The evolution of American policing, at home and abroad, in the Cold War era

For his new book, 'Badges Without Borders,' Johns Hopkins lecturer Stuart Schrader used archival research to explore how the U.S. exercised imperial influence overseas in an effort to contain communism, and how those same tactics helped shape approaches to domestic policing

Stuart Schrader knows that how uniformed men and women are tasked with upholding law and order in America's streets has historically been informed and shaped by men in suits who work in our country's halls of power. His book, Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing, is a model of patient archival research showing how the Cold War-era foreign policy for containing communism became domestic policy meant to respond to growing urban unrest during in the 1960s. It's a story of bureaucrats and administrators that Schrader excavates from memoranda, training manuals, law enforcement magazines, reports, and other such miscellaneous ephemera, knitting together a history about how the U.S. wielded its newfound global power and responded to domestic challenges after World War II.

The Hub caught up with Schrader, a lecturer and assistant research scientist in the Department of Sociology and associate director of the Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship, in advance of a talk about his research at a book launch at Red Emma's BookStore Coffeehouse on Thursday. Schrader discussed the shortcomings of the phrase "militarization of policing," the lesser known architects of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Crime, and the how foreign and domestic policy gets made.

Looking over your CV, I gather that you've researched and worked on this topic for a while, though "this topic" doesn't quite capture the immensity and specificity of the book. What drew you to this overlap of foreign policy and domestic policing? I ask because I greatly appreciate, which you mention in the acknowledgements, something that the late NYU historian Marilyn Young said to you: "Counterinsurgents need insurgents." That's a point of view, but you dove into a particularly weedy place where a lot of systems and forces come together.

This project started with a kernel, which was that the U.S. war in Vietnam had some effect on domestic policy, specifically policing, but I had no idea how to pursue researching the ways an overseas war reverberated domestically. I needed to figure out how to find this nexus between foreign policy and domestic policy. Where can you locate that blurriness?

Cover of 'Badges Without Borders'

We know the term "militarization of policing." I thought that was what I wanted to look at as the vehicle for thinking about foreign policy and domestic policy coming together. And I encountered a huge stumbling block early in the research. When you go to the U.S. National Archives in College Park, [Maryland], you have to ask to see either the civilian files or the military files. You literally go to two different places in the room. You talk to two different sets of archivists, two different sets of experts. So if I were trying to research the militarization of a civilian institution, I had to choose. Do I access the civilian side of the room or do I access the military side?

I realized that you can't start from the blurriness. You have to start researching separate institutions because that's how the archives are set up. That's how the state tells stories about itself—what it does, what its agencies are designed to do, how the bureaucracies are set up.

A theme that runs through the book is that people within these state bureaucracies spent a lot of time trying to defend their discrete mission, showing how it differs from another bureaucracy's mission—but during the Cold War the reason they had to defend the uniqueness was because missions were intermingling. I trace these constant battles that they were waging within the bureaucracy over protecting their individual, unique civilian or military identity even as what was happening is that they were constantly blurring together.

I was going to ask where you started, because though I've never been the National Archives, just looking through your bibliography and endnotes suggests that you had to do a great deal of work to bring parallel histories together.

I traveled down numerous cul de sacs thinking I was headed in the right direction. That is part of the reason I ultimately mount a critique of this concept of the "militarization of policing." The more I looked for it, particularly by studying military operations on domestic U.S. soil in the 1960s, the more I realized that the concept didn't describe accurately what I was finding in the archives.

"There was flux and upheaval at home and there was flux and upheaval abroad. ... What I argue is that the United States tried to manage these twin challenges by deploying police to solve both of them."
Stuart Schrader

Instead, I found intermediary nodes facilitating that blurriness, mostly at relatively high levels in the U.S. government, just beneath the highest levels of the executive branch. I talk a lot about Robert Komer in the book, who was directly below President John F. Kennedy's national security advisor McGeorge Bundy, but who also has a relationship with both Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson. He had the ear of powerful people. Bundy trusted him. Kennedy and Johnson both trusted him.

And in Komer's files I found names of individuals who seemed to appear on either side of this civilian-military divide, on either side of the foreign-domestic divide. It did take a while, but once I recognized a name, I'd ask, Where do I recognize that name from? Those names ended up being the way that I could unravel this story because particular individuals appear on both sides of these divides. They developed a flexible idiom that allowed them to place Saigon and Harlem in one sentence and to develop practices to match. For me, it was a labor-intensive process of finding those individuals, figuring out who they were and why they were in these positions. Sometimes I got lucky. Sometimes I relied on advice from archivists or previously published material. Sometimes I had to be willing to say, OK, today was frustrating and I didn't find anything. Overall, it was not a straightforward search.

Your start out asking us to rethink Cold War-era race and policing, beginning with the 1944 International City Managers' Association report The Police and Minority Groups: A Program to Prevent Disorder and to Improve Relations Between Different Racial, Religious, and National Groups, which focused on urban unrest. Why did you need to start there?

This report fascinated me for a couple reasons. First, one of its authors, Theo Hall, went on to a career advising police overseas, after an illustrious career in policing at home. Second, the report explicitly tied the need to "improve" racial relations at home to the need for the United States to appeal to colonized and soon-to-decolonize parts of the globe, even before the Cold War took hold. I read this report, which is specifically about policing, as prefiguring the much more famous study by Gunnar Myrdal The American Dilemma, widely accepted as outlining the dominant liberal way of thinking about race in the United States after World War II. It was notable for me that policing experts who went on to work on global counterinsurgency would be at the cutting edge of thinking about addressing racism at home and abroad.

Stuart Schrader

Image caption: Stuart Schrader

I decided to begin with a more theoretical chapter rather than the primary historical narrative because I felt like I had to outline the framework in which these institutions operated, the water these actors swam in. I could have framed my analysis within the terms of the Cold War or national security or policing. But the problem is that events bleed beyond conceptual frames. Assuming that histories are as clear and bounded as our concepts are—"foreign" or "domestic"—is misleading.

In fact, the very moment I'm examining, the immediate aftermath of World War II, was a moment of great flux and upheaval. The United States was ascending to global leadership while trying to negotiate the dissolution of European colonial empires across the globe and domestically dealing with the incipient civil rights movement and the black freedom struggle. There was flux and upheaval at home and there was flux and upheaval abroad.

What I argue is that the United States tried to manage these twin challenges by deploying police to solve both of them. That is the analytic platform on which the rest of the book is mounted.

Now, the term "platform" implies solidity, but it was actually jello. These folks in the national security apparatus, CIA analysts, and intellectuals all knew that great challenges lay ahead, with huge problems to be solved. They were not sure they knew the answer to them. But they were relatively sure that they couldn't just keep doing the same thing that other empires had been doing.

Was it guaranteed that they would resolve to use police to try to solve these problems and that police might be thought of as the bearers of a type of liberal internationalism? No. But police experts in this moment, because the field itself was trying to modernize and find its own way out of its longstanding problems with white supremacy and racism, thought they were up to the challenge of reforming the institution on a global scale. And, at the same time, national security officials, with a global purview said, OK we need to figure out a way to keep the peace and prevent revolution overseas, and police are the most natural instruments for solving those problems.

So it all came together in this knotty set of relationships. But a term like "national security" hides the knottiness and the instability. We tend to think of the Cold War as this moment of real firmness of political polarization but I don't see it that way at all. I see it as a moment of great uncertainty.

Byron Engle is somebody I'm surprised I've never heard about before. Who was he, and what role does he play in your book?

Byron Engle would say that he was just a country boy. And it's true that he hailed from a rural part of Missouri. He moved to Kansas City and became a cop in the late 1930s when the Kansas City police force was going through a massive transformation. The political machine there had been dismantled. A new chief came in and hired Engle, along with many other new officers, with the idea of rooting out corruption and graft but maintaining the police force to continue to perpetuate racial segregation and maintain control over labor radicalism. The job of the police didn't change; their skills at doing so did change. And Engle became extremely proficient at training police.

He rose through the ranks quickly. He became Kansas City's police trainer, and they started sending him around the Midwest. Whatever yen he had for training police gave him this reputation across the Midwest such that when the United States occupied Germany and Japan at the end of World War II, his name came up. He was offered this position training and reforming police in Japan. He went to Japan at the end of the war and he never looked back.

"We tend to think of the Cold War as this moment of real firmness of political polarization but I don't see it that way at all. I see it as a moment of great uncertainty."
Stuart Schrader

He was involved in reforming the police force in Japan, which had two goals. The first goal was to prevent Japan from becoming an authoritarian state again. The United States decided Japan and Germany can't have repressive police forces that are centrally controlled from the top all the way to the bottom. Their police needed to be decentralized. Centrally controlled police forces will just lead to authoritarianism. And they did prevent Japan from becoming another authoritarian state to some degree.

However, the second goal that they had was preventing Japan from hosting a large communist movement. They were relatively successful in that regard as well, though the global New Left arguably began in Japan some years post-occupation.

Engle's experience in Japan connected him with U.S. policing experts who were increasingly global. And for whatever reason—I think it had to do with his disposition, his lack of ego, and his affability—he was assigned the task of continuing to do what the U.S. had done in Japan in other places. He went from Japan to Turkey then back to Japan and then he's off traveling the world. He was working under the auspices of the CIA—though under official cover—and he was traveling around the globe bringing U.S. technical and training resources to police in other countries.

At the end of 1954 the Eisenhower administration decided that they need to formalize this program. They put Engle in charge, along with Theo Hall, who I mentioned a moment ago, and Engle kept doing this work until the early '70s. In that time he recruited police from across the United States to travel around the globe and engage in training and assistance missions. He also built up the International Police Academy in Washington, D.C., which trained thousands of police from around the globe.

And these are police officers who do training overseas and then come back to their hometowns?

A number of the police who went overseas did return to law enforcement, but, generally, they didn't return to the job they had before. They took up new roles, in a few categories. You had to be relatively high in the ranks in order go overseas in the first place, so they would return back and get a job as a police chief or some other high-ranking job. Some went into the private sector, as private investigators or in private security consulting. I found an advisor who returned from South Vietnam to police work in Howard County, [Maryland], just down the road.

And the other sector they entered was bureaucracies that had a law enforcement purview but were not actually doing practical police work. They were doing supervisory work or training assistance. These bureaucracies grew with the federal War on Crime begun under President Johnson.

Engle's work eventually leads to the Office of Public Safety, one of those government agencies whose wonderfully generic name doesn't quite convey what it does. President Kennedy creates it in 1962, Congress shuts it down in 1974 following a fair amount of public and congressional criticism that it mostly helped repressive governments in Latin America and Asia. And a lot happens, globally and domestically, in between.

Yes, Engle oversaw the Office of Public Safety. When his work became formalized, that meant it gained the most important thing: its own budget line. That is what made the Office of the Public Safety possible. It was under the auspices of the Agency for International Development, which was new under Kennedy—but OPS was ultimately not controlled by the directors of AID. They were answerable for what it did, much to their chagrin, but if they wanted to cut its budget, somebody from the CIA or the National Security Council like Robert Komer would say, No you can't do that.

That gave Engle his ability to respond directly to recommendations from the CIA, National Security Council, and this body that Kennedy created called the Special Group for Counterinsurgency, which gave the Office of Public Safety its marching orders. OPS couldn't go into another country and tell its police what to do without that country agreeing to invite it. But as with any issue in U.S. diplomacy, as we might glean from headlines today, the U.S. will get agreements from other countries by both force and persuasion. Ambassadors would converse. The country would say, Yes we would like some help with our police. OPS would send a couple of advisors who would investigate the police forces. They would create detailed assessments of the capabilities of those police forces and identify the aspects where they fell short. And inevitably, what they would be concerned about was their ability to prevent a communist revolution.

Now, it would be easy to go anywhere across the globe during the Cold War and find the possibility that communist subversion might be threatening. And it was easy then to say there's a threat and the police are not up to the task, so you need our help. And that was basically what ended up happening. The Office of Public Safety set up advisory missions in 52 countries. In some cases, those advisory missions were two guys, not very extensive. In some cases, they sent dozens. The biggest, of course, was South Vietnam, but also Thailand, Brazil, Colombia, and Congo had pretty big operations, among others.

What would OPS do in a country?

OPS was concerned with three principal efforts: technical assistance, training, and equipment.

Technical assistance meant the U.S. would come in and help upgrade their communications technologies, for instance, installing radio networks that spanned the countryside. They introduced new training facilities so cops could get the best types of training. And they introduced new intelligence gathering and data storage and management technologies, which at that time were relatively basic—cabinets full of index cards. They were not computerized, especially at the outset. But collecting data on the people suspected of being politically affiliated with left-wing organizations was the heart of what the Office of Public Safety wanted to do.

For training, they would send command officers to the International Police Academy in Washington, D.C., where the mantra was "training the trainers." They didn't train beat cops. They trained the people who were going to be the ones staffing the new academies that they helped build in these countries. Police from other countries would also visit sites in the United States. For instance, Baltimore City as far back as the late 1940s was considered to have an advanced telecommunications system for its police, and foreign trainees might visit to observe how radio dispatchers used the technology.

And OPS also equipped foreign police. That was the most expensive part—sending everything from motorcycles and cars to filing cabinets for these pieces of data, and also tear gas, riot shields, batons, and so forth.

In your chapter "Bringing Police Assistance Home," we meet Arnold Sagalyn, who was a journalist turned law enforcement advisor, and eventually director of the Treasury Department's Office of Law Enforcement Coordination and one of the prime philosophical architects of LBJ's War on Crime.

Arnold Sagalyn is one of three figures who form the basis for my analysis. Engle and Komer are the others. I focus on these three because of their interlinkages and because they all built new bureaucratic capacities for law enforcement across the foreign-domestic divide. Sagalyn worked for the Treasury Department, which we don't often think about in terms of law enforcement. At that time it did oversee a bunch of law enforcement operations, from the Secret Service to Customs. He was in charge of coordinating among different agencies within the Treasury Department that had law enforcement responsibilities. And he crossed paths with Engle.

Engle took a shine to him and put his career on a new trajectory. I think Sagalyn was enamored of the Office of Public Safety and Engle. He was convinced that the Office of Public Safety was really onto something. He believed in police reform. He believed in upgrading police. And he had a perception that police in the United States need to be reformed and upgraded.

He's not an outlier in that regard. Many police experts believed in reform. But he was a key conduit because he was well-informed about what the Office of Public Safety was doing overseas and he was involved in conversations with people in the White House and the Department of Justice about solving problems of rising crime and black political unrest.

I found documents where he made a very explicit recommendation that the Johnson administration needed to do domestically what it was doing overseas with the Office of Public Safety—take the most adept policing experts and have them apply their expertise domestically by giving training and technical assistance to police at home. He was explicit that the Office of Public Safety was the blueprint. He also said that insofar as there may be a problem with racism in policing—which a lot of people in his milieu were reticent even to mention, instead talking about it in the most roundabout ways—solving that problem was not going to be done by fighting a war on poverty. Solving the problem would be done by upgrading policing.

For me, he did something crucial by creating that kind of separation between solving problems of political unrest and crime by addressing poverty versus solving crime and political unrest by giving resources to police. He introduced this separation to liberals, and the architects of the War on Crime took it up. Conservatives had no problem getting on board. What's so interesting is that even if the people who designed the legislation that produced the War on Crime didn't read Sagalyn's memos where he said, in effect, "Imitate the Office of Public Safety and solve this problem by giving resources to police," that's what they ended up doing.

Where has this research taken you? I ask because it's too convenient to draw a line from this era to the present day and say, This is why such and such is happening now. But at the end of the book you bring up some issues that have direct echoes to today—private-sector security being a big one, and an area where people can make a lot of money.

I'm trying to deal with more recent history in my new writing. It made sense to end the book when OPS was shut down in '74. But, of course, some of the people who were involved with it continued to work in the security field. And the possibility for lucrative contracts for firms that provide a unique service in the security domain really started to grow in the '70s. At that time these folks very consciously thought of themselves as saying, OK, well Congress says the U.S. government is banned from providing overseas police assistance. We can follow the letter of the law, though not the spirit of the law, by doing this under private auspices. We're getting the band back together. We're not called the Office of Public Safety anymore. Now we're called Company X, Y, or Z.

This is exactly what they did, and quickly it became a massively profitable business. Some of the companies founded in this moment still exist. The most clear cut example is Vinnell Arabia, which I mention briefly in the book. Vinnell Arabia is a firm with a single client. The term for that is monopsony, and I'm so lucky to get to use it. They're a private company that trains the Saudi National Guard. And if you look at Vinnell Arabia's website, it has a little section that outlines its history. And its history is that Saudi Arabia wanted to maintain U.S. training and technical assistance for its National Guard in the 1970s, but the U.S. government made it illegal. So Vinnell Arabia was formed. Vinnell was a company that already existed, but Office of Public Safety advisors who had been already working in Saudi Arabia created this new outfit to keep doing the same work, now for a lot more money.

This firm provided a model for many, many other people to go into private security contracting. And later, and this is outside the purview of my book, the U.S. government starts hiring these companies. In Iraq and Afghanistan, companies like DynCorp were hired to train police. Those contracts cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars, and the evidence suggests these firms were ineffective at training these police.

That's not to say that I think the Office of Public Safety would have been more effective. Just recently there was a news story about civil unrest in Iraq, with police shooting live ammunition at protesters in the streets. This could have been a story in Iraq in the 1950s that would have crossed Byron Engle's desk and he would have said, "We have to send some advisors to Iraq. They cannot be shooting their guns at protesters. This is going to delegitimize the government and open the door to all kinds of disasters." The story is unchanged. The U.S. has been training police in Iraq across the decades, and there's still unrest and the police are still killing protesters.

Reading Badges Without Borders made me think about a feedback loop between domestic and foreign policy that I hadn't thought about before. Are there other areas of such blurriness?

I'm not the only scholar who is thinking about these connections across the foreign and domestic divide in terms of policymaking. I hope we're becoming increasingly sensitized to the way this works, whether in agricultural policy or mineral resource extraction, thinking of recent books by colleagues like Tore Olsson and Megan Black. My book applies this lens to policing, but I hope that it provides analytic tools so that even if you're not interested in policing it can help you think about how the sausage of policy gets made. The ingredients for that sausage come from both sides of the domestic and foreign divide.

I also hope that people read my book and come away with the sense that U.S. policing has never been as localized and parochial as it narrates itself to be. We have this persistent claim among defenders of policing that what makes American policing unique compared to Western Europe or other parts of the globe is that police power resides in local, community-based settings. One of the main struggles that police are constantly engaging in is how to make their practices be sensitive, responsive, and accountable to local communities at the same time that the work they do creates barriers with these communities. That is a fundamental challenge that police in the United States are always running up against.

At the same time, my book shows that this kind of ideology about police being deeply locally embedded can hide the ways that police have been globally active. I hope that after anybody reads my book, when they come across a reference in their local newspaper to a visiting police delegation from country X, their eyes won't just pass over that. That actually this is fundamental to the way U.S. policing works. A police delegation from Germany or France visiting small town New Jersey is not as big a deal today as it might have been in the 1950s, but the fact that it's so pedestrian should tell us something about the global connections and ambitions of policing.