Connecting History

Connecting History logo


Milestones logo

Hot off the Press

Book Reviews logo

History Talk

History Talk logo

The National Insecurity State

by Ira Chernus on Nov 1, 2002

Ira Chernus

Fifty years ago this month, American voters chose Dwight D. Eisenhower as their next president. Though few realized it at the time, they also chose a vision of America as a nation permanently in peril. The Eisenhower era created a state of national insecurity that has lasted for half a century.

The Bush administration constantly voices the nation’s hope for security. Yet its actions plunge us even deeper into insecurity. This administration alienates allies, expands our list of enemies and defines any potential competitor as a mortal threat.

The national insecurity state is our history. But it need not be our destiny. During the presidential campaign of 1952, the Republican Eisenhower attacked the Democrats’ view that the Cold War would soon reach a climax. The Democrats wanted massive military spending to prepare for the final battle. Ike argued that too much spending would break the national bank. It was better to assume that the Cold War might go on indefinitely and find a level of spending the nation could afford for the long haul.

As president, Eisenhower urged the nation to expect the communist enemy to be around for 20, 50 or 60 years. In 1953, a White House aide wrote a secret memo spelling out the new administration’s goal: to persuade all Americans to accept “the age of peril” as “the new and to all intents permanent normalcy.”

Eisenhower did just that, and the message stuck long after he was gone. Throughout the Cold War era, most of the U.S. public assumed that America faced an evil that could never be eradicated. This seemed to justify a permanent national security state. Since the enemy would always loom beyond our borders, however, there was no way to feel really secure. The permanent “normalcy” would actually be a state of national insecurity.

Though the Cold War is long over, it is still easy to feel that we are in an endless “age of peril.” In announcing the war on terrorism, President Bush declared it “a task that does not end.” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld agreed that we “surely will not” eliminate terrorism. Using the same term as Eisenhower’s aide, Vice President Dick Cheney called this “a new normalcy.” Cheney explained: “There’s not going to be an end date when we’re going to say, ‘There, it’s all over with.'”

In fact, the Bush administration ensures continuing war with its ever-growing enemies list. Now it’s no longer just Bin Laden and Al-Qaida we must fear. Nor is it just the ill-defined network of terrorists and so-called rogue states that Bush speechwriters dubbed the “axis of evil.” According to the recent Bush report, “The National Security Strategy of the United States,” we are threatened by any nation that might resist the spread of free trade or seek military strength equal to our own.

The Cold War fears of the Eisenhower era were heightened by illusory Soviet boasts about that countryís military prowess. The managers of the national insecurity state eagerly embraced those boasts to justify their own policies. The Bush administration, too, frightens the public with unrealistic warnings of danger. Its “axis of evil” is actually a trio of pitifully weak states, which can easily be bombed into submission.

The Bush policies are hardly a replay of Eisenhower’s, however. The president and his advisers do not see permanent insecurity as a way to control the military budget. On the contrary, they call for major increases, the kind that Eisenhower said would break our bank.Ý Yet their call stirs little debate in a nation so frightened.

The fears of the Eisenhower era came from the belief that we would always have a military competitor. The fears of the Bush era come from just the opposite belief: that we must never have any competitor, that the very existence of a competitor would be the main reason for feeling insecure.

If so, we are condemned to eternal insecurity. As every great boxer has learned, no matter how big and tough you are, there is always some young challenger who will not rest until he gets a shot at the champ. Given the unilateralist swagger of the current administration, challengers will probably appear sooner rather than later. The same swagger will discourage allies from coming to our aid.

Although there is vigorous debate about war in Iraq, the larger shape of the Bush security program evokes little public comment. Perhaps, fifty years after Ike’s victory, the national insecurity state feels like the only world we could possibly inhabit. Perhaps we have forgotten how to seek, or even hope for, a sense of real security.

Real security does not come from dropping bombs on enemies or from barring our gates against them. It comes from a new vision of national humility and international cooperation that is still waiting to be born. Fifty years of insecurity is enough.

Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a writer for History News Service.