The American Way of Going to War

The American Way of Going to War - John Harper


America’s “unnecessary wars” adhere to a basic pattern. They have been fought in the name of the broader mission that many Americans believe Providence has chosen their nation to carry out, but have been characterized by a prewar “fog” of incomplete or flawed information. They are the handiwork of a small but determined “war party,” and the US political system often acts as a stimulus to the use of force, rather than a check on it, as opposition politicians join the call for fear of being branded unpatriotic. Finally, from the War of 1812 to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, unnecessary wars have more often than not failed to advance the interests of those who pursued them. These lessons of the past are cause for serious reflection; the least that can be said after reviewing these wars is that the benefit of the doubt should never be given to those who urge military action.

Historians and other scholars have spilled much ink over the subject of ‘the American way of war.’ Developed during the Civil War, perfected during the Second World War, partially revived in the 1991 Gulf War after the frustrating limited conflicts of the Cold War, the ‘American way’ exploits the wealth and technological superiority of the United States and relies on overwhelming force to annihilate the enemy.1 Less attention of a systematic kind has been paid to the American way of going to war. This is no doubt partly because Americans prefer to think that the dynamics of going to war in their history have been relatively simple. For the most part, America has unsheathed its ‘terrible swift sword’ when others have forced it to do so, when its honor and security have been at stake, and as a last resort.

A distinguished historian has recently contended that, on the contrary, pre-emptive war and annexation of territory are an old American strategy, one that developed in reaction to the British attack on Washington during the War of 1812.2 This argument exaggerates both the similarities between 24 August 1814 (a reprisal for an American attack on Toronto) and 11 September 2001, and the impact on the alleged father of pre-emption, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, of the British raid. Gaddis makes much of Adams’s bid to wrest the Floridas from Spain in 1818. But some Americans had been trying to take the Floridas long before the burning of the White House, just as some had been hoping to intervene in Iraq long before the felling of the Twin Towers. Expansion and interventionism on the periphery were driven at times by defensive considerations, but mainly by the belief in a continental destiny, the desire to open transportation routes, sectional ambition, and hunger for more land.3 Until the Bush administration, the United States had never embraced preventive or pre-emptive war, and on several occasions presidents had rejected such a course. In the late 1790s, President John Adams frustrated Alexander Hamilton’s design to seize New Orleans. In 1950, President Truman repudiated his navy secretary’s call for preventive war against the USSR. The Eisenhower administration rejected a US Air Force plan advancing a related scheme.4

Nevertheless, the manner in which, and the reasons for which, the United States went to war against Iraq in March 2003 were not a radical departure. History shows that the United States has had a strong propensity to become involved in conflicts which, though it would be misleading to call them ‘wars of choice,’ were unnecessary wars.5 This essay will try to explain why. Some of what will be said undoubtedly applies to other nations; indeed, those in a position to judge may well conclude that there is little that is exceptional in the American way of going to war. But this is not a comparative study – my focus is necessarily on the United States.

‘War’ is understood as a major armed conflict in which the United States has committed ground forces against a sovereign enemy for the purpose of defeating it.6 An ‘unnecessary war’ can be defined against its opposite, a ‘war of necessity.’ A war of necessity is a war in response to an unprovoked attack on one’s territory or citizens or those of a friendly country, or a war to preserve the nation’s political independence and way of life. This definition encompasses pre-emptive war in the face of what the political theorist Michael Walzer calls a ‘sufficient threat,’ that is, the existence of ‘a manifest intent to injure, a degree of active preparation that makes that intent a positive danger, and a general situation in which waiting, or doing anything other than fighting, greatly magnifies the risk.’7 It also encompasses collective action under the auspices of the Security Council to deal with a serious breach of international peace.

Preventive war against another state based on the presumption of a future threat, a staple of the classic balance-of-power system, cannot be deemed unnecessary as a category. One need only imagine such a war against Nazi Germany, circa 1936. But there have been far more instances of unnecessary or counterproductive preventive wars than of hypothetical preventive wars which hindsight shows should and could have been fought.8 The gravity of the supposed threat is more often than not exaggerated and there is little guarantee that such a war will lead to the desired outcome. Third parties (in the recent case, North Korea and Iran) do not necessarily receive the intended message, while the moral authority of the power starting the war is likely to suffer as a result.

‘Necessary’ does not exactly correspond to ‘just.’9 All necessary wars are just, but not all just wars are strictly necessary. Just but unnecessary wars, arguably, might include wars to assist a people in overthrowing a foreign or even a local tyrant, to stop genocide, or to spread democracy. The problem is that such wars tend to dissipate precious resources in dubious enterprises, to be used by outside powers and local actors for the purpose of self-aggrandizement, and to prove unhelpful to those they are supposed to assist. As Walzer observes, ‘foreign intervention, if it is a brief affair, cannot shift the domestic balance of power in any decisive way toward the forces of freedom, while if it is prolonged ... will itself pose the greatest possible threat to the success of those forces.’10 While one should not make a fetish of the so-called legalist paradigm, as a general rule there is superior wisdom in a conservative position: going to war to protect oneself and one’s allies while resisting the temptation to do so in order to foster the kind of world that one might like to create.11

That said, the following were wars of necessity: the War of Independence, triggered by pre-emptive British action against the nascent American confederation in April 1775, the Civil War, triggered by pre-emptive Southern action in April 1861, entry into the Second World War, which even without Pearl Harbor (a not altogether unprovoked attack), would have been necessary to defeat Nazi Germany, the initial phase of the Korean War, triggered by North Korea, and the Afghanistan War, following the 11 September 2001 attacks. By contrast, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish–American War, the second phase of the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the 2003 Iraq War were instances where the United States could have avoided war without seriously endangering itself or its allies, or used methods other than military force. There are a pair of borderline cases, the First World War and the First Gulf War. On balance, the former (as will be shown) was an unnecessary and the latter a necessary war.12

America's Mission

No two wars begin and end in the same way or for the same reasons. Each is unique. Nonetheless America’s unnecessary wars adhere to a basic pattern. First – although the point applies to nearly all of America’s wars – they have been fought in the name of the broader mission that Providence has allegedly chosen the United States to carry out, or of universal principles that the United States, as so many Americans believe, has the responsibility to defend. The notion of mission has always served to consecrate policies whose practical effect, though not necessarily their conscious purpose, is the preservation or expansion of American wealth and power.

The characteristic American outlook on America’s purpose in the world, though neither Hegelian13 nor Marxian, is strikingly deterministic: it holds that events unfold according to an underlying design or logic. This has much to do with the influence of Protestant eschatology on the American view of history; specifically, with the twin notions that events are moving toward an end-state, in time, when Good will triumph over Evil, and that America is the agent through which this design is being carried out.14 Thomas Jefferson embraced a secularized version of this millennialist thesis. On the effects of the American and French Revolutions, he wrote, ‘This ball of liberty, I believe most piously, is now so well in motion that it will roll around the globe.’ According to the New York journalist John L. O’Sullivan,

All this will be our future history, to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man — the immutable truth and beneficence of God. For this blessed mission to the nations has America been chosen and her high example shall smite unto death the might of tyranny of kings, hierarchs, and oligarchs.

For Woodrow Wilson, ‘America had the infinite privilege of fulfilling her destiny and saving the world.’ For George W. Bush, history ‘has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty ... America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof.’15 A powerful complementary thesis, derived from a reading of nineteenth-century British history and bolstered by ‘hegemonic stability theory,’ is that without a leader, the international political and economic systems will descend into anarchy. America, by virtue of its power and ideals, is the world’s redeemer nation by default. It is ‘bound to lead’.16

The conviction that, in going to war, the United States is pursuing a historical mission or defending universal principles has been particularly important in mobilizing elites — editorialists, clergymen, liberal (and today neo-conservative) intellectuals, politicians — who wish to justify action to themselves and others on the basis of idealistic motives, or who see America’s ideals as a form of power. The notion of mission has often been reduced to a formula or slogan that radically simplifies a complex question and endows it with ‘moral clarity’. These slogans have galvanized opinion while also tending to obscure the self-seeking motives bound up with American action. The question is not whether such moralizing is sincere or instrumental; it is clearly both.

In 1845, John O’Sullivan launched the slogan ‘manifest destiny,’ expressing the idea that Providence had ordained America’s dominion from sea to shining sea. Journalists and politicians from all sections and parties argued that like-minded neighboring peoples such as the Texas Republic should be incorporated into the federation, that America should regenerate the backward peoples of the hinterland, and that in disputes with foreign powers (over Oregon and California, for example), true title to the land belonged to those (namely, Americans) able to occupy it and develop its potential as God had intended. When the United States occupied large parts of Mexico, the James Polk administration claimed that it was extending ‘the area of freedom,’ a slogan revived in recent years.17

A form of ‘manifest destiny’ re-emerged in the 1880s and 1890s, reinforced by the Social Darwinism and ‘navalism’ of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge. Mahan believed that there was no choice but to compete with the other great powers for markets and colonies. Together with Britain, America was destined to lead the coming decisive struggle between Eastern and Western civilizations. To that end, it should control the Caribbean, build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, and project its power into the Pacific by annexing Hawaii. The Reverend Josiah Strong, an influential Congregationalist minister, declared that ‘the Anglo-Saxon is divinely commissioned to be, in a peculiar sense, his brother’s keeper’ and to spread his beneficent influence around the globe.18

In 1917, America went to war ‘to make the world safe for democracy,’ Wilson pledged that we shall fight for the things that we have always carried nearest to our hearts — for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right.19

The Fourteen Points (January 1918) reflected Wilson’s belief that the time had arrived for America to put itself at the service of humanity and fulfil its mission of bringing peace and freedom to the world.

Proclamations of America’s mission during the Cold War drew on Wilson’s vision of a world where the freedom of small states would be protected, on the lesson of the 1930s that aggression must be promptly confronted, as well as the presumed lesson of the pre-1914 world that peace and prosperity depended on the constant efforts of a powerful liberal state. For Truman, the United States must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.’ Aggression in Korea must be dealt with because it was ‘part of the attempt of the Russian Communist dictatorship to take over the world, step by step.’ The authors of the secret study NSC 68 (April 1950) were franker in stating that

America’s mission must be to ‘foster a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish’, and that even if the USSR did not exist the United States would face the fact that ‘in a shrinking world, the absence of order among nations is becoming less and less tolerable.’ By defining the Cold War as a contest of ‘freedom’ against ‘slavery,’ however, they created a caricature – for themselves in the first instance – of that world. According to the logic of NSC 68, the war of Vietnamese nationalist- communists against a US-sponsored dictatorship in Saigon became a test of America’s capacity to learn the lessons of Munich and defend liberty around the globe.20

In the preface to the Fourteen Points, Wilson had declared the dawn of a new age: ‘the day of conquest and aggrandizement is gone by.’ The spread of democracy in East Asia and Latin America in the 1980s, China’s economic liberalization, and the sudden collapse of the Soviet Empire appeared to some to be a belated vindication of Wilson’s view. According to the notion of ‘the end of history’, the Western model had demonstrated its inherent superiority over all competing models. The year 1989 marked the fading of grand ideological conflict and the advent of Jefferson’s secular millennium: the adoption of democracy and free markets around the world.21 According to a widely-held complementary argument, the United States should seize the opportunity to consolidate its overwhelming military superiority and its political hegemony over Europe, the Far East and the Middle East.22 The two arguments lie at the heart of the George W. Bush administration’s view of America’s mission. For Bush, there is but a ‘single sustainable model of national success: freedom, democracy and free enterprise’, and the United States must extend its benefits everywhere. What is more, the United States ‘has and intends to keep military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless.’23 The remarkable confidence with which Bush has viewed the task of spreading democracy in the Middle East springs in part from his quasi-millennialist assumptions. With the world heading toward ‘the end of history’, the United States need do little more than kick away the rotten scaffolding of the old order in a country like Iraq in order to release the forces of democracy and free markets to play their appointed part. In a real sense, Iraq was a faith-based war.

The Fog Before the War

Much has been made of Clausewitz’s notion of the ‘fog of war.’ A second consistent feature of America’s unnecessary wars has been the ‘fog before the war.’ Policymakers make honest mistakes on the basis of flawed or incomplete information. Sometimes they deliberately deceive the public. Moreover, as an acute observer has written, ‘it may be true that the most effective way to deceive others is first to deceive oneself.’24 At the heart of the American decision to go to war there has often been a self-deception or a delusion of one kind or another: a fixed, mistaken conception of reality not readily susceptible to correction through examination or reasoning. A typical pre-war delusion is the belief, in spite of evidence to the contrary, that the United States is the innocent party and that the other side has little or no reason to feel threatened or aggrieved. Often this is connected with a dramatic incident or incidents whose dynamics are distorted by a kind of ‘political solipsism.’ Political solipsism is the inability to see, and the natural tendency to deny, the selfish and power-seeking component in one’s own behavior, and the ways in which one’s actions may condition the actions of others. As another acute observer put it, ‘Nations, particularly great nations, are usually too proud to understand that their power might be a peril to other nations.’25 To this could be added that the greater the power, the greater the sense of peril and the inclination to resist, on the part of those who feel subject to that power.

The delusion according to which the United States is in the right while others are wilfully aggressive or malevolent has been essential to creating a climate of righteous indignation and rallying the general public behind America’s unnecessary wars. The nationalist, populist and ‘Jacksonian’ elements of the body politic have typically been less concerned than the liberal elites about justifying American action in the name of universal principles, but are sensitive to questions of national sovereignty and honor and quick to take offense.26 American history bears out Alexander Hamilton’s observation, ‘Wars more often proceed from angry and perverse passions than from cool calculations of Interest.’27

An incident that inflamed American opinion was the Battle of Tippecanoe (November 1811) between US forces and Indians in the Indiana Territory. American opinion had longed blamed British agents for arming and inciting the tribes of the Northwest. To put an end to this ante litteram example of state-sponsored terrorism, and to punish British maritime behavior, Americans called for regime change north of the Great Lakes. In fact, British officials were attempting to discourage Indian attacks on Americans for the simple reason that they put Canada under threat from the United States. The Indian attack had been provoked by Governor William Henry Harrison’s encroachment on territory President Madison had told him to remain out of. On the impact of this incident, one historian justly comments: ‘History is often influenced as much by erroneous conviction as by truth.’28

The American conquest of California and New Mexico in the 1840s confirms the point. President Polk and his cabinet acted partly on the assumption that the British were trying to take California. Though London did not favor US acquisition of California, there was not much evidence that it had designs of its own and the opening of the British archives in the twentieth century showed that this theory was a canard.29 In 1845, the US consul in Texas convinced the Polk administration that the British, having failed to prevent the annexation of Texas by the United States, intended to goad Mexico into a war with its northern neighbor. This theory was also at variance with the facts.30 The incident preceding the US invasion of Mexico in 1846 occurred when US forces occupied the area of southern Texas between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers to which the United States had a shaky legal claim. When the Mexicans sent troops north of the Rio Grande and a clash occurred, Polk assured the nation — and seems himself to have believed – that Mexico had ‘invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.’31

The incident sparking the Spanish–American War was the explosion of the US battleship Maine in Havana harbor on 15 February 1898, killing 266 crewmen. Well before a US inquiry reported that a Spanish mine or torpedo had caused the disaster, many had reached Theodore Roosevelt’s conclusion: the Maine had been sunk ‘by an act of dirty treachery on the part of the Spaniards’. With the release of the report, war hysteria swept through the United States: ‘neighborhoods, suburbs, small towns, and rural counties simply caught fire. No section, no type of community, no occupational group was immune.’32 Though the Spanish had afforded the Maine every courtesy during its three-week stay in Havana, it was not implausible that local elements of the Spanish military considered its presence a provocation and had planted a mine. But it was equally plausible that Cuban revolutionaries had acted to trigger US intervention. The least plausible hypothesis was probably that the Spanish government wished to provoke a war. Under US pressure, and facing a winless conflict with Cuban rebels, the Liberal Party cabinet in Madrid had recalled the notorious General Valeriano (‘the butcher’) Weyler and announced that it would grant the island autonomy along Canadian lines.

During the crisis following the incident, Madrid accepted US demands that it end ‘reconcentration’ of the rural population and grant an armistice to the rebels. Understandably, Madrid rejected the US demand that it give up sovereignty over Cuba, and war was the result. American experts today believe that the Maine was destroyed by spontaneous combustion inside the ship.

America’s righteous indignation in 1917 arose from incidents occurring in the German-declared war zone in the vicinity of the British Isles, in particular, the sinking of the British liner Lusitania, killing 128 Americans, in 1915, and the attack on the French liner Sussex in 1916. The US declaration of war followed the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare (suspended after the Sussex incident) in the zone, and interception of the ‘Zimmermann telegram’ revealing Berlin’s plans to entice Mexico into the coming war with the United States. The German military had concluded that the United States as a belligerent could not provide much more help to the Allies than it was already providing as a ‘neutral,’ and that before US power could be mobilized, German submarines could knock Britain out of the war. This proved to be a fatal miscalculation.33 At the same time, in the words of a well-known historian,

the American people, in pointing an accusing finger at the submarine, were prone to overlook their own responsibility for what befell them. Their large-scale assistance to the Allies in munitions and other contraband, coupled with Washington’s acquiescence in the British blockade, drove the Germans to desperate expedients that ultimately involved the United States.34

From early on, the British gave an arbitrary definition to contraband (items that could be confiscated from neutrals), compelled American vessels bound for Europe to undergo extended searches in British ports, and created a heavily mined exclusion zone in the North Sea to enforce a blockade of Germany. Washington protested such unprecedented interference with neutral shipping, but thanks to the efforts of pro-Ally officials (Wilson’s adviser Colonel Edward House, US Ambassador to London Walter Hines Page, Secretary of State Robert Lansing) the protests were never pushed too far. In the meantime, the United States became a major supplier of the Allies, the value of its trade with them nearly quadrupling in the first two years of the war.35 The Germans’ unhappy choice was to allow munitions, often carried by passenger ships, to reach Britain, or to attack such shipping without warning to enforce their own blockade.36 The Lusitania carried some 4,200 cases of ammunition and the Germans had publicly warned Americans against sailing on Allied ships. After the incident, some in Congress thought it would be prudent for the US government to issue a similar warning. Wilson, though he declined to press US rights against British violations, insisted on the right of US citizens to travel as they wished. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a self-serving and far-from- even-handed policy, together with the failure to grasp how American behavior affected German behavior, led the United States into the war.37

The second phase of the Korean War, following General Douglas MacArthur’s successful counter-offensive in September 1950, is a classic case of how a delusion, subscribed to chiefly by MacArthur but shared to a degree by most top policymakers, led to a disastrous turn of events. Reflecting the Truman administration’s previously adopted aim of destroying North Korea’s armed forces, the Joint Chiefs of Staff prepared orders authorising UN forces to cross the 38th parallel, though only if there had been ‘no entry into North Korea by major Soviet or Chinese Communist forces, no announcement of intended entry, nor a threat to counter our operations militarily in North Korea.’ Approved with minor changes by President Truman, Defense Secretary Marshall and Secretary of State Acheson, these became MacArthur’s orders on 27 September 1950. Marshall advised him in a separate communication that he should ‘feel unhampered tactically and strategically to proceed north of the 38th parallel.’38

The delusion consisted in the belief that the Chinese would not see themselves sufficiently threatened by an all-out offensive in the direction of their industrial heartland, that they lacked air and naval support, and that they would not be willing to make the necessary economic sacrifices to commit themselves to a major war with the United States. The delusion, by definition, persisted in the face of abundant contrary evidence: major, observable troop movements into Manchuria and across the Yalu River; warnings from Indian, Dutch, British and other sources; Zhou Enlai’s 2 October 1950 statement through the Indian ambassador to Beijing, the day after South Korean troops crossed the parallel, that if US troops followed, China would intervene; and subsequent, explicit warnings in the Chinese press. Those who claimed to understand the ‘oriental mentality’ (MacArthur and his entourage) argued that the Chinese were bluffing.39 Anyone who remembered that the Japanese had used northern Korea as a base from which to attack Manchuria in the 1930s, and who realized that the Chinese were unlikely to believe US pledges to stop at the Chinese border (the US had initially stated that it would stop at the 38th parallel), took a different view.

A series of dramatic incidents involving US forces paved the way for the escalation of the Vietnam War: the clash in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964, the attack on Ben Hoa air base in October 1964, the attack at Pleiku in February 1965. The Johnson administration’s reaction to the Gulf of Tonkin incident indicates that it did not so much misconstrue reality as deliberately deceive Congress to advance its objectives. Even as he assured the nation that he ‘sought no wider war’, Johnson solicited a blank check from Congress in the form of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to be able to pursue just such a war after the 1964 elections, if he chose. The administration knew that the United States had been conducting covert (Oplan 34-A) attacks against North Vietnam for a number of months and that US naval patrols monitored the North Vietnamese reaction. To win support for the resolution, however, the administration presented North Vietnamese attacks on US destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin as ‘unprovoked’ and part of a pattern of ‘naked aggression.’40

The delusion (as opposed to deception) consisted in the belief of Johnson, close advisers and the US military command in Saigon that a viable South Vietnamese state and army could be built in the shadow of an invasive US presence, and that support at home would hold in the face of significant casualties. This flew in the face of historical evidence. Until April 1965, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Ambassador to Saigon Maxwell Taylor strongly resisted a US combat role, the latter predicting that, eventually, ‘like the French, we would be occupying an essentially hostile country.’ Undersecretary of State George Ball argued in 1964–65 that a negotiated settlement would be welcomed by most US allies, that sending US combat forces would be like giving cobalt treatment to a terminal cancer patient, and that history’s great commanders had resisted the temptation to throw good money after bad. Johnson’s shrewd political adviser, Clark Clifford, predicted that Americanization would lead to ‘catastrophe’. The president’s trusted Senate friend, Richard Russell, conveyed a similar message. Yet even after the 1968 Tet offensive had exploded the assumptions underlying US strategy, Johnson was prepared to support the military’s request for an additional 206,000 troops and expansion of the war beyond South Vietnam. Johnson’s was the delusion of the gambler who, rather than cut his losses, goes deeper and deeper into debt in the belief that a miraculous payoff will save his fortune and reputation in the end.41

While few would deny that the US-led war in Afghanistan in 2001 was necessary, the Bush administration subsequently opted to exploit the anger and sense of vulnerability spawned by 11 September to pursue its prior objective of toppling Saddam Hussein. To that end, the administration deliberately misled the public by linking al-Qaeda and Iraq. To an even greater degree, however, the administration misled itself.

The American delusion concerning Iraq was multi-layered. It did not consist of the belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. On the basis of various pieces of evidence and of Iraq’s past behavior, it was not unreasonable to think this was the case. The delusion was, first, to believe that Iraq, having suffered a crushing defeat in 1991, with armed forces less than half the size they had been before the Gulf War, and with much of its airspace under US control, represented a growing threat. It was to believe, moreover, that because Iraq had used WMD against unarmed civilians it would use them without provocation against Israel or the United States. While there was a remote theoretical possibility that Islamic terrorists might obtain WMD from the secular Iraqi regime, an invasion seemed as likely to trigger such a transaction as to prevent it, and it was far more reasonable to assume they would seek such weapons from Russia, North Korea or Pakistan. At the heart of the Bush administration’s delusion was the belief that the Middle East Gordian knot was somehow ripe for cutting by US military power: Iraq’s reconstruction and transformation to democracy would be rapid and largely self-financing; Iran, fearing Iraq’s fate, would abandon its nuclear ambitions; the Palestinians, seeing the light, would accept a deal like the one they had rejected at Camp David; terrorists everywhere would lose heart. To this could be added a seemingly wilful denial of one of the basic lessons of Vietnam: not only is a large foreign military presence no substitute for legitimate and self- reliant local forces; it is one of the obstacles to the emergence of such forces in Iraq.

All the President's Men

The third characteristic of America’s unnecessary wars is that they are not the handiwork of the people nor of a single dominant leader but typically of a small, determined ‘war party’. Its members subscribe to the notion of America’s mission and see the United States and its friends as in the right but are also driven by the desire to gain (or retain) personal power and recognition. Often it is a relatively closed, partisan circle where there is a reluctance to challenge the assumptions underlying policy and where personal loyalty tends to trump intellectual honesty. The party has always included the president, though not necessarily as its motor force. It pushes, but at a certain point is itself borne along by events. Elements of the press often act as auxiliaries to the war party. They do so out of genuine conviction, the lure of profits, and the wish to curry favor with those at the top. In the case of America’s unnecessary wars, only rarely has the war lobby included members of the industrial and financial elite.

In 1812, the war party was a group of young, ambitious congressmen (most famously Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun) known as the ‘War Hawks’. Mainly from the South and West, they believed in the British–Indian conspiracy theory, and that just as gentlemen must be prepared to duel in private life, upholding American honor on the high seas required war. Less enthusiastic congressmen and senators supported the War Hawks’ call for the raising of an army in the hope that it would lead to British concessions. Once such preparations were underway, however, it became difficult to back down. An anti-war congressman remarked that the war party and its followers had ‘advanced to the brink of a precipice, and not left themselves room to turn.’42 At a certain point American — and their personal — credibility was at stake.

President Madison himself was not a charter War Hawk. In 1810, Congress (through legislation called ‘Macon’s Bill #2’) removed US restrictions in place on trade with France and Britain, promising that if one of those powers ended its violations of American rights the United States would then impose total- non-intercourse on the other. In an attempt to embroil the United States and Britain, Napoleon’s government stated its intention to revoke edicts that harmed American commerce. Madison chose to accept these flimsy assurances, gambling that it was in the French interest to follow through. In early 1811, Madison supported a law prohibiting British exports to the United States until the Orders in Council were revoked. If Britain refused, the only way to uphold America’s ‘absolute rights’ would be war.43

Even after it became obvious that the French had not changed the substance of their policy, Madison clung to the fiction that they had, and insisted that Britain do the same. In June 1812, after receiving news from London suggesting that British policy would not change, and facing a presidential election later in the year, he invited Congress to declare war. The final irony is that in late June, the British government, unaware of the American declaration of war and pressed by British exporters, revoked the notorious Orders in Council. But when this news reached Madison in August, he dismissed it as a trick. Once more he would not admit his mistake.

The Mexican War is a case where the president and his inner cabinet were the driving force. Polk was no intellectual of the Madison type but the over-achieving protegé of fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson. After pushing through the annexation of Texas in 1845, Polk was determined to fix the US– Mexican border on the Rio Grande and to acquire California and New Mexico. With one hand he offered cash (plus the assumption of damage claims allegedly owed by Mexico to US citizens). With the other he pointed a pair of pistols: an American army poised on the bank of the Rio Grande opposite the Mexican port of Matamoros and a naval squadron off Vera Cruz. After learning that Mexico had refused to receive his minister, John Slidell, he decided to ask Congress to declare war, even before receiving news of the clash with Mexican troops north of the Rio Grande in April 1846.

From the outset of the First World War, the Republican imperialists of 1898 (Mahan, Roosevelt, Lodge, Root) argued that the United States must intervene on the side of Britain and France to punish German aggression against Belgium and to help preserve the balance of power. Key administration officials (House, Page, Lansing, Secretary of War Newton Baker, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt) adopted a similar point of view. So did industrialists (the Du Ponts) who supplied the Allies, and bankers (the House of Morgan) who had advanced around $2.3 billion in cash and credits to them by 1917. Though he sympathized with the Allies, Wilson did not favor intervention and was re-elected in 1916 as the man ‘who kept us out of war’. Immediately after the election he undertook to mediate an end to the carnage and was deeply disillusioned with the Allies when they declined to go along. With some reason, he saw little to choose in rapaciousness between the two sides. In early 1917, he warned against ‘a peace forced upon the loser’ that would ‘leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory’, and called instead for a ‘peace without victory’. By that point, however, much like Madison in 1812, he had trapped himself in a policy that tolerated the abuses of one belligerent and thus made war probable with the other. Specifically, after the Sussex incident in 1916, Wilson had warned the Germans that if they did not alter their method of submarine warfare, the United States would cut off diplomatic relations. The Germans had agreed, but on condition that there be a relaxation of the British blockade. When no such relaxation occurred and the Germans resumed their attacks, Wilson had little choice but to take sides in the war.

At the center of the war party in 1950 was the charismatic MacArthur, his syncophantic staff in Tokyo (above all, General Charles Willoughby) and supporters in the Pentagon like General Charles L. Bolté. MacArthur was also the champion of right-wing Republican congressmen and senators (William Knowland, Joseph McCarthy, Walter Judd and others) who had excoriated the Truman administration for ‘losing China’ and shared his goal of rolling back Communism in the Far East. In the State Department, MacArthur’s course was backed by Asia specialists John Allison and Dean Rusk. The president’s role was ambiguous, but crucial. Truman was eager to share credit for the liberation of North Korea and feared the political price he would pay at home if he were to rein in the ‘viceroy of the East.’ Secretary of Defense Marshall, a former soldier, declined to limit the freedom of a field commander. Secretary of State Acheson deferred to the judgement of the Olympian Marshall, his former boss. MacArthur himself had grown seriously worried about the presence of Chinese forces in North Korea by November 1950, but argued that halting his drive north would be seen by the world as a new Munich. Despite reservations, Washington gave the green light for his ‘home-by-Christmas’ offensive on 24 November.44

Shortly before his death, President Kennedy approved plans to withdraw 1,000 US advisers from Vietnam by the end of 1963, and to remove all 16,000 by the end of 1965. Almost immediately, his successor approved increased pressure on North Vietnam (Oplan 34-A) and declared to his advisers: ‘I am not going to lose Vietnam.’45 Johnson was an ambitious domestic reformer determined to shield himself from the kind of right-wing attacks that had weakened Truman. But he was also a literal-minded believer in America’s mission to defend the Free World, a conviction reinforced by several advisers inherited from Kennedy, in particular Walt Rostow and Dean Rusk. A crucial component of the war party were the Joint Chiefs of Staff under General Earl Wheeler, and the field commander, William Westmoreland, who mirrored the thinking of conservative Republicans in pressing Johnson for a more aggressive war against the North. Even more crucial were those members of Johnson’s inner circle who had recommended withdrawal to Kennedy in late 1963 – McNamara and Taylor. A combination of fear of the collapse of Vietnam, loyalty to the new president, and a desire to retain credibility with the Joint Chiefs led them to swallow their doubts about an American ground war in Vietnam.

The war party in 2002–03 included a group of fundamentalist believers in American power (Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz) whose drive and determination recalls the War Hawks of 1812. As in 1898, a well-organized lobby of exiles played an important part. George W. Bush’s role also has an obvious precedent: James Polk in 1846. An historian’s description of the Polk type applies well to Bush: ‘No paralysing scrupulosity or forecast of future danger holds them back; and woe to the land if they be misguided, for they do things.’46 Condoleezza Rice paraphrased Bush’s view of his presidency: ‘The country could sit on its unparalleled power and dispense it in small doses, or it could make big strategic power plays that would fundamentally alter the balance of power. Bush planted himself in the visionary camp.’47 When the history of the war is written, Bush’s domestic advisers may well emerge as members of the war party, encouraging Bush to believe that a quick, successful war would make him unbeatable in 2004. Colin Powell was the Robert McNamara of the story. After warning Bush in August 2002 of the probable dire consequences of a US invasion, he swallowed his doubts and went along.48 Even if Powell had decided to oppose military action, by early 2003, with large US forces poised to attack Iraq, Washington’s credibility was seen to be on the line and it was too late to turn back.

Democracy Goes to War

Much has been written on the question of democracy’s relationship to military action. What emerges from the study of America’s unnecessary wars is that congressional opposition is weak and the two-party democratic competition more often than not acts as a stimulus to the use of force. Opposition politicians have tended either to mute their criticism out of fear of being branded as unpatriotic, or to jump on the war bandwagon. Their reluctance to challenge the ‘war party’ is sometimes based on what are seen as the lessons of the past. By the same token, the party in power typically calculates that successful military action will pay political dividends, while showing weakness will lead to defeat at the polls. Few friendly countries can be counted on to have the nerve to express their doubts about American action. Those who do are usually dismissed as pusillanimous, or having crass commercial motives, or wishing to undermine the United States.

During the pre-war debate in 1812, the leader of the Federalist opposition in the House of Representatives, Josiah Quincy, recommended that his party keep a low profile and try to avoid the damaging charge of Anglophilia. The Federalists assumed that with the country unprepared and largely opposed to war, the War Hawks and their followers were bluffing, but they had no clear alternative of their own. During the Mexican War, articulate spokesmen from both parties (the Democrats Calhoun and Albert Gallatin; the Whigs John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln) denounced Polk’s policy as a reckless war of conquest, but the opposition found itself at a basic disadvantage. The Democratic majority in the House attached the formal declaration of war to an army supply bill, forcing the Whig minority either to vote yes or be accused of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. (The House vote was 174 in favor, 14 opposed, 35 abstaining; in the Senate, 40 in favor, 2 opposed.) The Whigs had not forgotten that their predecessors, the Federalists, had paid a high price for their refusal to support the War of 1812. Though loathing Polk and his policies, the Whigs voted for troops and supplies throughout the war.49

Senior leaders from both parties (former Democratic President Grover Cleveland, the Republicans Carl Schurz and Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed) considered war with Spain a national disgrace, but few politicians were willing to resist the fever of 1898. At the end of March 1898, Democratic Party leader William Jennings Bryan announced that he favored intervention in Cuba, a signal that the Democrats would exploit the crisis if the Republicans did not. The House vote on the ultimatum to Spain was 324 in favor, 19 opposed. The war gave rise to the Anti-Imperialist League which denounced plans to annex the Philippines and Cuba as a violation of American principles. Its members included such luminaries as Andrew Carnegie, William James and Mark Twain. McKinley ignored the League and went on a speaking tour to test opinion in the ‘swing states’ of the Middle West. As he revealed in an interview with Methodist ministers, before deciding to support annexation of the Philippines, he had gone down on his knees and ‘prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night’. The message he received was that the Filipinos could not be left to Spain, to some other power, or to themselves. ‘There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.’50

There was little or no opposition to MacArthur’s drive north in 1950, a classic case in which the two-party competition acted as a stimulus to reckless military action. Skeptical Democrats were silenced by the fear that halting MacArthur would increase their vulnerability to attacks in an atmosphere already poisoned by charges of Communist infiltration of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. MacArthur’s offensive began a month before mid- term elections in which the Democrats hoped to limit their losses. The Gallup poll (13 October 1950) indicated that 64 percent of Americans favored crossing the parallel, while 27 percent were opposed.51 In such circumstances, eloquent dissenting voices in the State Department (George Kennan, Charles Bohlen, Edward Barrett and Livingston Merchant, among others) had no effect. British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, the one foreign statesman with the weight to exert some influence on the US administration, took the position that it would be dangerous to press the Americans to delay their offensive to give an opportunity to diplomacy. ‘If Truman deferred to such an appeal and military problems arose later on, the British would take the blame.’52

In Vietnam, the US political system once again stacked the deck in favor of escalation. When Johnson asked Congress in August 1964 for the authority ‘to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression’, the Senate concurred by a margin of 88–2, the House by 416–0.53 Democrats uneasy about granting a blank check to Johnson had not forgotten the early 1950s. They voted yes in part to undermine Republican charges in the electoral campaign that their party was weak on defense. (There is no way to know if Kennedy would have reduced the US presence to a minimum after the 1964 elections,54 but there is no question that it would have been easier for him politically to do so. He had proved his mettle as a Cold Warrior and would not have been running for re-election in 1968.) In 1964–65, as in 1950, the United States was ill-served by a British Labor government that hesitated to press its doubts about escalation. Washington pointedly rejected the wise advice (to seek the neutralization of South Vietnam) offered by the French.55

In 2002–03, elder statesmen from both parties (former President Jimmy Carter, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft) were appalled by the rush to war, but congressional opposition to the administration’s policy was nearly as feeble as it had been in 1846, 1898, 1950 and 1964. Some Democrats shared the administration’s analysis in good faith. Many (including those running for president) appear to have been cowed by the fear that they would be charged with weakness in the ‘war on terror’ if they tied the president’s hands on Iraq. In 1990, in spite of the clear case of Iraqi aggression, 47 senators had opposed a resolution authorising the use of force; in 2002, in spite of the lack of an Iraqi provocation, only 24 did so. One reason for the difference is that the 1990 vote took place in December, after the mid-term elections, while the 2002 vote was held in October, in the middle of the campaign. Liberal newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times were hesitant and ineffective in questioning the case for war. This time, the leaders of the British Labor Party not only abandoned their initial doubts, but became strong supporters of the war. The well-founded criticisms of the French and Germans were dismissed as malevolent (Vice-President Cheney at one point asked the French ambassador whether France was an ally or an enemy) or beneath contempt.56

Wars Are Easy to Start...

The final feature of America’s unnecessary wars, including those that have ended in victory, is that they exhibit a kind of law of unintended consequences. More often than not, they have failed to advance the interests of the individuals and political parties who have pursued them. America’s unnecessary wars bear out Machiavelli’s warning, ‘Because anyone can start a war when he wants to, but not finish it, before taking on such an enterprise, a prince must measure his strengths, and govern his conduct on that basis.’57

The War Hawks’ assumption that an American army would conquer Canada in a few weeks in 1812 proved to be a fantasy. Advocates of war failed to foresee the reversal of Napoleon’s fortunes in 1812–14, allowing the British to commit additional naval and military forces against the United States. The conflict emptied the national treasury, brought foreign trade to a standstill, and nearly broke up the union as much of New England refused to support it. The peace settlement did not bring territorial gains or address the original maritime controversies. Among the war’s few significant results was that it launched the career of America’s nationalist-populist icon, Andrew Jackson, who defeated the British at the (unnecessary) Battle of New Orleans.

After hostilities with Mexico began in April 1846, Polk was confident they could ‘be speedily terminated.’58 When, though beaten on the battlefield, the Mexicans refused to make peace and the American popular press began to clamor for the annexation of ‘all Mexico,’ the administration faced the prospect of a long and costly occupation of the entire country.59 Polk seized on the exit strategy offered him by his peace envoy, Nicholas Trist, whose authority he had revoked. Luckily for Polk, the man he called ‘an impudent and unqualified scoundrel’ had disobeyed orders, negotiated a treaty with the Mexican government, and sent it to Washington in February 1848.60 The war added enormously to American wealth and power at the expense of a weaker neighbor. It also reopened the question of slavery (which had lain dormant since the Missouri compromise of 1820), when northerners of both parties insisted (the Wilmot Proviso) that slavery be banned from the new territories. Polk attempted to paper over the question, but it was soon to explode. The Whigs recruited a war hero, General Zachary Taylor, as a presidential candidate and ousted Polk’s party from the White House. Exhausted by the strain of the war, Polk went to an early grave.

The United States went to war in 1898 with an army and supply system sadly unprepared for hostilities. Theodore Roosevelt, an eyewitness, wrote that ‘the mismanagement has been beyond belief ... The lack of transportation, food and artillery has brought us to the very verge of disaster.’61 Fortunately for the United States, the Spanish army had been brought to the verge of defeat by disease and the local rebels. Yet the American invaders were greatly disillusioned by the Cubans they had come to liberate, finding them slovenly and politically immature. Instead of gratitude, the Americans encountered widespread suspicion of their intentions (some felt they had been fooled by the Cuban exiles). Though the ultimatum voted Congress had promised that the United States would not acquire ‘sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control’ over Cuba, Washington excluded the Cubans from the peace negotiations and imposed a protectorate status on the island in the form of the Platt Amendment. With the collapse of Spanish authority over the Philippines, the United States had little choice but to annex the islands. In so doing it inherited not only a bloody war against the local independence movement but a territory of limited commercial value and indefensible against Japanese attack.62

The case can of course be made that American entry into the First World War was necessary—not to protect neutral rights, to crush German militarism or to foster a new world order, but to preserve the European balance of power. According to this line of argument, the United States should have intervened on the side of the Allies in 1914, but without insisting on Germany’s unconditional surrender. But this is a purely academic argument. American democracy would never have permitted such a step. As it was, US entry in 1917 guaranteed Germany’s defeat and imposition of a ‘peace forced upon the loser,’ that would rest ‘as upon quicksand’, that Wilson had warned against.63 In the course of rallying the American people to war, Wilson himself embraced the view that not only the elites but the German people must be punished. With US approval, the Paris settlement was riddled with contradictions of the principle of self-determination and the Versailles Treaty included Article 231 saddling the main loser with sole responsibility for causing the war and the consequent destruction of lives and property.64 Given the evils that flowed from the collapse of Germany and Austria–Hungary and the peace of 1919, it is difficult to believe that the United States, and the world in general, would not have been better off had Washington stuck to strict neutrality and had the conflict ended in compromise or a narrow German victory.

Continuing the Korean War beyond the 38th parallel brought the worst battlefield defeat in US history and cost thousands of American and hundreds of thousands of Korean and Chinese lives. ‘MacArthur’s war’ led to a serious crisis of confidence in American leadership around the world. It was in the context of a shooting war with China that the United States tied itself to a bankrupt regime in Taiwan and concluded that ‘Indochina is of great strategic importance in the general international interest rather than the purely French interest, and is essential to the security of the Free World.‘65Had the United States and China avoided war and relations been less bitter and confrontational, Washington would surely have seen its stakes in Vietnam in a different light. Truman’s failed gamble cost the Democratic Party at home, and the Republicans took control of the White House in 1952.

Escalating the Vietnam War, rather than cutting US losses, in 1964–65 led to an unprecedented political–military defeat. Nearly 60,000 Americans died, as well as an estimated 3,000,000 Vietnamese. The war put a severe strain on the US economy and threatened to tear apart the social fabric of the United States. Among the domestic casualties was Johnson’s Democratic Party, whose internal unity was shattered by the war.

Apart from the initial campaign, little has gone as intended in Iraq. The problems anticipated by the war’s architects (a refugee crisis, destruction of the oil fields) did not materialize, while those that did (systematic looting, the collapse of basic services, a guerrilla insurgency) took them by surprise. The war distracted attention and resources from the campaign against al-Qaeda and its allies and won new recruits and sympathizers for jihad against the West.66 As in Vietnam, the local regime became dependent on US military power to maintain its position, yet the invasive US presence, and in particular the abuse of detainees and the killing of civilians, has undermined the regime’s legitimacy and fuelled radicalism and resistance. The January 2005 elections (insisted on not by Washington but Shia religious leaders) do not guarantee a transition to a stable, united and democratic Iraq, let alone a democratic Middle East.67 As for the war’s other objectives, it may well be that US action prompted North Korea and Iran to redouble their efforts to obtain a nuclear deterrent against the United States. Bush won re-election in spite of, not because of, the war. Iraq remains a sinkhole for American blood and treasure during his second term.

A Cause for Reflection

A recent, cogent argument suggests that the durability of America’s post-Second World War leadership has been based not only on its enormous power and the existence of a common enemy, but on ‘strategic restraint’, the capacity of the United States to take the interests of others into account and to fashion a kind of hegemony based on consent.68 The purpose here has been to understand how and why the United States, over the course of its history, has frequently acted without restraint. The explanation begins with the habit of America’s elites – though it is not unique to America’s – to justify self-seeking and aggressive action in the name of a predestined mission or defense of universal principles. This habit, in the case of America’s necessary wars has undoubtedly resulted in much good, and not only for the United States. But it is a two-edged sword. All too often the politically and morally reassuring notion that one is pursuing a mission has absolved consciences, numbed rational analysis and hastened the unnecessary use of force.

Hamilton, a critic of facile historical determinism, once observed that ‘evil is seldom as great, in the reality, as in the prospect’.69 America’s unnecessary wars demonstrate that reality in pre-war periods is rarely what it is believed to be. Policymakers are prone to discount the self-seeking component in their own behavior and to delude themselves about the intentions and capabilities of the other side. It should be a cause for serious reflection when contemplating military action in the future that the premises on which the United States decided to go to war in 1812, 1846, 1898, 1917, 1950, 1964–65 and 2002–03, were mainly false.

Hamilton’s contemporary Thomas Paine wrote that ‘in the early ages of the world there were no kings, the consequence of which was there were no wars.’70 Paine’s point was inaccurate but suggestive. No war is the work of a single person, but small groups of determined and well-placed individuals have played an indispensable role in starting most of America’s unnecessary wars. With several exceptions (1846, 1964 and 2003) these bellicose groups have not initially included the president, but no war has been started without presidential approval. More often than not, presidents embrace war because they see advantages to their careers and reputations in doing so, and dangers if they do not.

Speaking of American behavior in the First World War, George Kennan wrote: ‘History does not forgive us our national mistakes because they are explicable in terms of our domestic politics ... A nation which excuses its own failures by the sacred untouchableness of its own habits can excuse itself into complete disaster.’71 The two-party democratic competition, with the strong incentive it entails to support military action and brand enemies as unpatriotic, has contributed on a number of occasions, if not to disaster, to inexcusable foolishness. Proponents of the ‘democratic peace’ theory might answer that this fact does not invalidate their argument. None of America’s wars, they might contend, has been fought against a fellow liberal democracy, and the more democracies there are in the world the fewer wars there will be. Even if this is true (which is not self-evident72), in the meantime (likely to be a long time), American democracy will retain its propensity to produce Vietnams and Iraqs. And what about the country most likely to enter America’s cross hairs in the near future? Regardless of whether it is authoritarian or democratic, China will be a burgeoning power, determined to assert superiority in its own neighborhood, and subject to moods of nationalist paranoia and exuberance. In some ways it is much like the United States in 1898.

America’s unnecessary wars, finally, have led to the useless expenditure of lives and resources and to unexpected and undesired consequences. To this it can, of course, be objected that not all of them have been unsuccessful. The Mexican War, the Spanish–American War and the First World War added considerably to American wealth and power. The United States did not suffer permanent damage and recovered its position relatively quickly after Korea and Vietnam. Leaving the aside the moral question of lives thrown away for no reason, the answer to the first point is that American demographic and economic growth would sooner or later have produced comparable levels of wealth and power (assuming that is what truly matters) even without war. The fact that the United States recovered relatively quickly from Korea and even Vietnam does not mean that those wars were not dreadful mistakes that no one would care to repeat.

Bismarck is supposed to have said that God in his mercy looks after drunks and the United States. Perhaps he had heard the story of how Nicholas Trist’s unlikely treaty provided a fortuitous exit from Mexico for James Polk. Indeed, the American experience – thus far – has been relatively fortunate compared to that of most of the other, far older, great nations of the world. But it would be unwise to count too much on God or luck to ensure America’s future safety from self-inflicted injury. The least that can be said is that the benefit of the doubt should never be given those who urge military action. In the twenty-first century, going to war unnecessarily could prove to be an even more expensive habit than in the past.


1 A classic treatment is Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (New York: Macmillan, 1973). Weigley observes (p. xxii): ‘In the history of American strategy, the direction taken by the American conception of war made most American strategists, through most of the time span of American history, strategists of annihilation. At the beginning, when American military resources were still slight, America made a promising beginning in the nurture of strategists of attrition; but the wealth of the country and its adoption of unlimited aims in war cut that development short, until the strategy of annihilation became characteristically the American way in war’.

2 John Lewis Gaddis, Surprise, Security and the American Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), chap. 2

3 Ibid. As Gaddis himself points out, Adams warned against the temptation of foreign interventionism and opposed the annexation of Texas and the war on Mexico. Gaddis’s argument about pre-emption as a motive in the case of the Floridas seems more valid when applied to the period before the War of 1812 than the years following the Peace of Ghent. Writing of the ‘lure of the Spanish colonies’ during the years 1783–1812, Julius Pratt observed that ‘land and the control of transportation routes had been the principal aims of the expansionists, but with these had been mingled other motives – the dread of Spanish influence among the Indians, the fear that Florida might be used by Spain or some other power as a base of operations against the United States, and the desire to secure full control of the Gulf of Mexico’. See The Expansionists of 1812 (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1957), p. 60.

4 Hamilton did not actually propose an attack on New Orleans before a formal declaration of war, but he hoped to bring about a break with France and Spain that would allow the United States immediately to move against the strategic city. It could be added that there have been several failed attempts at the preventive annexation of territory. In 1843, the Senate rejected the Tyler administration’s argument that Texas must be annexed to foil alleged British designs to control it. In 1893, President Grover Cleveland rejected the Republican argument that Hawaii must be annexed to keep it out of the hands of some other major power.

5 It would be misleading to call them ‘wars of choice’ because those entering into them believed that they had little choice but to do so.

6 This article does not deal with the subject of so-called ‘small wars’, including US campaigns against the Indians and interventions in Latin America, the Caribbean, Lebanon, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere. On that subject, see Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

7 See Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1977), p. 81.

8 The former category would include the South’s war against the North in 1861, Germany’s war against Russia and France in 1914, and Japan’s against the United States in 1941. The latter category would include the war that might have been fought against Nazi Germany.

9 ‘Historically the jus ad bellum has developed around a set of seven principles on how to justify resort to war: the requirement that, to be justified, a war must have a just cause, be waged by proper authority and with a right intention, be undertaken only if there is reasonable hope of success and if the total good outweighs the total evil expected (overall proportionality), be a last resort, and be waged for the end of peace’. See James Turner Johnson, Morality and Contemporary Warfare (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 27. The key of criterion of just cause was understood, according to traditional Catholic doctrine, to include protection of the innocent, retaking people or property wrongly taken, and punishment of evil. Contemporary positive international law as embodied in the UN Charter, or what Walzer refers to as the ‘legalist paradigm’, interprets just cause more narrowly, namely, as limited to self-defence against territorial aggression. The trend since the end of the Cold War has been to broaden the meaning of just cause to include ‘humanitarian intervention’ in the internal affairs of sovereign states, thus harkening back to the broader traditional definition of just cause.

10 Walzer makes this point in the context of his discussion of the views of John Stuart Mill. See Just and Unjust Wars, p. 88. Mill’s classic argument on foreign intervention makes a distinction between cases in which an oppressed people is struggling for freedom against a foreign despot (or a local despot backed by foreign power) and one in which it is struggling against a purely local despot. In the former case, he argues, intervention is justified to offset the power of the foreigner and to level the playing field. In the latter case, however, intervention is not justified because if the freedom fighters do not possess sufficient strength, dedication and popular support to overcome the despot on their own, it is unlikely that the overthrow of the despot by a foreign power will lead to a durable free government. Mill observes, ‘When a people has had the misfortune to be ruled by a government under which the feelings and virtues needful for maintaining freedom could not develop themselves, it is during an arduous struggle to become free by their own efforts that these feelings and virtues have the best chance of springing up. Men become attached to that which they have long fought for and made sacrifices for.’ J.S. Mill, ‘A Few Words on Non-Intervention’ (1859), in Dissertations and Discussions (London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, 1867), p. 175.

11 On the legalist paradigm, see note 9, above.

12 A case can be made that the Gulf War was unnecessary: the United States had abetted Saddam Hussein’s rise to regional power in the 1980s by tilting in his favor during the Iran–Iraq War (specifically through the provision of satellite intelligence, the granting of large credits for the purchase of American food, and the protection of Kuwaiti ships against Iranian attacks). The United States declared a neutral position in the dispute over the British-drawn Iraq–Kuwait border, thus conceding that Iraq’s claims were not without merit. Once Iraq had invaded Kuwait, the United States (as Colin Powell argued at the time) had options other than war, namely, sanctions and containment from the air. Washington’s shift to an offensive military posture in late 1990 not only imposed a deadline for resolution of the crisis but probably made Saddam Hussein less likely to back down. This argument is ultimately unconvincing since sanctions have often proven ineffective and the United States and its allies could not run the risk of allowing Saddam Hussein to augment his power by absorbing Kuwait.

13 Francis Fukuyama’s study advancing a universal, directional history of mankind based on Alexandre Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel is surely the exception rather than the rule. See Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).

14 See Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1968). Tuveson draws a distinction between the Roman Catholic (Augustinian) view according to which salvation in the temporal world is a contradiction in terms, the fundamentalist Protestant or ‘millennarian’ view (entertained by some Evangelical Christians today) according to which Christ will literally return to reign on earth, and the more mainstream Protestant, or ‘millennialist’, interpretation of the Book of Revelation, according to which the Reformation signified the downfall of Babylon (embodied by the Roman Church), to be followed, in due course, by the reign of the just on earth. He observes: ‘We make history ourselves though we are under the inspiration of grace. The modern world, to a greater extent than we may appreciate, has been motivated by this kind of conviction, whether its form is Christian apocalypticism or ‘Marxist dialectic’; both set forth predictions and general guides, both call for the most strenuous efforts to destroy the opposition and to progress toward the happy time sure to come, by a path marked out in advance’ (pp. 47–8).

15 Jefferson to T. Coxe, 1 June 1795, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 28, pp. 373–4; John O’Sullivan, ‘The Great Nation of Futurity’, The United States Democratic Review, vol. 6, no. 23, November 1839, pp. 426–30. Lincoln’s Second Annual Address to Congress, December 1862; Wilson speech, 13 July 1916, and Cheyenne speech, September 1919; George W. Bush, Second Inaugural Address, 20 January 2005. One could add many other examples including Herman Melville: ‘We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people – the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world’. Hermann Melville, White-Jacket; or, the World in a Man-of-War (London: Oxford, 1929), pp. 143–4.

16 See Joseph S. Nye, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 1990).

17 For the first use of the term, see John O’Sullivan, ‘Annexation’, in United States Democratic Review, vol. 17, July–August 1845, p. 5. See also Frederick Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History (New York: Knopf, 1963), chap. 2; John Schroeder, Mr. Polk’s War (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1973), p. 161.

18 Josiah Strong, quoted in Ernest May, Imperial Democracy: The Emergence of America as a Great Power (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961), p. 8. See also A. T. Mahan, ‘The U.S. Looking Outward’ (1890), in his collection of essays, The Interest of America in Sea Power (New York: Harper Bros., 1897). Lodge warned that since the great powers were ‘rapidly absorbing for their future expansion and their present defence all the waste places of the earth, the United States must not fall out of the line of march’. Henry Cabot Lodge, quoted in Julius Pratt, Expansionists of 1898 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1936), p. 2.

19 Wilson war message, quoted in John Milton Cooper, Breaking the Heart of the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 23.

20 Truman Doctrine speech, 12 March 1947; NSC 68, April 1950; Truman’s State of the Union Address, 8 January 1951.

21 See Fukuyama, The End of History. To be fair to Fukuyama, he did not predict how quickly or how easily the historical process he identified would be brought to fruition, and noted (pp. 234, 238) the possibility not only of new international rivalries along cultural lines but of ‘new, illiberal ideologices’.

22 See the discussion of the Pentagon’s 1992 Defense Planning Guidance (published in part over the signature of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney) in James Mann, The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (New York: Viking, 2004), chap. 13. As Mann points out, the Clinton administration, while putting economic globalization at the center of its agenda, did not challenge the basic arguments of the document.

23 US National Security Strategy, September 2002; Bush speech at West Point, 1 June 2002.

24 Robert W. Tucker, The Just War: A Study in Contemporary American Doctrine (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1960), p. 4.

25 Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (New York: Scribner’s, 1944), pp. 179–80. Psychologists have observed the same phenomenon in individuals: ‘We are prone to alter our perceptions of causality so as to protect or enhance our self-esteem.’ Albert Hastorf et al., cited in Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), pp. 343–4.

26 On the ‘Jacksonian’ tendency, see Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence (New York: Knopf, 2001), chap. 7.

27 Aleander Hamilton letter to President George Washington, 14 April 1794, Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol 16, pp. 266–79.

28 Perkins, Prologue to War, p. 286.

29 Merk, Manifest Destiny, observes that local British officials feared US intrigue and favored British acquisition of the province, but the idea received no encouragement from London (p. 77).

30 Consul A. J. Donelson’s fears arose in part from the activities of his British counterpart, Charles Elliot. In 1845, Elliott attempted to arrange a deal whereby Texas would remain an independent state (rejecting annexation) and in return be recognized as such by Mexico (which still considered Texas a rebellious province). When this demarche became known and Texas rejected the deal, Donelson concluded that the British move had been a ploy to anger Mexico and to goad it into a war with the United States. According to a recent study of the question, ‘Donelson’s fears that the British were working actively behind the scenes to subvert annexation at any cost had no basis in fact. The U.S. chargé had greatly exaggerated the influence of his British counterpart, whose mission to Mexico had never been authorized by Her Majesty’s government. Mindful of the wave of anti-British sentiment in Texas and the United States which Elliot’s activities had caused, [Foreign Secretary] Lord Aberdeen censured his freewheeling diplomat and informed the U.S. minister in London that Elliot had acted on his own initiative. Donelson’s suspicions that the belligerent posture assumed by the Mexican government had been instigated by the British were equally unfounded. Far from encouraging Mexico to embark on a war against its northern neighbor, Her Majesty’s government had notified Mexican leaders that they could expect no aid from Great Britain should an invasion of Texas be attempted, a warning which they would repeat on numerous occasions in the months ahead.’ Sam W. Haynes, ‘‘’But What Will England Say?’’ Great Britain, the United States, and the War with Mexico’, in Richard V. Francaviglia and Douglas W. Richmond, Dueling Eagles: Reinterpreting the U.S.–Mexican War, 1846–1848 (Arlington, TX: University of Texas Press, 2000), p. 23.

31 Quoted in ibid., p. 88.

32 Theodore Roosevelt, quoted in Louis A. Pérez, The War of 1898 (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), p. 58. On the war hysteria, see May, Imperial Democracy, p. 147.

33 For one thing, it failed to take into account the fact that US naval power already in being would help to counter the submarine threat to Britain.

34 Thomas A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People (New York: Appleton–Century–Crofts, 1964), p. 593.

35 Ibid., p. 570.

36 Surfacing to issue a warning put the lightly-armed submarines at risk from armed merchantmen and passenger ships. The Lusitania was under secret orders to ram attacking submarines.

37 Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People, p. 593.

38 See William Stueck, The Korean War: An International History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 89, 94.

39 On MacArthur’s reaction, see ibid., p. 95.

40 For a lucid account, see Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (New York: Penguin, 2002), chap. 1. The second of the two reported North Vietnamese attacks, on 4 August, probably never happened. There were serious doubts at the time.

41 Maxwell Taylor, quoted in M. Young, The Vietnam Wars (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 134. See also George Kahin, Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam (Garden City, NJ: Anchor, 1987), chap. 15.

42 John Randolph of Virginia, quoted in Perkins, Prologue to War, p. 433.

43 The administration newspaper wrote in May 1811 that ‘our rights are absolute, not contingent’. Quoted in ibid., p. 257. 44 See Stueck, The Korean War, pp. 111–19.

45 Quoted in Howard Jones, Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 444. On JFK’s withdrawal plan see ibid., chaps 15–16.

46 George Garrison, quoted in Merk, Manifest Destiny, p. 146.

47 Quoted in Bob Woodward, Bush at War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), pp. 281–2.

48 On Powell’s meeting with Bush and Rice at the White House on 5 August 2002, see ibid., pp. 332–4.

49 Merk, Manifest Destiny, chap. 4.

50 William McKinley, quoted in May, Imperial Democracy, pp. 252–3.

51 Cited in Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People, p. 822.

52 Stueck, The Korean War, p. 95.

53 H. J. Res. 1145, 7 August 1964 (the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution).

54 There can be little doubt that this was his intention at the time of his death. See Jones, Death of a Generation, pp. 452–3.

55 On this point see Frederik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999).

56 On Cheney, see Mann, The Rise of the Vulcans, p. 355.

57 Niccolo Machiavelli, Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 1993), vol. 2, chap. 10, p. 266.

58 See Allan Nevins (ed.), Polk: The Diary of a President, 1845–1849 (New York: Longmans, 1952), p. 87.

59 Polk also feared that Congress (controlled by the Whigs as of early 1847) would sooner or later cut off funding for the war, forcing him to withdraw US forces from California and New Mexico as well as central Mexico.

60 For Polk on Trist, see Nevins, Polk: The Diary of a President, p. 309.

61 Theodore Roosevelt, quoted in Pérez, The War of 1898, p. 92.

62 Ibid., chap. 4. Language of the joint resolution of April 1898 quoted in May, Imperial Democracy, p. 159. On the latter point see Mark Stoler, ‘War and Diplomacy: Or, Clausewitz for Diplomatic Historians’, Diplomatic History, vol. 29, no. 1, January 2005, p. 19.

63 On this point, see George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 66–8.

64 The article read: ‘The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her Allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed on them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.’ According to a perceptive account of Wilson’s role in Paris, ‘it was precisely on those questions that the Germans objected to most vigorously – questions that had a punitive character and involved national honor and prestige, such as exclusion from the League of Nations, the trial of the emperor, the delivery of war criminals, and of course, the war-guilt clause of Article 231 – that Wilson was not to be moved’. See Manfred F. Boemeke, ‘Woodrow Wilson’s Image of Germany, the War-Guilt Question, and the Treaty of Versailles’, in Manfred F. Boemeke, Gerald D. Feldman and Elizabeth Glaser (eds), The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after75 Years (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 613.

65 NSC 124-2, 25 June 1952.

66 The head of the CIA, Porter Goss, admitted as much in testimony to Congress in February 2005. See D. Jehl, ‘Intelligence Officials cites Wide Terror Threats’, The New York Times, 17 February 2005.

67 Though the Bush administration has claimed that ‘freedom and democracy are on the march in the Middle East’, it is difficult to see a connection between the transition in Iraq and movement toward the resolution of the Israel–Palestine issue. What limited progress one has seen is linked to Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza (in order to preserve a Jewish majority within Israel and to tighten Israel’s hold on parts of the West Bank), and to the death of Yasir Arafat. Nor is there an obvious connection between Iraq and events in Lebanon (triggered by French and US pressure on Syria to leave the country after Damascus’s manipulation of the Lebanese constitution, and by the assassination of ex-prime minister Hariri). The one clear connection is Mubarak’s announcement of multi-party presidential elections, but the fact that a Mubarak- controlled parliament will vet opposition candidates induces a certain scepticism about the possibility of change.

68 See G. John Ikenberry, After Victory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

69 Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, 15 September 1790, The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 7, pp. 52–4.

70 Thomas Paine, Common Sense and Other Political Writings (New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1953), p. 10.

71 Kennan, American Diplomacy, p. 73.

72 Anyone thinking otherwise should re-read the final chapter of Fukuyama, The End of History.

John L. Harper is Professor of American Foreign Policy and European Studies at the Bologna Center. He is the author, most recently, of American Machiavelli: Alexander Hamilton and the Origins of US Foreign Policy.