Totalitarianism in America? Robert Nisbet on the “Wilson war state” and beyond


Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


This article examines Robert Nisbet’s claim that the first totalitarian experiment of the twentieth century occurred not in the Soviet Union or in Nazi Germany, but in the United States during the First World War. Totalitarianism appeared in the form of mass propaganda, surveillance and repression. It was accompanied by a messianic desire of Woodrow Wilson and his team to transform America into a “national community.” By 1920, American totalitarianism was effectively at an end but, claimed Nisbet, it left a legacy of centralization that, over successive Democratic and Republican administrations, has stripped the Republic’s citizens of social authority and independence; the political trumped the social. Nisbet’s depiction of American totalitarianism is contrasted with Hannah Arendt’s argument that totalitarianism, thus far in history, is restricted to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)84-102
Number of pages19
JournalThe American Sociologist
Issue number1
Early online date27 Feb 2014
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2014

Bibliographical note

Research on the contrast between Nisbet and Arendt was facilitated by a Hong Kong Research Grants Council grant; CB11A2: “Hannah Arendt’s Appraisal of Sociology.”


  • Hannah Arendt
  • Robert Nisbet
  • The social and the political
  • Totalitarianism
  • The United States
  • Woodrow Wilson


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