Has the U.S. Ever Started a War?

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tags: war

Mr. Greenberg, a visiting scholar at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, writes Slate's History Lesson column. His book on Richard Nixon is due out next fall.

Americans are enamored with our own goodness. We like to think of ourselves as peace-loving, law-abiding, virtuous—a model to the world. "America has not started a war in this century," Newsweek proudly declared at the end of the last century, summarizing 100 years of warfare and encapsulating our belief in our purity. One reason that many people have qualms about the looming invasion of Iraq—in which the United States intends to strike first without an unambiguous casus belli—is that we imagine that we go to war only when provoked. As we debate commencing hostilities, it's worth reviewing our reasons for waging war in the past, for our retrospective judgments about those conflicts should influence how and whether we go to war today.

To give America its due: In those wars dearest to our national mythology—the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War I, World War II—we went to war for what still appear to be sound reasons. (Indeed, that may be why these wars have become so precious to our collective memory while more shameful wars are forgotten.) The American Revolution occurred only after a decade of increasingly burdensome taxation without representation by the English monarchy, and it was fought in the name of self-government. The casus belli was the British army's march upon a cache of colonists' arms in Concord—a martial act that deserved a martial response.

It's equally hard to gainsay the nobility of the fight to maintain the Union. Although unspeakably horrific—more Americans died in the Civil War than in all other conflicts combined—the war was needed to prevent the fracture of the nation and the spread of slavery. Again, we had clear provocation when the Confederate rebels fired on federal ships at Fort Sumter. So, too, with World War II. America's 1941 oil embargo against Japan (a response to Japanese aggression in Asia) ratcheted up tensions, but no one would claim that after Pearl Harbor the United States lacked just cause in declaring war on its attacker.

World War I lacks the grandeur of "the good war," and there remains a plausible case against American intervention. Indeed, the United States stayed neutral in Europe's combat until 1917, and we might have technically been able to abstain further. But Germany's provocations made neutrality increasingly untenable. First, the United States intercepted (via Great Britain) the Zimmerman Telegram, a note from Germany's foreign minister to his Mexican ambassador proposing an alliance against America. The telegram's publication prompted President Wilson to sever diplomatic ties with Germany, which then sank three U.S. merchant ships in the Atlantic, triggering our entry into the war. Had the United States declared war on the basis of the telegram, it might have been undertaking a pre-emptive war (which is significantly different from the preventive war that we're contemplating against Iraq. Click here to learn the difference). By waiting until attacked, Wilson won a greater measure of legitimacy for joining the combat.

To look at these examples is to find a creditable American moral track record. They would suggest the pending Iraq attack is unprecedented, that it violates our traditions. You could even bolster this case by throwing in some of our less noble conflicts—1812, Korea, Vietnam—which, at least initially, had defensible rationales. In the War of 1812, after all, the British were forcing American maritime merchants into service in their own sea battles with France. To turn this into a casus belli was controversial—the war sharply divided American public opinion—but not a sham contrivance.

Similarly, in Korea and Vietnam, the United States was coming to the aid of an ally attacked by Communist neighbors. That didn't necessarily make these interventions wise. Korea probably was, on balance, a just war, but it's hard to say the same for Vietnam—in which the United States was propping up an unpopular regime based on misguided domino-theory thinking and buttressed by a dishonestly secured congressional authorization. Over time, Americans rightly concluded that protecting Cold War credibility wasn't worth losing tens of thousands of young men (to say nothing of the devastation we wrought on the Vietnamese). Still, until 1968 or so, when the struggle became patently unwinnable, one could defend the U.S. presence in Indochina in good faith. The key question wasn't so much about whether we should have gone as whether we should stay.

That said, the United States has also deployed its troops to foreign lands for dubious reasons—sometimes reasons far less valid than disarming a genocidal, belligerent tyrant who is trying to build nuclear weapons. Americans have rarely evinced qualms, for example, about policing their own hemisphere. In 1823, President James Monroe declared that the United States, not Europe, should superintend the regimes of the West. Presidents ever since have used the Monroe Doctrine as license to invade banana republics—especially since Theodore Roosevelt, whose "Roosevelt Corollary" explicitly sanctioned military intervention south of the border.

Indeed, for a century, the United States has cheerfully effected "regime change"—that bloodless euphemism for killing or deposing other nations' leaders—in Nicaragua, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, up through our gratuitous 1989 invasion of Panama. In Friday's New York Times, Max Boot tries to justify some of these incursions as "pre-emptive," which they assuredly weren't; none of these regimes ever could have or would have harmed us, and our meddling in Latin America mainly served to substantiate the worst fears about Yanqui imperialists. Nonetheless, because of their relative proximity, smallness of scale, and lack of risk, these backyard wars elicited far less controversy—in the United States and Europe, that is—than has the upcoming war on Iraq because far less was at stake. They don't really provide precedent for the Iraq invasion.

More controversial than these quickie incursions are those many wars we started or exploited to gain land. It's hard to deny that European Americans, and the nation that they founded, "started" the wars with the Indians of North America. Although historians argue over who provoked whom in particular conflicts, overall it was the white man's persistent extension of the frontier in search of territory that foreclosed any chance of peaceful coexistence.

It's also hard to plead American innocence in the Mexican War of 1846-48. Mexico and the United States were at odds over the borders of Texas, which joined the Union in 1845. After a diplomatic snub, the United States sent troops to the disputed area. Mexico, considering itself invaded, attacked the American regiments, and the United States then declared war. In the peace treaty that eventually followed, the United States forced Mexico to cede not only Texas but the Western lands stretching to California—a vast booty for what had begun as a squabble over the southern swath of one state.

Finally, there's the morally suspect case of the Spanish-American War. When Cuban rebels rose up in 1895 against their Spanish colonizers, Americans sympathized with the Cubans, and many favored entering the war to help drive Spain out. But it took the 1898 explosion of an American ship, the Maine, which President McKinley had sent to Havana to protect Americans there, to bring the United States into combat. The blast, which killed 260 crew members, was probably caused by technical problems on the ship, but that wasn't evident at the time. The American public instantly became convinced of Spanish malevolence and demanded war. The United States invaded not just Cuba but the far-flung Philippines, also a Spanish colony. By the war's end, the United States had become a full-fledged imperial power, with rights to the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico.

Unlike our great and good wars, the Spanish and Mexican conflicts are little remembered (despite entreaties to remember the Alamo and the Maine). The absence of a moral grounding—the realization over time that in each case the casus belli was fairly bogus—discredited the American enterprise and bolstered those who derided the nation as expansionist, imperialist, or genocidal. Yet alongside these inglorious examples, America also has a tradition of waging war for honorable reasons that it could offer to the world as legitimate grounds for making war. For these wars, we not only congratulate ourselves but also gain the affection of others. The current debate about war should address not only whether we go to war but also why: If and when we invade, we should do so not because we deem it justifiable but because we can show that it is just.

This article first appeared on Slate.com and is reprinted with permission of the author.

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Lauren Elizabeth Leonard - 7/25/2005

Did you ever know a women named kay?!!

Kevin Solomon - 7/4/2005

I probably hate Bush just as much as you do, but this isn't what happened. Bush saw an oppourtunity and siezed it, thus, allowing him to go to Iraq.

He also used propaganda, but were just now waking up and realizing that there are no WMDs, and that Bush lied.

Kevin Solomon - 7/3/2005

I agree. The only mistake is that Bush isn't the one running the show. Bush is a poster boy of the Republican party(No offense, but it is true). It almost seems, that the CIA has a strange control over everything.

Kevin Solomon - 7/3/2005

The Civil War was not really just Union aggresion, in truth the Civil War was started by the South and was simply the result of high tension conserning the rights of southerners. It is also a fact that what you said is taught in northern states, but is taught to be over slavery in the south. Possibly, it is a debate that we dont even know we are maintaining.

Kevin Solomon - 7/3/2005

While it is true, for the most part, that the US has not started a war in this century, there were ways we could have prevented wars. Truthfully, we could have diplomatized, or at least tryed to. In the case of WW2, just by joining in earlier, we could have stopped the Germans before they ever managed to take France, and probably saved a lot of our boys in arms' lives.

Benjamin - 7/19/2004

I'm doing research for a book. I'm trying to find out the exact cause of the Civil war. What pissed South Carolina off? What date did they decide to secede? Did the fight over texas have anything to do with the civil war? I'm sure your time is as strained and valuable as mine, but if you could see your way to answering these questions, or perhaps pointing me in the direction of a knowledgable source I would greatly appreciate it. Also I would be certain to include your name in my list of thanks to people who helped make the book possible. Thanks for your time, Benjamin.

Samantha - 1/9/2004

Lawrence Pierce - 8/21/2003

From reading this summary of blueprint, "Rebuilding America's Defenses, written by the political think tank Project for the
New American Century(PNAC). One would believe starting a war
with Iraq was the future plan of the President, with this statement,"..... absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event-
like a New Pearl Harbor." On September 11, 2001, the plan was set
for a catastrophic event in America, with the staged event of
four airplanes hijacked, without resistance, and was allowed to
crash into buildings without resistance. This set the stage for
war against terrorist in the name of attacking Iraq.
The blueprint was and still is the main agenda that this President has used, i.e., "axis of evil" list and at the start of
the Iraq war, the troops attacked an empty cave in Afghanistan, to show USA fighting two wars at the same time.
The major goal of the PNAC is to have global control overseas
and here in America, with the Patriot Act and the Homeland
Security Department. The stage has been set and the actors have been set.

Barrie Bracken - 8/15/2003

Thank you, James Loewen, for adding your voice to the reality of secession. I was astounded when I read a highly respected historian of the South admitting that only recently he had come to believe slavery was the cause of secession. How can anyone claiming to be a historian avoid reading the primary documents that are so readily available in print and the internet? A fast read will convince the dullest but open mind that the cause of the war was the propogation of the "peculiar institution."

Were the northern states right in pushing their own version of state's rights? Depends on where you stand on the "higher law."

James Loewen - 6/7/2003

Gene Hosack has written a wonderful summation of the Lost Cause myth of 1890-1930. Hard to believe someone did so in 2003!
Anyone who believes that South Carolina, followed by the other Confederate states, seceded for states' rights, rather than for slavery, should read the SC Ordinance of Secession, where white South Carolinians SAY why they are seceding. Nothing about states' rights, nothing about tariffs and taxes, but a whole lot about slavery.
Actually, South Carolinians DO say quite a bit about states' rights in that document: they are OUTRAGED by them -- when exercised by Northern states. And they state which rights and which states outrage them. You can read my summary of all this in the "Gettysburg" entry in LIES ACROSS AMERICA.
To be sure, ending slavery was not a significant NORTHERN aim in the Civil War until at least the summer of 1862. But then, the US was fired upon, to begin the conflict. It did not start it.

gene hosack - 2/16/2003

Your logic is only flawed so far as the "Civil War" is concerned..There was no Civil War..The South seceded formally from membership in a political alliance..States rights were the issue..Huge import tariffs imposed on the South. The South possessed most of the deep water ports,80% of the GNP ..Treaties loomed with England,France and Spain..Slavery terrible as it was, never was the main thrust of the North..25 million people in the North and all the goods in the South..Sorry it was and will always be "The war of Northern aggression"...

Puffy - 2/9/2003

This is very true, I think that we should never start a war without proper justification. Iraq hasn't done anything to us yet so why should we attack them!

When the world ends will you be ready?

David Carrick - 12/22/2002

Though it may have also been used in the Mexican-American War, "Remember the Alamo!" is from the Texas Revolution, 1836. It was a two part rallying cry, "Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!" Goliad was the site of a massacre of POWs.

Bill Harshaw - 10/22/2002

Merriam Webster recognizes both:

"2 : FASCINATE 2b -- usually used in the passive with of or with"

Linda Civitello - 10/18/2002

it's "enamored of" not "with"

Karen Nunan - 10/16/2002

The link "click here" to explain the difference between a pre-emptive and a preventive war in paragraph 4 World War I is not operating

Tim Morgan - 10/16/2002

Whatever Mr. Greenberg's thinking about the past history of United States' military activity, it strikes this writer
as irrelevant to the current problem. Whether Saddam Hussein & his regime should be attacked based on the
claims of George W. Bush, the fact of the matter is that an unprovoked attack releases any (not just terrorist)
regime to assault any neighbor for whatever trumped up reason it wishes. Until Mr. Bush and his minions prove that
Hussein not only has "weapons of mass destruction" (which usually mean nuclear arms which can be delivered
in such a way as to devastate not just one city but many cities & kill millions of people) or chemical/biological
weapons (which are probably much less threatening to life than the media in this country maintain), then what
Congress just did is a ghastly surrender of its authority. Mr. Greenberg, while correct in his analysis of US assaults on
Indians, misses the point-Indians were "in the way" of white expansion & with little or no excuse other than the wish
to remove them from lands whites wished attacked. Whites also assaulted Indians because they resisted or rejected in large part American versions of Christianity, Indians finding in Protestantism enmity & hatred of their religions and cultures.
The US demanded that other nations have legitimate reasons for war and has generally asserted publicly that we have
had such legitimacy. But the Philippine insurrection (after the Spanish-American War of 1898) is another clear example of
"shoot first & treat later." According to some military analysts, that was the most costly war in terms of American soldiers committed to action in the nation's military history.
But in terms of modern warfare the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strike is dangerous and potentially self-defeating. At one and the same time, it denies several hundred years of international law (thus placing the US as an international criminal) and opens the way for retaliations against us or our friends, if we have any after Bush begins the war against Iraq.

Josiah Bartlett - 10/15/2002

David Greenberg has compiled a fairly complete and accurate summary of America's past wars. But an apparent desire to have ends justifying means seems to cloud his thinking.

It is difficult to rationalize the launching of a pre-emptive war of aggression, especially when the reason for doing so (e.g. an erratic and brutal dictator trying to acquire very deadly weapons) has been operative during many years of relative inaction by the U.S. government. Attempting such a rationalization can lead to weird arguments such as this:

"Had the United States declared war [in 1917] on the basis of the [Zimmerman] telegram [alone], it might have been undertaking a pre-emptive war."

This makes no sense. With millions already dead by 1917 and millions more entrenched in combat from France to the Near East, what would the U.S. have "pre-empted" by entering the "Great War" a month or two sooner ?

The grim truth is that what the U.S. Congress has just done, in October 2002, is indeed without precedent: giving the American President sole authority to decide not just when and how but WHETHER to launch a pre-emptive attack on a major foreign country, requiring thereby only lip service to international agreements, procedures and commitments and disregarding our own national traditions and history.

Lewis L. Gould - 10/14/2002

As was done last week, David Greenberg attributes the Spanish-American War to the explosion of the Maine in February 1898. But as was previously mentioned, the United States and Spain were already on track for a confrontation over Cuba in the spring of 1898 even if the battleship had not exploded. Let me quote the wise words of John L. Offner in An Unwanted War (1992), p. 158: "had there been no emotionalism over the Maine, would McKinley's diplomacy have fared better? Probably not. Time had run out, and neither Washington nor Madrid had any new proposals to offer." As Offner shows, even European diplomatic intervention could not avert war because of the differing views of the future fate of Cuba held by Spain and the McKinley administration. Grenville and Young made this argument as long ago as 1966 and those who give the Maine episode a central place need to come to grips with the evidence of Offner and Grenville and Young. Whatever one's opinion of the quality of McKinley's diplomacy from 1897-1898, there had been genuine and substantive interchanges between Washington and Madrid without an ultimatum until the climactic events of April 1898.