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Review by John Coffey

Julian E. Zelizer, Arsenal of Democracy:  The Politics of National Security – From World War II to the War on Terrorism, New York:  Basic Books, 2010, ISBN-13: 978-0465015078 583 pp., $35.00

“Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question.  Were there not even these inducements to moderation, nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has at all times characterized political parties.”1 Thus wrote that arch-partisan and political street-brawler, Alexander Hamilton.

Princeton historian Julian Zelizer has written a big book to make a small point, namely, that in the post-World War II era political partisanship has proven the norm rather than exception in America’s national security politics.  As he explains in exhaustive detail for 500 pages (laden with 50 pages of footnotes), since the brief, bipartisan interlude of 1947-48 when Vandenberg (“politics stops at the water’s edge”) Republicans joined President Truman to lay the foundations of Cold War foreign policy, fierce, self-seeking partisanship has ruled the day.

Franklin Roosevelt masterfully built a broad Democratic political coalition supporting liberal internationalism and a national security architecture, including the draft.  By the 1948 election a Democratic bipartisan strategy created the institutions of the national security state (CIA, DOD, NSC, aid to Greece/Turkey, the Marshall Plan).  Realizing that bipartisanship would not win elections, the GOP adopted a hawkish alternative to liberal internationalism, setting in motion an enduring political competition.

By the 1950 congressional mid-terms and 1952 presidential race, the Republican Right exploited McCarthyism and the fall of China to promote a conservative internationalism, making national security a partisan electoral issue for a generation.  The Vietnam War shattered the Democratic consensus on national security and opened the way to the abolition of the draft in 1973, dismantling a system in place since 1940 that bound average citizens to the nation’s defense.  Pushing conservative internationalism to its limits with the Iraq and Afghan wars, George W. Bush exposed the fissures in the conservative agenda (security v. cost, militarism, executive power, regime change v. nation-building), leaving the GOP divided and adrift.

Edward Gibbon traced The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in a thousand pages.  In half as many pages, Zelizer concludes that the last half century shows politicians “often make bad choices and those choices can have devastating political consequences.”2 This prosaic observation is weak beer.  It is trite as well to say that “it is impossible to go to war without making important political decisions.”3 Zelizer acknowledges that foreign affairs have always roiled partisan political waters.  The American Republic’s early experience sheds perspective on our modern tempest in a teapot.

In the 1790’s American domestic politics largely revolved around the bitter Federalist-Republican antagonism over relations with France and Britain.  The XYZ affair involving Talleyrand’s attempt to extract a bribe from U.S. envoys as the price of negotiations sparked an anti-French uproar benefitting Federalists.  France seized advantage on the high seas of American military impotence, leading President Adams to counter French depredations with the military bill of 1798 bolstering a nearly non-existent army and navy.  Itching for war with France, Federalists painted Republicans as weak on defense.  Republicans, quipped one Federalist wag, play the part of “a weak dupe who finds himself compelled to turn an unfaithful wench out of doors, stopping her at the threshold to whine over their former loves, and to remind her of past joys.”4 Constantly scheming against Adams, Hamilton engaged in machinations to form a joint Anglo-American campaign against French and Spanish interests in Latin America (with British ships, American troops, and his generalship!).  Conniving to use a successful expedition as a launching pad for the presidency, “We ought,” Hamilton said, “to squint at South America.”5 The plot came to naught.

Federalists hoped to use the quasi-war with France to purge the Republic’s “internal enemies,” i.e., Republican party leaders, the “servile minions of France.”  Under the guise of liberty, Federalists claimed, these “democrats, mobocrats & all other kinds of rats”6 oppose the war effort and heap obloquy on the government.  The Federalist drive to root out political enemies inspired the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, “the most diabolical laws that were ever attempted to be imposed on a free and enlightened people,”7 hardening party lines and prompting Madison and Jefferson to issue the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions enunciating the compact theory of government and doctrine of nullification.  A 1798 direct federal tax on houses, land, and slaves to pay for an expanded military provoked  Republican outrage and charge that the army, “a ferocious wild beast let loose upon the nation to devour it,”8 was intended for domestic suppression.  As the election of 1800 approached, Federalists scaled back the army and navy to deprive Republicans of an electoral issue.End.


1.  The Federalist Papers, introd. by Clinton Rossiter (New York:  New American Library, 1961), No. 1.
2.  Zelizer, p. 502.
3.  Ibid., p. 505.
4.  Quoted in John C. Miller, The Federalist Era:  1798-1801 (New York:  Harper & Row, 1960), p. 214.
5.  Ibid., p. 220.
6.  Ibid., p. 228.
7.  Ibid., p. 237.
8.  Ibid., p. 249.
9.  Ibid.,  pp. 264-65.
10. Ibid., p. 273.

John Coffey
John Coffey

John W. Coffey received a Ph.D. in American history from Stanford University and taught for 20 years. He served in OSD Policy at the Pentagon from 1986-88 and as a civil servant at the Commerce and State Departments for 15 years, retiring from State in 2005. He has written widely on foreign and defense policy.


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