American Home Fronts: Reflections on Domestic Politics after 9/11

Laura McEnaney. Magazine of History. Volume 25, Issue 3. July 2011.

As we reflect on the ten year mark since the 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, D. C. it may be difficult to separate our personal memories from our lesson plans. September n was an event so shocking and terrifying, so vividly recorded by modern media, that it is hard to erase the tapes in our heads of where we were, what we watched, and whom we called first. For some, “Ground Zero” was perilously close, within range to see and smell firsthand. For most others, it was an attack on far-away places but on targets immediately familiar—iconic buildings that had likely made it into our vacation photos. Ten years later, the event still looms large and we live its domestic consequences on a daily basis. We lack sufficient distance from the tragedy to make sense of it, and we have only the beginnings of the documentation required for a fully evolved history lesson. To fill the void, it is thus tempting to teach September 11 as a string of personal anecdotes, a kind of curricular talk therapy that helps those of us who lived it continue to process a horrific collective moment while we wait for more documents to be processed and more time to pass. But instead, we must tether our historical memories to our historical methods, coaching citizen-students away from the kind of emotionalism that has burdened our public discussions thus far. Our 9/11 lesson plans may well start with anecdote but they should end with analysis.

One way to do this is to explore how the United States became a “home front” for President George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” and how this recent home front compares with others in history. Although the day itself was not the official start of a war, September 11 was, in fact, the start of a war story. As Bush said on September 13, “we have just seen the first war of the 21st century.” And it was only days later that Congress authorized him to deploy troops, first to Afghanistan and then two years later to Iraq. But the “war on terror” is not a conventional fight with clearly delineated borders between military and civilian activity; it appears to be openended, with multiple and varied fronts, with both hot spots and stalemates. It is thus necessary to be flexible about the elements that make up a war’s domestic side and to think about “home front” as an elastic term and conceptual framework that can include many elements. One way to draw the comparison is to think about a home front as a constellation of domestic policies, dialogues, and daily habits. Reaching back into each moment of national, war-related crisis, we can look for similarity, divergence, or intriguing intersections among these fronts, an exercise that requires a kind of plodding analysis that slows the momentum of whatever 9/11-related flashpoint playing itself out in the media.

Of Friends and Foes

Starting with domestic policies, it is easy to see that control of information, speech, and visual imagery has been part of every home front experience, especially as the American state has grown over the twentieth century. World War II’s Committee on Public Information constructed the German “Hun,” World War II’s Office of War Information generated slogans and images of German and Japanese foes, and a wide network of government propaganda offices in the fifties cranked out the metaphors and narratives for Americans to make sense of their local experience of a global Cold War. Comparatives with September 11’s aftermath can generate discussion about how states construct “the enemy” in the lead-up to war or during the fight itself, how effectively wartime governments have policed war’s home front information, and how detractors from official narratives have been treated.

When the first of 9/11’s wars began, the Defense Department confirmed its ban on media coverage of coffins returning from Afghanistan through Dover Air Force Base, and it expanded that ban in March 2003 as the second 9/11-related war commenced in Iraq. As the late George Roeder’s work on censorship has shown, domestic policies that determine what is seen and unseen matter a great deal, for they affect Americans’ ability to have a “mature understanding” of war and its costs. Throughout World War I, and not until almost two years into World War II, home front citizens saw no photographs of dead American soldiers. The visual landscape of 9/11’s wars has been little different. When the Los Angeles Times in May 2005 published its sixmonth survey of Afghanistan and Iraq war images appearing in major newspapers and news magazines, it found only one photograph of a dead soldier, and precious few depictions of wounded, or even grieving soldiers. Sending our students to search for home front images of the price of 9/11’s foreign wars will surely turn up little, but it might be a good exercise nonetheless, for it can point them back to a comparative discussion of policies that regulate information during war. Given that our collective September 11 moment began with such lurid images, the absence of visuals about its military consequences is striking.

Domestic policies in the wake of 9/11 emerged out of particular dialogues—or discourses—that tried to make sense of the new. The attacks, after all, were unprecedented for Americans, a frightening and novel experience that had yet to be described, interpreted, and framed. President Bush began immediately to use terms like “evil” and “enemies,” and he introduced a “war on terrorism” as the central framework for the national security policies he would soon pursue. But even as he called the hijackers “evildoers,” he was also careful not to vilify people of Arab descent living in the United States, perhaps a lesson from World War II’s treatment of Japanese-Americans. He told New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and New York Governor George Pataki that “our Nation must be mindful that there are thousands of Arab- Americans who live in New York City who love their flag.” Days later, he went to Washington D.C.’s Islamic Center and stood at a mosque with American Muslim leaders to urge tolerance and respect for difference. The faces of the hijackers, he said, were not the faces of Islam. “Islam is peace,” he said, and Muslims in the United States were not potential terrorists but “friends and citizens, tax paying citizens … doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads.”

Bush’s exhortations for racial and religious tolerance can be another departure point for a comparative analysis of home fronts. Discourses about friends and foes emerge quickly on the road to war and then crystallize during the fight into “truths” about a particular group or set of issues. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, for example, elected officials, military leaders, and civilian opinion makers became “obsessed,” as historian John Dower has written, “with the uniquely evil nature of the Japanese.” But World War II did not create narratives of Japanese dehumanization, says Dower, it “simply pried them loose.” It is worth examining how this claim may have been true after September 11, as well especially as U.S. troops began fighting in the Middle East, a region already associated in American culture with nationalist fanaticism (like the famed Japanese suicide bombers), religious fundamentalism, and violent extremism. World War II might be a satisfying, if too obvious comparison, so urging students to think through other home front discourses in moments of international crisis can lead to new questions. For example, with the exception of the Korean War the United States did not engage in sustained military combat with the Chinese. Nor did the Cold War with the Soviet Union turn into a shooting war between U.S. and Soviet troops. And yet, American culture was rife with metaphors, images, and narratives about the “red menace” and its potential to attack and undo our sacred institutions from within and without. This raises a question about wars and home fronts: do we need an on-going combat war to have a home front? Has our culture produced discourses about security threats and enemies, real and potential, even without a shooting war? The long Cold War suggests yes, but what does September 11’s aftermath call to mind? What, then, is a home front in eras of permanent military readiness?

Between Routine and Caution

If daily habits are any indication of what constitutes a home front, then the ten years after September 11, even with two wars, does not stand out as a time when Americans found their lives changed in any significant way. As politicians and cultural commentators insisted that we were a different America and as they cast the attacks as a rupture, a pivot into a new era, American citizens wondered what would actually be asked of them. As it turns out, with the notable exception of members of the military and their families, very little. A comparison of the 9/11, World War II, and Cold War home fronts can raise interesting questions about what the state asks of its citizens when the country goes to war.

Recall the days and months after September 11, as President Bush tried to calm fears, citing examples of ordinary people “working and shopping and playing … going to movies and to baseball games.” Part of this came out of a concern about the economy, which had been slowing even before the planes ravaged New York’s financial district and disrupted travel, but it was mainly about restoring national confidence so that people would carry on as usual. Yet even as Bush tried to showcase American resiliency, his administration crafted rhetoric and policies that stressed vulnerability. The new Homeland Security Advisory System, created in March 2002, presented a rainbow color chart of threat levels designed “to create a common vocabulary … for an ongoing national discussion about the nature of the threats that confront the homeland.” But as the Bush administration soon learned, it is tricky to simultaneously stoke and contain security fears. Early on, the President tried to calibrate the new message. Just two months after 9/11, he told an audience, “A terrorism alert is not a signal to stop your life. It is a call to be vigilant, to know that your government is on high alert, and to add your eyes and ears to our efforts to find and stop those who want to do us harm.”

This official ambivalence—a call for both routine and caution, and the enlisting of the American people in a kind of homeland defense effort, recalls the political moods and mindsets of the Cold War era. On this home front, too, the nascent war seemed intangible at first, then more real when the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949 and when U.S. troops went to Korea in 1950. And much like President Bush, the first Cold War presidents, Harry S. Truman and D wight D. Eisenhower, struggled to find the right tone for their home fronts. President Truman spoke of the “terrifying facts” of a new atomic reality, while President Eisenhower told his security planners to “talk calmly” to Americans, to project “a feeling of safety and not of hysteria.” Then, too, presidents and opinion leaders sounded the alarm about “a different kind of enemy” outside our borders, pointed to new and potent internal dangers, and cited the potential costs of apathy in defending home and community. In fact, some of the Cold War’s landmark documents declared that the struggle with the Soviets would demand a new level of popular engagement in diplomatic affairs. NSC-68, for example, claimed that the brewing Cold War required the kind of “ingenuity, sacrifice, and unity” on display during World War II, and that the stalemate with the Soviets was not an abstraction but “in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world [was] at stake.” And as the arms race escalated, Cold War leaders called on Americans to learn a “new language of atomic warfare,” and even further, to remake their intimate, domestic spaces into bunkers by stocking supplies and building fallout shelters.

Our current system of “homeland security” has a similar sound and feel to this era of Cold War “civilian defense.” In both moments, presidents and policymakers hoped that complex foreign policy priorities could be translated into simple directives to inspire people’s participation in home front defense. In the fifties, cold warriors talked about “preparedness” and “readiness,” and in the last decade, we have been asked to be “ready,” “make a plan” and “be informed.” In the fifties, citizens were asked to learn a “new language” of atomic threat, and after 9/11, we were asked to learn a “common vocabulary,” to be part of a continuous national conversation about external and internal threats. In both eras, leaders have tried to prepare citizens for a permanent war—a new normal—even as they have tried to reassure people that most of daily life can go on uninterrupted. No president from the Cold War or 9/11 home front has been able to find the right mixture of alarm and calm that could both energize civil defense or “homeland security” efforts and reassure people to proceed as usual. As Secretary of State John Foster Dulles lamented to his National Security Council colleagues in the fifties, it was impossible “to sustain simultaneously an offensive and defensive mood in a population.”

Of course, the majority of Americans did not feel the Cold War’s impact on everyday life in the way that they had during World War II, when war brought migration, internment, a new job, a personal loss, an income gain, a novel adventure, or hesitation and regulation of what could be seen and said, purchased and eaten. How does the post-9/11 war on terror size up in this comparative? During Bush’s war on terror, and now in President Barack Obama’s administration, the fight against terrorism is leaving a very light footprint, indeed. Far more have likely experienced the financial crisis than the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan (and many military families have felt these crises doubly). In the year after the attacks, how many volunteered to become part of a civilian army to shore up Homeland Security’s counterterrorism efforts? A full ten years later, how many have joined the Citizen Corps or signed up for the Department of Homeland Security’s “family preparedness” email updates? Even if we had exact, credible numbers, they would not show even a sizeable minority of citizens participating. Indeed, such was also the case in the early atomic age, when Americans were asked to build and stock bomb shelters. Few heeded the call, with most rebuffing requests to shift mindsets and personal habitats toward permanent readiness—even as they endorsed larger defense budgets.

War and the Role of Government

That the United States has been able to combine small domestic sacrifice with big global wars may be a product of a conservative ambivalence about the role of government If the impact on everyday life of two wars has been slight in the last ten years, it is because Republican architects have wanted it that way. The Bush administration and the conservative movement in the era of 9/11 have wrestled with how to make war without making a state. That is, they have been unable to reconcile their historic hostility to and distrust of “big government” with the kinds of institutions they have wanted to build to implement their national security vision. Here, again, comparative analysis of wars past can be made. As Julian Zelizer has suggested, the desire for national security and atomic supremacy after World War II forced antistatist conservatives to face the reality that security could only be had with “more spending and taxes, more intrusions into the privacy of Americans, increased citizen obligations … and participation in international alliances.” Indeed, liberal and conservative debates in the early Cold War turned not on whether to endorse national security doctrine but about how precisely to build the government needed to enact that doctrine. As Michael Hogan has shown, “At issue in all of these debates was the central question of state making,” specifically, the budgets, policies, laws, and bureaucracies created to sustain national security. As Hogan puts it, conservatives “were prepared to give antistatism a back seat to anticommunism.”

During the Vietnam War, liberal Democrats, too, discovered waging war required difficult domestic tradeoffs, that “the promise of providing guns and butter seemed false,” as Zelizer suggests. In the aftermath of that war, a new conservative movement emerged, and it never resolved those tensions between small government and big war chest. Conservatives in the eighties and nineties embraced both antistatism and national security, and President Bush inherited that legacy. When he and his policymakers decided after 9/11 to pursue a war on terror, they, too, found it impossible to expand U.S. power abroad and shrink the government. Anti-government conservatives in Bush’s Own party eventually criticized him for this, and those critiques now lay at the heart of some of our current political debates over the size and scope of government. U.S. politics since World War II have been defined by this challenge, what Eisenhower called the struggle to balance “security with solvency.” Or as Zelizer phrases it, “The arsenal and the democracy [have] posed threats to each other.”


The historical scholarship that analyzes the domestic dimensions of 9/11 is in its infancy, but we should not avoid starting complex and difficult conversations with our students and museum patrons. Depending on their age, they bring with them a whole set of images and notions about what that day was for them and what it should mean for us now. Indeed, the domestic fallout from 9 /11 can be detected in so many current policy debates, and as we puzzle over what the attacks have meant for our country, we should bear in mind that we will be talking increasingly with a generation that did not five through that event as a defining moment. The current disputes about immigration, mosques, and civil liberties must be anchored in historical analysis, and though the history of 9/11 is still fresh, the possible intersections are there with older, more seasoned scholarship. The passions surrounding the building of a mosque near Ground Zero, for example, have resurrected and reinvigorated discussion about the presence of Arab Americans and Muslims in the U.S., but this fight has its roots in the long histories of race, immigration, religious expression, urban politics, and historical commemoration.

Thinking about 9/11’s aftermath as a home front, too, can encourage a larger conversation about other home fronts in American history, coaxing our discussion away from overheated rhetoric and toward careful detective work, using primary documents, comparative analysis, and historiographical debate to guide us. Ten years later, a memorial has not yet filled the spaces where the towers fell, but both museum and memorial are currently under construction. Planners promise that the space will bring people “together again to remember and reflect, in the same spirit of unity that was shared in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.” But when the sites open in September 2011 and 2012, the public mourning will begin again—the controversies, too—and it will become immediately clear that historical perspective should inform both.