Ph.D. student in history at Northwestern University
This article was updated at 6:15 p.m. on September 29, 2019.
In the United States, “national security” is the preoccupation that never has to explain itself. In some quarters, refugees fleeing violence and destitution are a “national security threat.” So too are imported automobiles, as President Donald Trump’s administration declared last year. A key government committee has determined, according to Reuters, that Chinese ownership of the dating app Grindr “constitutes a national security risk.” And Greenland, Tom Cotton asserts, is “vital to our national security,” a sentiment that recently motivated the U.S. government to offer to buy the Arctic territory from Denmark. Trump summed up the national-security rationale in these vague terms: “strategically, for the United States, it would be nice.”
Invoke national security, and unpopular policies become law—or the law itself may even be suspended. One act of legal levitation was George Bush’s suspension of habeas corpus for foreigners, a move that enabled the Defense Department to lock up so-called “enemy combatants” in Guantanamo Bay without trial, indefinitely. Uttering the magic phrase can make other things disappear. Shelf upon shelf of government documents vanishes from public sight after being shrouded in security classifications. Poof!
One might think that states have always been obsessed with national security. But Americans didn’t begin using the phrase with any frequency until the 1940s, when Edward Mead Earle, a historian based at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey*, from the 1930s to the ‘50s, helped popularize the concept among policy elites and ordinary Americans alike.
Before then, many military planners and civilian leaders spoke of “national defense.” But that phrase referred to matters of war only. Unlike us, they had no concept that linked together so many disparate policy domains, from information and infrastructure to terrorism and trade. The rise of “national security” has since helped expand the power of government, defy the very idea of peacetime, and reorganize much of modern life.
Cambridge historian Andrew Preston has counted sitting U.S. presidents publicly mentioning “national security” a mere four times between 1918 and 1931—an average of one utterance for each of the presidents who served during that period. It’s also fewer than the number of times I wrote “national security” in the opening paragraph of this article.
Earle didn’t coin the phrase. Nor was he alone during the so-called “world crisis” of the 1930s and ’40s in advocating for a more aggressive military and foreign policy. But he was one of the first to develop a full-fledged theory of national security, which he then sold to the country. Speaking in 1940 before a New York auditorium crowded with academics, military men, and journalists, Earle claimed the term “defense” to be “misleading.” The term implied a passive and reactive position—one of “waiting until the enemy is at one’s gates.” But this amounted to suicide in an age of totalitarianism and air power, which gave the advantage to the aggressor. “Perhaps,” Earle said to the audience, “a better word is security.”
The Great Depression and world wars proved that the modern international system was precarious, capable of collapse. But, in Earle’s eyes, while interwar Americans had blithely placed their faith in stability, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan made no such mistake. They prepared for war, engaging in a vast mobilization effort that subsumed under military preparedness everything, Earle once wrote, “from the birth-rate to the most delicate mechanism of the national economy.” And in their conduct with other nations, military concerns now dominated diplomacy, instead of vice versa. While Earle didn’t call for copying and pasting totalitarianism into America, he did look to Germany’s focus on security with admiration, as well as with fear. In making this case, Earle had introduced something new: a “national security imagination,” as I described it in a recent paper in Diplomatic History. This new, militarized way of looking at the world transformed the economy into a geopolitical machine, distant conflicts into immediate dangers, and military preparedness into a permanent condition. It shattered the boundary between civilian and soldier, domestic and foreign, and even war and peace.
“National security” caught on, quickly becoming a watchword of the war effort. A month after Earle’s speech in that New York auditorium, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his first radio address centered on the idea: “My friends,” the president told the nation, “This is not a fireside chat on war. It is a talk on national security.” By 1945, one Washington insider said it had become impossible to “go to a dinner party” without hearing talk of the “future security of the United States.” After the war, interest in security was institutionalized through the National Security Act of 1947, which established the National Security Resources Board, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Council. The National Security Agency arrived five years later.
The imaginative dimensions of national security were on full display during the early Cold War. An ocean away from the U.S. mainland, the countries of Asia were imagined as a set of wobbly dominoes; if one tipped over to communism, it would lead to the obliteration of American security. The Red Scare imagined a communist fifth column infiltrating America. During a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing, one congressman berated a women-led pacifist organization’s “fight for peace” for its “disarming effect” on national security. And civil defense initiatives imagined the home as a site of national security, as families built nuclear bunkers and bought Armageddon supplies. “Plant security consciousness in your own mind,” an internal NSA motivational poster instructed, “cultivate security consciousness in the minds of others,” and, “reap the satisfaction of doing your part in protecting our national security.” It was imagined to be everyone’s job.
More recently, the war on terror expanded the national security imagination. The 9/11 Commission named “failure of imagination” as one of the critical errors leading up to the attack on September 11, 2001. Simply put, experts had failed to imagine a civilian aircraft being converted into a ballistic missile. The authors went on to propose “routinizing, even bureaucratizing, the exercise of imagination.” It was a proposal that Edward Mead Earle might have appreciated, but it was one that South Park brutally satirized in its “Imaginationland” trilogy. After terrorists hijack America’s imagination in the cartoon series, the Pentagon decides, absurdly, to nuke it. “It’s time to go in and get our imaginations under control,” a general urges.
Before the United States entered World War II, Earle declared that “security involves more than defense.” It was an elastic and expansive alternative, “more concerned with measures that prevent trouble than with those which salvage what one can from disaster.” But this also rendered the concept uncontainable.
What was not connected to national security was hard to say, as feelings of insecurity pushed “national security” to cover more and more policy areas, like a can of spilled paint. Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote that “war is the continuation of policies by other means.” But, as the Georgetown law professor Rosa Brooks argues, “those ‘other means’ have expanded beyond recognition.”
So totalizing is the conception of national security today that it has even recast commercial disagreements with America’s closest allies as existential threats. Last year the Trump administration labeled Canada a “national security threat” because of its steel exports. This kind of rhetorical escalation would have been unthinkable before Earle’s language took hold. When, during the Depression, imports threatened to undermine U.S. businesses, Congress took action. But politicians did not express their concerns in terms of defense, and the 283-page protectionist law they passed, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff act, made no reference at all to it. Trade, in other words, was not a part of defense.
Now, “national security” threatens to swallow everything. It’s hard to challenge it, because there are threats worth guarding against. But we might reasonably ask if the concept has nevertheless been pushed too far. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Americans didn’t subsume every area of policymaking under “security,” when peace advocacy and the import of foreign car parts weren’t treated as existential threats. Defense was a wartime concept, not an all-purpose excuse for officials to conceal or destroy information. Remembering this, we might seek something similar today—to put national security back in its box, and, perhaps, in so doing, to breathe more easily.
*This article has been updated to clarify the location of the Institute for Advanced Study.