual managers or appointees. Rather, it goes to the heart of Bush’s domestic-security paradigm: Politically charged and Washington-centered, the White House has failed to rally Americans behind the idea that the homeland is something we should all be involved in defending, not just the job of a cluster of inefficient agencies in the capital.

Democratic leaders responded to DHS’s record by attacking its failures under Bush and proposing some important reforms, including basing homeland security appropriations on a city’s terrorism risk and screening more checked airline baggage, sea freight, and air cargo. But these ideas sit at the margins of the debate over what a proper domestic-security framework should look like, and an alternative to Bush’s top-down approach has yet to emerge. When the stakes are this high and the need for reform this great, such timidity is inexcusable. Bush bears primary responsibility, but not all of it, and in any case, he will be out of office soon enough. A new vision for homeland security is desperately needed. The failure of progressives to offer such a competing vision has produced a shortsighted homeland security debate that ignores fundamental questions: How should domestic defense should be organized? How should threats be defined? And what is the role of civilians in homeland defense?

Fortunately, progressives do not need to look far to find an approach that is workable, responsible, and grounded in America’s basic values. Although the Bush Administration maintains that its homeland security effort is an unprecedented undertaking, it isn’t. In fact, the American experience on the homefront during World War II–led by a Democratic president and administered by progressives around the country–provides today’s leaders with a “usable past” from which they can begin to update their ideas and rethink homeland security’s direction.

In May 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing a federal agency to do the twin jobs of civilian protection and civilian mobilization. The little-remembered Office of Civilian Defense (OCD) was among the more important, if embattled, agencies of the World War II era. As the first predecessor to DHS, it serves as both a precedent and a parallel to the debates about homeland defense that have dominated the discourse ever since September 11.

Progressives’ experience in defending the homeland during World War II teaches that citizen action is essential to any domestic security
policy. This legacy should challenge progressives to broaden the definition of homeland security to increase civic participation at the local level, seek opportunities for people to improve their communities while also defending America, and link democratic ideals to the War on Terror in meaningful ways for Americans. By doing so, they will, for the first time, offer a genuine choice on how to address the homeland security issue in this post–9/11 age.

The Progressive Precedent

Of course, the threat posed by small bands of stateless terrorists differs from the one posed by German U-Boats and Japanese Zeros. But the debates about civil defense during World War II–and the plans and policies adopted to meet those threats–have profound echoes in our own times. Then, as now, fear of an attack on America was palpable.

In 1940, CBS News radio correspondent Edward R. Murrow described first-hand the devastation inflicted by the Nazis’ “blitz” of London, and millions of Americans listened raptly. Approximately 43,000 British civilians died and 140,000 more were injured in the attacks. Ambassador William C. Bullitt, among others, urged Americans to feel the danger that the Axis Powers posed to America’s shores, even though the United States wasn’t yet a combatant.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war in December 1941 raised the fear of attack on America, and it wasn’t unwarranted. U-boats were just off the East Coast and outside of New York, Nazi agents were discovered and arrested preparing to launch sabotage and terrorist attacks. Especially on the West Coast, there was a real fear of Japanese air attacks–in Los Angeles, air raid sirens pierced the city’s calm and anti-aircraft fire shattered the skies in early 1942, although no Japanese planes were ever seen–and Japanese subs even shelled parts of California and Oregon. Japanese forces invaded the Aleutian Islands in June 1942, and Japan later sent bomb-laden balloons across the Pacific in an attack on the West Coast. There were also rumors about a successful Japanese attack on San Francisco; while ultimately proved false, they concerned America’s leaders nonetheless. In their eyes, and those of many citizens, America was part of a shrinking world that was tearing itself apart; war was the future and geographic distance did not translate into civilian safety in the United States.

In response, city officials in New York sent a delegation to London to study civil defense planning in the hopes of developing their own strategy to protect the homeland. Soon after, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, with New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia as its leader, urged Roosevelt to establish a federal civil defense agency. FDR quickly established the OCD, with La Guardia as its first director (though he also stayed in the mayor’s office).

The organizing principle of the OCD was civilian participation. From the beginning, progressive leaders believed that civilian protection and mobilization went hand in hand. While the federal government would assume an important leadership role, the policy was designed to organize people at the grassroots, which organizers believed would save the most lives if the United States was attacked. Progressives regarded citizens not as passive recipients of government protection, as the Bush Administration has done, but rather as active participants in defending themselves. They believed that by enlisting civilians in civil defense activities, the OCD would boost wartime morale, improve neighborhoods, make Americans safer, and enhance democracy in the United States.

La Guardia, for example, encouraged Americans to work as fire and air raid wardens, patrol their streets, and participate in blackout drills. He wanted boys to clean backyards and basements so they could reduce the risk of fire to homes caused by incendiary bombs. He incessantly warned of imminent attacks. Under the mayor’s frenetic, bombastic leadership, the OCD coordinated emergency medical teams, put guards at industrial plants and water sources, and taught civilians how to become first responders and survive a chemical weapons attack.

Like La Guardia, the OCD’s assistant director, Eleanor Roosevelt (whom La Guardia appointed in September 1941 to expand its volunteer program), wanted families, neighborhoods, towns, and cities to have vital roles in civil defense. She and La Guardia adopted an aggressive notion about citizenship: that American greatness was rooted in citizen involvement. While La Guardia implored civilians to participate in order to harden national defenses, Eleanor Roosevelt said volunteer activities could be a means of “defending democracy at home.” Participation meant “building upon a sense that life in the community [was] worthwhile” and was “part of the duty which we recognize as citizens in a free democracy,” she said. Real security, they agreed, would come from individuals who engaged in civil defense activities in
their communities.

Eleanor Roosevelt also defined civil defense in broad terms. It should prop up morale, for one, but also provide jobs and other opportunities to women, young people, and African Americans, all efforts that would provide “security in [people’s] way of life.” She said the OCD should support nursery schools, old-age homes, housing projects, and physical fitness centers where Americans could alleviate wartime stress and improve their health. If the threat of Axis attacks on the homefront endangered American lives, she believed that malnutrition and unsanitary living conditions jeopardized people’s security, too. Threats, in her view, came in numerous guises that included more than the enemy’s bombs and bullets.

While La Guardia’s and Roosevelt’s tenures were both short-lived and controversial (they resigned in February 1942), their successor, James Landis, a former Harvard Law School dean, brought many of their ideas to fruition. By August 1942, German U-Boats had sunk approximately 400
U.S. ships and killed scores of Americans. Under Landis’s leadership, the OCD convinced residents along the Eastern Seaboard to dim their
house lights: The “dim-out” campaign prevented German subs from using the silhouettes created by city lights to spot American ships. These
“were absolutely essential moves that saved the lives of merchant sailors and their cargo,” MIT historian Christopher Capozzola later concluded. The OCD also created the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), in which tens of thousands of civilian pilots flew private planes and even saw action, bombing German submarines off the Eastern Seaboard.

By January 1942, nearly six million volunteers had joined civil defense, and some 12 million were registered by mid-1943. They planted “victory gardens,” conducted scrap-metal drives, sold war bonds, gave public lectures to inspire other citizens to support the war effort, encouraged rationing of food and other goods, and served in auxiliary police and firefighting forces. In towns and cities from Connecticut to Oregon, civilians participated in air raid drills and civil defense arades. They learned to spot enemy planes that they thought could be coming to attack their cities. They trained in emergency evacuations and transformed nursery schools and other buildings into air raid shelters stocked with supplies.

Landis’s volunteers received ribbons, OCD armbands, and other awards signifying their role and rank. Some air raid wardens wore white
helmets. Such a “system brought maximum effort with minimum compulsion,” his biographer Donald Ritchie argued. The volunteer ranks swelled as local governments were inspired to take their own initiative: Often, town and city leaders organized their own civil defense with little assistance from the federal government. Eleven thousand local civil defense councils were established, and while their performance was uneven, they demonstrated that local involvement in civil defense could generate a large following. One result of this bottom-up approach was to give Americans confidence that civil defense organizations could function effectively. When, in 1942, residents of several states were asked how local civil defense was doing in their communities, 62 percent said either “very well” or “well.”

Landis also sought to implement aspects of Eleanor Roosevelt’s broad vision for what constituted a civil defense agenda–a more expansive view of homeland security than either progressives or conservatives have shown since 9/11. Under Landis’s OCD, natural disasters, for example, were deemed important threats to the homefront, even in the midst of a global war. Civil defense volunteers fixed roads, delivered supplies, and saved hundreds from floods on the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers in late 1942 and in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1943.

OCD cast a wide net: CAP volunteers not only bombed German submarines, but also delivered food to Americans in remote areas, battled forest fires, and searched for crews aboard ships lost at sea. To be sure, the OCD was constantly beset by ideological and political conflicts; bad publicity, equipment shortages, uneven compliance with Washington’s confusing instructions; and an apathetic attitude among some civilians. Moreover, La Guardia’s loose cannon tendencies led to him take impolitic positions–he called his critics “Japs,” endorsed spying on citizens considered subversive, and disregarded Americans’ civil liberties, surely civil defense’s sorriest legacy. But by showing that civilian mobilization could save lives and play a meaningful role in strengthening communities and defending against an array of threats, the OCD provides the seedbed from which a progressive counter-vision on homeland security can emerge: an approach that fundamentally challenges the Bush Administration’s top-down mindset with a new strategy based on citizen action.

A Modern Office of Civil Defense?

One crucial difference between then and now is that today we live in the nuclear age. A catastrophic attack, such as the sort the 9/11 Commission has warned about, would require a lot more than civilian volunteers. In the event of a “dirty bomb” in New York, for example, the federal government would have to immediately dispatch the U.S. Army and other resources to evacuate civilians and assist with relief and recovery. But that doesn’t preclude a role for civilian efforts as well. As one post-World War II study by U.S. officials of civil defense in England showed, local organization and preparedness in peacetime was the most effective strategy for saving lives from conventional attacks–a lesson that could be applied to a dirty bomb or a nuclear attack (teaching citizens, for instance, how they should flee a city hit by such a bomb).

In fact, there is an even greater need for a vast citizen mobilization under the nuclear threat; our points of vulnerability are such that current government efforts can’t meet every security requirement. While Cold War civil defense officials absurdly and ineffectually urged Americans to build shelters and practice how to “duck and cover,” progressives today could help prevent a catastrophic attack by urging volunteers to supplement government efforts to guard nuclear and chemical plants, patrol ports, and inspect cargoes. In 2003, Senator John Kerry proposed a “Community Defense Service” that would enable citizens to become homeland security volunteers. “Like crime watches in many of our neighborhoods, Community Defense Service Captains will help show Americans how they and their families can best prepare for the threats we face,” Kerry said. The media largely ignored his proposal, and progressives have since forgotten about it. But it’s
the right idea.

A persistent criticism of Bush is that he has failed to ask Americans to participate and sacrifice as part of the War on Terror. It’s a point worth underlining. The Administration merely has urged civilians to “support” the U.S. war in Iraq (“so we do not have to face them here,” though what that support constitutes, other than voting Republican, is never explained), shop at local malls, and look out for suspicious packages while taking subways and other public transportation. In other words, in almost every way, American civilians should pretend that nothing out of the ordinary is going on and that sacrifice isn’t required.

The first element of a progressive counter-vision should be to reverse this Washington-driven apathy by building programs that engage millions of volunteers. After careful screening and training, volunteers (especially ex-military and police) could guard nuclear and chemical installations, work as assistants to first responders, and teach other citizens how to react during emergencies. Volunteers could also be recruited to lead energy conservation efforts that would make America less dependent on foreign oil. Americans could be asked to check off voluntary tax contributions to support local government and volunteer homeland security–related activities. Progressives should emphasize that democracies require sacrifice and that such work can both serve as a bulwark against terrorism and highlight the merits of America’s political system. This national service program would likely appeal to high school and college students, retirees, and part-time workers–people with extra time who want to be involved in their communities.

Second, based on the World War II-era model, progressives should also endorse a scaled-back, leaner version of the Department of Homeland Security that would complement and strengthen, rather than crowd out, regional and local organizations. It’s at the local level, after all, where a robustly defined homeland security effort will occur. Communities know best how they should be defended. Local homeland security organizations, when given the federal equipment, timely information, and other necessary resources, could save the most lives during disasters by virtue of their proximity to the incident and knowledge of their communities. Moreover, this panoply of local efforts would provide national planners with a laboratory of different ideas and proposals.

The third element of a progressive counter-vision is to broaden how Americans define and perceive threats to the “homeland.” The dirty little secret of American politics is that, despite the hype surrounding terrorism, it is highly unlikely that the vast majority of Americans will ever be directly affected by a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Rather, in the twenty-first century, diseases such as cancer and diabetes, violent crimes including murder and armed robberies, environmental threats from pollution, and even such daily but deadly threats as drunk driving are far more likely to kill Americans and sow fear in people’s lives than a terrorist attack. Non-terrorist threats are ubiquitous and enormously costly in terms of blood and treasure, but elected officials and media leaders have single-mindedly described terrorism as the greatest danger the country faces.

Progressives need to challenge this mentality and put the risk of another attack into some perspective. A new policy would build upon Eleanor Roosevelt’s expansive definition of civil defense, positing that natural disasters are just as likely as terrorist attacks to cause death and economic damage. It should not downplay the risk of another domestic terrorist attack, but it should call for terrorist threats to be one among several of the important dangers confronting citizens that any responsible homeland security policy must address. Just as the concept of citizenship should be redefined, so too should the idea of how threats are understood and identified; that way, homeland security will make a meaningful contribution to Americans’ lives, as opposed to having a new department that mainly sows panic.

Such a new domestic security effort would entail seriously planning for the next Katrina-like natural disaster. It would identify the most
likely disaster scenarios around the country and then take steps to prevent such a disaster–providing resources to shore up levies, retrofit bridges and freeways, and strengthen fire-prevention efforts. It would prepare civilians to cope with natural disasters, provide training and vehicles for evacuation planning purposes, and mobilize local organizations to help provide shelter and save lives before a hurricane or tornado occurs. At the same time, homeland security volunteers should be tasked with making neighborhoods safer from street crime through neighborhood watches; leading environmental protection campaigns; urging Americans to get screened for cancer and get flu shots, which could save thousands of lives each year; and raising awareness of the dangers of drunk driving, among other threats.

Progressives should remind themselves that the struggle over historical precedents is no idle exercise. History is always a centerpiece in politics. Democrats and Republicans vie over which of their historical interpretations supports their present-day positions; consider the partisan sparring over what the war in Vietnam teaches America about the war in Iraq. However, when the issue is homeland security, progressives have had a lack of historical vision and imagination. If they can reacquaint themselves with that past, they will recast an important debate that so far has merely focused on the Bush Administration’s incompetence. Beyond that, they will be able to reinvigorate and update ideas that can make us safer today. More than six years after 9/11, it’s time for progressives to confront fundamental questions about the meaning of domestic security in the twenty-first century. Understanding what we did in the middle of the last century might just provide a means to reclaim that future.

Read more about CivicsHistorynational security

Matthew Dallek is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation.

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