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Nichols installed as Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies

Professor discusses the history of U.S. national security

Christopher McKnight Nichols formally commenced his role as the Wayne Woodrow Hayes Chair in National Security Studies late last month with an installation lecture and audience discussion. 

The position is named in honor of former Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes, who was interested in military strategy and American history, in addition to football strategy. 

David Horn, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, hosted the installation at the Faculty Club, detailing the history of Woody Hayes and the chair position and presenting Nichols with a medal to honor his new role. 

Prior to joining The Ohio State University in 2022 as a professor of history, Nichols was a faculty member at Oregon State University, where he won several awards for his teaching. He received an Andrew Carnegie fellowship in 2016. Nichols’ areas of focus include internationalism, globalization and isolationism, in addition to U.S. history from the Gilded Age to the present. He has authored six books on these topics. 

“Chris’ gifts are many and the energy with which he expends them for the collective good has immediately become an example to all of us,” said Dorothy Noyes, director of the Mershon Center for International Security Studies, who, with Dana Renga, dean of Arts and Humanities, introduced Nichols and praised his enthusiasm for teaching and his reputation, accomplishments and depth of knowledge in his field. 

In his lecture, Nichols addressed the origins of the idea of U.S. national security and how it has evolved over time. The talk provided a survey of the issue, beginning in colonial America and ending in our current age. 

Although the phrase “national security” did not exist in the American lexicon until the post-Civil War era, and is generally associated with the World War II period, the idea of it originated as far back as the late 18th century, Nichols said. He pointed to a quotation from a July 4 address by John Quincy Adams in 1821 in which Adams stated that “America … goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” However, in his original draft of the speech, Adams warned of "quixotism” instead, which is the impractical pursuit of romanticized ideals. 

Nichols explored what Adams meant and the differences between his draft speech and the version he ultimately edited for publication, that is better known; while the phrase “in search of monsters to destroy” suggests that these enemies are international, and likely real to some extent; quixotism, on the other hand, implies that the enemies may not even exist, and that steering clear of idealistic-romantic, grandiose or deluded global missions, like those of the fictional character Don Quixote tilting at windmills, was a central challenge for American policy-makers and the nation. 

With this tension in mind, Nichols continued to trace the development of national security as an American idea, ultimately concluding that the modern understanding of national security developed during the 1930s in the wake of the Great Depression. 

“[President Franklin Roosevelt argued that] national security begins at home, that national security is about making sure that people have a roof over their head and food on the table,” Nichols said. 

This focus on the domestic and including economic security for the “average American” represented “a transformation of national security ideas,” he added. 

After World War II, an increase in threat perception and fear played a large role in what constitutes the modern American understanding of national security. Using the example of “Duck and Cover,” a Cold War educational film about protecting oneself from nuclear attack, Nichols explained how the illusion of safety may have calmed the American public’s fears and insecurity regarding foreign threats. But, he said, it also generated a new and much widened view of national security, that of “total security.” This is a conception we very much live with today, according to Nichols. 

The lecture closed with overviews of national security during the second Bush and Obama administrations. Nichols argued that both former presidents had blind spots in their national security policy; while the Bush administration focused on the so-called “Freedom Agenda,” the Obama administration focused on economic determinism. 

Nichols argued that, in many instances, U.S. national security has become an individual matter. 

“National security is very much [embedded] in how we think and act,” he said. “There are lots of ways in which national security falls all the way down to individual responsibility. 

“I would challenge us all to think through what our blind spots or blinders are in trying to understand what the U.S. should do in the world and how we can be part of that.”

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