Tag Archives: Empire

A Defining Moment in History: Appomattox Court House

One hundred and fifty years ago General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, thereby signaling the end of a long and bloody war which had been fought over the question of whether a political state had a right to leave a union it had voluntarily joined. History books enumerate the varied and difficult sociopolitical causes that led to the rupture of the United States and the devastating effects the rupture had on the people and the nation. At the heart of the rupture was a central question, was the United States a federation or a confederation? Modern attempts to clarify the difference between the two types of union focus on a key difference between otherwise similar political institutions – voluntary entry and the notion that a sovereign state that enters voluntarily should in turn be able to freely exit if it chooses. In the nineteenth century, the American Civil War seemed to have determined that the United States had become a federation upon the signing of the U.S. Constitution and the dissolution of the union would not be tolerated. In the twentieth century, other confederations would seek dissolution with varied levels of success. Arguing that they had never agreed to become a federation but had only agreed to a loose confederation, political states like Slovenia managed to declare and achieve independence. Not all attempts by small political states belonging to larger political unions succeeded in achieving both independence and international recognition without first engaging in prolonged civil wars. During the American Civil War and the many civil wars of the twentieth century, the international community, particularly the great powers, felt the need to intervene usually, but not always, on the side which sought to protect the status quo. Interestingly, as important as maintaining the status quo and suppressing war might have been to the great powers, occasionally they would see value in the breakup of large unions regardless of whether the unions were federations, confederations, or empires.  In the end, it seemed to matter little how a union was defined, rather what mattered was how the other great nations could best benefit economically, politically, and socially. In the case of the American Civil War, the great powers decided that intervention would be too costly. Keeping peace in Europe was enough of a problem without throwing support behind a bunch of rebel states wishing to form a separate, more loosely bound union. Prior to April 9, 1865, there had been a debate as to whether the United States was a confederation of states voluntarily joined and with the right to freely exit. With the defeat of the South, the debate should have ended. However, despite the fact that the events at Appomattox Court House comprised a defining moment in U.S. history, the distinction between federation and confederation did not seem to solidify, at least not when secessionist rhetoric finds a foothold.

Gowing to War: Purpose and a Plan

In continuation with last week’s post about the study of the motivations of war, I decided to revisit something I wrote a couple years ago.

The Spanish-American War and subsequent Philippine War were short wars by U.S. standards but had far reaching consequences. President McKinley’s “limited war strategy” was intended to gain independence for Cuba but its limited scope also included a limited understanding of the consequences of international conflict.[1] Simply put, the United States was unprepared for war. While the navy was somewhat prepared, the army struggled under continued state and congressional opposition to a strong peacetime military force.[2] As with the American Revolution and the Civil War, untrained volunteers, “who fancied they were soldiers because they could get across a level piece of ground without stepping on their own feet,” were mustered and sent to war with little opportunity for training.[3]

Lack of preparation was one of the issues faced during the “splendid little war.” Of greater issue was the lack of a clear objective for war. If independence was the objective, then it would have seemed logical for the United States to have had greater respect for the native rebels who had worn down the Spanish forces before the U.S. arrival. Rather than respecting and aiding the rebel effort, the United States went from liberator to conqueror and rejected the notion of revolution and self-governance. Rather, the United States implemented a paternalistic imperial rule over the former Spanish colonies. Although there would be efforts at nation building and promises of self-rule, economic and military dependency became the reality.

Whatever goals President McKinley might have had in justifying war, they seem to have gone with him to his grave.[4] While Cuba would achieve a semblance of independence once the war ended, the Philippines would find itself embroiled in further war and facing an arguably unwanted annexation. The United States would become an empire by default more than by plan. McKinley’s little war would also have unexpected, long-term consequences on U.S. military strategy.

The Spanish American War and the Philippine War which created a new empire, would encourage future generations to believe that a guerrilla opposition could be snuffed-out with enough oppression, pacification, and force. While McKinley had not recognized the nature and consequences of international war coupled with imperial occupation, later presidents would justify future international wars based on the perceived successes of these conflicts. Only after it was too late would they realize that occupying islands cut off from allies and supplies was and easier task than occupying lands connected to supply networks. In a time when photographic war journalism was in its infancy, and the atrocities of war could still be ignored by civilians in the United States, pacification policies, total suppression of civilians and combatants, and a torched earth policy could subdue an enemy without public outcry. The United States would learn eventually that people may cry for war when national interests are at risk, but they have little stomach for war or the devastation war brings when faced with the brutal reality of war. Former U.S. secretary of state and retired general Colin Powell once said, “War should be the politics of last resort. And when we go to war, we should have a purpose that our people understand and support.”[5] More importantly, a nation should only go to war when the president understands the clear purpose of the proposed war and has weighed the consequences, short-term and long-term, thoroughly.

Endnotes

[1] Allen R. Millett and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America. rev exp. (New York: Free Press, 1994), 286.

[2] Ibid., 303.

[3] Ibid., 290.

[4] Brian McAllister Linn, The Philippine War, 1899-1902 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000), 3.

[5] Tim Russert, “Powell’s Doctrine, in Powell’s Words.” The Washington Post, October 7, 2001. http://www.mbc.edu/faculty/gbowen/Powell.htm (accessed September 11, 2012).

Going to War: Power and Prosperity

The United States presents a fascinating study of the various reasons a nation chooses, or feels forced to go to war. In the early days of the nation, war with foreign powers was seen as too entangling to enter into lightly. Attempts to circumvent armed retaliation for foreign oppression resulted in embargoes which hurt the U.S. more than it did those at whom the embargoes were aimed. Military retaliations seldom achieved the sought after goals, although they did establish the clear message that the young nation would not tolerate foreign oppression. International conflict was costly regardless of the strategy, but by the late 1800s a new reality was emerging within the power brokers of the nation. War, while costly in men and machine, could also provide an economic boost to a nation struggling with recession. This reality would become even more pronounced in the 1900s as the machine began to dominate warfare and a race to beat others in the field of war technology intensified. War had become a profitable business even as the world became terrified of the horrible human destruction modern war created. By the mid-1900s, war technology began to threaten the very existence of mankind even while the development of the technology made many powerful and wealthy.

Interestingly, in the early decades of the 1900s men like Woodrow Wilson were well aware of how devastating war could be on the humanity. Having been born in Virginia in the decade prior to the Civil War, Wilson’s earliest memories would have been of war, deprivation, and human suffering. He would have spent his youth seeing war veterans and hearing their stories. He went to school where he studied history and politics, subjects that would have exposed him to the many wars fought over power and possession. He earned a doctorate and would be the first U.S. president to have a PhD. The study of history and politics would have influenced his aversion to going to war, but his belief that the United States could influence others in a positive way would justify his support of intervention and eventually international war. Like many other intellectuals and politicians, his desire to spread the ideologies of democracy and capitalism, in other words, to help others become more like his beloved nation, blinded him to the fact that others might not wish to emulate the United States. As president, he was well on the way to becoming remembered for his military interventions and suppression of revolution before World War I thrust him into the role of international mediator.

Having come to age during the years when the United States attempted to heal from the wounds of war, and having seen firsthand the difficulties created in a society when harsh, punitive treatment was dealt to the defeated, it is not surprising that Wilson would wish to avoid repeating such mistakes when negotiating peace in Europe. It is also not surprising that Wilson would want to find a way to avoid future war. In the end, war is costly and a desire to recoup one’s own expenses at the further detriment of the defeated is hard to suppress. Furthermore, notions of international cooperation can, for many, seem to weaken a nation rather than propel it to greatness. Peace is virtuous, but war promotes power and economic vitality, especially if the war never touches the homeland.

For Further Reading

Boemeke, Manfred F., Gerald D. Feldman, and Elisabeth Glaser, eds. The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Unexpected Consequences: Revolution

Prior to the twentieth century, war was most often the product of the elite rather than the common man. Assuredly, war had an impact, both direct and indirect, on the laborer. Whether from conscription, taxation, or proximity to the combat and the combatants, war could wreak havoc. War could also quickly change boundaries and cause forced changes in allegiance. Entire regions could become disputed territory as powerful states weakened and weaker states grew strong. The chaos of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars led the rulers of Europe to seek a balance of power that would prevent the outbreak of wide spread war. For approximately a century they succeeded in quelling the rising nationalistic zeal that threatened to reignite the flames of world war. However, revolutionary ideologies were not contained even as rulers tried to contain revolt. While notions of self-determination, democracy, and equality were discussed by liberal minded thinkers, the ruling class held fast to the notion that not all men were ready or capable of self-rule. In some cases, outright racism was the justification for the continuation of imperial dominance and all the ills that imperialism wrought on subjugated peoples. In other cases, benign paternalism justified policies that increased inequality and protected the status quo. Regardless of the grand rhetoric of the time that promoted equality and brotherhood, paternalistic elitism, the belief that some were better suited to govern than others, remained the consensus of the day.

As the twentieth century dawned, changes in society due to industrialization were creating unrest. The outbreak of World War I ratcheted up the change. Women went to work in greater numbers, particularly women who belonged to the middle class.  Men, who had once been viewed as expendable laborers, became a valuable commodity. Total warfare left no civilian untouched and caused soldiers to question the futility of war. As fighting dragged on and depravation increased, patriotic citizens on the battlefield and home front struggled to find justification for the continued support of a war that seemed less and less justifiable.

In Russia, the seeds of revolution found fertile ground as the citizens lost faith in an old system that seemed to bring endless suffering. Elsewhere the notions of liberty, self-determination, and equality caused subjugated peoples to question why they should remain the possessions of rulers in distant lands rather than be allowed to govern themselves. While Allied nations fought to prevent the invasion, subjugation, and annexation of small nations like Belgium and prevent territorial losses in France, the same nations clung fast to their territorial holdings in other regions of the world. The brutality and futility of total war also caused many within Europe to question whether the empires that governed them did so with any consideration for their needs and their security. Ethnic unrest, nationalistic zeal, and distrust for those with different cultural habits increased as the war continued. The seeds of revolution were cast wide, some to find fertile ground immediately and others to remain dormant for decades, but all to produce the fruit of conflict and bloodshed. Revolution was not the goal of those who declared war in 1914 but revolution was the unexpected consequence.

Diplomacy and Destiny

It has been said that war is politics by other means and few would disagree with the Clausewitzian sentiment, but one might also state that diplomacy is warfare by peaceful means. Often diplomacy seeks to gain without violence the same objectives that empires of old sought to gain through war. Relying upon Machiavellian precepts of being feared rather than loved, and by justifying the means by the end results, great diplomats have doggedly pursued national interests, sometimes believing destiny had already prescribed a greater future than present circumstances provided. One such diplomat was William Henry Seward (1801-1872). In 1853, seven years before becoming U.S. Secretary of State for the Lincoln administration, Senator Seward stated in a speech titled The Destiny of America, “Nevertheless it is not in man’s nature to be content with present attainment or enjoyment. You say to me, therefore, with excusable impatience, ‘Tell us not what our country is, but what she shall be. Shall her greatness increase? Is she immortal?’”[1] Steward believed the answer to these questions were the affirmative and would spend his career seeking to increase the greatness of the nation he served.

Like other expansionists, Seward would link U.S. commercial strength with the acquisition of foreign markets and territorial holdings. When Mexico and British Canada proved unfertile soil for acquisition, Seward looked elsewhere. Seward believed that the United States had a destiny to spread its notions of liberty to the new nations breaking free from European imperialism, particularly those liberating themselves from Spain. Unfortunately, he also believed, as many did, that shaking off imperial control did not necessarily mean the people of Latin America were prepared to self-govern.[2] Seward believed the southern neighbors would be better served if they became part of the United States. Seward achieved a piece of his goal by pushing for the purchase of Alaska, and while it was considered folly at the time, the discovery of gold changed how most viewed the acquisition. He had less success in his efforts to secure other territories in the Caribbean and Central America. However, he would be remembered for the tenacity with which he sought U.S. expansion; a tenacity that often diverged from diplomacy and bordered on bullying.[3] Those who were unfortunate to have sparred with Seward would have felt bombarded and under attack, and would have wondered at the fine line Seward drew between diplomacy and war. With a focus firmly on the destiny of U.S. greatness, Seward behaved more like a commanding general than a diplomat. Seward believed the destiny of the United States was not limited to contiguous land of North America, but that it reached far beyond. Eventually Steward’s tenacious diplomacy would be replaced by combat in a war that would acquire some of the territory Seward had desired. His vision of U.S. expansion, while not achieved during his time in office, did influence the direction of U.S. expansion as the nineteenth century drew to a close. Whether through diplomacy or warfare, men like Seward were determined to see the United States fulfill its destiny of greatness.

Endnotes

[1] Frederick Seward, Seward at Washington as Senator and Secretary of State: A Memoir of His Life, with Selections from His Letters, e-book (New York: Derby and Miller, 1891), 207.

[2] William Henry Seward, Life and Public Services of John Quincy Adams Sixth President of the United States with Eulogy Delivered before the Legislature of New York, e-book (Auburn, NY: Derby, Miller and Company, 1849), 122-123.

[3] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 255-257.

Cuba and the United States

I have long found the US/Cuba situation fascinating particularly in light of the fact that many nineteenth and early twentieth century U.S. politicians and businessmen had the wish of annexing Cuba, or at least keeping Cuba a friendly U.S. playground. Cuba, so close to the United States, was often a hoped for prize. Many power brokers in the United States felt sure Cuba would eventually choose to join its neighbor to the north. The fact that it never did but instead rejected the United States during the Cold War makes it all the more interesting and begs the question of why it choose such a different path from the one hoped for by men like Theodore Roosevelt, President McKinley, and many others.

In 2002, historian Louis A. Pérez, Jr. wrote an article for the Journal of Latin American Studies titled “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy toward Cuba.” The following is a short paper I wrote after reading this and other articles discussing theories as to why the United States persisted with Cold War policies towards Cuba even after the end of the Cold War.

Loathsome Rejection: Cuba and the United States

Masked behind a cloud of Cold War fear, Cuba’s rejection of the United States was the loathsome reality of a failed U.S. attempt at imperial influence and a direct blow at the very heart of the Monroe Doctrine. Fidel Castro was “inalterably held responsible” and according to Louis A. Pérez Jr. in “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy Toward Cuba,” Castro became a problem that would blind policy makers for over forty years, even after the end of the Cold War.[1]

“Castro was transformed simultaneously in to an anathema and phantasm, unscrupulous and perhaps unbalanced, possessed by demon and given to evil doings a wicked man with whom honourable men could not treat.”[2]

Pérez stated that the “initial instrumental rationale” for U.S. policy with Cuba, particularly the policy of sanctions, may have become “lost” over time, but that it was initially created under the precepts of containment.[3] However, in the case of Cuba, the practice of utilizing economic pressure through embargoes was undermined by the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 which allowed political asylum to any Cubans who made it to U.S. shores. This act became a release valve for the pressures created by the embargoes. While poor Cubans remained poor, the middle-class Cubans, who were most affected by U.S. sanctions, could attempt to seek refuge elsewhere. “The Logic of the policy required containing Cuban discontent inside Cuba,” but this logic was lost amid the emotional reaction the United States had towards Fidel Castro and his rejection of the United States. This rejection was compounded by the challenge to “the plausibility of the Monroe Doctrine,” and the United States “primacy in the western hemisphere.”[4] If rejection was not enough to engender such resentment, inviting the Soviet Union to become a military as well as an economic ally was more than U.S. policy makers could stand without seeking retribution.

Cold War fear and rhetoric does not sufficiently account for the continued and virulent animosity between the United States and Cuba, and Pérez was not the only scholar to take note. As the Soviet system crumbled and the Cold War came to an end, “the antagonism displayed by the U.S. government toward Cuba and Castro …intensified.”[5] The continued containment of Cuba in the post-Cold War era negated decades of U.S. assertions that the Cuban policy was the direct result of its status as a Soviet satellite. While others would write about the illogical continuation of Cold War policy, Pérez argued that U.S. policy toward Cuba had less to do with Cold War fear and containment, and more to do with loathing and retaliation for the rejection of the United States and the embarrassment such a rejection caused.

Certainly there was a real national threat in having Soviet missiles located so close to U.S. shores, but that threat does not account for U.S. policy before and after the missiles. Wayne S. Smith, who was stationed in Cuba as a vice-consul during the Cuban Revolution, claimed that Castro and his revolutionaries were not communist threats in 1956.

“We found no credible evidence to indicate Castro had links to the Communist party or even had much sympathy for it. Even so, he gave cause for concern, for he seemed to have gargantuan ambitions, authoritarian tendencies, and not much in the way of an ideology of his own. He was also fiercely nationalistic. Given the history of U.S. military occupations, the Platt amendment, and the outsized U.S. economic presence in Cuba, he did not hold the U.S. in high regard.”[6]

Without a doubt, the United States needed to address the threat posed by Castro, but to bypass speaking softly and instead proceeding to the wielding of a big stick was a move that would ensure crisis rather than avoiding crisis, especially when the Soviet Union was more than happy to lend Cuba a hand. The Soviet’s willing assistance, especially after the embarrassment of the Bay of Pigs, was all the justification needed for President Kennedy to pick the moment of crisis rather than giving Nikita Khrushchev the opportunity.[7]

Pérez does not argue against the notion that there was a real threat posed by Cuba, but instead he points out that the United States was handed a “trauma” when the U.S. playground turned into a war zone, and then into a dangerous Cold War threat.[8] This trauma affected the U.S. ability to rationally create and implement a policy that would stabilize relationships and reduce threat. “Dispassionate policy discourse on Cuba … was impossible” [9] as long as Castro remained Cuba’s leader, because he was “a breathing, living reminder of the limits of U.S. power.”[10]

Endnotes

[1] Louis A. Pérez, Jr. “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy toward Cuba,” Journal of Latin American Studies 34, no. 2 (May 1, 2002): 227, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3875788 (accessed February 20, 2013).

[2] Ibid. 250.

[3] Ibid., 228.

[4] Ibid., 233.

[5] David Bernell, “The Curious Case of Cuba in American Foreign Policy,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 36, no. 2 (July 1, 1994): 66, http://www.jstor.org/stable/166174 (accessed February 19, 2013).

[6] Wayne S. Smith, The Closest of Enemies: A Personal and Diplomatic Account of U.S.-Cuban Relations Since 1957 (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1987), 15-16.

[7] Philip Zelikow, “American Policy and Cuba, 1961-1963.” Diplomatic History 24, no. 2 (Spring 2000): 325. http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy1.apus.edu/ehost/detail?sid=39889c50-22ab-48a2-b2e4-cd8946fd73a9%40sessionmgr15&vid=1&hid=18&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=2954415 (accessed February 19, 2013).

[8] Pérez, 231.

[9] Ibid., 250.

[10] Ibid., 251.

Other Readings

Dominguez, Jorge I. “U.S.-Cuban relations: From the Cold War to the colder war.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 39, no. 3 (Fall 1997): 49–75. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/200219310/13BF83A38607C999D8F/7?accountid=8289 (accessed January 31, 2013).

Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Paterson, Thomas G. “U.S. intervention in Cuba, 1898: Interpreting the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino war.” Magazine of History 12, no. 3 (Spring 1998): 5. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/213739998/13BF824CD53256D7D45/11?accountid=8289 (accessed January 31, 2013).

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. 1972 New Edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1988.

Humanity on the Battlefield

There is a popular story that goes around at Christmas time about soldiers all along the Western Front calling a truce and singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve. What is often left out of the story is the anger this show of humanity caused in the higher leadership. During war, a reminder that the enemy is not the monster which propaganda depicts can interfere with morale, and with a soldier’s determination to win at all costs. Yet on that Christmas Eve, men on opposing sides of a futile war remembered that only politics separated them. Christmas marked the fifth month of war and the third month in the trenches. World War I was still in its early days and there was still hope for victory and for the short war the generals and politicians on both sides had promised the soldiers. The peace which was hoped for on Christmas Eve 1914 would not be found until Christmas time 1918. The brutality of the war and the anger of generals would squelch attempts to repeat what had sprung up so naturally along the Western Front in 1914. However, the legend of the first Christmas of WWI would remind generations that in war humanity can survive.

No Man’s Land

A term older than World War I but popularized during that war, no man’s land refers to a stretch of land under dispute by warring parties, but it can also refer to lawless areas with little or no governing control. A buffer zone, on the other hand, is an area which provides a sense of protection from the enemy. When physical fortifications offer little protection, buffer zones can provide a perception of security. Nations great and small seek the perception of security when security is elusive. Treaties and alliances are traditional means of creating a sense of security, as is the creation of buffer zones. During the Cold War, the competing nations sought to expand their spheres of influence, thereby creating buffer zones between themselves and their enemies as their spheres grew. When the Cold War ended and the buffer zones were no longer needed, many of the buffer nations found themselves with fewer friends and with fewer resources to prevent lawlessness. These nations found it difficult to avoid the development of no man’s land within their borders.

The United States reasoned, even in the earliest days, that oceans made excellent buffer zones against the conflicts of Europe. Unsettled territories were adequate as buffers but only to a point. While unsettled territories didn’t pose a direct European threat, they were still loosely under the influence of powerful countries. Additionally they often attracted outlaws fleeing justice and smugglers seeking a base of operation near their markets. In 1818, Andrew Jackson decided to pursue a group of raiders into Florida. The problem was that Florida was owned by Spain and Spain had little ability to prevent lawlessness in the territory. When Jackson’s army crossed into Florida, he invaded a foreign nation. Without the consent of Spain, such an action created an international incident. Fortunately Secretary of State John Q. Adams was able to capitalize on Jackson’s actions, and convinced Spain that a treaty was better than a war. His reasoning for defending Jackson’s violation of Spanish sovereignty was that “it is better to err on the side of vigor.”[1] Certainly not the first time a nation chose a declaration of strength as its response to an international crisis of its own making, but possibly the first time such a response became national policy. As Secretary of State, Adams greatly influenced the foreign policy decisions of the president and authored much of what President Monroe presented to Congress. In March 1818, President Monroe declared to Congress that when a nation no longer governed in such a way as to prevent their lawlessness from spilling onto their neighbors, then the neighbors had the right to protect themselves and to seek justice even if it meant violating the sovereignty of another nation.[2] In other words, when an area became no man’s land, it was to the benefit of all nations for the lawlessness to be eliminated by whoever had the strength and will to do so.

Eliminating no man’s land in North America was a task that occupied the United States for more than a century. Eventually, the United States would reach from ocean to ocean and would gain the military might of a great nation. However even as the twentieth century dawned, the United States struggled to bring law to all of its territory. During the century of expansion, some in the United States saw potential in the acquisition of territory in the south, particularly in Central America. Others recognized the difficulty of governing such a vast nation. Faced with lawlessness due to revolt in Mexico during World War I, Wilson authorized the U.S. Army’s invasion of Mexico. However, Wilson recognized the value of having a buffer zone south of the border and eventually withdrew the army. In order to ensure that the southern nations created a friendly buffer zone, the United States supported governments that kept the peace, even though keeping the peace came at the expense of basic human rights. Like many leaders before and since, President Wilson put aside ideology and accepted peace-by-force as being better than lawlessness.

Reflecting on history, some leaders have sought security by building huge empires, some by establishing buffer zones, and others by the targeted elimination of no man’s land. Regardless of the method men and nations have chosen, it is clear that international law, notions of liberty and self-determination, and hope for world peace are always secondary to the goal of eliminating the threat posed by no man’s land.

Endnotes:

[1] Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), 315-316.

[2] James Monroe, “Spain and the Seminole Indians,” American Memory, Library of Congress, (March 25, 1818),  http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsp&fileName=004/llsp004.db&Page=183.

War Fever

The dawn of the twentieth century had all the conditions necessary for an outbreak of war fever. The great nations and empires of the previous centuries were struggling to hold onto their power and status. New nations were expanding and seeking empire status in the wake of shifting colonial control and changes in markets. Revolution and nationalistic zeal challenged and destabilized the status quo. War was an opportunity to demonstrate national strength and military superiority. It was viewed as both a means to hold onto power and a means to gain power. War fever spread simply because those with power did not wish to see it dwindle and those without it wanted to gain what they believed was being denied to them. Modern technology made war destructive beyond measure, but technology also helped spread the propaganda necessary to enflame populations and maintain war fever.

During the mid-1800s under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, Germany became a unified nation and strived to become a great industrialized power. Yet while Bismarck sought unification and political strength, Kaiser Wilhelm II longed for military glory and a strong German state which could withstand a simultaneous attack by its neighbors. Leading Germany on a path of militarization, the Kaiser ignited the sparks of flame that would lead to war fever in 1914. In a recent article, Professor Holger Afflerbach wrote that war was both dreadful and “glorious” with soldiers being granted “high social prestige” especially in nations were a militarization movement had taken root.[1] Germany was not the only nation to experience war fever or to glorify the honor of soldiering. Prior to World War I, war had been limited in its scope, at least for the most part. Armies battled armies and the civilian population as a whole was relatively unaffected by combat. Total war was a concept few had experienced directly. Technology and ease in transportation had begun to change warfare during the 1800s, but it would take World War I to bring these changes to public light. So in August 1914, when the call to war was made, men signed up for what they hoped would be a quick, glorious war. The armies of Europe swelled as a patriotic fervor fanned the flames of war fever.

Strangely enough, despite entrenched combat and the undeniable horrors of modern warfare, war fever spread to the United States in 1917. In an age where media was sympathetic to the nation and national causes, little of the true nature of war made it into the far-off homes of U.S. citizens. An ocean away, the horror of war was overshadowed by patriotic notions of rallying around the flag and racing to the aid of allies. In a great crusade to defend democratic liberty, the United States promoted war fever in order to fill its military ranks. In doing so, it demonstrated the value of industrial might in world affairs, and propelled itself to great power status in a world where the traditional balance of power was shifting. Germany had disrupted the balance of power established under the Concert of Europe when it unified and became an industrial force. Fearing its closest neighbors, Germany industrialized and militarized its nation making it a rival, and a threat to European stability and status quo. The United States, on the other hand, feeling less threatened by its neighbors had dedicated its energies to industrialization. Germany recognized the danger the United States posed as a major industrial nation, but calculated that the weak U.S. military structure would hinder a U.S. response to European war. Their calculations were wrong. The United States surprised the world with a rapid response. Due in part to a propaganda campaign which not only ignited war fever but used modern technology to spread it quickly and widely throughout the U.S. population, the United States went from anti-war to pro-war overnight, albeit the actual preparations involved in having an army ready to fight took a bit longer to manage.

War fever was a contagion that benefited from the notion that a limited war produced little disruption to the home front and would grant the nation, and its warriors, prestigious accolades. While World War I would demonstrate the brutality of modern war and introduce to Europe the horror of total war in a modern age, the lessons would not be universally comprehended. Deprivations of war would be greater understood by the end of World War II when aerial bombardment turned the home front into the frontline. The realities of modern war should have eradicated war fever entirely; however, the threat of war fever returned as total war became part of history and the notion of limited war reemerged as a prominent strategy during the Cold War. Much like a viral contagion, war fever could rage for a period and then die down until once again conditions were right for its return.

[1] Holger Afflerbach, “The Soldiers Across Europe Who Were Excited About World War I,” The Conversation, August 4, 2014, (accessed October 24, 2014), http://theconversation.com/the-soldiers-across-europe-who-were-excited-about-world-war-i-29807.

War Hawks

In the spring of 1811, a group of young men arrived in Washington, D.C. to fill congressional posts. Led by men like Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, these new members of congress called for stronger measures in dealing with Europe and in dealing with the American frontier. War was viewed as the answer to problems unresolved by diplomacy or embargo. Europe, it seemed, placed little value on U.S. sovereignty. The wars of Europe threatened U.S. economic stability, and increased the British tendency to confiscate U.S. ships and impress U.S. sailors. On the western frontier, the native population was less friendly to the United States than they were to British Canada, thereby causing the increased worry in the United States that Great Britain might use the natives to further challenge the sovereignty of the United States. Additionally, Spain did little to curb the native raiding parties that caused havoc along the U.S. southern border. The War Hawks, as the new congressmen were called, believed that war was not only inevitable, but also the only practical solution.

Henry Clay stated, “…where is the motive for longer delay? … Our wrongs have been great; our cause is just; and if we are decided and firm, success is inevitable.” He continued with assurances that the United States was not only prepared but that Britain would not bother with another war in America. “The idea is too absurd to merit a moment’s consideration.”[1] By the end of 1814, the British had burned Washington and U.S. leaders in the northeast were discussing succession as a solution to the economic crisis plaguing their region. However it was not battle victory that ended the war which Clay had so eagerly sought, but diplomacy that ended it; ended it before the famous victory of Andrew Jackson at New Orleans. The United States had fought once more to establish its sovereignty but peace was not won by U.S. military prowess, rather once again the British grew weary of war with the Americans and a diplomatic solution was sought by both sides. Clay had been right to some extent when he said the British would not want to fight on American soil, not after such a long battle with Napoleon.

Europe was war weary and the United States, while not strong enough to defeat its armies and navies, was strong enough to make war an unappealing prospect. Additionally, all of Europe was ready to see an end to revolution and the international wars which had caused immeasurable strife for decades. The powers of Europe, under the new Concert of Europe, would go to great lengths to prevent war and would work to create a balance of power that would deter nations from seeking war when dealing with their neighbors. This dedication on their part would afford the United States the opportunity to grow as a nation both in size and strength without being entangled in or harmed by European war.

U.S. politicians dedicated to expansionist’s policies were well aware of the European frustrations with war. In the years following the end of the War of 1812, the United States would capitalize on Europe’s preoccupation with keeping peace at home. It would expand westward and southward. Great Britain, with its powerful navy still intact after decades of war, was the only nation which truly challenged the United States, and the British seemed content to focus on trade rather than colonization in the Americas.

While the U.S. managed to free itself from the machinations of Europe during the War of 1812, there may have been some unexpected consequences. The war may have increased the belief that a weaker nation could defeat a much greater military force simply by wearing down the enemies desire to fight. The United States would become an example that many would emulate in the future, not always to the benefit of the United States or its allies.

Additionally, the war promoted the notion that a just cause made for a successful war. Success was not inevitable as Henry Clay had stated, and in truth, success was anything but inevitable. Military theorist and Prussian general Carl Von Clausewitz wrote that war was a “game in which Time and Chance shuffled the cards; but in its signification it was only diplomacy somewhat intensified, a more vigorous way of negotiating, in which battles and sieges were substituted for diplomatic notes.”[2] In the case of the War of 1812, “time and chance” favored the United States. War may, in the end, be unavoidable, but success in war is never guaranteed regardless of the rhetoric and zeal of people best labeled as War Hawks.

[1] Henry Clay, “Letter in Support of the War of 1812,” 1812, (accessed October 16, 2014), http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-in-support-of-the-war-of-1812/.

[2] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Dominique Poirier and J. J. Graham, Kindle ed., 2010.