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Arsenal of Democracy?: The United States and the World since 1945


Admission requirements

Bachelor’s degree.

Note: This course is intended for students from a limited number of programmes. Because of the limited capacity available for each programme, you may be placed on a waiting list. Students in the MA program in North American Studies (NAS) and if their places are filled, those in Literary Studies will have priority. The definite admission will be made according to the position on the waiting list and the number of places that will be available after the NAS students have been placed. In total there is room for a maximum of 24 students in the seminar.


This course traces and analyzes the significance of war, human rights, and democracy for the American people, U.S. institutions, and U.S. foreign relations from the 1940s to the early 2000s. The central research question framing this course is: how did war shape the structures, practices, and values of U.S. democracy from the Second World War to the War on Terror?
The Second World War sparked intense interest in democracy and human rights in the United States, leading many U.S. leaders and intellectuals to the conclusion that democracy was the essential ingredient for international peace and stability. Only a world of democracies, they contended, could prevent a recurrence of the economic and political crises of the 1930s and 1940s. American democratic ideals took practical form in the early postwar era as the United States engaged in unprecedented occupations of Germany and Japan intended to implant democratic institutions and consciousness. The onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s and the globalization of the conflict in the early 1950s intensified the U.S. focus on democracy. In a pattern that would continue for the duration of the superpower confrontation, U.S. presidents, policymakers, and thinkers repeatedly described the Cold War as a struggle between democracy and totalitarianism, and articulated U.S. foreign policy as reflecting a deep-seated desire to promote democracy. U.S. government agencies and non-state actors such as the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and, beginning in the mid-1980s, the National Endowment for Democracy sponsored efforts to promote democratic norms and values overseas. Underscoring the importance of democratic ideals in shaping U.S. perceptions of the Cold War, a number of prominent Americans championed the collapse of the Communist bloc between 1989 and 1991 as a defining victory for democracy.
The U.S. emphasis on democracy as the lynchpin of foreign policy co-existed, however, with anti-democratic practices at home and abroad. During the Second War, U.S. national security concerns facilitated violations of civil rights and liberties, including the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans. During the Cold War, U.S. leaders at the national, state, and local levels frequently described the conflict as a Manichean struggle between democratic freedom and “totalitarian” slavery and embraced anticommunism as a rationale for waging a systematic campaign against perceived subversives. Domestically, their efforts redefined the boundaries of acceptable democratic liberalism by excluding communists and their associates and served as ammunition to oppose a broad range of progressive activism, including African American civil rights, labor unions, feminism, and homosexuality. Internationally, the United States supported coups against numerous left-leaning democratic regimes, buttressed repressive allies, and constructed hundreds of military bases.
Correspondingly, in the mid-20th century, the massive expansion of the U.S. warfare state transformed the relationship between ordinary citizens and the federal government. The exigencies of military mobilization during the Second World War led the government to claim new forms of authority and make novel demands on the American people, entering into daily life as never before. At the same time, expanded opportunities for military service, along with the enormous domestic demand for manufacturing and agricultural production facilitated claims on citizenship, particularly by women and non-whites. In the Cold War, a robust national security state developed in response to the superpower competition. Over the following decades, war and militarism took center-stage in the United States, fueling unprecedented state formation in an era of rapid federal government expansion, underpinning the economy, and entering into the daily life and cultural imaginaries of ordinary citizens.
The U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War was a watershed moment in U.S. history. By the late 1960s, many ordinary Americans and elected officials had concluded that the war was a mistake, and that the heavy cost—in blood, treasure, and lost credibility—was the price of unchecked militarism. Over the course of the 1970s, activists and elected officials operated in the shadow of Vietnam, rejecting the Cold War logic of the previous two decades and advocating a U.S. commitment to human rights, nuclear non-proliferation, and deepening global interdependence. In particular, the decade witnessed a surge in human rights activism in the United States as Americans from the grassroots to the Oval Office sought to insert human rights onto the political landscape. An era of crisis in U.S. Cold War leadership, the 1970s were a potential inflection point in the history of U.S. war and militarism.
Yet in subsequent decades, war and militarism remained defining features of modern U.S. history. During the 1980s, the Ronald Reagan administration won congressional approval for a massive increase in U.S. defense spending and embraced democracy promotion as a mechanism to promote U.S. Cold War goals. In the early post-Cold War era, despite intense political partisanship, the maintenance of a vast and unrivaled U.S. military with a globe-spanning footprint enjoyed bipartisan support. The U.S. engaged in a spate of military interventions in the 1990s that included the Balkans, Central America, the Horn of Africa, and the Middle East; domestically, militaristic language and imagery permeated policy debates on issues such as drugs, criminal policing, and immigration. Less than three decades after leaving South Vietnam, the U.S. response to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks illuminated the centrality of war and militarism in modern U.S. history. The U.S. effort to apprehend perceived terrorists, dubbed the War on Terror, quickly metastasized into a sprawling and dysfunctional system in which tens of thousands were incarcerated in U.S.-run prisons overseas and an archipelago of “black sites” where torture was the norm. Correspondingly, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 and Iraq in 2003 led to deeply destabilizing conflicts; by 2020, an estimated 929,000 people had been killed directly in the violence of the U.S. post-9/11 wars, 38 million had been displaced, and the United States had spent $8 trillion.
This course thus examines a defining paradox in recent U.S. history: on the one hand, democratic ideals obtained a signal role in shaping how Americans engaged the wider world. On the other hand, in the interest of defending democracy against perceived subversive ideas, Americans engaged in anti-democratic practices at home and abroad. On one level, this course considers Americans’ evolving relationship with war, studies war’s influence on racial, gender, cultural, and economic developments, and explores the extent to which American life itself has become militarized. On another level, the course examines the changing relationship between democracy and human rights and U.S. foreign relations during the Cold War, the early post-Cold War era, and the War on Terror. The course balances a chronological progression with a topical approach that includes historical perspectives on war and militarism, human rights advocacy and state violence, neoliberalism and democracy promotion, and humanitarianism. The course will also blend a study of U.S. domestic developments and foreign policy with a transnational approach that analyzes the flow of ideas and the impact of advocacy networks across national borders.

Course objectives

Students will gain knowledge and understanding regarding:

  • the history of the United States;

  • the history of war, human rights, and democracy;

  • debates regarding key themes such as race, gender, transnational approaches to U.S. history, U.S. politics, and foreign policy;

  • trends in American historiography during the twentieth century and beyond.
    Students will practice their ability to:

  • summarize, analyze, and discuss key texts in American history and human rights history;

  • place those texts in their historical context and identify the political and ethical values that influenced them (relativism);

  • relate historiographical debates to contemporary issues;

  • write concise pieces that analyze set texts;

  • introduce an oral discussion of a set text;

  • write a research essay about a topic in American history.


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction

Literature seminar.

Attendance is required. If a student cannot attend class, he or she needs to contact the instructor in advance with an explanation. The instructor will then decide if it is excusable and if and how the student can make up the missing work.

Assessment method


Research Proposal (10%);
Research essay (5000 words) (60%);
Oral presentation (10%);
Assignments (literature reviews) and class participation (20%).


See assessment.


If the final grade is insufficient, only the research essay can be rewritten.

Inspection and feedback
How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

John Bodnar, Divided by Terror: American Patriotism After 9/11 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021)

Mark Philip Bradley, The World Reimagined: Americans and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016)

Gregory A. Daddis, Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men’s Adventure Magazines (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020)

Petra Goedde, The Politics of Peace: A Global Cold War History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

Mary Louise Roberts, What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France (University of Chicago Press, 2013)

Stuart Schrader, Badges without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019)

Sarah B. Snyder, From Selma to Moscow: How Human Rights Activists Transformed U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).

Additional literature and primary sources will be indicated on the course syllabus and made available through Brightspace and/or a course shelf in the University Library.


Enrolment through My Studymap is mandatory.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Arsenaal


Not applicable