The Roosevelt Years, Civil Defense, and the Origins of Homeland Security
Email this review


Two New Deal giants clash over the purpose of civil defense at the outset of World War II.

In May 1941, mindful of the German bombing of London, Franklin Roosevelt created the Office of Civilian Defense to organize the protection of lives and property in the event of enemy attack. He appointed Fiorello La Guardia, the fiery mayor of New York City, as its first director. Obsessed with the danger of Axis bombing of American cities, La Guardia saw his agency as a means of militarizing the civilian population; he toured the country giving frightening speeches, recruiting air raid wardens, and organizing drills. Eleanor Roosevelt, appointed Assistant Director for Volunteer Participation, saw the agency instead as a means of promoting “social defense,” a wide variety of social services intended to improve the national morale and well-being. The president left these two powerful personalities to sort out their differences, with predictably awful results. Weary of their public bickering, Roosevelt forced them both out early in 1942; La Guardia's successor, James Landis, carried on La Guardia's programs and scrapped the first lady's. The conflict is readily depicted, but Dallek (Political Management/George Washington Univ.; The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics, 2000, etc.) fleshes it out with repetitious explanations, duplicative examples of letters received and speeches given, and numbing statistics of volunteers enlisted and gas masks distributed; the narrative has the feel of a scholarly journal article expanded to book length. The author fails to confront the contradictions between the bottom-up grass-roots volunteerism stimulated by war fever and the desires of the New Dealers for top-down command and control. Ultimately, no American cities were bombed, and the entire program appears significant only for its snapshots of national security hysteria and Eleanor’s attempts to promote progressive social goals under the cover of civil defense.

A tedious trek through a footnote to history, with very little bearing on contemporary homeland security concerns.

Pub Date: June 1st, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-19-974312-4
Page count: 328pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2016


NonfictionAMERICA THE VULNERABLE by Stephen Flynn
by Stephen Flynn
NonfictionTHE GREAT MAYOR by Alyn Brodsky
by Alyn Brodsky
NonfictionA CALL TO ARMS by Maury Klein
by Maury Klein