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Americans: Peaceniks or warmongers?
There is a great paradox in the history of the United States. We Americans consider ourselves a peace-loving people, yet during our quarter-millennium of independent existence we’ve gone to war more often than any other nation.*
How is the paradox to be explained?
A political scientist would propose a theory of American war. This historian prefers to examine the wars one by one. Herewith a scorecard of American belligerence.
Revolutionary War. Caused by colonies’ desire to bust out of the British empire. America won with crucial help from France. Britain acknowledged defeat but intended to push the fledgling United States around.
Quasi War of 1798. Undeclared naval war against France, which had been seizing American merchant ships. Neither side won; both were happy to terminate the Franco-American alliance left over from the Revolutionary War.
War of 1812. Britain had been seizing American ships, kidnapping American sailors, and arming Indians who attacked the American frontier. Yet America went to war divided, with New England strongly opposed. Andrew Jackson’s eleventh-hour victory at New Orleans made a draw seem like a win.
Mexican-American and Indian wars. American settlers led the way west; American soldiers followed. They fought against Mexico after James Polk engineered a provocation, and seized half of that country as a result of the clearest war of aggression in American history—with the arguable exception of the running battles and campaigns against the Indians.
Civil War. Hubris prompted secession, which destroyed the institution—slavery—it was supposed to preserve. The most foolishly disastrous war in American history.
Spanish-American War. Altruism cloaked imperialism as the U.S. divested Spain of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The conflict set a pattern for doing good while doing well.
World War I. Woodrow Wilson had big plans for America to save democracy. He got ahead of the American people, who intervened in Europe then promptly turned their backs on it.
World War II. A closet Wilsonian, Franklin Roosevelt maneuvered Japan and Germany into going to war against the U.S. Americans righteously responded by crushing them and embracing a world-leading role. The intoxication hasn’t worn off yet.
Korean War. Harry Truman responded to Republican criticism by fighting communists in Korea. He narrowly avoided a nuclear war, achieving a stalemate that left a sour taste in American mouths and uncertainty in East Asia that lasts until today.
Vietnam War. Lyndon Johnson sought a Korea-type outcome without taking Korea-type risks. Americans learned what it meant to be on the wrong side of an anti-imperialist war.
Gulf War of 1991. A “splendid little war,” as John Hay said about Spanish-American War. It freed Kuwait with minimal casualties. American hawks never forgave George Bush for not pressing on to Baghdad.
Afghanistan War. An understandable response to 9/11. But the hunt for Osama bin Laden got tangled in the coils of Afghanistan’s internal struggles, and America required two decades to extricate itself.
Iraq War. Ranks with the Civil War as a great blunder of American belligerence. Begun in bad intelligence and perhaps bad faith, it achieved the remarkable result of making the world rue the demise of Saddam Hussein.
So what does one make of all this?
First, that Americans might not be warmongers, but we certainly haven’t shied away from using force when our interests suggested it.
Second, that the wars on American soil have been more definitive than America’s foreign wars. The Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 (taken together) achieved and confirmed American independence from Britain. The Mexican and Indian wars expanded U.S. territory. The Civil War killed the idea of secession. Yet the reason for the definitiveness was not the success of American arms but the events that followed: in particular the growth of the American population and American institutions in the affected territories. What really made California American was not the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo but the gold rush. What drove the stake through the heart of secession was the integration of the Southern economy into that of the North.
Third, America’s foreign wars have generally been bad ideas. The Spanish-American War saddled the U.S. with the Philippines, a responsibility that led to war with Japan forty years later. The Korean War served the purposes of South Koreans but didn’t do much for American security. The Vietnam War was a fiasco, as were the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Gulf War was the exception—a small exception for a small war.
The world wars were something between domestic wars and foreign wars. German attacks on American ships prompted entry into World War I; the same and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led to American involvement in World War II. But the fighting was nearly all on foreign territory. This meant that the U.S. had the option of retreating after the war to American soil. It did so after World War I; it did not after World War II.
World War II is often perceived by Americans as a model war: fought all-out, for a few years, and decisively successful. The wars since were unsatisfactory by comparison: limited, long and either indecisive or unsuccessful.
Yet the decisiveness of World War II is misleading. It segued into the Cold War, and the victory it achieved over Germany and Japan had to be secured by American occupation forces. American forces remain in both countries nearly eight decades after the fighting ended.
In sum, though Americans profess a preference for peace, we’ve been fairly quick on the trigger. We’ve behaved as other great powers behave: defending our interests and expanding those interests as our power has grown. We’ve never created a culture of martial violence, as Nazi Germany did, but we alone have resorted to the most destructive weapons humans—led by us—ever invented.
In other words, we’re pretty much like people in other countries. This shouldn’t be a surprise; humans have a lot in common. We’re Americans, but we’re also humans.
* Britain possibly rivals America for this dubious distinction, which depends on what counts as a war.