America’s wars, from the Revolution onwards, have shaped the country’s technological capabilities, expanded its geographic reach and enhanced its global role.
America’s independence from Great Britain was established in law by the Revolution and in fact by the War of 1812. The America that emerged from the Revolution was determined to avoid “entangling alliances,” especially in Europe, and to focus on exploring and defining its own territory. It was still an outpost, not a power. The War of 1812 is little remembered in the United States except for the burning of Washington DC and the composition of the Star-Spangled Banner. But there were more far-reaching consequences. The country developed its own technological capacities, especially in cotton manufacturing, to replace British goods. The United States came to recognize that it would continue to need military capabilities, including a substantial navy and professional army officers, provided by West Point. The formerly contentious issue of America’s border with Canada was settled, and the conquest of Indian lands in the mid-West was begun. Whether the war was a victory or a defeat is still debated, but America was a much more self-confident and secure nation after the Treat of Ghent than it had been before.
The Mexican War of 1846-48 and the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 settled America’s southern border and opened up the West to mass migration, the Indian wars and railroads, which were vital to America’s growth as a continental power. The Mexican War also marked the first successful projection of American ground forces into a foreign country, with the occupation of Mexico City by forces that included many of the generals who later fought for both North and South in the Civil War. Americans have forgotten, but the Mexicans have not, a pattern that would be repeated in the future.
The Civil War, though catastrophic in human and material losses, likewise shaped an America more powerful than the one that preceded it. Slavery was legally abolished but exploitation of former slaves continued in many guises. More than the South, the war economically reshaped the North, whose war-stimulated manufacturing made the United States a global industrial power for the first time. The Federal Government, before the war less important in many respects than the governments of the individual states, began to acquire many functions that make it the dominant governing structure in the United States today.
It was not until war with Spain in 1898 and the subsequent colonization of the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico, as well as the less formal domination of Cuba, that the United States began to become a world power capable of serious international intervention. Its well-equipped navy was the essential instrument.
While America hesitated to intervene in World War I, its eventual deployment on the side of the Allies was decisive. The American Expeditionary Force under General Pershing tipped the scales in favor of Britain and France, but President Wilson failed in his efforts to extend America’s reach in the post-war period through the League of Nations. In World War II, the United States likewise tilted the balance in favor of the Allies in Europe with both manpower and air supremacy, even as it used atomic weapons to end the Japanese challenge to American domination of the Pacific. In the post-war period, President Truman succeeded where Wilson had failed: the United Nations established a multilateral framework that served U.S. purposes and provided a global governance structure for the superpower competition known as the Cold War.
America fought Communist powers twice during the Cold War: first in Korea, to a draw that allowed the South to remain non-Communist; then in Vietnam, where a similar effort at division of the country into Communist and non-Communist North and South failed, as the U.S. faced a determined guerrilla struggle that viewed itself as fighting for independence and unity of the country. The Vietnam failure made the United States hesitant about international intervention and unwilling to fight guerrilla wars.
In its aftermath, the Weinberger and later the Powell Doctrines sought to limit the conditions under which the United States would intervene militarily abroad. American military doctrine virtually erased guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency operations. The American military, professionalized and therefore no longer subject to draftee resistance, could only be committed if vital U.S. interests (or those of its allies) were at stake, and then only wholeheartedly, with clear and achievable political and military objectives, and with a reasonable assurance of support from the American people and Congress. Force was explicitly a last resort. Powell also required a clear exit strategy once fighting ended.
Desert Storm demonstrated that successful intervention was feasible in the post-Cold War World, provided there was both an international mandate and overwhelming force. The UN Security Council provided a clear mandate to use “all necessary means” to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. The war was fought in accordance with Powell’s view that overwhelming force should be brought to bear, and a clear exit strategy maintained. This was done with a combination of more traditional tanks and massive manpower as well as with high-tech laser-guided bombs and other advanced weaponry, followed by a quick retreat without taking Baghdad.
Intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo showed that “economy of force” operations conducted from the air, with local forces on the ground, are possible even without a strong international mandate, though the eventual outcomes were negotiated resolutions that fell short of complete success.
The overall pattern is clear: each American war has extended the country’s physical reach and technological capacity to project power, shaped its post-war role and increased its weight in world affairs.
Will the Afghanistan and Iraq wars follow this same pattern? Or has something fundamental changed?