“War is politics carried out by violent means to compel our adversary to submit to our will.”—Carl von Clausewitz
The United States has engaged in 11 wars since its founding in 1776. This chapter posits that the U.S. could have completely avoided involvement in some of its more bloody and costly wars. Where involvement was critical to national security, the U.S. could have limited significantly its involvement in such wars. This would have minimized the enormous financial costs of war and, more importantly, limited the death and injury among its citizens.
Galambos posited that the political state is the sole and unique cause of war. This chapter analyzes that claim in the case of the U.S. by examining the military history of this country beginning with the War of 1812, and ending with the Middle East wars of the early 21st century.
War of 1812
U.S. involvement in the War of 1812 occurred in the context of a 22-year war between Britain and France from 1793 to 1815. The British sought to prevent Americans from supplying or trading with Napoleon’s France by seizing American ships engaged in that trade and by confiscating their cargo.
The objectives of the U.S. in the War of 1812 were (1) to end Britain’s interference with American commercial trade with continental Europe; (2) to end “impressment” by the British navy, i.e., the practice of boarding U.S. ships and seizing sailors to serve in the British Navy; and (3) to conquer Canada and acquire its territory for the U.S., although American ambitions for Canada were not mentioned in the Declaration of War.
Although Britain repealed the policy of impressment shortly after the U.S. declaration of war, the U.S. did not likewise repeal its war declaration; this was most likely due to U.S. interest in conquering Canada. Therefore, the British resumed impressment.
Winston Churchill characterized the War of 1812 as futile and unnecessary. It ended with a treaty in December 1814. The U.S. had accomplished none of its war goals; in the war-ending treaty Britain did not even agree to stop impressment of seamen seized on American commercial ships, although this practice was ended after the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815.
Instead of war with Britain and the ruin of U.S. foreign trade, the U.S. could have had a prosperous trade with England and the British West Indies and the protection of American ships by the British navy had American ships complied with the British blockade of ports in continental Europe and French possessions in the Caribbean Sea.
Americans began migrating to Texas in 1822 and in 1836 formed the Republic of Texas. In 1845 there were more than 100,000 Americans living in Texas and just 4,000 Mexicans. The Americans in Texas wanted to be part of the United States. President James Polk was interested in acquiring Texas for the United States, but the real prize he sought was California.
The U.S. offered Mexico $30 million for all Mexican claims north of the Rio Grande river. Mexico refused. In May 1846, the U.S. Congress approved a declaration of war on Mexico. The Mexican army was no match for the far more powerful forces of the United States. American forces invaded Mexico proper and occupied Mexico’s capitol city, ending the war by mid-1847. The U.S. dictated the terms of a peace treaty signed on February 2, 1848.
President Ulysses S. Grant who served in the U.S. army as a young Lieutenant in Mexico during the war said in his memoirs (1885):
I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.
Henry David Thoreau, an ardent abolitionist, said “. . . the Mexican war [was] the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool . . . [W]hen a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.”
The Civil War
The human and financial costs of the Civil War were beyond enormous; they were monstrous. They included 750,000 military deaths out of a total American population of 30 million, thousands of civilian deaths in the southern states, hundreds of thousands of men crippled for life, and the near destruction of 40 percent of the nation’s economy.
Although Abraham Lincoln has been enshrined in history as the “Great Emancipator,” ending slavery was not his goal in prosecuting the Civil War. In 1862 he said:
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it. . . “
The Civil War was unnecessary for four reasons: First, secession was not incompatible with America’s traditions. Less than 100 years earlier, American colonists had fought a long and bloody war to secede from Great Britain. There have been a number of peaceful secessions including: Canada and Australia from Britain; Norway from Sweden; and Slovakia from Czechoslovakia. In 2014, Scotland will hold a plebiscite on the question of secession from Great Britain. In 1995, the inhabitants of Quebec voted on secession from Canada which would have been allowed had a majority of Quebecois voted for it.
Second, southerners did not have to resist the north. Doing so was foolhardy because it was a war they could not win given their smaller population and lack of manufacturing capacity to make instruments of war.
Third, the Civil War was not about abolishing slavery — it was about power and Lincoln’s drive to preserve the union at any cost. The Lincoln administration used a variety of tactics to do so, including shutting down opposition newspapers, suspending habeas corpus, deporting an outspoken congressman who opposed the war, imprisoning dissenters, censoring telegraphs, intimidating judges, and rigging Northern elections, to name a few.
And finally, Slavery ended peacefully in all the countries of Europe and Latin America between 1813 and 1888. Slavery could have ended peacefully in America as well. In addition to being odious and immoral, slavery is an uneconomical and inefficient source of labor in a society undergoing industrialization, and most likely would have become extinct, even in the south, before the end of the nineteenth century.
The engraving to the left is entitled “To the friends of Negro Emancipation.” It celebrates the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.
Annexation of Hawaii
The photograph below shows the abdication of Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani. On January 16, 1893, the captain of a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Boston, sent a detachment of 162 heavily armed marines into the peaceful streets of Honolulu. The marines surrounded the royal palace and ejected the queen. The American flag was raised and the U.S. declared Hawaii an American protectorate.
Although the acquisition of Hawaii by the U.S. was not accomplished by war, Hawaiians protested the U.S. takeover of their islands. There was no war only because the Hawaiians knew it was futile to resist the U.S. military force that was deployed to intimidate the Hawaiians.
In 1820 the first American Christian missionaries from New England arrived in Hawaii. There is a saying in Hawaii that the missionaries “came to do good and stayed to do well.” Missionaries and their descendants took possession of vast tracts of land, developed a sugar industry, and became wealthy in the process.
Long before the time of U.S. annexation, Haoles (caucasion foreigners living in Hawaii, typically from the U.S.) ruled Hawaii, even though they were outnumbered twenty to one by native Polynesians and recent immigrants brought in from Asia. In the face of U.S. aggression and Haole control, the only practical option for the native Hawaiian government was to cede power until the island chain was annexed in 1898 and became the 50th state in 1959.
The Spanish-American & Philippine-American Wars
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), the 26th President of the U.S. (1901-1909) was probably the foremost among American opinion-makers of his time who believed the U.S. was destined by racial superiority to establish an American empire by conquest, occupation and control of territories inhabited by peoples claimed to be inferior.
In 1897, Roosevelt said: “Nineteenth-century democracy needs no more complete vindication for its existence than the fact that it has kept for the white race the best portions of the new world’s surface.”
In 1900 he said: “I wish to see the United States the dominant power on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.”
The Spanish-American war began in April 1898. By August the U.S. had defeated the Spanish military and taken control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands. In December of that same year, the U.S. and Spain signed a peace treaty. But the fighting for the U.S. did not stop there.
The Filipinos, having been a Spanish colony since 1565, had been fighting Spain to gain independence. They initially viewed the U.S. as liberators. However in 1905, then Secretary of War, and later U.S. President, William Howard Taft made the following statement to an assemblage of Filipino notables:
“I did not come to give you your independence, but to study your welfare. You will have your independence when you are ready for it, which will not be in this generation—no, nor in the next, nor perhaps for a hundred years or more.”
Armed and organized rebellion by the Filipinos started in early 1899. In their efforts to suppress the Filipino rebellion, the U.S. military waged war with a savagery and brutality unparalleled in any American war before or since. Both sides committed atrocities, but the Filipinos suffered the most, with total military and civilian deaths from combat and disease estimated to be anywhere from 100,000 to 250,000, compared to 4,000 U.S. military deaths.
The war in the northern Philippines ended in 1902 with the surrender of Philippine General Miguel Malvar. However, vicious fighting with the Muslim Moros in the southern part of the Philippine archipelago continued until 1913. It took another 44 years for the Philippines to gain independence from the U.S. (1946).
World Wars I and II
World War I was the most destructive in human history up to that time. The casualty toll was so high due to the abuse of science and technology by development and use of new or more potent existing weapons of war, such as machine guns, tanks, poison gas, and even military aircraft. Although a plethora of history books have explained the causes of the war, down to all the minutiae of past grievances and future ambitions, it seems that the fundamental causes were Germany’s militaristic drive to dominate Europe together with the web of alliances which bound the allied countries to make war against each other.
At the time that the U.S. entered World War I there was no threat to U.S. national security or vital interests. No foreign armies threatened invasion; except for the German submarine fleet, no foreign navy was a threat; and no potential enemy country yet had military aircraft capable of crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
It appears unnecessary for the U.S. to have sent an army into France in World War I, with the attendant carnage and cost. U.S. national security would have been served fully by limiting U.S. military action to protecting American commercial shipping from German submarines. In early 1917 the leaders of the German state could see that prolongation of the war would mean Germany could not win because the country was exhausting its supply of crucial war materials, while the U.S. was replenishing the war materials of Britain and France by means of ocean shipments to those countries.
Eventually a joint British and U.S. navy convoy system was developed that cut submarine-caused losses around the British Isles from 25% to 1%. Furthermore, once effective anti-submarine warfare by England and America commenced, the navies of the two countries destroyed half the German submarine fleet. It seems reasonable to suppose that had the U.S. devoted to anti-submarine warfare against Germany just a small fraction of what was spent on land warfare in France, the U.S. Navy could have eliminated virtually the entire German submarine fleet.
Limiting U.S. involvement to such measures would have spared the U.S. most of the human and financial loss incurred in the war.
World War I typified the sort of European conflict that Thomas Paine denounced in Common Sense; that George Washington warned America to avoid in his Farewell Address of 1796; and that Thomas Jefferson referred to in his first inaugural address of 1801 when he stated that the America is “. . . kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe [and should seek] peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”
In the presidential election campaign of 1916 President Woodrow Wilson and his Democratic Party won a narrow victory, in part by campaigning on the slogan “He kept us out of war!” saying a Republican victory would mean war with Germany. However, as Andrew Galambos often said, while it takes two to fight a war, it takes only one to start it. America was at war with Germany once the German submarine fleet attacked American shipping in early 1917. Consequently, President Wilson asked Congress for a Declaration of War against Germany in early April 1917, just two weeks after his second inaugural address.
President Woodrow Wilson is famous for having said that WW I would be the “war to end all wars” and that it would “make the world safe for democracy.” History has shown how naive those statements were, as WW II followed just twenty years later.
To most Americans World War II (WW II) is the quintessential “just war,” one which the United States could not possibly have avoided. This essay posits a different view—that in the forty years preceding WW II and even at the time of the war, there were actions the U.S. itself could have taken or avoided taking that could have eliminated the need to participate in war with Japan and could have reduced significantly the U.S. involvement in the war in Europe, with an attendant reduction in the human and financial costs to the American people.
The war between the U.S. and Japan that began in 1941 was the consequence of policies of each nation reaching back over more than forty years, for example the U.S. establishment of a military presence in the Philippines, East Asia and the western Pacific Ocean.
Nevertheless, since the U.S. did go to war with Japan in 1941, it is reasonable to believe that the U.S. could have prevailed with fewer military casualties and without using the atomic bomb.
The damage inflicted by Japan on the U.S. military in Hawaii on December 7, 1941 could have been reduced considerably by alert preparation for timely U.S. defensive action since the U.S. had long been aware that Japanese war plans included an attack on Pearl Harbor.
By the spring of 1945 the U.S. had already destroyed virtually the entire Japanese navy and air force. Therefore, the remaining concern was the probability of enormous military casualties in a land invasion of Japan. That concern was the justification for the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki where mostly civilians perished.
Alternatively, rather than using atomic bombs on civilian populations, the U.S. military could have instituted a blockade of Japanese ports that would have forced an eventual surrender, given Japan’s extreme dependency on fishing for its food supply and importing other supplies from abroad. Such a blockade would have been costly in terms of the expense of deploying a large naval fleet, but American casualties would have been relatively limited once the Japanese exhausted their remaining supply of airplanes in deadly but futile suicide attacks.
As for the war in Europe – was it entirely necessary for the U.S.?
The mainland of America was never in danger of attack by Germany during WW II.
A more fundamental question is whether the war itself was entirely necessary for the U.S., since the mainland of America was never in danger of attack by Germany during WW II.
By June 6, 1944, when U.S. troops landed in France on D-Day, the German military was already in shambles. Even by late 1943, it was becoming clear to many of Germany’s military leaders that they were losing the war and would be defeated. 73 At that point, Allied victory in Europe was just a matter of time. By focusing our efforts on an Atlantic sea war against Germany, the U.S. could have avoided the staggering loss of life involved in a land invasion of Europe. Had the U.S. focused on pulverizing the German navy and submarine fleet, enabling unfettered transport of American supplies and munitions to Britain and Russia, we could have effectively supported our allies and avoided 96% of all U.S. military fatalities outside of the Pacific theater of war. (Only 4% of war fatalities against Germany were suffered in the Battle of the Atlantic, including Merchant Marine fatalities as well as deaths of Navy, Marine Corps and U.S. army air force personnel.)
Moreover, the time for the U.S. as well as Britain and France to have acted against Nazi Germany was in 1936–nearly six years before the U.S. entry into WW II in Europe–when it became clear that Hitler intended to invade the demilitarized Rhineland border area with France. Merely a credible showing of U.S., French, and British resolve in opposing Nazi aggression would have obviated the need for actual combat operations in Europe.
Why did the U.S. not take action to avert the Holocaust before it was too late?
Stopping the Holocaust was not part of the policy of the United States. In 1938-1939, at the very highest levels of the state, the U.S. was aware of the Nazi peril to the Jews of Europe. Nevertheless, in 1939 the U.S. turned away a ship, the St. Louis, with 937 German Jewish refugees on board, dooming them to return to Europe and their probable death.
During the time when American action could have prevented a significant part of the slaughter of innocents yet to come, the American public, on the whole, was opposed to aiding the oppressed in Europe. While some Americans urged rescue action upon the U.S., most of those with the political power to take action—the President, his administration, and Congress, reacted to rescue proposals with indifference or apathy and, in the case of some, with outright hostility coupled with procrastination that seems to have been intended to delay or prevent action. To the lasting shame of the U.S. federal state, other countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, and Great Britain either took concrete actions to save Jews or strongly advocated such actions.
The U.S. costs of World Wars I and II would have been far less in human lives and financial resources if the nation’s leaders could have avoided war with Japan by having no military presence in Asia; and if U.S. participation in both European wars had been limited to supplying England (and Russia in WW II) and to anti-submarine warfare.
The Cold War, Korea and Vietnam
Beginning in 1945, immediately at the end of WW II, Russia crushed nascent movements toward independence, self-rule and democracy in the territories it conquered while defeating Germany, including the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Rumania. The Russians installed communist dictatorships in those countries, often by means of violence, including in some cases the murder of a country’s indigenous and independent political leadership.
The Cold War began in 1946 and ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It was characterized by political and military tension between the nations that had comprised the Western Bloc, especially the United States, and Eastern Bloc nations, dominated by the Soviet Union.
The Korean War
In June 1950 the army of the North Korean state invaded the south, intending conquest to unify Korea under communist rule. The North Korean communists had sought and received the encouragement and support of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin, who wanted to fight the U.S. by proxy, without risking direct military confrontation.
For three years the war raged up and down the Korean peninsula until an armistice was agreed to in July 1953. The armistice was formalized in November 1954, dividing the peninsula between the communist north and the non-communist south at the 38th parallel, a division which has existed into the 21st century.
The people of South Korea benefited enormously from U.S. intervention to prevent conquest by North Korea. However, neither U.S. national security nor any vital interests of the U.S. were threatened by the possibility of communist rule of all of Korea. Yet the U.S. military suffered 50,000 fatalities in the war, and the U.S. has borne the considerable expense of maintaining a military presence in Korea ever since the end of the Korean War.
The American war in Vietnam was even more costly than the Korean War. At the time of the Vietnam War (1964-1975) there was no threat to American security from possible North Vietnamese communist control of all of Vietnam. Yet the U.S. went to war in Vietnam in 1964, a war in which the U.S. military suffered 58,000 fatalities and 153,000 wounded. Because U.S. military casualties were high, because some of the horrors of war in Vietnam were so vividly depicted on television, and because the war seemed to have no end in sight, the Vietnamese war caused more divisiveness and discontent in the U.S. than any war since the Civil War a century earlier.
The Middle East Wars
While the U.S. has been involved in the Middle East since the war against the Barbary Pirates in the early 19th century, petroleum in that region has been a significant factor in some, but not all, U.S. military involvement in the Middle East during the 20th century and beyond.
In three wars in the Middle East since 1990 through June 2012 the U.S. military suffered 6,600 fatalities, nearly 48,000 wounded, and has spent $1.2 trillion through the year 2011. Seemingly continuous military activity in the Middle East has also brought upon the U.S. widespread international disapproval.
The U.S. suffered losses from attacks by terrorists from Middle Eastern countries, including but not limited to the 1982 truck bomb attack against U.S. marines in Lebanon, a truck bomb attack on one of the New York World Trade Center Twin Tower buildings in 1993, the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and a small boat bomb attack on a U.S. navy ship (the S.S. Cole) in Yemen in 2000.
In 1994 security forces of France thwarted an attempt of Middle Eastern terrorists to fly a hijacked commercial aircraft into the Eiffel Tower in Paris. In 1995, in an incident foreshadowing the World Trade Center terrorist plot, Middle Eastern terrorists planned to hijack several U.S. bound commercial aircraft and blow them up over the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. thwarted this plot with the cooperation of the government of the Philippines.
Taking into account the foregoing – especially the 1993 World Trade Center attack – U.S. state security agencies had the information necessary to anticipate something like the 9/11 terrorist attacks would be attempted. Had the U.S. been more proactive about addressing the threat of terrorism, not only the 9/11 attack but the ensuing Afghanistan War could have been averted.
It is the position of this essay that the three wars waged by the U.S. in the Middle East from 1990 onward were unnecessary, futile and counter-productive, notwithstanding (1) the removal of the murderous regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, (2) the killing of the terrorist mastermind who planned the attacks on America that occurred on September 11, 2001 and (3) the so far temporary defeat of the inhumane, cruel and savage Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion in 2001.
Building a defense that defends
The U.S has never had a defense that truly and capably protected and defended America from foreign attacks. That was proven beyond all doubt by the successful Japanese military attack at Hawaii in 1941 and by the successful terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, DC in 2001. The U.S. has had only the capability of retaliatory military action, rather than the ability to prevent attacks.
The wide oceans surrounding North America that once provided protection against a military invasion by a hostile foreign power have long ceased to provide adequate protection now that hostile forces can strike America with weapons of mass destruction delivered by inter-continental ballistic missiles.
As of the early 21st century, a U.S. missile defense research and development program had achieved some success despite domestic political indifference and even outright opposition. It seems apparent that the federal state has lacked the commitment and resolve to realize the potential for defense inherent in America’s world-leading productivity and technological prowess.
A later chapter in this book will examine in detail the means by which Americans can maximize their security against foreign aggression by building defenses that really defend.