Much is made about how the United States has not fought a war since World War Two, labeling all the other conflicts “police actions” or a myriad of other excuses. But the reality is that the United States in the past seven decades has been one of the most bellicose powers the world has ever seen. In the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty first, America has had thirteen presidents, and every single one of them have seen American troops on the ground in foreign nations. The reason for this militaristic attitude is twofold: first, because of America’s emergence as a superpower and two, because of the most astonishingly abrupt ideological shift in the history of American politics.
In the immediate aftermath of the Allies’ victory in World War Two, which dominated Franklin Roosevelt’s third term and the first year of Truman’s succession of Roosevelt upon his fatal brain hemorrhage, the U.S. military was consolidated and reduced. The Department of War, responsible for the Army, was combined with the Department of the Navy to form the singular Department of Defense, overseeing the entire military complex. While the bureaucracy of the armed forces was being sorted out, droves of veterans left the military to return to their pre-war lives, be it school or work. While some stayed to make a career out of the military, the mass departure of the victorious troops left the American military small and weak.
This shrink in America’s military might emboldened Stalin to grant the North Koreans approval for their planned invasion of South Korea. This act of course set the Korean War in motion. The Truman administration was deeply divided over whether or not to get involved in the conflict, some favoring the defense of Western Europe over all other territories while others saw communist expansion anywhere as a threat. The latter faction prevailed and the “domino theory” was born, which stated that every nation which falls to communism would set off a chain reaction, causing other nations to become communist.
The United States mobilized the fledgling United Nations to provide troops for the effort of pushing back the North Korean advance. While numerous nations provided soldiers, nearly ninety percent of the force was comprised of Americans. However, the poorly trained American soldiers were easily pushed back, until General Douglas McArthur took command of the U.N. force and quickly equalized the conflict. When the war finally ended, it had stretched from the middle of Truman’s second term to the beginning of Eisenhower’s first term.
Eisenhower, as the Supreme Commander of Allied troops in the European theater of World War Two, was no stranger to armed conflict and by no means was he done after the end of the Korean War. While he did resist the urges of his vice-president, Richard Nixon, to solidly commit to aiding the French in what was then called Indochina, Eisenhower did send the French substantial military aid and backed the anti-communist government of Ngo Dinh Diem, despite the human rights atrocities carried out by Diem’s corrupt government.
While Eisenhower did not contribute manpower to the looming Vietnam conflict, he did earn the distinction of being the first president to send troops into the Middle East. In a largely forgotten conflict, the Muslim population of Lebanon was upset with the Christian government’s support of the Western nations in the Suez Crisis a few years prior and thus decided to revolt, hoping to establish a government which would align with the other anti-Western Arab nations, Egypt and Syria. After the pro-Western government in Iraq fell, Eisenhower sent fourteen thousand troops into Lebanon in defiance of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s threat to retaliate with nuclear arms should America intervene. The American forces occupied the country for two months while the government transitioned to a more moderate position.
After Eisenhower’s two terms were complete, the American people replaced him with Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy. A veteran of the Pacific theater, Kennedy was no dove. While some revisionists blame the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Eisenhower, whom the plan was developed under, Kennedy was briefed on the plan two days after his inauguration and three months before the invasion itself, plenty of time to stop it if he choose. Additionally, Kennedy took the hard-line approach to Vietnam that many Republicans had hoped Eisenhower would take. Kennedy tripled the aid to Diem and put American military “advisors” on the ground to give technical and strategic advice to the South Vietnamese.
If not for his assassination at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald, it is likely that Kennedy would be the president most blamed for the Vietnam War. Instead, that distinction fell to President Lyndon Johnson. Hoping to end the conflict before it became too serious, Johnson flooded Southeast Asia with American troops. As the conflict dragged on with little signs of an impending American victory, Johnson dug his heels into the ground. In the one hundred ninety years of American history up to that point, no president had ever lost a war and Johnson was determined not to become to first to do so.
Vietnam was not the only military escapade Johnson oversaw. During the Dominican Civil War of 1965, just under twenty-four thousand soldiers were deployed to evacuate and secure the American Embassy. While this operation was a rousing success, evacuating over six thousand civilians and distributing eight million tons of food, Johnson’s legacy is forever tarnished by his abysmal Vietnam decisions. In 1968, Johnson decided to not seek reelection, becoming the first incumbent president who decided not to run since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
Johnson’s unpopularity led to a drop in support for Democrats, allowing Richard Nixon to return to the political spotlight and win the election of 1968. He originally promised to cut back the troop levels in Vietnam, but escalated the conflict by sending more troops to the region and waging an aerial bombing campaign against the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia, claiming that the Vietcong were hiding in those nations.
Despite the widening of the Vietnam War, Nixon oversaw virtually no other military escapades. This is due primarily to the Nixon Doctrine which guided his foreign policy. This doctrine stated that the United States would not take direct military action in the assistance of allies, instead providing them with aid and making the nation responsible for its own defense. This policy could be seen in action during the Yom Kippur War between Israel and many Arabian nations in which the U.S. merely provided Israel with money and supplies.
After Nixon’s resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal his vice-president Gerald Ford became the president. Ford inherited a deteriorating situation in Vietnam as the North Vietnamese was successfully pushing into South Vietnam and inching closer and closer to Saigon. Ford urged Congress to approve a new round of aid to the South Vietnamese government but opposition to the war prevented the aid package from passing. Shortly afterwards, Ford gave a speech in which he declared that the war was over “as far as America [was] concerned.” The process of evacuating Americans and some South Vietnamese citizens began.
Ford’s involvement in the Vietnam War is of a different variety than Johnson and Nixon’s. While the war continued in his administration, Ford did not add more troops and successfully withdrew the American forces from the region. Thus the Vietnam War can hardly be held against him. Ford did, however, deploy U.S. military in two instances. The first instance, known as the Mayaguez Incident, concerned the capture of an American merchant ship by Cambodian forces. Ford approved a rescue mission, employing the Marines. This attempt, however, proved disastrous when the Marines went to the wrong island and forty soldiers died. While the Mayaguez Incident was tragic, the second instance was strange and silly.
North Korean forces murdered two U.S. military officers and injured South Korean guards in the DMZ for attempting to cut down a poplar tree which blocked sightlines from the U.N. Command to a U.N. outpost. Outraged by this brazen act, Ford approved a massive display of American force. The U.S. sent twenty three military vehicles, each with sixteen engineers equipped with chainsaws, to cut down the tree. These three hundred sixty-eight engineers were escorted by two security teams comprised of thirty troops each. Additionally, South Korea provided a sixty-four member special forces company and the U.S. sent twenty-seven attack helicopters to circle the area while B-52 Stratofortresses escorted by F-4 Phantoms flew high above the helicopters. All to cut down a tree.
After defeating Gerald Ford in the 1976 election, Jimmy Carter was poised to become the least militaristic president since Herbert Hoover. The first president since Truman to not have the albatross of Vietnam around his neck, Carter cut the military budget to its lowest point since before World War Two. He also removed several thousand troops from the Korean Peninsula. The policy of providing aid to allies continued, however, as seen in the Afghan crisis of 1979. The Soviet Union, determined to gain access to a warm water port, invaded Afghanistan as the first step in a march to the Indian Ocean. Determined to prevent this, Carter approved a plan to pour arms and money to mujahedeen in the Asian nation who opposed the invading forces.
However, Carter’s unwillingness to deploy American troops abroad was push and broken by the Iranian Revolution. Shortly after Islamist students and extremists stormed and seized the American Embassy in Tehran, Carter announced the formation of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force. The task force could quickly be deployed to world crisis areas without the need for approval from N.A.T.O. Before the task force was operational, however, Carter approved of Operation Eagle Claw, an Army Special Forces mission to rescue the hostages held in the embassy. Similar to the earlier Mayaguez Incident, Eagle Claw was an unmitigated disaster. When the mission was aborted before it could be completely carried out, two aircraft involved in the plan crashed into each other over the Iranian desert. Eight Americans died and the Iranian government recovered the wreckage, compromising American aeronautical engineering secrets.
If Carter was the least militant president in recent history, his successor, Ronald Reagan, was the most. Credited with ending the Cold War, Reagan took a hard-line position against communistic governments around the world. He provided aid for anti-communist militants in Angola, Cambodia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. The latter two of these aid operations were especially controversial.
The Nicaraguan aid program was the most maligned of the three, as many nations and international organizations considered the contras, the anti-communist force which received Reagan’s aid, as a terrorist group. The contras committed uncountable human rights atrocities; they decapitated, castrated, and maimed ordinary citizens. Additionally, Nicaragua brought war crimes charges against the Reagan administration for the U.S. Navy’s mining of Nicaraguan harbors, a practice forbidden by international law. The International Court of Justice ruled in Nicaragua’s favor, but the United States simply refused to pay the reparations the Court ordered.
Aid to El Salvador’s military government has also been criticized due to the human rights violations committed by its forces. The El Salvadorian security forces were regularly accused of the torture and murder of ordinary citizens. According to those who survived, the torture included beatings, sexual abuse, disorienting chemicals, mock executions, and the burning of skin via sulphuric acid.
However bad these aid programs may have been, in none of them were American troops on the ground. However, Reagan did intervene in a direct military capacity in four instances during his administration. When the small Caribbean nation of Grenada began to cooperate with the communist government of Cuba, Reagan claimed that this represented a direct threat to the United States and sent over seven thousand soldiers to invade the island. The superior American force easily won the conflict within days and occupied the nation until a constitutional democratic government was installed.
Under Reagan the United States became entangled in the long-running Lebanese Civil War as part of a U.N. mission to ensure security in Beirut. Over four hundred Marines were sent along with French and Italian soldiers as the U.N. peacekeeping contingent. Shortly after the foreign powers arrived in Lebanon, a suicide bomber drove a truck with six tons of TNT into the American barracks, killing over two hundred forty Marines. In response to this attack, the U.S. mobilized its navy to the coast of Lebanon and began bombing suspected militant hide-outs. The lack of public support for the endeavor eventually forced Reagan to withdraw the American presence from the nation.
On an April night in 1986, a bomb exploded in a West Berlin nightclub, killing a Turkish woman and two American sergeants and injuring over two hundred others. After intelligence led the Reagan administration to believe that the attack was carried out by Libyan agents, Reagan prepared for a counterattack. A week later, at two in the morning Libyan time, the American Air Force dropped sixty tons of munitions on Libya resulting in the death of forty-five Libyan soldiers and officials as well as the death of fifteen Libyan civilians. With the exceptions of her closest allies, the United States was widely condemned by the international community for what was deemed a grossly disproportionate response. The action is still viewed today as an example of America’s itchy trigger-finger regarding military retaliation.
Finally, during the Iran-Iraq War which spanned Reagan’s entire tenure in the Oval Office, the U.S. military saw action for exactly one day. After the USS Samuel B. Roberts struck a mine in the Persian Sea, U.S. naval divers discovered numerous other mines dotting the Sea. In retaliation, Reagan authorized a single day of bombing against Iranian targets. The U.S. sank five Iranian naval vessels and damaged one more, as well as damaging two Iranian oil platforms, causing fifty-five fatalities. As typical of military actions under Reagan, the bombing was condemned by the international community and ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice.
Reagan’s vice-president, George H. W. Bush, followed him in the White House, easily winning the 1988 election. Bush Sr. immediately made a show of American military power when the Panamanian government under Manuel Noriega refused to accept the results of a democratic election which removed him from power by deploying over twenty thousand troops into Panama to forcibly remove Noriega. The mission was a success and also marked an important milestone: it was the first large-scale American military operation in forty years to not be related to the Cold War.
This fact was important, for it created a precedent for the United States to intervene in foreign affairs without a Soviet connection. This precedent was vital due to the impending collapse of the U.S.S.R. While Reagan is often credited with defeating the Soviet Union, it did not formally dissolve until 1991 during Bush’s administration.
Bush Sr.’s non-Soviet related military policy continued after Saddam Hussein ordered the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Bush rallied a large international coalition and intervened in the defense of Kuwait. The conflict was looked at with a keen eye, as it represented the first time since Vietnam that the American military would go head-to-head with a large, national opponent. The United States surprised many international commentators with the ease with which the American military routed Hussein’s forces. The Gulf War cost the American-led coalition just under five hundred lives while costing the Iraqi military almost thirty-five thousand.
Despite this success, Bush Sr. lost the 1992 election due to an economic downturn as well as the perception among Americans that, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, foreign policy no longer mattered. This hurt Bush Sr. as foreign policy was his strongest area, as well as the weakest of his Democratic opponent, former Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, who lacked any foreign policy experience.
Clinton had the opportunity to reel in American military predominance with the absence of a substantial geopolitical foe, but he did not. Instead, he added more troops to the U.N. mission in Somalia dedicated to preventing warring factions from stealing aid meant for those living in poverty. After the “Black Hawk Down” incident, Clinton initially sent more troops to the region before public pressure forced him to withdraw the American presence in the Horn of Africa. The failure of the Somali mission is often cited as the reason the Clinton did not intervene in the genocide in neighboring Rwanda. Remaining in Africa, after the 1998 terrorist attacks by al Qaeda on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Clinton ordered the bombings of several sites in Sudan and Afghanistan which were believed to be terrorist training camps and supply depots.
America also contributed troops to the N.A.T.O. missions during the numerous conflicts in the Balkan Peninsula. Clinton troops to Bosnia and Herzegovina to ensure that the Dayton Accords, which were to end the conflict between Bosnian Serbs and the minority Croats and Muslims. Additionally, Clinton approved the bombing of Yugoslavian sites during the war over Kosovo’s independence.
In a mission closer to home, Clinton sent troops to overthrow a military coup in Haiti and to reinstate the democratically elected president who had been ousted. The operation involved very few casualties and was overwhelmingly successful. The forces remained on the island for several months after the president was returned to office in order to ensure that a second coup was not attempted.
After Clinton’s second term ended, George W. Bush won the White House in one of the closest elections in American history. Bush was poised to challenge Carter as the least militant president since the end of World War Two, pledging early in his first term that American involvement in nation-building and small-scale military operations would face a sharp decline. However, this all changed after the September 11th terrorist attacks. American foreign policy radically shifted to stamping out terrorism, resulting in the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Because President Bush and President Obama are virtually indistinguishable in terms of foreign military policy, they can be condensed into one mention. Bush radically expanded covert operations around the world to eliminate al Qaeda, sending special forces into Africa and the Arabian Peninsula to eliminate splinter groups. Obama has echoed this effort with the substantial expansion of drone strikes on militants with little regard to the nation in which they reside. American soldiers violated the sovereignty of Pakistan in the operation which resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden. Indeed, America today is as belligerent as it has ever been in the wake of the Second World War.
The ideological shift I mentioned earlier goes back to the immediate aftermath of World War Two. In the forty years before that conflict, America was the most strictly isolationist nation in the world. With a literal ocean of separation between the U.S. and Europe, the epicenter of armed conflicts at the time, most Americans saw no reason for the country to involve itself in affairs which did not impact the States. In fact, the slogan which carried Woodrow Wilson to a second term in 1916 was “He kept us out of war!” However, with growing support for the British and French side of World War One, Wilson took the nation into the war, effectively ending it.
With the war behind it, America returned to an isolationist viewpoint. Republicans refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles which would require the United States to join the League of Nations. Such potential entanglement in foreign squabbles was unacceptable to the Republican majority of America. Even when the American government did involve itself with European powers, it was strictly against war. The Washington Conference, which sought to limit naval fleets among the nations of the world, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact, an international treaty to ban war, were key examples of this. Additionally, after the stock market crashed, plunging the nation into the Great Depression, isolationist fervor reached a new height, as Americans wanted the government to focus on fixing the economic woes before concerning itself with international affairs.
Even during the build up to World War Two, Americans saw little cause for American involvement abroad. The Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and the Spanish Civil War all hardly registered on the consciousness of isolationists. When events begin to signify that the conflict was about to break out on the European continent, Congress continued to resist President Roosevelt’s pressure to involve the nation. Congress passed the Neutrality Acts which prohibited the government from taking sides in the conflict and even went so far as to ban Americans from sailing on a ship with the flag of one of the warring nations.
However, as the American public saw the sinking of U.S. naval ships in the Battle of the Atlantic, as well as Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease Act, they turned towards the viewpoint that they had a moral obligation to defeat Nazi Germany. Of course, anti-war sentiment virtually disappeared in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack, ensuring that the United States would join the war. When Roosevelt came to Congress to ask for a declaration of war, every single member of Congress except for Montana Representative Jeannette Rankin voted in favor of the war.
At the end of the war, some Republicans returned to their isolationist standpoints, but the American public left them behind. While public sentiment shifted away from remaining neutral and towards embracing the new dominant role the United States occupied in world affairs, these Republicans, led by Ohio Senator Robert Taft, continued to view internationalist policies with deep suspicion. Taft and his fellow isolationist Republicans attempted to block the Marshall Plan and N.A.T.O. to no avail. As more and more Republicans abandoned isolationism, Taft continued to support it. Despite Taft’s reputation as one of the most powerful senators in American history, he could not stem the tide of international interventionism which seized the collective consciousness of the American people.
This ideological shift, not by a single party but by the whole of American society, delivered the deathblow to American peacetime. Citizens of the United States became more willing to accept military involvement in foreign affairs, provided that they remained limited in duration and scope, thus explaining the eventual opposition to the Vietnam War and the Afghan War. As long as American power is supreme in the world, it is unlikely that peacetime will exist for the United States.