As Americans debate their choice of President, enthusiasm for long-term ground wars in the Middle East seems at an all-time low. Both candidates debate the merits of drone warfare in distant lands, or even the desirability (and viability) of a ban on Muslims’ entry to the United States, but what does seem unanimous after two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the U.S. role in the region is best handled by some combination of deploying remote force against “them” over “there,” and preventing “them” from coming to “us” “here.” With many debating whether the country can police its own cities in a way that does not reinforce racial injustice or systemic hierarchies, American appetites for reconfiguring foreign societies to police themselves appears to be at an all-time nadir.
Yet even if Americans seek a more reclusive role vis-à-vis the world (or at least societies wracked by civil war and conflict), what remains clear is that the effects of those wars are rebounding into America itself. Beyond the tens of thousands of veterans who cope with some form of PTSD or physical wounds, American immigration authorities have been criticized for not expediting the entry of former Iraqi or Afghan interpreters whose lives are at danger if they remain in their home countries.
These rebounds occur in a darker way, as well. The sniper who murdered five police officers in Dallas this June was a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. One of the many reforms demanded by activists within the Black Lives Matters movement, meanwhile, is closer scrutiny of the ways in which military equipment originally designed for use in Baghdad or Kabul has been repurposed for use against American citizens in St. Louis or Chicago. And with American troops removed absolved from directly occupying the likes of Fallujah or Lashkar Gah, many of the soldiers and ordinary policemen responsible for ensuring order in the streets of post-American Iraq and Afghanistan are graduates of American training programs.
Connections like these, as our most recent guest to the Global History Forum shows, have histories. A postdoctoral fellow in Global American Studies at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University, Stuart Schrader explores how the United States exported police expertise around the world of the Cold War, particularly from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s. During those years, USAID (the American foreign development aid agency) not only engaged in now-familiar projects of dam-building, road-building, and food aid in the name of “development.” Modernization was conceived not only in terms of kilowatts and calories, but also in terms of the number of fingerprints, and traffic stops; in terms of the number of professionalized, educated, and uniformed cops walking a beat in Saigon or Jakarta.
But Schrader’s work—which he has revised into a book manuscript provisionally titled American Streets, Foreign Territory—explores not only this under-appreciated aspect of modernization and development aid. It also, as our introduction to it suggests, investigates the ways in which a close examination of policing practices blurs the divide between domestic and foreign territory. It explores the ways in which the streets of Watts or Detroit became coconstituted with those of Tehran or Guatemala City. It explores, in short, the transnational lives of the American state during the context of the Cold War and the 1960s, although the entanglements he reveals are still ongoing.
Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director Timothy Nunan spoke with Dr. Schrader by telephone recently to discuss the transnational history of U.S. police advising.
We begin our conversation with Schrader by asking him about his road to the historical profession. Having grown up in New Jersey, Schrader headed to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, to pursue his undergraduate education. He ended up as an English major, but, he explains, seminars with Professor Robert Brigham related to the Cold War piqued his interest as to the linked nature of U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Brigham, he explains, emphasized in classes that “the domestic activism of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was tied to its foreign activism.” In other words, foreign adventurism in Vietnam was best understood not as the betrayal of the liberal mission at home, but rather in terms of an increasingly activist American state integrating and policing realms near and abroad.
Schrader later followed up on these interests by pursuing a PhD in American Studies at New York University. But the line of research that eventually became American Streets, Foreign Territory took some time to mature. “When I started my graduate studies, I thought I would do something that was more traditional in terms of urban studies and community studies. But I continually came across policing as an issue that was ever-present in urban and community life, if not in the scholarship on it.”
In his readings on the subject, moreover, Schrader came across the odd reference that U.S. counterinsurgency programs in South Vietnam were linked to police reform efforts at home. Scholars like Forrest Hylton and Tracy Tullis–trained at NYU in the last fifteen years–along with Christian Parenti had begun to follow up on this line of research. During his time at NYU, moreover, policing became more and more of a subject in national media, suggesting that there was something there.
Following the requisite graduate seminars in New York, he made plans to visit the usual sites on the itinerary of many a historian of U.S. foreign relations: Presidential Libraries like those of John F. Kennedy in Boston; Lyndon Johnson in Austin, Texas, or those of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in Southern California. The U.S. National Archives in College Park, Maryland, was another natural stop.
But, Schrader notes, he soon began encountering the implicit methodological divisions embedded in archives themselves. Schrader’s intuition from the start had been that if he were really interested in the relationship of police apparatuses abroad and domestic agencies, then he had better devote his attention to files related explicitly to U.S. military planning for domestic emergencies, including large-scale political unrest. These research forays, however, proved less compelling than he had hoped.
And working at College Park, he found himself confronting how to research a topic that seemed to straddle the realms of foreign policy and domestic policy. “At College Park,” he explains, “you have to explain whether you’re looking at civilian policy or military policy.”
Rather than digging in his heels on what he thought he should be looking for, Schrader adopted a different strategy. Doing his best to cover both military and civilian affairs, “I took note of names that kept recurring,” explains Schrader. “That led me to try to determine why certain names were appearing where they were appearing. I found a recurrent list of names and institutions that didn’t seem to be confined to one side or the other of the foreign/domestic divide. That observation in the archive led me to conceive the questions, and engage with the research processes, that would drive my project.”
Once the intertwined nature of “local” police reform efforts in the United States with foreign aid to places like South Vietnam, Iran, Guatemala, and elsewhere became apparent, an entire new set of archives became obviously relevant to the project. Policing in the United States remains a domestic issue, but Schrader came to focus on the Office of Public Safety (OPS), the overseas police assistance arm of the U.S. government during the 1960s and 1970s.
In tracking down these new sources and overcoming the foreign/domestic divide embedded in his prior research approaches, Schrader also came across evidence that the liquid nature of that boundary was appreciated not the least by the people he was studying. Looking into American government papers about Vietnam, for example, Schrader would find references to the Watts Riots, which took place in Los Angeles in August 1965.
Conversely, North Vietnamese commanders would later explain the 1968 Tet Offensive by saying that “we learned from Detroit to go to the cities.” (Detroit, like Watts, was the site of major riots in the mid-1960s.) Before these references to African-American rebellions vis-à-vis Vietnam, the intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois fretted over the coming American-led global order by noting that “colonies are the slums of the world,” kept poor and exploited by a stretched web of social, political, and economic relations, and policed intensively, just like the African-American urban neighborhoods he had investigated early in his career. In short, actors on all sides of color and colonial lines understood the implicit connection between domestic policing and colonial interventions abroad.
Some would have written these references off as trivia. Not Schrader. “I paused on that strangeness–why is this here? What is the work that this reference is doing?” he reflects. He decided to treat these cognitive connections—and the governing strategies linked with them—as not peripheral, but rather central to American practices of exercising power abroad during the 1960s. Rather than viewing leaps across the foreign/domestic divide as peripheral to the American state in the world, Schrader’s project views them as central.
Readers might question whether this approach is really so new. As early as the 1950s, the German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote about the “imperial transmission belts” that allowed imperial practices once used only in the exceptional space of colonies to migrate back to domestic cores. Arendt’s contemporary Aimé Césaire and, later, the French philosopher Michel Foucault commented on the “boomerang effect,” whereby (often illiberal) foreign practices re-enter domestic space.
Historians of U.S. foreign relations have lately become keenly attuned to these processes, too: readers might recall our discussion with Northwestern University historian Daniel Immerwahr about the ways in which ideas about “community development” moved from the TVA to Japanese internment camps to postcolonial India, then back to urban policy and the rhetoric of Black Power movements.
Yet Schrader’s work is far more than a paint-by-numbers application of the “boomerang effect.” Schrader articulates skepticism toward the idea of the “boomerang effect” insofar as it risks reifying a separation between the foreign and domestic spheres, whereby identifying the leap between the two spheres–rather than their constant and massive interaction–is presented as the novel move, methodologically speaking.
Further, sometimes, discussions of a transmission belt also tend to support the notion of a liberal domestic sphere and an illiberal imperial sphere. As in the case of tear gas, the supposed domestic application of police technologies was used to legitimize their foreign use in theaters like Vietnam. Further, the ways supposedly objective, standardized, and replicable practices of professional policing acquired new tones when re-inserted into a U.S. domestic sphere makes it difficult to view Schrader’s work as mere application of the boomerang principle.
This emphasis on fluidity matters for Schrader’s broader intervention, which is to show how the United States achieved hegemony across much of the Third World in a way that aimed to maximize its legitimacy. Whereas late-nineteenth century European colonial empires relied to a greater or lesser extent on explicit logics of race and “civilization” to justify their rule over foreign populations, Schrader argues, twentieth century imperial projects turned to new registers of development and security to justify their presence in former colonial territories, which recapitulated race management in a new idiom (a theme that Schrader’s work shares with that of Robert Vitalis, a recent guest to the Global History Forum). This is where institutions like OPS come in.
Schrader’s project shows not only how practices like police advising accomplished this former goal, but how they constituted, he argues, “a new regime of racialized power in the United States. We have all kinds of terms for this: racism without racists, colorblind racism, and so on. I’m trying to understand this change in terms of global practices and global experiments.” In other words, American Streets, Foreign Territory examines how the process of creating a “racial order without racists” shared concerns, institutions, and personnel with the U.S. project of creating an “empire without imperialists abroad.”
Having discussed some of the major methodological interventions of his work, we shift the conversation to discuss the concrete narrative of American Streets, Foreign Territory. A crucial theme of Schrader’s manuscript is the transformation, as much domestically as abroad, of policemen from the unwashed “Keystone Kops” figures they were at the beginning of the twentieth century to the much more professionalized, educated, and technologically advanced force they represent at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Today, police officers in the United States are (generally) equipped with dashboard computers and access to digitized drivers’ and criminal registries, and are mandated to follow standardized procedures for conducting stops. However, it’s important to understand that until the mid-twentieth century, policing was not nearly as professionalized an operation. In many cities, police departments functioned de facto as part of Democratic Party machines. Beat cops were employed to enforce machine rule at the precinct level, and graft and corruption were rife in many a department. Many cops were illiterate, and requirements for college degrees, or even a high school diploma, were uncommon. In some Midwestern cities—later to become hotbeds for police reform efforts—gangsters even infiltrated the police departments and then employed ex-cons to turn the departments into para-criminal institutions themselves. As one police reformer, Lear Reed, reflected, “Police plus politics equals parasites.”
Reformers like Reed, as well as one of his disciples, Byron Engle, sought to change this. Engle, a sharpshooter, favored standardized training regimens for marksmanship and instituted new riot-control training for police officers in Kansas City. Similar reformers elsewhere instituted educational requirements, standardized protocols, and standardized uniforms for cops. Particularly at the time of the Great Migration—when millions of African-Americans migrated from the rural south to northern industrial centers—existing procedural requirements were transformed to be less overtly racially intrusive, though more to avoid scandal or riots than out of concern for civil rights. The match between procedure and actual practice, of course, was loose. Finally, figures like Reed, under the influence of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, instituted programs aimed at combatting Black or Communist “subversion.”
From the start, such programs were highly mobile. Engle took a leave of absence of several years from the Kansas City Police Department to engage in police training missions to Japan following World War II, while the U.S. occupied the country. Thanks to Engle’s advising, Schrader explains, “save for the color of fabric, the new forces in Japan dressed like officers back home, even with rain gear designed for visibility, like Engle’s former colleagues wore.” And much of the gear that cops carried with them, like nightsticks and handcuffs, were introduced to many a Japanese police officer’s belt, as well. Police academies, too, were modeled on those existing in Kansas City.
In other words, American figures like Engle may have been products of specific domestic contexts, like those of Midwestern police departments confronting machine politics, mass Black migration, and the perceived threat of labor and Communism. But the practices they pioneered could quickly go global as the frontal edges U.S. power abroad, especially in locations where U.S. officials perceived those left-wing threats to be powerful. Once there, moreover, they became the pieces in a serially replicable package of police reform that (save for a different shade of navy or olive fabric) could easily be transported to new settings. Culturally specific pieces of police gear, like the “prisoner rope” that Japanese cops formerly used to arrest criminals, were gone. Over time, the standard gear of a police officer or police department in the U.S.-managed world became more and more uniform, from typewriters to fingerprinting kits to walkie-talkies. These patterns of global reorganization were, moreover, preceded by interlinked domestic efforts among police departments concentrated in the Midwest, from Kansas City to St. Louis to Wichita. And after a few years, Engle departed Japan for Turkey to teach countersubversive policing techniques. He never returned to the Kansas City police department. Instead, his return to the United States placed him in CIA headquarters.
Schrader explains that as the Soviet challenge and national liberation wars replaced the Japanese and Germans as challengers to U.S. power on the world scene, U.S. police advising efforts grew in scale and professionalization themselves. Beginning in South Vietnam, in 1955, U.S. police and criminology experts began working for a program to provide aid to South Vietnamese police officers. French efforts to maintain their control of a Indochinese colony had gone poorly, and U.S. experts were convinced that part of the reason was that European colonial regimes were too militarized, secretive, and despotic. By replacing colonial officers with broad punitive powers with professionalized indigenous police forces, the U.S. could prevent Communist infiltration of the Third World while also improving on European techniques. The need to do so became all the more obvious when Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev declared the USSR’s support for national liberation struggles in January 1961. The history of South Vietnam, however, indicates how elusive success in this program would be.
Soon, the “development” of post-colonial societies was taken to encompass not only the construction of dams, or the introduction of new strains of rice, but also the institution of police departments armed and equipped by U.S. trainers. By the 1960s in particular, trainers would be sent to U.S. allies around the world, where they would provide aid and instruction in the use of gear like binoculars, walkie-talkies, tear gas, standardized forms (for the processing of perpetrators), and so on.
Such trainers were not engaged in operations themselves—that is, U.S. police trainers were not out policing the streets of Jakarta or Seoul themselves. Instead, they trained foreign cops to do that work themselves—thus, empire without imperialists. Foreign police officers also frequently traveled to police academies and training centers built expressly for such “North-South” transfers, the most famous being the International Police Academy located in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC.
The institution at the center of it all—and of Schrader’s narrative—was the Office of Public Safety, an office within the United States Agency for International Aid (AID) that existed from 1962 to 1974, which consolidated dispersed activities under AID’s predecessor agency ongoing since the mid-1950s. Byron Engle moved from the shadows of the CIA to a public role as the leader of OPS. It’s crucial to emphasize that while the story that Schrader tells is to some extent inescapably connected with U.S. military aid abroad, OPS was distinct from Pentagon efforts to modernize foreign militaries or intelligence agencies themselves. Many OPS advisers—the men sent to Tehran, Jakarta, or Guatemala City to train police officers and foreign police trainers themselves—had a background in the U.S. military, true. And while archival regulations make the (possible) CIA backgrounds of certain trainers hard to determine, the idea that OPS was only a CIA front is not substantiated by the evidence.
Instead, Schrader suggests, OPS’s role in expanding American control overseas—call it empire or governance—was more subtle. It’s true that often, informal contacts between local police forces, OPS trainers, and clandestine CIA agents at the U.S. Embassies led to U.S.-initiated crackdowns on local labor organizers or leftist movements. A loose lip by an Iranian or Uruguayan police sergeant about their monitoring of a potential Fedayan or Tupamaros cell could become a tip to the “defense attaché” at the Embassy, which could then lead to clandestine action.
But OPS’ techniques were influential in less obvious ways, such as traffic control. Enforcing exported traffic regulations like those taught at Northwestern University’s Traffic Institute not only trained police officers in the art of crowd control, but also licensed them to engage in control of individual drivers, ticketing citizens for traffic violations, thus bringing them into the reach of a state increasingly interested in monitoring and indexing its citizens. Here, too, technologies like National Identity Cards played an important role.
The point, then, is that while OPS and pre-OPS police advising complemented and abetted headline activities, such as coups in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile, it also enabled police departments to come into much more intimate contact with populations, all the while reminding Iranians, Indonesians, South Vietnamese, and others, of the specific kinds of orderly behavior expected of them as citizens.
Other forms of U.S. police expertise and technology migrating to counterinsurgency settings and back, however, were more violent and sinister. One chapter of American Streets, Foreign Territories explores the case of tear gas—more specifically, CS, a kind of tear gas perfected by the 1960s to largely supplant its predecessor, CN. (CN acted marginally more quickly than CS, but produced less debilitating symptoms than CS.) The US and South Vietnamese militaries began deploying CS in Vietnam during the Johnson Administration. The most common usage was to incapacitate opposition forces to make them easier to destroy via conventional munitions.
The Johnson Administration contended with criticism that the use of CS violated international law regarding the use of chemical weapons, even as it was also supplying it more quietly via OPS to many other countries. (Observers will recall the invocation of norms against the use of chemical weapons vis-à-vis U.S. President Barack Obama’s declaration of a “red line” on the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons.)
Whether the military deployment of CS violated such agreements, however, is something Schrader leaves to the international lawyers. What interests him instead is the way in which the Johnson Administration legitimized its use of CS in South Vietnam. In order to justify his policy and pronounce it legal, LBJ explained in 1965 that CS was already being widely used against crowds and riots in America (it wasn’t). Arguments predicated on the existence of a liberal domestic sphere, in other words, justified spaces of exception in the foreign sphere.
Perversely, however, the established use of CS in Vietnam subsequently legitimized its actual use against protesting populations in the United States, on the grounds that it had worked for “crowd control” in South Vietnam. Again, it hadn’t—as noted, the primary use of CS was as an incapacitating agent prior to killing with conventional weapons. Still, the use of CS not only against crowds but also to incapacitate “seditious” groups inside closed spaces expanded within the United States. Police officers frequently deployed the gas to “gas out” Black nationalist and Black Muslim safe houses, and tear gas continually migrated out again to US-backed scenes of counter-rebellion in Rhodesia, South Africa, Israel, Panama, and Iran.
The point, as Schrader shows in this and other lines of analysis in American Streets, Foreign Territory, is that domestic and foreign spheres have to be understood as connected with one another. The use, real or fictional, of a particular technology of order in one or the other sphere legitimized its migration (and adaption) to the other. And frequently, its advertised use (“crowd control”) was quite different from its actual application.
What is more sinister, however, argues Schrader (expanding on the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison scholar Rob Nixon) is how these new modes of policing changed the very temporality of policing and order in the United States itself. The use of tear gas was legitimized on the grounds that deaths resulting from massive violence against crowds had grown unacceptable by the late 1960s. However, rather than reducing deaths when police intervened against crowds (the advertised purpose of CS), tear gas empowered police departments to engage in more preventative kinds of policing—gassing out a Black Panthers safe house before a protest action even took place.
While beyond the bounds of this summary of Schrader’s work, he also reminds us that the 1960s and 1970s saw the elaboration of today’s headline-grabbing practices—“broken windows,” “stop and frisk,” etc.—in policing, often with disastrous consequences for Black populations that these practices racialized as predisposed toward crime. Central to Schrader’s analysis is the context of counterinsurgency in which debates around these practices originally unfolded.
Schrader’s work does not cover the entire history of U.S. overseas police advising. A revised U.S. Foreign Assistance Act banned USAID from providing police aid, and OPS was shuttered in 1974. However, US aid to foreign police operations did not stop then. At the center of Johnson’s War on Crime was a new agency, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which coördinated best practices, training, and technical assistance between the federal government and the states. Soon it enabled police repertoires and training to be coordinated across borders when concerned with skyjacking, terrorism, and narcotics control. At the moment of the closing of OPS, narcotics control became a key focus for US law enforcement, which empowered the new Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the State Department’s Office of Drug Interdiction to engage in their own operations, particularly in Latin America, that continued the counterinsurgency mission OPS had stewarded.
Many XPSAs (Ex Public Security Advisors) found employment in these agencies, particularly after the funding granted to them surged under the Reagan Administration. Other XPSAs found employment as private security contractors and advisors to governments like Saudi Arabia and white-ruled Rhodesia. More broadly, the U.S. federal government also began contracting services on a much wider scale in the 1970s, allowing for those XPSAs who had not signed on in Riyadh or Salisbury as “mercs” (mercenaries) to take on assignments with new agencies on an ad hoc basis.
Schrader consciously ends his story at the moment of OPS’s dissolution, but he notes that the archives lead him to think that many core themes in U.S. police advising changed following the 1970s. Whereas security assistance had been internalized within a development agency for the period he studies, the linkage between development and security weakened over this period, as the criterion of security came to overpower development goals. Policing inevitably involved the implicit threat or explicit use of violence, and the social order it produced was thought crucial for societies to modernize and become model members of a U.S.-dominated world order. But when modernization did not occur fast enough, many conservative thinkers were apt to discard it as a goal. In the final chapters of his work, Schrader traces how intellectuals and on-the-ground practitioners undermined the stated US commitment to development by insisting on the impossibility of development absent the nebulous condition of security. The result was a new framing of the objects of foreign assistance: the individualized rational actor who demonstrated eligibility for assistance by conforming to social order, rather than the collectivity that participated in producing social order helped by a modicum of external assistance.
By the 1980s and the War on Drugs, however, Schrader sees a shift in the terms of U.S. engagement with the rest of the world (and perhaps Latin America in particular) when it comes to the connection between poverty and crime. By the 1980s, he argues, the commitment of U.S. advising operations had shifted from forming stable post-colonial regimes to protecting U.S. domestic space. There was no contradiction perceived if the quest to clamp down on the supply of cocaine or crack to U.S. domestic consumers meant an increase in violence or disorder in Central American theaters. The goal of policing operations was no longer to reproduce fractally some imaginary of an orderly U.S. domestic situation, but rather, if necessary, to deploy violence outside the U.S. domestic space to ensure the maintenance of order at home. As Schrader explains, “the key shift was from seeing poverty as producing crime, to seeing crime as producing poverty.”
As we approach the end of our conversation, we ask Schrader about books that have recently captured his attention. Given some of the themes we have touched on in our interview, it will not surprise readers that he cites Daniel Immerwahr’s Thinking Small as a book he sees in conversation with his own work. (The Toynbee Prize Foundation interviewed Immerwahr for the Global History Forum in 2015.) Similarly, he recommends the work of Harvard colleague (and friend) Elizabeth Hinton, whose From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime nicely complements his own work on the history of U.S. policing.
And outside of the field of U.S. history, he notes that he has learned much about the inflection of the social sciences with state power from works like David Price’s Cold War Anthropology and Joy Rohde’s Armed with Expertise. Both of these recent books, he notes, show how social science knowledge became crucial for U.S. policymakers engaged in a global Cold War who were hoping to perfect counterinsurgency.
These latter works, like Schrader’s, correspond to a larger shift in the writing of national histories—something that Schrader sees as perhaps the core takeaway of American Streets, Foreign Territory. While he sees himself as indebted to his own training in American Studies, he hopes that readers take away from a reading of his book “the idea that being able to write a history of U.S. politics, culture, or any institution within the bounds of the nation-state is hard to sustain.”
As he learned from his time navigating the archives, and following the transnational life of tear gas, “one of the things I am trying to accomplish is to show how necessary it is to keep the unboundedness of U.S. governance in mind. We can’t keep telling the same stories that we tell without paying close attention to their wide geographic setting.” Transnationalism cannot be its own justification as a methodology, in other words, but rather matters because it was inherent to U.S. state-making and governance formations in the twentieth century.
Readers interested in pursuing these themes further need not wait long, however. As of writing, Schrader is completing final revisions for the book version of American Streets, Foreign Territory, which is under contract with the University of California Press. We warmly thank Dr. Schrader for joining us in conversation, and we look forward to seeing his work on shelves soon.