OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

Mary L. Dudziak

Portrait of Mary L. Dudziak
Image Credit: Catrina Maxwell

Mary L. Dudziak is the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law at Emory University, where she also directs the Project on War and Security in Law, Culture, and Society. She is vice president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. In 2015 she was the Kluge Chair in American Law and Government at the Library of Congress. Her work has been supported by fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Institute for Advanced Study, among others. Dudziak is the author of War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences (2012), Exporting American Dreams: Thurgood Marshall's African Journey (2008), and Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (2nd edition, 2012). She has also edited September 11 in History: A Watershed Moment? (2003) and coedited Legal Borderlands: Law and the Construction of American Borders (2006). She is writing about war, war powers, and political accountability in twentieth-century U.S. history.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

The lecture takes up not only the story of Truman committing troops for the first time to a major overseas war without a war declaration, but also the on-the-ground consequences of this “police action” for Koreans and for US troops and their families.
This lecture will recount U.S. entry into World War I through the story of one lifeboat adrift in the Atlantic Ocean through a cold February night in 1917. Three Americans, who had sailed on the British liner Laconia when it was torpedoed, were onboard the same lifeboat. The fates of these Americans and their country were bound together on that perilous night. Their story, based in part on first-person accounts by survivors, illuminates more than the horror of civilians caught in a warzone. It shows the way American casualties were at the center of U.S. war politics in the ultimate shift in favor of joining World War I. The lifeboat, and the tales told about it, were at the center of an explosive political moment as the country and the president shifted toward declaring war. Ultimately this episode shows the way American deaths in the Atlantic Ocean were an indispensable element in mobilizing the country for war.
As members of Congress gathered in April 1917 to decide whether to declare war on Germany, some legislators arrived with battle scars. For Civil War veterans, the memory of that catastrophic war would inform their understanding of a new conflict. But their experience of war was overtaken as 20th century American wars moved offshore. Distance made war a matter of choice in 1917. This lecture will reveal what it would take to generate sufficient support to enter a faraway war: a politics of catastrophe. Dramatic stories of the deaths of small numbers of Americans who chose to cross an ocean war zone ultimately drove the country to commit soldiers to fight in European trenches. Over one hundred thousand American soldiers died. In World War I and after, dramatic events like torpedoed ocean liners were not a president’s sole reason for entering a war. But broad political mobilization and congressional authorization for distant war, in World War I and after, required a politics of catastrophe.
When is wartime? On the surface, it is a period of time in which a society is at war. But we now live in what President Obama has called "an age without surrender ceremonies." It is no longer easy to distinguish between wartime and peacetime. This lecture argues that wartime is not as discrete a time period as we like to think. Instead, the United States has been engaged in some form of ongoing overseas armed conflict for over a century. Meanwhile policy makers and the American public continue to view wars as exceptional events that eventually give way to normal peace times. This has two consequences. First, because war is thought to be exceptional, "wartime" remains a shorthand argument justifying extreme actions like torture and detention without trial. Second, ongoing warfare is enabled by the inattention of the American people. More disconnected than ever from the wars their nation is fighting, public disengagement leaves us without political restraints on the exercise of American war powers.