• Colloques / Journées d'études,

War in Modern U.S. History

Publié le 8 avril 2024 Mis à jour le 21 mai 2024

le 27 mai 2024


Bâtiment Max Weber (W)

Salle de séminaire n°2
What role does the military play in the history of the United States? Although the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 marked an important step toward the end of the so-called “forever war,” this question remains as relevant as ever. Concerns over the threat posed by China have pushed U.S. defense spending to record levels and Washington is committed to supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia. Neither is this a new problem: at least since C. Wright Mills published The Power Elite in 1956 and President Dwight D. Eisenhower popularized the concept of the “military-industrial complex” in his farewell address, it has drawn the interest of many social scientists (Ledbetter 2011). Each in their own way, they have demonstrated the centrality of war in American history with books whose titles speak volumes: A Country Made by War (Perret 1989), In the Shadow of War (Sherry 1995), and Shaped by War and Trade (Katznelson and Shefter 2002).

The impact of these works has remained limited, however. Michael Sherry has rightly deplored the fact that “too few historians fully engage” with the importance of war in U.S. history (Sherry 2018). One might say that the field of modern American history experiences a kind of cognitive dissonance: despite the ever-increasing number of works dedicated to specific conflicts, the profession as a whole continues to display little interest in the long-term influence of war and the military on U.S. history. In this sense, military history offers another example of the “Jack-in-the-Box” problem formulated by Jon Butler almost twenty years ago in relation to religious history: these two fields “stand outside the interpretative mainstream” of modern US history, in which war and religion make episodic interventions without leaving a deep mark (Butler 2004).

This dissonance reflects a wider trend in American political culture. As historians Andrew Cayton and Fred Anderson have described, many Americans still tend to perceive their country as a fundamentally peaceful nation that has gone to war only on rare occasions and in response to unprovoked aggression. According to this popular myth, war is the exception rather than the norm, a practice fundamentally contrary to the founding values of the United States. This selective view of the past is enshrined into the landscape of the Mall in Washington, D.C., where monuments to the Revolution, the Civil War and the Second World War—all seen as “good wars” in which the country fought for noble ideals—have pride of place, while the more controversial wars of expansion against Mexico or Indian nations are ignored. While this highly official space acknowledges the centrality of war in American history, it presents a sanitized account that reinforces an exceptionalist view of American history in which war is presented as un-American (Anderson and Cayton 2005).
To be sure, the situation within academia is not as dire. Since the 1970s, military history is no longer limited to a traditional approach focused on battles and generals. The emergence of the “new military history” has encouraged interactions with other social sciences. Now better known as war & society, this hybrid approach focuses on how war and the military are intertwined with the world around them (Citino 2007, Citino and Biddle 2014). Though it is relatively well-established, the field continues to suffer from a lack of institutional coherence, as it lacks its own scholarly association, journal, and graduate programs. Its interdisciplinarity is both its key strength and its major weakness, since most scholars were originally trained in other fields and therefore lack a certain esprit de corps.

There are several signs that this field is finally coming of age. The creation of a number of book series on the topic, such as “Military, War, and Society in Modern American History” at Cambridge University Press and “War and Society in North America” at Ohio University Press, bears witness to this growing recognition. There have also been a number of major recent publications demonstrating the central role played by the military in American society, such as Beth Bailey’s America’s Army (2009) and Jennifer Mittelstadt’s The Rise of the Military Welfare State (2015). But perhaps the most important sign of the mounting attention paid to such subjects within the profession is the growing number of papers dealing with war at major conferences such as those of the Organization of American Historians or the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (more than a dozen at the latter in June 2023, for example).

Most of this activity has taken place in the United States, with the result that scholars interested in those topics but based in Europe have remained somewhat isolated, lacking a place to share their findings and to connect with each other. This symposium aims to remedy this shortcoming by bringing young scholars from France and Europe to Paris for a day, with the goal of publishing their papers as a special issue of an English-language journal. We welcome contributions covering the period from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries and related to the field of war & society in the United States, regardless of their specific emphasis (economic, political, cultural, etc.). Our goal is to demonstrate the dynamism of war & society, and in so doing to debunk still-pervasive clichés about military history as old-fashioned or not critical enough of its own subject. To the contrary, this event aims to show that there are many new and insightful ways to approach the question of the place of the military in U.S. history. By inviting respondents from other cultural areas, we also want to open up avenues for comparative reflection.


9h15 – 9h30 : Welcome
9h30 – 9h45 : Opening remarks by Olivier Burtin and Hélène Solot
9h45 – 11h15 : Panel 1. War and Society in the World
Chair : Pauline Peretz (Université Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint Denis)
Johannes Nagel (Justus Liebig University Giessen), “U.S. Military Reform and the Emergence of a World Society of States, 1865-1905.”
Thomas Bottelier (Sciences Po Paris), “Empire by construction: Inter-Allied defence aid and the origins of the U.S. base archipelago in the 1940s.”
François Doppler-Speranza (Université de Lorraine), “What the Global Owes to the Local: Base Culture Beyond the U.S. Military Presence in France after 1967.”
11h15 – 11h30 :  Coffee break
11h30 – 12h30 : Panel 2. War and Peace: Blurred Lines and Legacies
Chair : Paul Lenormand (Université Paris Nanterre)
Andrew Houck (Université Paris Nanterre), “The Frustrating Crossroads of Command: Andrew Johnson, Restoration, and Military Supremacy in Civil War Tennessee, 1862-1865.”
Lucie Genay (Université de Limoges), “‘Atoms for Peace’ and ‘Atoms for War’: the Impossible Divorce? A Case Study of the Idaho National Laboratory, the Birthplace of Nuclear Power.”
12h30 – 14h : Lunch break
14h – 15h30 : Keynote Conference
Professor Beth Bailey (University of Kansas), "Building a Big Tent: Borders, Boundaries, and Belonging".
15h30 – 15h45 : Coffee break
15h45 – 17h45 : Panel 3. Culture and Cultural Representations at/in War
Chair : Julie Le Gac (Université Paris Nanterre)
Simona Tobia (Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour), “Power and American Military Intelligence: a World War II Top-Secret Interrogation Center and its Cold War Legacy.”
Malcolm Craig (Liverpool John Moores University), “Playing Hot Wars in the Cold War: Tabletop role-playing games and masculine pleasure cultures of the post-nuclear world.”
Katharina Gerund (Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg), “From ‘Unofficial Ambassadors’ to ‘Happy Home Front Heroines’: The Changing Roles of Modern Military Spouses.”
Anne-Lise Dall’Agnola (Cresppa-CSU / INU Champollion), “‘Resilient Warriors’: 21st Century ‘Wounded Warriors’ and the New ‘Supercrips.’”
17h45 – 18h : Concluding remarks by Olivier Burtin and Hélène Solot

Mis à jour le 21 mai 2024