From Wartime Presidents to the West Wing: a conversation with Dr. Strickler on his dissertation; “Between Guns and Butter”
Dissertation: Between Guns and Butter: Cold War Presidents, Agenda-Setting, and Visions of National Strength
Chair: Daniel Tichenor
Hometown: Tempe, Arizona
Quote: “Definitely Toby.” (… as in this guy).
Like many articulate, quick-witted, ambitious undergraduates, Jeremy Strickler entered his freshman year at Northern Arizona University with the “grand design of someday attending law school.” As a major in Criminal Justice he was preparing for a career in the legal field but one Political Science class derailed his future plans… Jeremy immediately added American Political Studies as a second major and began,
…registering for as many classes as I could. I put my plans for law school on the back-burner, believing that I would enter the world of politics as a campaign operative (thanks, The West Wing!).
Through an internship my senior year, I was offered a full-time position working for a congressional campaign upon graduation. While short-lived, the experience of that campaign provided me enough insight into the realities on the ground to know that a job in politics was not right for me (and losing the campaign didn’t help, of course).
Instead I came to realize that, rather than being a mover and shaker in the D.C. political scene, I wanted to teach American politics at the college level and hopefully cultivate in students an interest in political engagement.
While Strickler might not be described as a, “mover and a shaker,” Political Science faculty describe him as a “solid” and “insightful student” with “strong character.” Part political scientist and part historian, Jeremy is the ideal scholar to delve into the complicated intersections, overlap, and tensions of domestic and foreign politics, policy-making, the presidency, and national political development.
During his time at Oregon, he has already made an impact in the classroom by teaching various courses, including the popular, Public Policy and Democracy.
We asked Jeremy to tell us more about his dissertation research, the graduate school experience, and if he had a favorite president. Here are his responses.
Can you explain the phrase, “Between Guns and Butter”?
Sure. The notion of “guns vs. butter” is used in modern political discourse to reflect the commonly-held assumption that politicians and government officials must choose between defense spending (guns) at the expense of domestic spending (butter) or vice versa. Traditionally, this concept is used by scholars to evoke the political struggles encountered by past reform-minded presidents such as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson, who all tried to wage a successful war while simultaneously pursuing an ambitious domestic agenda on the home front. However, my research approaches this dilemma from a different angle. Rather than viewing it as an episodic problem, only isolated to those times when the nation is engaged in armed military conflict, I argue that the dilemma of guns and butter has been institutionalized in the politics of presidential leadership and policy-making over time. That is, the presidency is situated between “guns and butter.”
Interesting. What “between” period and presidencies does your research focus on?
My dissertation locates this emergent process in the critical period of the 1930s and 1940s when the commitments of the presidency were fundamentally altered through the twin developments of the warfare state and the welfare state. In particular, I explore how Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower navigated the politics of this warfare-welfare nexus in practice as they sought to formulate their presidential agenda. Through archival research, I reveal how each of these presidents, along with key White House staff and executive branch officials, constructed and articulated visions of national strength that linked national defense and social welfare initiatives as interrelated objectives, often in response to warfare and national security crises. In the end, I argue that the articulation of such visions and their strategic use in agenda-setting represents both a pliable and precarious practice available to modern presidents as they grapple with the ever-present politics of guns and butter.
What drew you to American political development and presidential leadership?
I came to graduate school with the broad intention of studying presidential leadership; which quickly developed in to a particular interest in analyzing the domestic political and policy challenges faced by wartime presidents. Having been introduced to American political development (APD) through course work and independent readings with advisers, I came to appreciate the subfield’s rich insight into the historical relationship between warfare and domestic reform in the United States. While such work revealed the impact of this dynamic on the contours of national governance, there existed scarce research on the importance of the American presidency in this political development. As I delved more deeply into the literature in presidential studies, I recognized an unfortunate tendency of scholars to construct theoretical frameworks that primarily emphasize domestic political forces while neglecting the interconnection of domestic and foreign politics and policy-making. As a corrective to this analytical bias, my project offers a theoretical perspective of presidential leadership that underscores the processes through which international security concerns intersect with domestic political commitments as presidents seek to formulate their budgetary and programmatic agenda.
Do you have a favorite president?
Through the course of my research, I have found the presidency of Harry S. Truman to be incredibly vexing, yet fascinating to study. Truman entered the presidency at one of the most politically daunting times in American history. Memorably, as the story goes, upon hearing from Eleanor Roosevelt about FDR’s death, Truman asked if there was anything he could do for the new widow. She calmly replied, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.” With World War II and the legacy of FDR’s New Deal thrust upon him in April of 1945, Truman not only had to bring the war to a successful end and prepare for American post-war leadership, he also had to formulate a domestic agenda that established the priorities and necessities of reconverting the nation back to peacetime. Complicating matters even more, he had to contend with the political and economic challenges that emerged with the beginning of the Cold War. Without a doubt, Truman’s tenure as president captures perfectly the dilemma of navigating the politics of guns and butter that my dissertation examines.
Your committee chair was Professor Tichenor. What was it like working with him?
I owe Dan an incredible amount of gratitude for all of his support throughout my time at Oregon. Across a range of situations – from graduate seminars and comprehensive exam preparation to research collaboration and archival methods advice – Dan’s mentorship was critical to my success in graduate school. Working with him has not only greatly informed my approach to studying American politics but also the ways I approach the classroom, in both teaching and advising.
What was the most influential experience of your education?
Discovering the rich possibilities offered by studying politics through a historical perspective. As someone who has always had an interest and appreciation for history, I was quickly drawn to our department’s strength in American political development and, in particular, the archival methods employed by Dan Tichenor, Gerry Berk, and Joe Lowndes.
What was the biggest highlight of graduate school?
I was so thrilled to have the opportunity of traveling across the country to conduct archival research at the libraries of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt (Hyde Park, NY), Harry S. Truman (Independence, MO), and Dwight D. Eisenhower (Abilene, KS). Moreover, I was fortunate to be awarded funding by the Truman Library Institute, the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics, and the UO Department of Political Science which allowed me to camp out at the individual archives for several weeks at a time. It was only in sifting through thousands of primary documents that my research project really began to take shape.
The opportunity to sift through sources at multiple presidential libraries was a huge benefit to his dissertation research. However, it was the unexpected challenge of staying focused that reveals Dr. Strickler’s naturally inquisitive mind.
It was very easy to become distracted by the hundreds of other compelling documents you have to go through in a given file in order to find the relevant “smoking gun.” For example, while trying to track down communications between FDR and his advisers relating to a famous 1943 press conference (in which he suggests that “Dr. New Deal” is transforming into “Dr. Win-the-War”), I came across dozens of letters sent to the President by American citizens in which they expressed their own thoughts about that particular address. Even though these letters were not directly related to my research, I found myself reading through each one carefully as they provided a personal glimpse into how these citizens understood their relationship to the President and the New Deal.
Even if just subliminally, pouring over personal letters from average Americans to President Roosevelt probably provided a humanistic touch to Dr. Strickler’s dissertation, and it absolutely reflects his appreciation for the personal in academia. When asked what he would miss most about graduate school and his time at Oregon, Jermey said, “close relationships with fellow graduate students” across campus, departments, and disciplines, is what he would miss most. He said these friendships were formed,
… almost solely because of the graduate student labor organization, the GTFF (the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation). Working alongside so many great academics and teachers helped me to appreciate the responsibility we all have in fighting for the educational mission of our students and university.
When asked if he could go back and tell his undergraduate self anything in particular, he said,
There is a reason why you are always the one who wants to discuss politics at every single party. It may annoy your friends from time to time, but stick with it. You are on to something.
Any advice for PhD hopefuls?
Don’t commit to grad school straight out of undergraduate. Enter the “real world” and take some time off to see if the desire to pursue a graduate degree still strikes you. Do you want to teach? Produce research? Ask yourself these questions and consider the costs. But also know that negotiating the ups and downs of a grad program can really open your eyes to a world of perspectives that otherwise may have remained obscured.
While he might not be running for office (or channeling his inner Mr. Ziegler on the hill) he is definitely someone you could enjoy a good beer with and learn a lot from. The perfect balance of scruffy and clean-cut, historian and political scientist, Dr. Strickler is just as comfortable on the disc golf course as he is the front of the classroom. A true class act with a very bright future.
Now in Wichita Falls, Texas, Dr. Strickler continues to “cultivate an interest in political engagement” among his students and the department couldn’t be prouder. Currently, he is teaching American government courses to Army soldiers and their family members at Central Texas College-Fort Sill.
His research continues as well. With a focus on the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, Dr. Strickler’s project on the politics of guns and butter continues.