Home / Articles / What Students Need To Know About America’s Wars, Part 2— 1920–Present: A History Institute for Teachers
Walter A. McDougall, co-chair of the History Institute, noted that war brings out the best and the worst in people. It is dramatic, tragic, and strategic. There are the “what ifs.” Every family is affected by wars.
In the midst of a war that has turned unpopular, debate has arisen among Americans about the place of war in our history; whether the U.S. is intrinsically militant or militaristic; and whether America’s wars have been worth fighting. We need to enable our students to engage these big questions honestly and knowledgeably.
The Gathering Storm: From WWI to WWII
Williamson Murray of the Institute for Defense Analyses observed that the eruption of war in Europe in September 1939, just twenty years after the Treaty of Versailles, is one of the great conundrums of history. True, Versailles was a harsh peace, but the Germans had instigated the war.
Because no Allied troops were on German territory when the war ended, Germany could claim that its army had stood unbeaten in the field. The result was a sense of deep wrong on the part of the German people. Meanwhile, the British and French populations would never have accepted an easy peace, nor should they have, given the sacrifices they had made.
The attitude in the British polity in the 1930s was that reasonable men could avoid war. The result was an ahistoricism and incapacity to understand the danger that fascist Italy and Nazi Germany posed. Right from the beginning, however, Winston Churchill understood that Nazi Germany represented a terrible moral and strategic danger. He was right, but his warnings went unheeded.
The American response to the end of WWI was “Good, we can go back and stick our heads in the sand.” The war was seen as the fault of the merchants of death and the bankers.
We now know that the German government waged a massive disinformation campaign on the subject of who had caused WWI and how Germany had acted during the war. It persuaded not only Germans but also a substantial number of American and British academics of its innocence.
When Hitler came to power in January 1933, he gave his generals a blank check to rebuild Germany’s military, withdrew Germany from the League of Nations, began conscription, and formed the Luftwaffe. In 1936 Germany remilitarized the Rhineland. He was delighted that Europe’s attention was focused on the Spanish civil war and Ethiopian crisis.
The result of British PM Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement attempt was Germany’s occupation of Austria in March 1938, and then, after the infamous Munich agreement, the occupation of Czechoslovakia. The great question by Summer 1939 was what the Soviet Union would do. Liberals expected it would sign up for a great antifascist crusade, but we now understand that this was not a liberal democratic regime. Stalin understood that he could either (1) avoid a war, sit back and watch the capitalist powers destroy themselves, and then come in and pick up the pieces, or (2) join the Western powers, defend Eastern Europe, and confront a war in the immediate future. Stalin chose the former. The result was the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of August 1939; this sealed the fate of Poland, which Germany invaded on September 1. The result for the Russian and Ukrainian populations would be 27 million dead by the time the war was over.
The U.S. Army in World War II
Rick Atkinson, author of The Army at Dawn and The Day of Battle, put forward ten points our students ought to know about the U.S. Army in WWII.
1. The U.S. Army was weak when the war began. In 1939, the U.S. Army ranked seventeenth among world armies in size and combat power, only 190,000 soldiers (it would grow to 8.3 million by 1945).
2. The war encumbered all of America. Sixteen million Americans served in uniform in WWII. There were also the manpower demands of industry, to build tanks, airplanes, and trucks and to make things like penicillin and synthetic rubber, both for us and our Allies.
3. The U.S. Army did not win the war by itself. The war began 27 months before America entered it, and the British achieved a great deal in those months. By the war’s end there were about 60 nations on the Allied side; Russia alone lost an estimated 26 million people.
4. The U.S. Army’s role in the liberation of Europe didn’t start at Normandy. The path to the army’s landing at Normandy on June 6, 1944, began more than two years before D-Day, in North Africa. By spring 1943, the Allies gained air supremacy and almost complete control of the seas there. After Africa came Sicily, then the campaign in Italy.
5. The U.S. Army was initially not very good. In the first couple years the Army was burdened with inferior equipment and commanders who were not up to their task. These first years required a sifting out at all levels. But as a system, we were able to generate the combat power needed to prevail—the warplanes, artillery ammunition, the atomic bomb; a system capable of meeting the enormous logistical demands of global war.
6. The U.S. Army in WWII comprised much more than just riflemen. It also included, for example, the Army Air Forces, with its ability to flatten fifty German cities, firebomb Tokyo, and reduce Hiroshima and Nagasaki to ashes. In 1943 alone, we built 86,000 planes, 45,000 tanks, and 648,000 trucks. The American war machine was “a prodigy of organization,” in Churchill’s phrase, derived from a complex industrial society.
7. The Army remained under civilian control throughout the war. It was Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, not the military, who took such decisions as invading North Africa and dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
8. The WWII Army was among the greatest agents of twentieth century U.S. social change. As blacks joined the services, the disparity between the principles we were fighting for and the reality of American life gave impetus to the civil rights movement. Meanwhile, the demand for military manpower drew women into the workplace.
9. The history of the U.S. Army in WWII is among the greatest stories of the 20th century. Samuel Hynes, a WWII fighter pilot who became a Princeton professor, observed that the war “was an action in Aristotle’s sense—it had a beginning, a middle, and an end.” That makes for a coherent narrative, and narrative is a wonderful teaching tool.
10. They died for you. The core of this story is suffering. The U.S. military sustained almost 400,000 deaths during the war, many of them horrible, premature, and unspeakably sad. Americans need to understand and remember that this vast host died for us.
The U.S. Navy in World War II
James Kurth, professor of political science, Swarthmore College, and Senior Fellow, FPRI, told how the naval war in the Pacific was an American epic, full of struggles and dramas. There was innocence on the eve of Pearl Harbor, then the dramatic assault at Pearl Harbor. The stricken nation faced continuing challenge and had to pick itself up. Soon there would be a decisive challenge, Midway, where the U.S. Navy barely escaped extinction. Then came a period of recovery and determination, composing the Pacific strategy, which was tested in a long haul going through many titanic battles. At the end comes triumph, redemption, and apotheosis at Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945.
The Navy had long assumed both that Japan was its most likely enemy and that the capital ship of the day would be the battleship, fleets of which would meet in a climactic battle in the Pacific. The U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor was a series of battleships stationed there to deter the Japanese and, if they were not deterred, to steam out and meet the Japanese fleet. The battleship admirals considered a carrier attack to be virtually impossible. In sinking the U.S. battleships, the Japanese instantly converted the war into one of climactic battles between carriers.
Three U.S. carriers were out engaged in training operations on December 6, 1941. When the Japanese admirals discovered that they had not destroyed the carriers, they decided not to risk another attack to wipe out Pearl Harbor’s oil depots, petroleum, and logistics bases. Had the carriers not been away, it would have been much harder for the U.S. to mount an offensive from a revived Pearl Harbor in the next few months.
The next great battle would be the Battle of Midway in June 1942. The U.S. had cracked the Japanese code and knew that Japanese ships were moving toward Midway, from which they could immobilize Pearl Harbor and drive us back to the U.S. West Coast. Nonetheless, plans for a coordinated attack went awry. Our torpedo bombers came in by themselves low and were destroyed one by one. But as a matter of chance, U.S. dive bombers appeared over the Japanese ships just as all the Japanese air cover had descended from up high to protect against dive bombers down low. They launched a full assault on the Japanese carriers and sank three of them.
Had we lost at Midway, all the political support for moving forces to Europe and North Africa in November 1942 would have evaporated and the European war would have unfolded differently. Fate, chance—made possible by the courage and self-sacrifice of the torpedo bomber pilots—intelligence, Adm. Spruance’s moral choice not to seek to annihilate the enemy, and courage all made a difference.
By the end of 1942, the Japanese were on the defensive in the western Pacific and the opportunity arose to pursue an offensive war. The Navy’s preferred strategy was to reach islands such as the Marianas, ultimately Iwo Jima and Okinawa. There would be a climactic battle somewhere along the line when the Japanese fleet would come out and be destroyed. But Gen. MacArthur insisted on an army operation. His strategy was to move from New Guinea to the Philippines, from where he would threaten Japan.
The Air Force felt it could ultimately bomb Japan, but first it needed bases on islands across the Pacific. Thus for some time it supported the Navy strategy, which would provide these bases. We got both the Army and Navy and ultimately the Air Force strategy. By the time it got fully mobilized, America had enough resources to win these three wars against Japan. The Army advance eventually led to the Philippines and the largest naval battle in history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
America tends to try to win its wars through overwhelming mass along with wide-ranging mobility and flexibility, and this union reached its height in WWII. America could operate at vast distances from its home bases, outflank and overleap the Japanese island bases, and destroy Japanese commerce with its submarines.
The Battles of Okinawa and Iwo Jima were foreordained bloody battles, because once the U.S. chose to invade, we knew we would need overwhelming mass and mobility. When the terrible casualties were reported back home, however, American morale began to corrode. Policymakers would have to take this into account, and this affected the decision to use the atomic bomb.
The Korean War
Allan Millett, professor of history at University of New Orleans and author of Their War for Korea, 1945-1950, discussed this “forgotten war,” which is hardly forgotten by the Koreans. The ROK and DPRK in fact are still at war in a legal sense. We need to put the Koreans back in the Korean war, which was total war for them and still conditions the attitudes of them and other Asians toward each other.
The American narrative of the Koran War is an invasion, defeat, and turnaround. In the Korean narrative, it was only the most violent phase of a continuing competition to create and control modern postcolonial Korea. This narrative began with the March 1 movement of 1919 and went through Japanese annexation and the evolution of two revolutionary national independence movements.
In August 1945, with the collapse of the Japanese empire, Korea was inherited by the victorious allies. It was to become independent, but no timeframe or process was specified. The 38th parallel division was a decision hastily made in order to demarcate U.S. and USSR zones for processing the numerous Japanese remaining in Korea. The U.S. set up a military government that for one and a half years attempted to maintain some kind of order, while negotiating with the Russians to shut down the occupation. By fall 1946, there was an uprising against the U.S. military government in which American troops shot protestors (who had shot and killed Korean policemen and others). We sought to turn over security duties to the Korean National Police, whose members’ heritage was Japanese. They recruited auxiliary police from among North Korean refugees. We funded this group until we realized that we were subsidizing a paramilitary street gang. The solution was creating a separate Korean constabulary, which became the ROK army.
By December 1947 we had given up and turned the matter over to the UN, which attempted negotiations to unify the country or to hold elections in the Southern Zone for an independent government. The South Korea Labor Party opposed this, and in April 1948 open rebellion broke out on Koje-Do Island, which in October 1948 spread to the mainland and soon became a full-blown civil war.
In 1949, North Korea started sending columns south to support the guerrillas. The removal of a remaining U.S. regimental combat team, which had served as a deterrent to invasion, may have been critical in bringing about the 1950-53 war.
The first year of the war is the one we all know, the agony of defeat as North Koreans pushed American and ROK forces south to the Pusan-Taegu-Pohang perimeter. MacArthur flew to Korea June 27-28 and announced that Korea would fall unless American ground troops were committed. By mid-September there were sufficient U.S. ground troops to hold the Pusan perimeter. The Inchon landing on September 15, 1950, was MacArthur’s finest moment. Then the Chinese decided to come into the war. The landing was an operational success but a strategic failure.
The Chinese held the initiative until May-June 1951, when Beijing realized it couldn’t reunify Korea by force. China changed its war aims, as did we. By 1951 our war aims were to preserve South Korea, not to unify Korea. A constitutional crisis followed in 1952 when Syngman Rhee rigged his own reelection in South Korea. Then in March 1953 Stalin died. A week later, Soviet leaders sent a message to Mao saying “Wind up the war, it’s getting too expensive.” Rhee opposed any armistice and wound up negotiating everything he wanted—a $1 billion aid bill, a mutual defense treaty, and American troops stationed in Korea, as they are today. This is a war that has no ending.
Ronald Spector of The George Washington University noted that the Vietnam War is the longest war in American history and the first one we clearly lost. Its history is also the most contested, especially whether the war was “winnable.”
In a sense there were several Vietnam Wars going on between 1965-73: the air war against North Vietnam; the ground war in South Vietnam; the pacification campaign to establish the South Vietnamese government’s control over the rural areas; the “war at home” as opposition to the war grew; and the diplomacy of the war, involving the U.S. and North Vietnam as well as U.S. allies, the USSR, and eventually China. The two that are most argued over are the air war and the Pacification campaign.
The sustained bombing of North Vietnam began in Spring 1965; by the end of 1967 the U.S. had dropped 860,000 tons of bombs. About 35,000 North Vietnamese died in the bombing, which destroyed a large number of industrial and communications facilities. Washington hoped the bombing would weaken North Vietnamese support for the war in South Vietnam and boost South Vietnamese morale. Knowing that bombing a country that bordered China and was allied to the USSR was risky, it carefully regulated the bombings. The cities of Hanoi and Haiphong were spared, as were areas within 25 miles of China.
Supplied by China and Russia, North Vietnam had by 1967 one of the most modern air defense systems in the world. The limited bombing campaign seemed ineffective and illogical to the U.S. military, who would have preferred a full-out attack. We now know that there were factions in North Vietnam to whom the bombing proved that the attempt to win the south was not worth the costs. However, those factions were powerless against the much stronger “liberate-the-south-now” faction.
On pacification, the debate is whether the U.S. actually won the war between 1968-72 by shifting its emphasis to an effort to win the rural population’s “hearts and minds.” But despite claims by some that the war was essentially won, none of the available data supports the idea that the pacification struggle was “won” by 1970.
Well over two million Americans served in Vietnam between 1963-74. The conditions and intensity of operations varied enormously; from the WWI-style warfare of Khe Sanh to the “amphibious” riverine warfare of the Mekong Delta, from fierce clashes in the mountains and jungles to endless patrols in the agricultural lowlands, where the main menaces were often mines and booby-traps.
Most GIs were seldom in direct contact with the enemy. The majority served as supply, service, or administrative troops stationed in or near one of the dozen-odd American base complexes. Where the bases provided some amenities, the GIs still worked hard at mind-numbing jobs 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week. They endured heat, insects, dust, and flooding and seas of mud during the rainy season. There was also the knowledge that no one was safe. Although Washington officials often observed that the casualty rate of American forces in Vietnam was lower than in WWII or Korea, this had more to do with the larger percentage of personnel in support units and improved medical care than with any differences in the intensity of combat.
GULF WAR I
LTG (Ret) Bernard Trainor, co-author of Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, observed that Gulf War I was a watershed in American military history. It was a war of erroneous assumptions and miscalculations on both sides, and ended with surprises and disagreements that have stayed with us to this day. It was the first major post-Cold War U.S. military engagement, and from it came a new American organizing principle: the Middle East.
Through the 1970s, Iraq and Iran each sought hegemony, but each was somewhat of a great-power satellite. The U.S. supported the Shah in Iran and the Soviet Union supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq. After Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, Iran turned against the U.S., which began to support the Iraqis. Saddam took advantage of the weakness he perceived in Iran to attack it. This led to a long, enormously costly war that finally came to an unsatisfactory conclusion with millions of casualties on both sides.
The war left Saddam badly in debt. His campaign had been funded largely by loans from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Now Kuwait in particular was anxious to be paid back. Seeking pretexts to evade paying the debt, Saddam claimed that Kuwait was not really a legitimate government but should be part of Iraq, and that it was stealing oil from Iraq’s Ramallah oil field.
The Arab states interpreted this as mere saber-rattling. Washington, knowing that Saddam was massing his armies along the Kuwait border, proposed to send some F-15s to Saudi Arabia and to move an amphibious task force into the Gulf waters to deter him. But Arab leaders suggested that doing so might be provocative, so we didn’t. This inaction, taken with comments made by U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie that Saddam took as an indication that we were disinterested in the matter, convinced him that the U.S. was not going to intervene. Saddam made his move in August 1990, took the Kuwaiti capital, and then moved on to the Saudi-Kuwaiti border.
The U.S.—and the Saudis—feared that Saddam might seize the Saudi oil fields. King Fahd gave permission for an unprecedented act—U.S. forces entering the kingdom, in what was known as Operation Desert Shield.
This operation was not popular with Americans people after the experience of Beirut in 1983. But President George H.W. Bush, Secretary James Baker, and national security advisor Brent Scowcroft set about building a foreign coalition, so they could demonstrate to the American people that the international community supported us. Congress finally approved action. Saddam had miscalculated in challenging the U.S., which had at that time an enormous unemployed army in Europe, with the Cold War ending. We sent our forces to Saudi Arabia to prepare for an assault on Kuwait.
The Iraqi Army had fought the Iranians for eight years and was battle-hardened, some U.S. analysts held. We were sending in an untested, post-Vietnam all-volunteer force. Many analysts predicted high American casualties—10,000 in the first 24 hours. There was also concern that Saddam was getting on with WMD. We were going to defeat his field army in Kuwait, hoping that he would then be overthrown by an internal coup.
The idea was to have an air campaign, but on the ground, hold the Iraqi forces in position; in the meantime, we would put a major force in the western desert, trap the Iraqis inside Iraq, and destroy them. We would get radio and television stations operating in Saudi Arabia aimed at the Shia population in southern Iraq, who were being suppressed by Saddam. Between destroying Saddam’s field forces, a Shia uprising, and an army coup, that would be the end of Saddam.
The air campaign began on January 17, 1991. The Iraqis planned to fight us the same way they had fought the Iranians. They would have positions in depth and would pour artillery in on the Americans. They would use the regular army as the frontline defenders, keeping in reserve the Iraqi Republican Guard. Once the American attack slowed down, they would counterattack and drive us out.
They hadn’t counted on the enormous series of air attacks. Saddam’s mechanized corps was destroyed. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, head of the Coalition forces, assumed that the Iraqis would defend in place. But when Saddam realized he was going to lose the war and his field forces, particularly his loyal IRG, he changed strategy. If the Americans attacked, he would leave the regular army to defend against us and withdraw the IRG back into Iraq. Unaware of that, we attacked the Iraqi forces as planned. The “battle-hardened” Iraqi force we met was tired, undernourished, and under-equipped. They didn’t want to fight. The rank and file was no million men, as U.S. intelligence expected—many had deserted. It was a hollow force when the Americans attacked.
The Marines moved so fast up towards Kuwait City that Schwarzkopf had to totally shut down—the IRG were escaping and the army surrendering. Our casualties were extraordinarily low, about 190 in the whole war. Saddam was in effect defeated, but we had not destroyed his field forces: they had escaped. While there was some clamor to continue on and overthrow Saddam, the administration decided against that because, first, we had no UN mandate to do so, and second, we didn’t want to get tied down occupying Iraq.
Gulf War I was a series of miscalculations on both sides. Out of it came the Shia revolt, in which we did not ultimately aid them, and more concerns about WMD. Saddam was discredited in the eyes of his army, but he survived, claiming that Iraq had not lost but had fought the mother of all battles on the Euphrates River line—the Americans never got into Iraq. He handed out medals to everyone involved. So Saddam lost neither face nor his job.
The War on Terrorism
Frank Hoffman of the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Quantico, Virginia, and Senior Fellow, FPRI related that since 9/11, our country has mobilized for a global conflict against extremism with a multidimensional approach that has relied heavily on our military. We toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan, so that al Qaeda no longer enjoys sanctuary there. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq destroyed Saddam’s regime. We have forged international cooperation and intelligence sharing that has foiled several plots against us or our partners. We have substantially reduced al Qaeda’s infrastructure and shored up our home defenses. But bin Laden is still alive, and while al Qaeda’s leadership has probably been weakened, a generation of Muslims has been radicalized. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is resurging.
Like the early phases in Afghanistan, the early military operations in Iraq were conducted in accordance with the U.S. military’s preferred style and exploited its conventional military superiority. But the early occupation turned sour as political enemies vied for control. What Tom Ricks has called “perhaps the worst war plan in American history” failed to secure victory. The planning shortfalls helped create the conditions for the difficult occupation that followed. We failed to anticipate, learn, and adapt, misreading the evolving character of conflict and not studying irregular adversaries.
The Bush administration embraced the Revolution in Military Affairs argument and promised to “skip a generation” in military modernization to exploit precision technology and information systems. The technophiliacs in the Pentagon were abetted by a military culture that since Vietnam had retreated to a narrow view of its professional domain. The Army deliberately jettisoned lessons learned and reconfigured itself to fight only major wars.
As General James Mattis once noted, history provides a professional edge to those willing to invest the time. Our military should have made better use of its storehouse of history. In Iraq and Afghanistan, our forces relearned irregular war the hard way—in combat.
At some point, members of President Bush’s NSC staff, energized by external criticisms. the media, and loss of public support, started looking for a new strategy. The administration finally settled on a shift in leadership in the Pentagon and in theater. It also crafted a change in priorities and operational focal points, shifting from training Iraqi forces to a population-centric approach that put “boots on the ground” in their neighborhoods. This “surge strategy” is founded on best practices and principles that should have been employed in 2004. It has been executed well, thanks to the leadership of Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno and then-Ambassador Ryan Crocker. They made a critical situation more palatable in Iraq, and the turnaround they created will be studied for many decades to come.
Continued adaptation in institutions, processes, and human capital remains critical if we are to prevail. Yet, the issue is still in doubt. Whether adaptation and innovation will be locked in is being contested in the Pentagon, and only time will tell if Secretary Gates is successful in adapting long-held mindsets in the armed forces.
If history offers one conclusion about the Long War and preventing future failures of the same scale, it would be that the rigorous study of history and the cultivation of the ability to question received wisdom is the best security against catastrophic failure.
The American Culture of War
Adrian Lewis, professor of history at the University of Kansas, explained that since 2003, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have been too small to do all that is required of them. The current demand for our forces exceeds the sustainable supply; consumed as we are with meeting the demands of the war on terror, we are unable to provide ready forces as rapidly as necessary for other potential contingencies. Our Reserves Components are performing an operational role for which they were neither designed nor resourced. Soldiers, families, and equipment are stretched and stressed by the demands of lengthy and repeated deployments; suicides and post-traumatic stress are on the rise.
The U.S. Army has been too small at the start of all the major wars it has fought, but generally turned to conscription. On the eve of Gulf War I, the Bush Sr. administration was in the process of drawing down armed forces, with the Cold War over. The American people were to receive a “peace dividend.” Demobilization stopped temporarily for that war. But after the war, demobilization continued, and the Army was reduced to 500,000 soldiers in 10 divisions. Among other reasons for the reduction of our Armed Forces, it was thought that revolutions in military technology and the advent of “limited war” would reduce the numbers of service people required. This turned out to be a serious error. While U.S. forces have been enlarged modestly since 2007, no plans have been made to reinstitute the draft. Lewis suggested public debate on this issue.
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