Review: HOTCUS Postgraduate Conference, ‘Endangered America: Processing the Threat of Annihilation’

‘Winning Minds and Hearts: Constructing National Identity in US History’, HOTCUS Postgraduate Conference, Northumbria University, 9 September 2016.

In the fourth of our review series for the HOTCUS Postgraduate Conference, ‘Winning Minds and Hearts: Constructing National Identity in US History’, Jennifer O’Reilly reviews a panel featuring Andrew Monteith (Indiana University) and Mark Eastwood (University of Nottingham).  This follows Jon Coburn’s review of Professor Simon Hall’s keynote address, on Leonard Matlovich, Natasha Neary’s review of the ‘Crossing Boundaries’ panel, and Jennifer O’Reilly’s review of the ‘Situating Servicemen and Women’.

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The notion of America under threat has circulated in popular discourse for decades and remains a prominent concern today. In a recent poll featured in USA Today, conducted by Monmouth University, 78% of respondents said that they felt the American way of life was under threat ‘a great deal’ or at least ‘some’. One of the final panels of the day explored this enduring narrative of threat in American popular culture and in the media. Andrew Monteith (Indiana University) presented examples of American civil religion in annihilation fantasies from the 1950s to the present whilst Mark Eastwood (University of Nottingham) interrogated John F. Kennedy’s relationship with the media and the press’s role in the resumption of atmospheric nuclear testing in 1962-3. Each paper explored the discourse around the notion of America under threat and the representation and management of these threats in various formats.

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Having travelled all the way from the University of Indiana, Monteith presented his fascinating research on what he has termed ‘threat narratives’ and their importance in the construction of American national identity. Monteith argued that these threat narratives, sometimes referred to as annihilation fantasies, cast America as both exceptional and vulnerable. Examining movies, novels, and even video games including Olympus has Fallen (2013), Red Dawn (2012) and Call of Duty: Ghosts (2013), he demonstrated how these narratives serve to establish America as special. They also define what ‘freedom’ is and identify forces that threaten this freedom. Threat narratives, he argued, are a form of American civil religion and through the presentation of the United States and its values as under threat, the nation is portrayed as sacred.

So, what is the source of the threat inherent in these narratives? Monteith’s position is that these narratives often work best when they draw on real-life fears, and these fears have unsurprisingly changed over time. From 1950s nuclear films which cast the Soviets as the perpetrators of the threat to America to more contemporary examples, such as Tim LaHaye’s fiction which addresses post 9/11 fears and cast Islamic terrorists as the most pertinent threat to the nation. Monteith also argued that there is a dualism at play in these narratives. LaHaye’s novels posit external and additionally internal forces that pose a threat, including certain domestic policies that weaken the nation, most notably Monteith argues, political correctness. What all of these narratives have in common, he concluded, is their presentation of the nation as both exceptional and besieged, and the creation of a dualism between who is under threat and who poses a threat. As a result, these fantasies prompt audiences to take an ideological position about what it means to be American and who can be included in that identity.

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Taking us back to nuclear threat narratives, Mark Eastwood addressed President Kennedy’s use of the press to shape the discourse around the reintroduction of atmospheric nuclear testing in 1962-3. Eastwood’s paper drew on his recent research at the Kennedy Library in Boston and the New York Public Library and forms part of his wider thesis on pro-nuclear discourse.  More specifically, he centred on how this discourse was mobilised by various administrations throughout the Cold War in order to sell their policies to the American public. Eastwood argued that the Kennedy administration’s approach to handling the media represented a significant departure from what came before. Unlike his predecessors, Kennedy understood the importance of the relationship between the media and the administration, leveraging this understanding to utilise the press as a tool to generate support for his nuclear policies. Eastwood suggested that two things primarily distinguished Kennedy’s handling of the media: the adoption of a personal approach, in building relationships with journalists, and the implementation of structural changes to the way the press interacted with the administration.

These distinctions were rendered explicit through Eastwood’s examination of Kennedy’s decision to resume atmospheric nuclear testing in late 1961. In the aftermath of this decision, Eastwood demonstrated the crucial role played by the media in rallying public support and in allaying fears about nuclear fallout. His paper illustrated how Kennedy strategically exploited fears about nuclear fallout and shaped public discourse around the irresponsibility of Soviet testing versus the scientific superiority of American testing, claiming that that the latter would produce no fallout and therefore was of no danger to the public.

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The ‘Yankee’ shot, during the Castle series of nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific

This panel sparked interesting debate about how conceptions of American identity have been negotiated during times of perceived threats against the nation. It stimulated discussion about what it has meant to be American in a number of historical contexts, how ideas about national identity have shifted as a result of public discourse, and the role of perceived threats in the media and in popular culture. In particular, this panel highlighted how the ’us-against-them’ mentality explored in both papers was employed to negotiate national identity at moments when the nation was most vulnerable, such as during the Cold War and in the wake of the attacks on 9/11. It also stimulated conversation about what determines Americanness; Monteith in particular explained that conceptions of American identity have historically been focused upon white Christian identities but that definitions of Americanness are becoming more and more diverse within these threat narratives.  These papers provided a sense of closure to the day’s panels and allowed delegates to address and explore the conference theme of constructions of national identity at pivotal times in US history.

About Jennifer O'Reilly

Jennifer is a doctoral student based at Liverpool John Moores University’s Research Centre for Literature and Cultural History. Her current project explores the representation of African American folk belief in the American imagination from the late nineteenth century to the present. Her research is interdisciplinary and traces shifting understandings of African American identity and African-based belief systems in the United States in popular ethnography, literature and film.
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