Steven Decatur, the great hero of the Tripolitan War and the War of 1812, made a toast in 1816, “In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.” John J. Crittenden repeated the sentiment after the defeat of General Arista in the Mexican war in 1846, “I hope to find my country in the right: however I will stand by her, right or wrong.” And G.K. Chesterton put these statements in context in his book, The Defendant: “’My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’” It’s clear that Chesterton didn’t think that “patriotism” meant the same thing that Decatur and Crittenden thought it meant.
If someone were a patriotic German or Japanese in WW II, would we applaud his support of his country? Wouldn’t we wish that he had thought for himself? Wouldn’t we believe that he should have thought for himself? Do we have sympathy for patriotic Iranians or North Koreans who may believe that they have a right to nuclear weaponry? And if we admire patriotism—why shouldn’t we? What is patriotism? Is it—by itself and for itself—worthy of our respect, or is it, as Samuel Johnson said, “the last refuge of a scoundrel.” How much obedience does one owe one’s country when it is in the wrong, what kind of obedience would that be, and how often are we embarrassed to find that our country is in the wrong? Actually, when she is wrong we rarely notice because we are often too busy waving the flag, saying the pledge of allegiance, wearing flag pins, putting ribbons on our cars, assailing those who have opposing views, and generally demonstrating that we don’t have much grasp of what is going on. The embarrassment comes much later—if it comes at all! As a consequence, there are many people who claim that the United States has never fought an unjust war.
To see how often we have been in the wrong, let’s take a brief survey of some of America’s wars, beginning with the Revolutionary War. Of course, it wasn’t a war conducted by the United States of America because no such country existed until after the war was concluded. It was a war conducted by a federation of independent states. But did they have a legitimate grievance? Not if they are viewed as colonies of Britain to whose king they owed loyalty. The patriotic Tory would have stood by the king, and many did—only to be mistreated by the “Sons of Liberty” and their ilk. The status of the colonies is actually rather murky (many began as corporate and proprietary colonies and were converted to royal ones), and that isn’t really what the war was about anyway. It was to a great degree an outgrowth of 18th century rationalism, a philosophical experiment, and it must be added that it benefited the upper classes of colonial society. Many people of the lower classes were content to go along with it because they had left Britain to find something else in the first place, and because they were attracted by libertarian notions. By and large, they didn’t feel as if they were citizens of the British Empire, and as Burke observed, you cannot regard a whole people as being guilty of treason.
Because it was a revolution from the top down, not the bottom up, because it was based on a set of philosophical principles that could be understood and adhered to, and because it was a revolution against a distant enemy, it succeeded, and the resulting country (when they finally got down to creating one) had a chance of prospering. The French Revolution degenerated into tyranny (as did the Russian) largely because it was a revolution from the bottom up against a local enemy. In terms of the “rightness” of the colonists, we could give this war a B+, but largely because of the importance of the ideas expressed in the constitution. They have been a beacon for the world. But as for the rest—how readily can one sanction revolutions and civil wars? They are usually fomented by ideologues and lead to the suffering and death of those who don’t rush to join them. This one turned out to be an exception.
The first military action the US engaged in was an undeclared war, the XYZ affair (1797-98). This was a naval scuffle between the US and France brought about, in part, by our signing a treaty with Britain, one which contravened agreements we had made with France. French privateers seized American ships, and an American peace commission was refused an audience by Talleyrand, the French Foreign Minister. It was suggested by a friend of Talleyrand that a bribe be offered to the French government, and Charles Pinckney, the American Minister to France, was quoted as saying: “Millions for defense, but not a cent for tribute.” (He later denied this, claiming he had merely said: “Not a penny, not a penny.”) Everything was settled by a commercial treaty in 1890. This might deserve a C (for we should respect our treaty agreements), though Pinckney deserves an A for his response—whichever it was.
The first real war was the Tripolitan War (1800-1805). This is where the “shores of Tripoli” reference in The Marine’s Hymn comes from. For hundreds of years, piracy had flourished in North Africa, and by 1800 it was the major source of revenue for the Barbary States. The only way for a country to protect its shipping was to pay tribute. In 1800 the Pasha of Tripoli demanded more tribute than had been agreed on, and the United States refused to pay. An intermittent blockade ensued, and when the frigate, Philadelphia, was blown ashore in a storm, its crew was taken prisoner. In 1804, Stephen Decatur entered the harbor with a small group of men and set fire to the captured ship. In 1805, the prisoners were ransomed and Tripoli agreed not to harass American shipping. Although the war was not a brilliant success, it had its brilliant moments, and it was wholly justified on ethical grounds. It deserves an A.
Then we have the War of 1812. The ostensible cause of this war was British violation of America’s neutrality during the Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France (1803-14). It is true that American ships were seized and American sailors pressed (remember Billy Budd). And there is no doubt that the British behaved in a high-handed fashion, but Americans had indirectly supported the French, taking advantage of the war to corner the trade between Europe and the French islands in the Caribbean. A more important cause of the war was the fact that the settlers in the West wanted to wrest new land from the Indians, and it was widely believed that the Indians were supported by the British (as they probably were, but was that really a bad thing?). The battle of Tippecanoe, in which William Henry Harrison defeated the Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, accomplished a part of what the settlers wanted, but those in the North also wanted to take Canada from the British, just as those in the South wanted to take West Florida from the Spanish. While impressment was a legitimate grievance, the war was largely fought for commercial and expansionist interests. It deserves a C+. (“Tippecanoe” became Harrison’s nickname. Remember the 1840 presidential campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.”)
This was followed by the Algerine War (1815). During the Napoleonic Wars, the Barbary States went back to their old ways, and Algeria even declared war on the US. Decatur, with a fleet of ten ships, forced the Dey of Algiers to release all American prisoners and to renounce tribute. He then did the same with Tunis and Tripoli. This war, like the Tripolitan War, deserves an A.
Now we come to the Mexican War (1846-48). There is not much good to be said about it. In order to understand what happened, it is necessary to say something about Texas. Moses Austin had secured a grant from Spain permitting him to form a colony between the Brazos and Colorado Rivers. When Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821 it readily granted other requests for colonies to be formed. However, two brothers named Edwards found the land they had chosen was already occupied by Mexicans and Cherokee Indians. They attempted to displace them, and the Mexican government revoked their charter. They responded by forming a state they called Fredonia, but the tiny Fredonian “army” melted away before the advance of Mexican Troops.
With this experience in mind, the Mexicans—who were faced with the fact that the “colonists” and squatters (illegal immigrants!) outnumbered Mexican citizens three to one—tried to impose greater control on the area. To avoid further problems, the colonists appealed for separate statehood in the Mexican republic, but Austin, who took the petition to Mexico City, was imprisoned. This led to the Texas Revolution in 1835. (The defense of the Alamo occurred in this war—not in the Mexican War.) The brilliant victory of Sam Houston at the battle of San Jacinto forced Santa Anna to recognize the independence of Texas, and it became an independent republic in 1836. It later petitioned for statehood in the United States, but as its constitution specifically permitted slave-holding, it was denied admission. Consequently, it was an independent republic for ten years. Various circumstances, mostly economic, led it to petition for statehood a second time, and it was annexed in 1845. If I were rating Texas on its troubles with Mexico, I would give it high marks, overall.
This set the stage for the Mexican War. President Polk had already stated his desire to acquire California—which belonged to Mexico. Using as a pretext various claims for property loss and other injuries that Americans had suffered in the various Mexican revolutions, the American government offered to assume liability for them if Mexico would sell California and part of New Mexico. The Mexican government refused, and the United States moved its troops across the Nueces River, which Mexico recognized as its border. A war ensued in which American troops went so far as to attack Mexico City itself—hence the reference to the “halls of Montezuma” in the Marine’s Hymn. (The truly heroic defense of the fortress of Chapultepec by the boys of the neighboring military school is rightfully honored by Mexicans.) The resulting treaty gave the US two-fifths of Mexico’s territory in return for fifteen million dollars and the assumption of the damage claims against Mexico. This was little more than a war of imperialist aggression and rates an F.
If the Mexican War wasn’t bad enough, it was followed by the Spanish-American War (1898), another war of flagrant imperialism. It is true that the Spanish treatment of the Cuban people was abominable, especially the policy of reconcentrado, the creation of a system of concentration camps into which the rural population was forced in an effort to weaken the on-going guerilla war. But however much this might inflame public sentiment in the United States (especially through the one-sided and dishonest reporting of Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s newspapers), the real reasons for the war were America’s expansionist ambitions. The strategic position of Cuba, the possibility of a canal across Panama, the desire to eliminate European competition from the economy of the New World, and the loss of American investments in the Cuban guerilla war, all made the war inevitable. When the battleship Maine exploded in Havana in 1898 (probably from a faulty boiler), war was imminent. In fact, William Randolph Hearst sent the artist, Fredrick Remington, to Cuba to illustrate the war, and it is said that when Remington wired back that all was quiet, Hearst replied: “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Queen Isabella’s order suspending military actions in Cuba—which President McKinley knew about—was ignored, Spanish ports were blockaded, and hostilities ensued. The US profited by acquiring Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.
No account of this war would be complete without an important footnote. Spanish rule over the Philippines had been dictatorial, and the Jesuit order had created deep resentment by its acquisition of vast properties. (As someone has said about the missionaries in Hawaii, they went there to do good—and they did very well.) Finally, in 1896, a revolutionary war broke out, with the Filipinos seeking to establish their independence. (Note the date—it is well before the war with Spain!) When the Spanish-American war began, Commodore Dewey (who had been lurking in the vicinity, waiting for the moment to attack) defeated the Spanish at Manila Bay, and encouraged the revolutionaries, even supplying them with arms. By the time the war ended, the revolutionaries had taken all of the island of Luzon except the fortress of Manila, had declared independence, and had established a republic.
Now we come to the particularly nasty part: even though the Spanish were no longer in control of Luzon, the principal island, the US paid Spain 20 million dollars for the Philippines. We then defeated the armies of the new republic and engaged in a long war against Filipino guerillas—“patriots,” I think, they should be called. This dragged on until 1901 and cost a great deal more in lives and money than the Spanish-American War had. The “land of free and the brave”—the patriotic lovers of democracy—had crushed a republic created by oppressed victims of colonialism. American public opinion was very much divided over these events, Republicans generally supporting war in the Philippines, Democrats opposing it. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The tawdry conclusion of this war highlights the crass political and economic motives that had inspired it. The humanitarian issues (especially reconcentrado) justified outrage and forceful diplomacy, but they did not justify the war (especially since the Queen of Spain had largely capitulated). This war deserves an unqualified F.
Now we can look at WW I. There is not much to say here. The most important point is simply this: Germany, which was to bear the brunt of the post-war blame (largely because of German tenacity when all of its allies had given up) wasn’t the villain. The immediate cause for the war was the set of punitive demands made upon Serbia by Austria after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. This escalated into war because of the system of “entangling alliances” and the erratic behavior of Russia. Of course, there were underlying reasons for the war, reasons that had led to the creation of the two systems of alliance in the first place—nationalism, imperialism, and arms races (still three of the greatest dangers to world peace.) Nonetheless, people didn’t think that a war was inevitable.
But why did the US enter the war? When the Lusitania, a British passenger liner carrying—among other things—munitions for the Allies, was sunk by a German submarine in 1915, 125 Americans were killed, and American sentiment turned against Germany. The Germans had made a tardy effort to avoid American deaths: on the day that the Lusitania was to sail, the German embassy had published a warning to American passengers in the morning newspapers—too late to accomplish much. After American protests and demands for reparation, Germany acceded and agreed not to attack passenger ships without warning. Towards the end of 1916, however, the Germans, whose fleet was bottled up in various ports, were growing desperate, and they announced that they would resume unrestricted submarine warfare.
In response, the US broke off relations with Germany in February, 1917 and declared war in April. It is hard to see that this was a sufficient cause for war: after all, America could have simply curtailed trade with Europe, and that would have been the prudent thing to do. President Wilson’s blather about making “the world safe for democracy” is quite beside the point since Germany was a constitutional monarchy, just as England was (and is). Ironically, early in the war the Allies included Russia—still under the Tsar—and Japan under its emperor! This rates a C+ at best. (And isn’t it curious that we usually hear that the US entered the war because of the sinking of the Lusitania, which had occurred over a year earlier. But then, that does make it sound soooo much better.)
WW II is a different matter. Most historians agree that an important underlying cause was the punitive treaty that ended WW I. This agreement buried the German government in debt, and the world-wide depression of the thirties exacerbated that. But another cause was the fact that both Italy and Germany had become unified countries less than a century before. In 1861 Victor Emmanuel became the king of a unified Italy. In 1862 Bismarck set about creating a German state that was not under the domination of Austria. These circumstances led to extremes of nationalistic feeling. Most people forget that both Mussolini and Hitler were elected by adoring crowds, and that it was Mussolini who set the pattern for fascism. (The role of the Black Shirts and the Brown Shirts in intimidating the opposition was significant.) As in WW I, Germany proved to be the formidable enemy, and the Germans eventually took actual control of the war in Italy, so the allies engaged in a sort of tacit pretense that they were, somehow, “liberating” Italy rather than conquering it. This, along with the fact that Italy’s expansionist aggression was focused on Ethiopia instead of Western countries, has focused most of the opprobrium on Germany. And of course, there are the horrific atrocities of the Holocaust!
We entered the war late, just as we had in WW I. Not until the Japanese (German allies) attacked Pearl Harbor did we declare war, but a cogent argument could be made for having acting much sooner. Both England and France had been our allies for years. It was clear that Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin (who had signed a pact with Germany) were intent on imposing dictatorship upon Europe, and even without reckoning the human cost of such a situation, it was clearly a long-term threat to the US. But even without geopolitical concerns, we had been attacked without warning by Germany’s ally, Japan in 1941. This was an ethical war and rates an A, and the persecution of the Jews, by itself, would justify our participation.
How about Korea? During the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, Japan stationed troops in Korea (which had been a puppet state of China since 1637), and in 1910 Japan annexed it. In 1943, the United States, Great Britain, and China promised Korea independence after WWII was over, but at the end of the war Russian troops had occupied the North, and American troops the South (think of East and West Germany). Efforts made by the UN to unify the country by holding elections were thwarted by the Russians, and finally, two separate countries were established in 1948. The Russian and American forces were withdrawn, and each of the new governments took charge of its own affairs. Not surprisingly, each thought that the other should abandon its own political system and merge with it if the country were to be unified. A surprise attack by North Korea in June of 1950 brought about the Korean War. Condemning the attack, the UN demanded that North Korea withdraw and asked other nations to assist South Korea. President Truman committed American troops to that effort. (Sixteen countries were represented in the UN forces, all under the command of General MacArthur.) The result of the three-year war was that the original boundary at the 38th parallel was restored—and US casualties were about as great as those in the Vietnam War, more than 54,000 dead and over 103,000 wounded. Sadly, it is largely a forgotten war.
It was not in our national interest except insofar as the principle is worth fighting for: countries should not get away with violating international agreements. However, the fact that this was a war against a communist country (and Communist China also supplied troops to the North) probably taints the argument that we were merely acting on principle. Geopolitical thinking was probably involved. And of course, the horrendous losses for this cause are hard to accept as being well-justified. Nonetheless we might give this an A-.
Then, there is the Vietnam war, and the Iraq war and all that came from them. Beyond that, there was a large number of little wars and military meddling in Central and South America for dubious reasons, Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Granada, Panama, etc. These were motivated by commercial interests, and our suspicion of socialist governments, but they were waged against small independent countries, and we had no business interfering. And we shouldn’t leave out The Trail of Tears, and the general treatment of the First American’s who were here before we took the land from them—supported, of course, by the American Army which was there to protect the pioneers—who were the ones taking the land. These actions frequently amounted to genocide
So, have we never waged an unjust war? Yes, we have waged many, most of them small, but the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War stand out as being sizeable wars motivated primarily by imperialism. How can anyone be proud of them, or of our treatment of the First Americans from whom we took the land in the first place?