Does America Usually Win the War but Lose the Peace?
“Americans love to fight—traditionally!” said General George S. Patton. Over the course of its history, the United States has been remarkably successful at winning wars. In part that success stems from the fact that at first Americans are almost always united in their enthusiasm to go to war—confident that their causes in fighting wars has been right and just. But American history, in the successive wars since the Civil War, has also seen an erosion in the strength and duration of that confidence, in no small part because the country has so often done poorly in winning the peace. Patton might be right that Americans love to fight, but they are less and less sure they should.
It did not begin that way. The founding generation faced a great deal of dissension and confusion during and after the Revolution, but an unswerving belief in the rightness of their cause gave them the confidence to fashion a successful peace. That self-assurance carried America through its first wars. Internal rancor and military blunders beset the War of 1812, but Andrew Jackson’s battle at New Orleans gave the country a victory and hero to hold onto after the conflict, and a lasting peace with Britain on reasonably good terms helped to prevent a fundamental postwar questioning by Americans of the causes and course of the war. Likewise, the Mexican-American War gave the United States new lands and new heroes. Whatever else could be said about the contested origins of that war, America earned a satisfactory peace.
Then came the devastation of the Civil War. It took the unique genius and persistence of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant to win the fight, but not before hundreds of thousands died in that awful bloodletting. Maybe their combined efforts could have forged a lasting and just peace, but it was not to be. Lincoln fell, and those who followed could barely draw enough strength from a tired North, and enough compromise from a proud South, to reunite the country. The country lived on as one, but only at the cost of ignoring why it had split in the first place. Lincoln put it best just weeks before his death:
One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.
Southern concern over what would become of their way of life if forced to live among freed black slaves proved to be too great to compromise, and as Lincoln noted, “Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”
The South fought to perpetuate slavery and a slave system built on race. The North fought for the survival of a whole nation built on rule of law, not to be destroyed if some of the laws became disagreeable. If the will of the nation as expressed in its laws was that slavery no longer expand and eventually disappear, then so be it, no matter what white people, North and South, thought of the idea of free blacks living among them. That was the will of the nation in 1860; Abraham Lincoln’s views were no secret in that presidential election.
The Civil War and Reconstruction ended with a lasting but not satisfactory peace. The reunited country sacrificed race for reunion—in politics, in law, and in history and memory. The South returned to the country, and without real opposition began to question the intent of the side that fought for good and right—to make them the corrupt villains and butchers both during and after the war. Those with a living memory of the war mostly stayed confident that they knew the truth, but they stayed quiet lest the horrible fight start again. As memory faded and that generation passed, their silence had allowed the history and memory of the Civil War to be forged in the Lost Cause. By losing the peace, they had lost the justness of their cause to history.
The eroding cycle began. It became easier and easier to question whether the United States truly was right in its causes, and with great consequences. Amidst all the great enthusiasm for the war with Spain in 1898, so many vocally questioned American motives that the declaration of war actually included an amendment that denied any colonial ambitions in Cuba. The United States would end Spanish colonial rule in Cuba and the Philippines and elsewhere, but then what? Grant them freedom? With how much of an American role? On what timeframe? It was becoming clear already that lacking confidence in the justness of their cause, Americans began to lose clarity in defining objectives. Spain’s rule ended in Cuba and the Philippines and elsewhere, and America struggled to deal with those former colonies until, well, now. Certainly the Spanish American War did not end with the most successful peace . The postwar struggles in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and especially the Philippines led to further questioning of the justness of the cause in the first place.
Repeat. The Great War broke out in Europe. By fits and starts the United States finally entered the fight. To garner support for a war he had once so vehemently and popularly promised to avoid, President Woodrow Wilson declared that the United States would fight to make the world safe for democracy, an idealistic but muddled objective. When the peace imposed by the angry victors created a world of reparations, debts, and seething hostility, the United States took a pass on international affairs. By the 1930s a committee in the United States Senate blamed munitions makers and bankers, “merchants of death,” for dragging the country into the war to make a buck.
Repeat. By the time the Second World War broke out in Asia and Europe, Americans had already started to grow weary of the rhetoric of great causes. President Franklin Roosevelt talked of Four Freedoms, but most Americans dismissed such notions and tried to think of the war in terms of revenge for Pearl Harbor or as an abstract and detached duty to fulfill, a job to do. Their president, at least, showed his greatness by keeping confidence in the cause and making the objectives crystal clear. Unconditional surrender to be followed by long occupations made for a more bloody fight and costly peace, but made winning the peace with Germany and Japan possible. And the United States and its Western allies did win the peace that ended the Second World War, and consequently the specific fight with Germany and Japan lives on in the American imagination as the good war. But a new conflict almost immediately emerged, and as a result the American cynicism toward grand causes in wars survived. In the end, the fact that the country faced a new and dire threat so soon after dispatching the old ones made it seem as though they had lost the peace once again. The cause had been just but not just enough to exclude the Soviets, and the objectives had been broad and specific but not broad and specific enough to deal with the impending communist threat.
Repeat. Was Korea within the American sphere of defense? Should the United States and United Nations have fought for the survival of the Republic of Korea or for the reunification of the Korean peninsula? Was that the right war at the right place at the right time? Although the United Nations forces had fought well, there could hardly be a less satisfying peace than the ceasefire that halted the fight in Korea. Any consideration of the lives saved and enriched by the survival of South Korea became lost in ongoing criticisms that the United States was losing the Cold War, especially in Asia.
Repeat. It hardly needs retelling: the United States entered into Vietnam with great hesitation, unsure of the value of fighting another Korean War. When the American part of the war did escalate, President Lyndon Johnson’s administration offered no clear objectives. A Defense Department and military enamored of the power of new technologies and the ability to quantify victory through body counts badly bungled the fight up to 1968. After Tet, when the military part of the war effort achieved a great deal of success as the American forces worked with the South Vietnamese army toward more realistic and clear objectives, it was too late. The belief that the United States had right on its side had so eroded that the only objective became withdrawal. The country abandoned South Vietnam, and lost that peace, too.
Repeat. Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush assembled a wide coalition to drive the Iraqis out of the small kingdom. Amidst great cries that it was to be a war for oil, the administration stressed the justness of the cause, that Hussein was a brutal and dangerous dictator who had to be stopped. The objectives drifted back and forth between freeing Kuwait and destroying Hussein. In the end, broad international and domestic popular support only existed for the former, and the Iraqi people suffered for another decade under the tyrant. As has been made so obvious in the last three years, that war ended with a half-peace at best.
Repeat? The September 11 terrorist attacks triggered mass enthusiasm among the American people to go to war. Almost just as quickly, loud voices began to question any potential attempts to fight a war as counterproductive and, more importantly, immoral. The fact that these voices had so much resonance even early on is a testament to how much the historical trend of losing the peace had eroded American confidence. President George W. Bush vacillated on objectives, beginning with the announcement that the United States was fighting a “war on terrorism.” Since he refused to announce more clear objectives from day one, the president has had to use up almost all of his political currency in fighting two separate battles in Afghanistan and Iraq. It remains to be seen if the American people have enough confidence remaining in this war to fight any serious future campaigns.
* * *
This ongoing erosion of American self-assurance in fighting wars is in many ways a good thing. It has led the country to be remarkably self-critical, especially in comparison to great powers of the past. It has encouraged Americans to question seriously both when they go to war and how they behave during those fights. By no means has the United States perfected the process of entering wars or of fighting wars without nasty indiscretions. In the current war, the debate over invading Iraq and the abuses at Abu Ghraib were all too stark proof of those truths. Still, it is due to such self-criticism that no one has seriously entertained the idea of interring all American Muslims as potential enemies, when only sixty-three years ago that was the immediate "solution" to the Japanese American “problem” on the West Coast. It is due to such self-criticism that the American military has sought to be more and more precise in the use of force, instead of resorting to tactics like the area bombing of almost all of the major wars of the last seventy years.
At the same time, a balance must be struck. Americans should recognize that the search for perfect causes and perfect actions in war, while noble, is ultimately futile. To think otherwise is to ignore the nature of humans and the nature of war. Some wars must be fought; all wars get ugly. But for all of the lost peaces and self-criticism, Americans have done a pretty good job of choosing fights and trying to limit the ugliness. More good than bad has come from the wars the United States has fought. Americans have developed a healthy sense of guilt over their love of a fight, but they should always remember that sometimes fight they must.
comments powered by Disqus
Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007
America has a long history of winning wars and losing the peace afterwards (as this article indicates), and electing an inexperienced and tongue-twisted leader with a C average in history is a very good way to avoid learning from such past mistakes.
andy mahan - 9/19/2006
Good one Ralph...more of the usual...Just attack Tom's "style" when he totally impeachs your ignorant claim that the U.S. really didn't support Russia in WWII. Talk about defending your manhood...just admit it! Tom caught you with your head up your arse and supplied the FACTS to bring you into reality. The mature thing for you to do would be to thank him, not insult him and misdirect the cause of your failure to a misinterpretation of terms.
Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005
AMEN to "More good than bad has come from the wars the United States has fought. Americans have developed a healthy sense of guilt over their love for a fight, but they should always remember that sometimes fight they must."
Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005
The official line for our police action in Korea was to protect Japan, which was on the Commnist wish list next in line once South Korea was conquered.
Professor Dresner appears to agree with Harry Truman & Jack Kennedy (& I agree with them) at that point in time it was necessary that somewhere in the Far East we had to draw a line in the sand & say to the Communists, "No, not here!" Had we not fought in Korea & in Viet-Nam, then we would of necessity have fought somewhere else in the Far East &/or in Hawaii.
Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005
Recently in a like discussion someone pointed out that slavery was not the determining issue for the cause of the war, because in 1860 there was an amendment to the Constitution awaiting radification that would have permitted the continued ownership of the slaves then presently held by slave owners. Had the Southern states radified the amendment instead of leaving the Union the amendment would have become law. Therefore, had the amendment been radified by the Southern states, the then existing slave economy clearly would not have been at issue, except over the matter of whether or no new states coming in the Union would be free or slave. Therefore, states rights was the larger & primary issue that produced the War Between the States. In that instance, big government defeated limited government.
Already settled at that point in time was that no more slaves might be imported to the United States.
Arnold Shcherban - 8/31/2004
I'm amazed that in this most free country in the world
no historian on this board is wiiling to take the liberty to say that the Americans usually fail to win the peace on one simple (though, of course, not a single)
reason: the most of the wars in question were the unjust
Jonathan Dresner - 8/23/2004
Well, the manpower in Korea came from Communist China, hundreds of thousands of hardened veterans of the anti-Japanese and anti-Nationalist campaigns. Vietnam was a more complicated situation, but again China provided massive material support and intelligence (and later fought a border war with Vietnam, but that's another story).
By the time the Cold War began in earnest, the Soviet Union had already effectively invaded and suppressed a dozen countries or so in Eastern Europe, and had a stated policy of 'exporting revolution' which they carried out in places like Africa and Latin America.
It would be difficult to produce a properly calibrated measure, but if you actually look at something beyond the popular hot spots, there was indeed a world-wide conflict into which both sides were pouring substantial human and economic resources. I'm not defending the Vietnam War, or US support for fascists like Pinochet (both of which I think were short-sighted errors which undermined our long-term goals), but Korea was a case of clear and internationally supported communist aggression which we rightfully opposed.
Oh, and Russia did, in fact, build military installations in the Sandwich Islands in the mid-1800s, and the UK was a major player in the Kingdom's politics as well (enshrined in our combination of the British and US national flags in our state banner).
Arnold Shcherban - 8/21/2004
The Soviet Union did provide a lot of military and economic aid to North Korea during the Civil War between two Koreas, however they did not send hundreds of thousands of their troops there, but this country did
the first and the latter.
The Soviets have not send hudnreds of thousands of their troops to Vietnam either, but the US did it too.
Even when Soviets invaded Afganistan(notice: the country that it had hundreds of miles long border line with), they did not attack
Pakistan who was providing Afgan mudgaheedins (read terrorists) by arms, amunition and human reserves/fighters and which territory was widely used by CIA for the anti-Soviet troops' operations, but this country did viciously attack Cambodia for exactly the same alleged "violations".
In fact, nowhere in the world, thousands of miles away
from its national borders, did Russia's or China's "interference" reach anything close to the respective scale of "interference" (direct invasion
inclusive) of the US.
Therefore, to conclude that the fights against "world
communism" were absolutely necessary, on the reason that
otherwise communist Russia or China would interfere somewhere far away from their national borders, like Hawaii(the only countries inteferring there have been
the US and Japan) is ridiculous, and lacks historical and factual basis (though perfectly justified
Oscar Chamberlain - 8/19/2004
The southern states alone could not have passed that amendment, and I believe that only two states ever voted to ratify it. (I don't know which ones). It was submitted to the states on 2 March 1861, just before Lincoln was inaugurated.
Here are two sources http://www.law.emory.edu/FEDERAL/usconst/notamend.html
Steven Heise - 8/19/2004
While that is true, it is impossible to discount what became of the war after its beginnings. In 1863, the Civil War shifted its focus from States rights to, ultimately, the question of whether all men are created equal. The slave question became the center of the struggle after the Emancipation Proclimation.
One can argue that 'states rights' was primary issue behind the war, but to not realize that there was a shift in the focus of the North and the South as to why they were fighting would be a mistake. The argument posed by Dr. Bruschino relates directly to the fact that the North did give up on its anti-slavery position in the post war period, and in that manner they 'lost' the peace while they militarily won the war. States rights may have been settled, but Reconstruction did not do much for creating a more equal society in the South.
Tom Bruscino - 8/19/2004
No apologies necessary, I didn't think you guys were insinuating anything at all. I just wanted to get on record on the point about racial justice in the Civil War era so we all knew we agreed and we could move past that point.
I do disagree about the role of slavery, or more appropriately black slavery, in leading to and motivating secession, but that could go on forever. The same goes for soldier motivation in the Civil War, but your points are well taken.
Ben H. Severance - 8/19/2004
I understand what you're saying, and apologize for any false insinuations. However, I do tend to regard the causes of both sides as valid. While emancipation was certainly a worthy goal, one that gave the North the moral high ground in the contest, I see the Civil War more as a political struggle, with the North fighting for a centralized Republic, where the Constitution was a sacrosant covenant betweent he states. As for the South, you stated that it fought to "perpetuate slavery," which is true to a certain extent, but does not really get at the deeper issue of causation. The South fought for independence and it justified secession on the grounds of federalism, where the Constitution was a valuable guide for government, but hardly a binding document. Slavery is undeniably an indispensable cause for the war, but only because it is the most prominent and significant manifestion of an increasingly truculent states rights debate that began as early as the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. In many respects, the CSA is the most militant extention of a democratic revolutionary tradition running from the Anti-Federalists, through the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, to Calhoun's "Exposition." I stress this not to minimize slavery (or excuse the South for practicing this abhorrent form of labor), but to place secession in its proper and broader context.
I think it is also extremely important for historians and students to differentiate between causation and motivation. Slavery is a major cause of the war, but it is not the main motivation behind secession and a willingness to fight for four brutal years (nor is it the reason most northerners sacrificed their lives). To be sure, many southerners did fight to preserve slavery, but many more fought for independence or simply to repell the Yankee invader. (At least that is what most Confederate soldiers are saying in their correspondence.) I'll grant that a majority of the white South was perhaps unconsciously fighting for the race order of slavery, but motivation is a complicated and often subjective topic.
The Reconstruction story further confirms the political nature of the Civil War era. The issues during this "peace" revolved around the question of who was going to rule in the aftermath of the war. The fate of the freedmen did take central stage from time to time, but the race issue was always subordinate to the issue of political power and realignment.
But enough. I was going to offer a defense of America's critical role in winning WWI, but don't have the energy. Thanks, Tom, for a thought-provoking article.
Tom Bruscino - 8/19/2004
Just for the record, I was not expecting racial justice in the 1860s and 1870s. I was just trying to make the case that by surrendering the memory and history, the North lost the justness of whatever causes they had, which were much more just than what the South was fighting for.
Ben H. Severance - 8/19/2004
Similarly, your comments have activated my mind on this issue as well. I think it's important to look at the question from the perspective of both sides. As you and I have said, the North didn't lose. Rather the South won more during Reconstruction than anyone probably thought they would at the end of the Civil War. Comparatively speaking, ex-Confederates fared quite well in the aftermath of that bloody struggle: no executions, no confiscation of property, no relocation of the enemy populace--standard stuff in many civil wars.
On the matter of race, while most white Americans accepted the goodness of emancipation in an abstract sense, few believed black liberty should translate into black equality. Having said that, I do believe that many Republicans wrestled with this issue, rightly believing that having freed the slaves, it was their responsibility and duty to facilitate their transition into the American mainstream. They made an impressive go, relatively speaking, but lacked the will (or perhaps the radicalism) to uphold racial justice. Thus, the North/Republicans didn't lose, but missed an opportunity to do the right thing. But as you nicely point out, for people today to have expected racial justice then is the height of presentism. Still, I do very much like Thad Stevens and George Julian.
In my own work, I try to treat Reconstruction as a militant extension of the Civil War. The fighting never really ends. Therefore, it becomes hard to talk about winnning or losing a peace when, in fact, the war is still going on, albeit on the political and paramilitary battlefield.
Anyway, thanks for your acute insights.
Oscar Chamberlain - 8/18/2004
This exchange is forcing me to think more clearly about what we mean by war aims, who sets them, and how to evaluate their achievement.
I was emphasizing the white majority in my discussion of war aims, but Ben, your focus on the Republican leadership is also quite logical. While their aims were not necessarily identical to those of the majority, they had more power to pursue those aims. Still, northern anger with Johnson and the South was critically important, as it drove the majority of Northern whites to support radical reconstruction, though not out of a belief in or a desire for black equality.
By the way, your point that it was logical for southern whites to test the will of the North is a good one. I will have to reconsider to the extent that their actions were foolish or simply (from the southern white perspective) unfortunate.
A final thought about the nature of northern racism. Racism in the north did not lead northerners to the same political conclusions as southerners.
Here's an example. In Michigan's 1850 constitutional convention, one of the more racist delegates proposed that the right to bear arms be limited to white people. After some debate, his motion was defeated easily. As a number of the delegates noted, any man, regardless of race, had the right to defend his loved ones.
Ben H. Severance - 8/18/2004
Excellent points, but some qualification may be in order.
For the North, preserving the Union was the paramount war aim, and on this they prevailed by force of arms. Secession and notions of State Sovereignty were forever dead. But the North, or rather the Republicans, realized that having made emancipation a second war aim, the mere abolition of slavery was insufficient. It was incumbent upon the party to somehow assimilate these four million freedmen into society as new American citizens, albeit second-class. Thus, Reconstruction--"the peace" component of Bruscino's article--presented new problems and challenges that the defeat of Confederate armies could not resolve.
Mr. Chamberlain rightly brings up the Black Codes as a southern blunder, but given Johnson's lenient policies why shouldn't white southerners have tried to regain at the peace table what they couldn't maintain on the battlefield? But then the Black Codes were secondary to the more crucial issue of post-war political power. With regard to "winning" or "losing" the peace, we must stress the role of the Republican party, the party that prosecuted and won the war. To Republicans, some sort of punishment for treason and rebellion was in order, which at the very least meant that ex-Confederate influence had to be neutralized before reunion could be completed. Under Johnson, numerous ex-Confederates expected to take their seats in Congress (with southern representation now increased due to emancipation with its abrogation of the 3/5 clause). For the Republicans to have acquiesced to Johnson's Restoration would have been political suicide and made preserving the Union a costly and ironic joke. Enter Congressional (and later Military) Reconstruction.
The main objective of Reconstruction was not simply a return to the pre-war polity, which would have given Democrats majoritarian power, but the establishment of reliably loyal governments in the South. Republicans soon realized that achieving that meant reordering southern politics in favor of their party. This meant enfranchising blacks as the party's main constituency, and this in turn required military protection, either U.S. army or state militias. Ex-Confederates responded with a paramilitary insurgency that over a three to ten year period, depending on the state, produced a Rebel victory. By 1877, ex-Confederate officers and old plantation owners wielded uncontested political power in every former Rebel state. In this sense, the South may have lost the war, but it won a qualified peace--Home Rule and White Supremacy.
In the end, the North didn't really lose anything (and economically it actually ruled the South as a de facto colony for another generation). Instead, white southerners managed to take much of the sting out of their military defeat through their determined peacetime defiance. The "Lost Cause" mythology obscures the fact that, for practical purposes, counter-Reconstruction was a tremendous success story. Therefore, in a way, it was both foolish for the South to have seceded in the first place, since the North clearly had no problem with the South's racial policies and methods for labor control. And it was foolish for the North to have engaged in an active Reconstruction, given its lack of commitment to racial equality and the inability of the Republicans to establish a viable two-party system in the region. Thus, 600,000 dead from 1861-1865 and countless thousands during Reconstruction were all a waste. By 1880, the nation was back on track as an expanding and industrializing white man's country.
Tom Bruscino - 8/18/2004
As far as the comments about my style of argument, I'll let the course of this debate speak for itself as to how well I've argued my case.
I will say that the Allies did win the war, and since the United States was a prominent, and in some cases the prominent, member of the Allies, the United States won the war. Leaving aside the material aid (the stuff I cited was listed under Lend-Lease in the index, but Werth is unclear as to whether or not any of it was sold) American forces engaged the Italians, Germans, and Japanese on a variety of battlefields around the world and won nearly every time. Those battles contributed greatly to the ultimate victory in the war, and in the case of Japan, the Americans clearly dominated the Allied portion of the fight in a way that the Soviets did not totally dominate the war with Germany.
Tom Bruscino - 8/18/2004
All good points. Professor Chamberlain brought up some similar issues with the terminology in the article that we talked about with his comment below. I hope that my answer helps to explain some of the contradictions.
Tom Bruscino - 8/18/2004
Sorry for the confusion, sometimes it is difficult on these boards to post your comments where you want them, and as a result my latest comment came under your comment. I was responding more to Ralph than to you.
Your points are well taken, and I think entirely correct. I do not like ranking the performances of various countries in WWII, either. It is futile and often leads to bizarre quantifications of human efforts and abilities. My only argument in this thread is that it is silly to say the United States never won a war in the 20th century, with World War II being the clearest example.
Nathanael D. Robinson - 8/18/2004
Wow! I am not really certain how to take your remarks, considering I was trying to point out how the different philosophies of warfare between the US and USSR led to differences in casualties. In fact, I was partially sympathetic to your point, noting that direct comparisons of casualties is filled with problems. As much as military history is your field of expertise, comparative history is mine. Rather than join the argument, I wanted to insert some caution. Since I have set forth no critique of your "triumphalism", I am not really certain that you are addressing my comments directly. And since I have had a grand total of two posts in this forum, I am not forgetting any heated discussion we had in the past. Ultimately, Ralph is right: I have no interest in ranking the performances of various countries during WWII. Nonetheless, you are the military historian. I was under the impression that Russian (and by extension, Soviet) generals callously approached human life. Higher casualties could equally result from greater arrogance rather than from more meaningful sacrifice. Furthermore, the Soviet ideologists believed that they could harness the revolutionary spirit of the people, a dream that added to the casualties.
Ralph E. Luker - 8/18/2004
Neither United States's arms to the Soviet Union, which Tom carefully lists (though we aren't told how much of that was sold and how much given), nor the Soviet body count (which is not given) _won_ the war. So, it is just plain silly to act as if I had made an argument that the Chinese body count _won_ the war with Japan. The point is that the Allies (none of them acting alone) won the war and that the Allies (none of them acting alone) lost the peace. That being the case, the thesis argued by my friend in graduate school isn't merely silly. It survives all the schoolyard abuse dished out here.
Steven Heise - 8/18/2004
Doesn't Mr. Lurker's argument harken back to the logic behind the 'Body Count' system of the Vietnam war? Since the USSR took more casualties, and inflicted a larger percentage of the German casualties, they obviously won the war. Secondly, since the United States inflicted massive casualties upon the Vietnamese, and lost only a fraction of that number themselves, they obviously won the Vietnamese War as well (~3.5 million Vietnamese killed to 59,000 Americans).
The fact of the matter is, while the U.S. and G.B. didn't have a land front with Germany for the majority of the war, that does not mean they were sitting on their duffs waiting for the Soviets and Germans to pound eachother into dust. There was a massive bomber campaign going on over Germany which cost the U.S. roughly 100,00 lives, but in return disrupted German manufacturing and gave body blows to the German morale, as it was much easier to write propaganda about the 'victories' going on hundreds of miles to the East than disprove that bombs were falling on Dredsen and Berlin night and day.
I would argue that the U.S. has become adept at losing the peace only within the last half century (World War I being an exception due to Wilson botching the American role in the peace process). At the end of the Korean War the United States, with the help of the United Nations set up a peace keeping force to ensure that no further hostilities broke out between the two nations, a force that is still in Korea today, with very little questioning of its rightness to be there.
The point that gives me the most trouble with this interpretation of history is his argument that the North lost the peace with the South. If we take for fact that one of the Federal government's main war aims, since Sept. 1862, was the abolition of slavery and we adknowledge that Slavery was repealed by the 13th Ammendment to the U.S. Constitution, we'll find that the U.S. 'won' on that front. While the Black Codes and Jim Crowism that spread through the South may suggest that the North lost the peace, that interpretaion ignores the realization that segregation was as much a part of Northern society after the Civil War at times as it was in the South. Woodward writes: 'As America shouldered the White Man's Burden (in relation to the Spanish-American War), she took up at the same time, many Southern Attitudes on the subject of race.' Even before the 1898 eruption of violence with Spain we can see that the North was no bastion of goodness and racial harmony. Emma Lou Thornborough (as quoted by Woodward) brings our attention to Indiana's racial practices in the mid-1880s with: 'In practice the law proved to be ineffectual in accomplishing its state purpose, and aracial patterns [of segregation] remained unchanged by its passage' And 'Throughout the North there was not only acquiescence among the white population in the 'Southern Way' of solving the race problem but a tendancy to imitate it in practice.' These writings would seem to suggest that the North won the war, but at the same time totally lost its reasoning behind fighting the war in the first place, which makes one wonder if mayhaps the North wasn't fighting entirely for the high goals that they put forth. As Dr. Bruschino puts it: "The North fought for the survival of a whole nation built on rule of law, not to be destroyed if some of the laws became disagreeable." My argument would have to be that the North not only lost the peace, but had no real zest for upholding the ideals that they put forth in creating one of the first 'Great Crusades' in American history.
I would look at that bit of contradiction before we move on to the more modern failures of the U.S. in winning the peace.
Ralph E. Luker - 8/18/2004
Tom, Take a chill pill. The comment boards are not the place for school yard brawls and you don't make good impressions by acting like your manhood has been challenged when only matters of interpretation are at issue. The style fits with your interpretation of things -- it isn't likely to persuade. It's meant to intimidate, to cow and bully people. I hope you don't do that in the classroom or with your students. Once you've grown up, you'll realize that it is your style, even more than your perspective, that is silly.
Tom Bruscino - 8/18/2004
This is absurd. I never once argued that the United States won the war against Germany on its own. Ralph made the assertion that "If you run a calculus about ... who paid the real costs in World War II" then there was something to the argument that the United States never won a war in the 20th century. That argument of course was directed at the enormous casualties suffered by the Soviets in the course of their fight against Germany-- the so-called "real costs" of the war. Despite claims that I have ignored this fact, I have repeatedly acknowledged this loss of life, and provided evidence that loss of life was not the only "real cost" of the war, staggering though those numbers were. I suppose only a suspect triumphalist military historian--talk about no evidence, just like the last time we had this debate about my field--would think that suffering greater casualties is not the only way to achieve victory. Any time, _any time_, you want to debate American vs. German or Soviet or anyone else's tactics in fighting World War II, feel free to come on with it. I'll even get you started: Martin Van Creveld and Trevor Dupuy would probably be your best bet. Of course it is much easier to dismiss my conclusions in my field of expertise as triumphalism, rather than truly engaging with facts and finding out just how textured my triumphalist version of World War II can be.
But let's say we are in bizarro world, and we actually admit that the United States didn't play a key part in winning the war against Germany (Professor Chamberlain makes an excellent point about defeating Germany without the USSR, but it is one that can be turned around to ask if the Russians could have defeated the Germans and maybe Japanese without GB and the US). Lucky for me and anyone with the most rudimentary understanding of the past century of history, a reasonable demonstration of why your friend's thesis is silly is right at hand. Who, pray tell, won the war against Japan? Oh wait, I forgot, absorbing casualties means you are doing more to win a war, so the Chinese must have won the war against the Japanese. It is strange how hundreds of thousands of dying Chinese never came close to defeating the Japanese, but whatever, I'm fudging the facts and not reporting the details to fit my triumphalist conception of World War II. (Incidently, that article is specifically about the aftermath of the Doolittle Raid _in China_, so I would be more than happy to debate that point also.) Silly.
Nathanael D. Robinson - 8/17/2004
It can be difficult to compare Soviet and American casualties. Soviet strategy--Russian strategy in general--emphasized the use of overwhelming manpower rather than projecting force at a distance (American method). Soviet casualities would always be higher than American.
Besides, Soviet troops always had the NKVD behind them to "cheer them on" ;-).
Ralph E. Luker - 8/17/2004
As usual, Oscar, your points are well made. One the first one, the fault may be more my own than Tom's, because of the way I framed the question in the first place.
Oscar Chamberlain - 8/17/2004
I feel like the meaning of "win" has slid around in the course of this exchange. In the article above Tom does not say that the US and its western allies won the war but that the manner with which they fought the war allowed them to win the peace with Germany and Japan.
I think that is true. It was not a perfect victory, but our emphasis upon occupation and transformation was well rewarded. In Europe particular, our occupation of West Germany laid the foundation for much of the prosperity and security that followed in the West.
Solving the dilemma of having the Soviets as allies was probably impossible. Where their forces went, they were staying, and there were only so many wars we were willing to fight at a time.
Now, Tom, some of the exchange that follows suggests that you also conclude that the US won the military war with Germany, I would question that. If Germany had not invaded Russia, I think it's an open question as to whether we could have defeated them (short of nuking them in 1945).
Ralph E. Luker - 8/17/2004
Tom, I have no doubt but that your submissions to military history journals will rightly have the praise due to them from prominent historians. I might add that it is just this sort of triumphalism which has caused military history to be suspect. No personal slight was intended by my comment. May I have the favor returned by some reasonable demonstration of why my friend's thesis is "silly" rather than the mere reiteration of the word?
The data you don't report (and turn into a tribute to American triumphalism) are the numbers of lives lost, injuries, etc., suffered by the Soviet Union, Germany, Great Britain, U. S., France, etc. By any reasonable calculus, the Soviet Union suffered much greater casualties for an Allied victory than the United States did. Any claim that the United States "won" WWII that ignores that reality is just nonsense.
Of course, one reason that the United States fought on two fronts was that Japan did not attack the Soviet Union. As you know, both FDR and WC were willing to see the Soviet Union and Germany beat each other up and slaughter millions while England and the United States geared up. The Soviet Union had good reason to resent the claim you make that the U. S. "won" WWII.
Tom Bruscino - 8/17/2004
What data did I "suppress"? I reported what Alexander Werth said, and made the point that there are probably better updated figures somewhere else. I guess I did leave out 10 minesweepers, 12 gunboats, 82 smaller craft, 1,111 oerlikons because they were smaller numbers (and I didn't know what an "oerlikon" was, I think its a type of machine gun), but then adding them to the list hardly works against my argument. I note that we continue to talk about the Soviets fighting the Germans while ignoring the war in China and the Pacific Ocean. Who is suppressing data?
We can certainly argue World War I, at least your friend's silly idea has a chance there.
As far making comments about the Americans triumphalism in my way of argument goes, yes, in the sense that the United States "triumphed" in World War II, and I say that, yes, the United States triumphed in World War II, I am an American triumphalist. As far as my history work goes, I'm not sure an article and some posts on HNN are much of an indication of how richly textured my work is. How about this: in response to my latest article in the Journal of America's Military Past, one of the preeminent American historians wrote to me: "I have just read your JAMP article on the effects of the Doolittle raid and want to congratulate you on doing such a fine job of putting the raid into a context that is rarely addressed."
I think silly criticisms, like the United States didn't win World War II because the Soviets fought and killed more Germans and took many more casualties, don't make for richly textured history.
Ralph E. Luker - 8/17/2004
Thanks for the data. I note that you provide it where it tends to support your argument and to suppress it where it does not. And we did put WWI to the side for the moment, didn't we. It's all rather like Danny Loss's current post that "Wins and Losses Don't Matter". The American triumphalism in your way of argument is loud and clear. Triumphalisms don't make very richly textured history.
Tom Bruscino - 8/17/2004
I'm sure many of these figures need updating but Alexander Werth, Russia at War, pgs. 625-628:
From June 1941 to April 1944 the U.S. sent to the USSR:
3000 AA guns
23 million yards of army cloth
2 million tires
476,000 tons high octane
99,000 tons of aluminum
184,000 tons copper
42,000 tons zinc
6500 tons nickel
1.2 million tons steel
20,000 machine tools
991 million cartridges
22 million shells
88,000 tons gunpowder
130,000 tons TNT
1.2 million km telephone wire
245,000 field telephones
5.5 million pairs of army boots
$257 million worth of other industrial equipment including oil refinery equipment, cranes, locomotives, etc.
4.4 million tons of food
(These last two might be combined British and American figures, Werth is unclear.)
Werth concludes that the tanks and planes were only ten to fifteen percent of the Soviet total, but the trucks and cars, spam, army boots, and medicines were especially apprecaited by the men of the Red Army, even if the Soviet state did not want to show much gratitude toward the capitalist countries.
And oh yeah, the United States military was fighting the Germans and Japanese both on the seas and on land while they were shipping the majority of this materiel to the Soviets (aid peaked in 1944). Yes, there is a huge yawning gap in the casualties, but I for one am not sorry that the American military was better than the Soviets (and the Germans, for that matter) at not allowing their men to be slaughtered due to stupid strategies and tactics. And it is not like it was a walk in the park for the U.S. (Note that the people who make this ridiculous argument always seem to forget that Japan place. You know, the other half of World War II, the part that the Soviets played no part in winning.) Over 400,000 Americans died in World War II, another 670,000 were wounded. The United States more than did its part to win World War II.
Tom Bruscino - 8/17/2004
The Republican party was originally built on the principle that slavery would not be allowed to expand into the territories. Everyone knew what that would eventually mean for slavery in the Southern states. Lincoln won the election in 1860 in large part because of support for that stance in the North (for both economic and moral reasons). The rebels knew it too, that is why they rebelled. Lincoln said it best when he said everyone knew that slavery was "somehow" the cause of the war, even if they wouldn't admit it at first because the mainstream Republican support had spent the previous years entrenching in their psyches what they truly came to believe was a compromise position of not allowing the expansion of slavery. Yes, they fought for the union, but it was a union where slavery would no longer be allowed to expand, with the ultimate goal of ending the institution. That was a just cause, even if it was an incomplete one in regards to what would happen to freed slaves afterward.
But that is not the version that survived in the history and memory of the Civil War, as is made obvious by Professor Chamberlain's very thoughtful comment. And I guess his point stands about winning and losing. Caveat: I was asked to write on the topic of winning wars and losing peaces, and took it in a slightly different direction but still used the terms. In a lot of ways I am talking about losing the peace, appearing to lose the peace, and losing the moral high ground in popular memory and history. The latter is especially the case with the Civil War. It is not that most people think that the Northerners were the bad guys, it is that they think the two sides were equal participants in some kind of great inevitable tragedy.
Ralph E. Luker - 8/17/2004
"... less casualties ..."! That hardly gets at the ratio of Soviet casualties to United States casualties. Even more impressive than the ratios are the hard numbers. It would be interesting to have the figures on how much aid and war materiel the United States actually sent to the Soviet Union.
Oscar Chamberlain - 8/17/2004
The more I look at this argument, the more trouble I have with the definitions of winning and losing.
Take the Civil War. The North won on the issue that states do not have the right to secede.
Ending slavery as a war aim did not gain support of the white northern majority until horrid casualties had added a healthy dose of vengeance to the equation. By the end of the war, the majority saw it as another victory.
However, with the exception of slavery, that majority wanted a return to the pre Civil War polity, in which there were substantial states rights, including the right to treat races differently poltically. If southern whites hadn't been tail-wagging idiots in their creation of the Black Codes of 1865 and 1866, clearly intended to go beyond political discrimination to economic subjugation, the South probably could have slipped by without Congressional Reconstruction (and the 14th and 15 amendments).
In fact, I would argue that more important to the Northern reaction in 1866 and 67 than concern for freed blacks was the perception that northern honor had been insulted by a South that would not recognize the North's victory.
Congressional reconstruction succeeded in vindicating that honor. While it failed in making secure Black rights, that was always of secondary support to most northerners.
In short, by 1877 the North had achieved the most important war aims. It is our retrospective wish for justice that makes that achievement seem like failure.
Tom Bruscino - 8/17/2004
I think there is very little to be said for that position. I get the idea. But leaving aside the WWI argument for the moment, I have to wonder how it is that the U.S. taking less casualties than the Soviets when it was the only power fighting a full scale war on two broad fronts on either side of the planet while providing all of its allies with aid and war materiel equals not paying the real costs of World War II.
More importantly, the fact that your friend and others have made that case is further evidence of the eroding of confidence I was talking about in the article.
Ralph E. Luker - 8/17/2004
Tom, I had a friend in graduate school who used to argue that the United States hadn't ever won a war in the 20th century and that it was a pretty humiliating thing to realize that the last war it won was against a crumbling, badly decayed Spanish empire. If you run a calculus about how late we entered World War I and who paid the real costs in World War II, I think there's something to be said for his position.
Stephen Tootle - 8/17/2004
Way to work in Heartbreak Ridge.
Tom Bruscino - 8/17/2004
Sure, I agree 100 percent, but I'm talking more about the appearance of losing the peace at the time because the objectives kept switching back and forth from preserving the south to uniting Korea. Because of Korea, President Truman had the lowest approval ratings of any president in the history of approval ratings (even to the present). And MacArthur, who had pretty much gone off the deep end, was wildly popular.
I'm with Jonathan, I put Korea in the win column for preserving South Korea, but like Eastwood and his old buddy said in Heartbreak Ridge, they were 0-1-1. Americans considered Korea a tie at best.
Jonathan Dresner - 8/17/2004
Whether or not the Korean war was won, or whether the peace was satisfactory depends on the aims you ascribe to the US. The US successfully defended the South, and installed there a non-communist government that promoted economic growth and (after forty years) developed into a reasonably healthy democracy.
No, Korea was not reunified, nor was the war technically 'won' by anyone (has there ever been a longer-lasting stable non-treaty resolution to a major conflict?). On the other hand, we avoided full-scale war with China and Russia, and even the most critical observer would have to conclude that South Koreans have lived more freely and prosperously than their cousins under the Kim regimes (OK, to be fair, there are observers so critical that they would not allow that conclusion, but what can you do?).
It is possible to argue, though, that if the US had not done what it did in aid of Korea that the Cold War in Asia would have gone even worse. Perhaps we wouldn't have gotten involved in the Vietnam war; or perhaps we would have had to fight in Thailand, or in Indonesia, instead.
- Climate of Change: The Catholic Church's Dance With Science
- Sacrificed Humans Discovered Among Prehistoric Tombs
- Nazis Triumph Over Communists in Ukraine
- Obits for Happy Rockefeller blamed her for his political decline. Don’t believe it.
- Historian investigates claim that Bugsy Siegel wanted to kill Goring
- NYT hosts debate including Eric Foner: How Americans should remember Reconstruction
- William Leuchtenburg says historians and the media have been too hard on Obama
- Hugh Ambrose, historian who helped develop WWII Museum, dead at 48
- Historian discounts claim that Churchill and other British PM's were gay
- Nick Bunker Wins $50,000 2015 George Washington Book Prize