In Nearly All of Our Wars We've Made Serious Mistakes

News Abroad

Mr. Fleming's new book, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I, was published by Basic Books on June 1.

The current cacophony over President Bush's supposed miscalculation about the difficulty of pacifying Iraq is badly in need of some historical perspective. The commentators and candidates can't seem to recall any war before Vietnam. If we look a little farther back -- and even a lot farther back -- we will find that many American leaders, including the founding fathers, went to war on assumptions that soon proved painfully wrong.

In 1776, the Americans revolted against Great Britain with Thomas Paine's assurance in Common Sense that the British fleet was a decaying barnacled wreck and the mother country's economy on the brink of bankruptcy. Four years later, a relentless British naval blockade had shrunk the American economy to the vanishing point, the British were financing fleets and armies in America, the West Indies and India and American currency was not worth "a continental." They also committed themselves to a ruinous military strategy: the expectation that the war would be won or lost in a "general action" -- one big battle, in which they thought their superior numbers would prevail. In the first major battle, on Brooklyn Heights, the British army outnumbered the Americans and thrashed them unmercifully. A few weeks later, George Washington reversed the strategy of the war; he told Congress he would "never seek a general action." Instead he would "protract the war." This was the formula for success -- but it took seven agonizing years.

In the War of 1812, "War Hawks" in Congress, with the covert support of President James Madison, called for war to revenge British depredations against American ships. The hawks' game plan called for an easy conquest of Canada while the British were fighting for survival against the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte. Alas, untrained American militia proved no match for the small British professional army in Canada and when the British defeated Napoleon, they shipped a formidable army and fleet to Louisiana, intending to seize New Orleans and take control of the Mississippi River. Only the frantic recruitment of frontiersmen from Kentucky and Tennessee enabled General Andrew Jackson to defeat them and save the United States from dismemberment.

Click here to make a donation to HNN!

In the war with Mexico, President James Polk thought a sound thrashing of the Mexican Army along the Rio Grande and in northern Mexico would produce a peace treaty and guarantees that Texas and what is now New Mexico, Arizona and California would become American territory. Instead, the Mexicans refused to surrender in spite of a series of defeats and Polk was forced to "conquer a peace" by landing an army in Vera Cruz with orders to march to Mexico City. A great many experts, including the Duke of Wellington, predicted the Americans would be annihilated but General Winfield Scott won a series of smashing victories, with the help of a swarm of talented graduates of West Point, led by Captain Robert E. Lee. Scott finally occupied the Mexican capital and obtained the elusive peace treaty.

At the start of the Civil War, the abolitionists in the Republican Party forbade President Abraham Lincoln from negotiating any compromise with the southern secessionists. The abolitionists assured Lincoln, whose military experience was close to zero, that the effete slave owners could never withstand an assault by the free men of the North. Lincoln summoned 75,000 volunteers to serve 90 days -- an indication of how totally he swallowed this nonsense. On the day of the Battle of Bull Run, many Republican members of Congress rode out with the Union Army to watch them chase the slavocrats over the horizon and march on to the Confederate capital, Richmond. At the end of the day, these no longer confident politicians became part of the fleeing mob into which the Union Army disintegrated in their mad rush to escape Southern bullets and bayonets. It dawned on Lincoln that he was involved in a war for national survival. By the time the shooting ended, over a million Americans were dead -- the equivalent of six million dead in our current population.

Woodrow Wilson's decision to enter World War I is perhaps the most egregious example of presidential miscalculation. Wilson, brainwashed by British and French propaganda (as were most members of Congress and the nation's leading newspapers) assumed there was no need to send any soldiers to France. He thought American participation in the war would be naval and financial. The chief of staff of the U.S. Army put a memorandum in his files to this effect, a month after Congress declared war. A few days later, British and French military missions arrived in Washington. "We want men, men, men!" one French general said. They revealed for the first time the Germans were close to winning the war. The French army had mutinied and only two divisions were reliable. The British were almost as demoralized by their massive casualties in the battle of the Somme. By the time the war ended, there were two million American soldiers in France. In five months of ferocious fighting, they won victory at the cost of 50,300 dead and 198,000 wounded.

America's entry into World War II began with a grievous miscalculation by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Desperate to get the United States into the war before Hitler's armies conquered Russia and turned on an isolated England, FDR decided a "back door" approach was his only option, since the Germans declined to give him an incident that would justify a declaration of war. He would lure Japan into an attack by cutting off their oil supplies, and use it as a pretext to declare war on both Germany and Japan, who had a treaty of alliance. The calculation was based on the racist assumption that the Japanese were inept pilots and mediocre sailors, because their eyesight was bad and they were not terribly bright. They could be contained by a modest defensive force of American ships and planes, letting us throw most of our military might into the European war. Pearl Harbor and the clockwork air and sea assault on the Philippines exploded this assumption. Tens of thousands of American soldiers and sailors died in the Japanese trans-Pacific rampage. Only hairbreadth victories in the Coral Sea and at Midway rescued Australia and Hawaii from Japanese occupation. An anecdote sums up this dolorous tale. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox visited FDR in the White House on the afternoon of Pearl Harbor. Knox later recalled, "He was white as a sheet. He expected to get hit but not hurt."

The Korean War began -- or was triggered -- by a miscalculation on the part of President Harry Truman and his Secretary of State, Dean Acheson. Trying to defuse tensions in the Far East, so our forces in Europe could be bolstered against the looming threat of a Russian invasion, Truman permitted Acheson to announce South Korea was not within the American sphere of interest. This gave Josef Stalin and his North Korean puppets the green light for a stunning assault on the embryo republic, leaving Americans flatfooted. But Truman responded with grim tenacity, rallying the free world to join him in the effort. One of the bitterest wars America has ever fought ended with the North Koreans and their Chinese allies driven out of South Korea.

Maybe Harry Truman put it best when he replied to the hindsight critics of the Korean War, who grew plentiful as it dragged on: "Any six year old's hindsight is worth a president's foresight." The real test is how a president performs after the illusions of war are replaced by hard realities.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

leah - 11/17/2003

do you know anything about the wars we have had so far and the people that died in the war

Roy F. Moore - 9/29/2003

Mr. Bend, it will never stop until the dawn of Judgement Day itself.

And need I remind us all...

Russia and China funding and arming the North Vietnamese that have dominated Occupied South Vietnam for these many years, with no sign of ending their Red tyrany. Also doing the same for Laos and Cambodia. These were their "mistakes".

And South East Asia was still destroyed.

The setting up of Communist Cuba (still existing), Nicaragua (gone), Grenada (gone), Red narco-terrorist groups in Colombia, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, the new Brazilian leader Lula, the Chiapas Revolt and so on in Latin America. All "mistakes" of the Reds and socialists.

And between them and the sad, sick policies of our own government, Latin America is slowly being destroyed.

The co-operation of ancient Arab and Islamic regimes in the slave trade, that was their "mistake".

And it has scarred the soul of humanity from those days until now. Funny, though, how this is never or seldom mentioned.

And as for the white man commiting genocide against the Indians? Have we forgotten what the Aztec Empire did to the rival tribes they captured? Offering them as human sacrifices to the demons disguised as gods? Is that not also classified as genocide, or is that also a "mistake"?

Mr. Bend, ever since Adam and Eve screwed it up for us all in the Garden of Eden, each ethnicity, nation, kingdom and empire have mass murdered their neighbors. And no doubt, some of their citizens have called those horrid incidents "mistakes". You leave me the impression that America ALONE is the source of all modern ills on Earth. Sir, we are not alone. Russia, Red China, Britain, France and the other major states are just as guilty in inflicting "mistakes" upon suffering humanity.

And, alas, such will continue until time ends, unless we repent and return to that same God our First Parents rebelled against in the misty dawn of humanity.

Thank you for your time.


Bill McNamara - 9/29/2003

The summary of the book presents some interesting and challenging concepts. I'm not sure about many of the historical references but I think it is mis-leading to imply that the Union Army collapsed after the First Battle of Bull Run while the Confederate Army did not. Neither Army was trained or capable of operating beyond brigade strength. Both were incapable of fighting the day after.

Also, I've heard and read many theories about President Roosevelt's interest in coming into WWII on the side of Britain. This is the first based on the premise of enticing Japan to attack so that United States could get at Germany.

I'm not suggesting that the premises in the book are wrong, it's just that some of the examples would require far more information before I could accept them.

Paul Frehley - 9/29/2003

At Cannae, the encircling force was both numerically inferior and not as heavily armed...Desert Storm was more like Thermopylae than Cannae. And just for the record, Hannibal used lightly armored Numidian cavalry for the encirclement of the Romans, not elephants.

James Guinivan - 9/29/2003

The Thomas Fleming who edits Chronicles isn't the same Thomas Fleming who wrote this article. (It's one of those annoying but unavoidable confusions, like that between Robert George the New York Post columnist and Robert George the Princeton professor.) That said, I don't think this author is a neoconservative. While neocons tend to canonize FDR, I understand that his book "The New Dealers' War" (which I admit that I haven't read) tends to agree with the Old Right accusation that FDR "lied us into war."

tmb - 9/28/2003

to Jason, I say okay, if you say so.

Thomas Gallatin - 9/26/2003

Excellent point, Jesse. I would only underscore it by pointing out that taxdollar subsidies to, and government regulation favoring roads, parking lots, cars, and car-dependent housing and shopping go well beyond the now (mostly complete) federal interstate system. By your logic, with which I certainly agree, most Republican politicians are not conservative, (and for plenty of other reasons besides their support for wasteful sprawl, by the way).

Jesse Lamovsky - 9/26/2003

Mr. Gallatin,

Interesting question. I'm not a political theorist by any stretch, but I'll do my level best (if there are any political theorists on this site, by all means jump in!):

To the best of my knowledge, urban sprawl has largely been a consequence of the interstate highway system. Building the interstates, of course, entailed a great deal of federal spending (and strict constructionalists will point out that the Constitution doesn't grant the national gov't the right to build roads), as well as usurption of private property due to eminent domain. Expansion of federal government power, retraction of property rights: I don't know for sure, but I'd say the modal conservative would take a dim view of both.

Thomas Gallatin - 9/26/2003

We are drifting ever further off subject, but for the sake of general political enlightenment, could you also educate me as to where paleoconservatives, and also you (if you don't want to classify yourself as a paleo-con) stand on the question of urban sprawl, which to put it mildly is not very "conserving" of long-standing traditional landscapes ?

Thanks, TG

Jesse Lamovsky - 9/26/2003

Mr. Gallatin,

Like you, I'm not crazy about putting people in neat political boxes. But, like you said, it is convenient.

I guess if I had to define "paleoconservatives", it would be as people who by inclination distrust government, and adhere more to the old conservative principles: low taxes, states' rights, and isolationism, as well as conservatism on social issues. The present-day anti-war right can be very roughly classified as "paleoconservative", although there are gradations in this group as well.

Thomas Gallatin - 9/26/2003

Thanks, Jesse, for your comments.

Please define "paleocon". (I should have studied Latin and Greek like all educated westerners once did.) For that matter, is there a generally accepted definition of "neo-con" ? Finally is there any such thing any more as plain vanilla "conservative" ?

I appreciate semantic sophistication, but we also risk losing the trees, trying to classify the forest. The problems of the current ruling authorities in Washington can be traced in large measure to simple vices and foibles such as arrogance, inexperience, hypocrisy, cowardice, and corrupt greed. Neo-izing and paloe-zing this and that "ism" can be convenient (and I myself have resorted this practice of hyphenization or suffixization all too frequently) but it also risks stereotyping, and I for one, would like to see a return to basics, and a return to classifying and criticizing actions rather than classes of people.

Jesse Lamovsky - 9/26/2003

Mr. Gallatin,

I read the "League of Nations" piece you referred to (I believe on the Chronicles site itself), and the impression that I got was that Mr. Fleming was drawing distinctions between true Republican isolationism and the unilateralism espoused by Senator Lodge, and embodied in treaties like Kellogg-Briand. I also got the impression that Mr. Fleming was more sympathetic to the former than to the latter (though, of course, I could be wrong).

Mr. Fleming also differs sharply from the neocons on social issues (he's a social and religious conservative; with a few exceptions, the neocons are almost indifferent to the culture wars, unless, of course, they are taking place in Israel). Like other paleoconservatives, such as Sam Francis, Paul Gottfried, and Joseph Sobran, he is frosty toward the civil rights movement, and toward Martin Luther King in particular, and again unlike the neocons, he is not pro-immigration. Unlike the neocons, and like other paleocons, Mr. Fleming is not fond of Abraham Lincoln or his legacy.

An important thing to note here is that the neoconservatives are, on most issues, not conservative. They're unilateralist in their foreign policy and pro-Israel, or at least pro-Likud, to an almost fanatical degree, but there really aren't that many differences between them and garden-variety liberals.

Thanks for your comments.

Thomas Gallatin - 9/25/2003

It's not so clear cut, Jesse.

That "Chronicles" website is hard to navigate, and I could not bring up any actual articles by Fleming, but I found no less than 23 pieces by him right here in the HNN archives. He certainly is not straightforwardly pro-Wolfowitz, but his pieces do include one suggesting Henry Cabot Lodge's anti-League of Nations stance as worthy precedent to justify unilateralist intervention aboard today, and another which "critiques" Bush for being too honest (!!!) on the reasons for war with Iraq. So, I would say he is probably a part-time "fellow traveller" with neo-cons, though not a "card-carrying member".

In addition, while the other articles here suggest that he is a pop historians of some considerable achievement, I see no excuse for the factual errors, flimsy parallels, and rank presentism of this particular piece.

Finally, while Fleming is not a neo-con, or at best a partial and lukewarm one, I am less sure about the overall ideology of HNN. The Clyde Prestowitz and Pat Buchanan schools of international thought get little play here and I don't think I've ever read anything by an historian living in another country (other than Israel). It is not inconceivable that the neo-con flavor of this Fleming piece here partly reflects editing.

Josh Greenland - 9/25/2003

Good point. We are never morally wrong in our wars, we just make "mistakes". I've been hearing this since Vietnam.

Jesse Lamovsky - 9/25/2003

Mr. Lewis,

Read Mr. Fleming's work in his magazine "Chronicles" (it's available online), and it won't take long to discover that he's about the farthest thing from a neocon.

Thomas Gallatin - 9/25/2003

It is within the realm of possibility, but only barely, that the author is merely an opportunistic ignoramus without deliberate intentions of pandering towards neo-cons. But, unless he was cloistered somewhere away from all news of the past year, using the phrase "President Bush's SUPPOSED miscalculation" (my emphasis) when presidential miscalculationS have been all over the front pages for months, does not at all suggest disinterested naive dovishness.

joe batalla - 9/25/2003

Mistakes continue and will in the future because progeny both biological and ideological continue to be big players in Washington. "Biological" example: Kermit Roosevelt.

Jason - 9/25/2003

You honestly think a condemnation of the Hawks is support of Neocons? Perhaps you should read the article.

Jason - 9/25/2003

I think he isn't excusing Bush, but condemning Hawks in general.

Everton Bend - 9/25/2003

Why is it that America always makes "mistakes" when these same activities, when committed by other nations would be classified as crimes? From the time the white man came to these shores he committed genocide against the Indians. Of course that was a "mistake". Then the enslavement and degradation of Black people- another "mistake". The plunder of Latin America and setting up of some of the most ruthless dictatorships- andother "mistake". The destruction of South East Asia during the Vietnam war. It was Henry Kissinger (Killinger) and Richard Nixon who started the destruction of Cambodia. Nowadays we hear that only Pol Pot was respobsible. The list of "mistakes" goes on and on - including the ongoing massacre of Palestinian npeople carried out by one of the Mideast's most bloodthirsty terrorists, Ariel Sharon. When are we going to stop calling these horrors "mistakes" and lable them crimes against humanity as they should be called?

Alex Paulsen - 9/25/2003

"Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

-- George Santayana

Brian - 9/25/2003

Mr. Fleming's article "IN Nearly All Our Wars, We Have Made Serious Mistakes", is very interesting. It's fundamental premise is absolutely true.

However, he does make a few shocking errors regarding history: first, the "Battle of Long Island", the first real battle of the Revolutionary War, was not fought mainly in Brooklyn Heights, but in what is now Park Slope, and Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

Second, valiant as those Kentucky and Tennessee frontiersmen doubtlessly were, and amazing as their victory at New Orleans was, it is quite clear that the British military forces in the Gulf of Mexico, under new and able command after General Packenham's death in the New Orleans debacle, were ready, willing and able to carry out their new strategy of capturing all of America's major Gulf ports, and then fielding an unbeatable army on US soil. The only thing that stopped them was their receipt of the news, finally, that the peace treaty had already been signed.

BMCD - 9/25/2003

Granted that Bush is now on a par with the worst military debacles in American history- Madison's war, Wilson's folly, Truman's Korea, Johnson's Vietnam. But do you mean to suggest that those men were given a chance to muck things up even further? That Americans re-elected Madison in 1816, Wilson in 1920, Truman in 1952, Johnson in 1968?

Hell no. All of them were tossed on their ears, Truman included. Truman didn't end that war. Eisenhower did. Truman was fired.

Which is what should happen to Bush.

Bernard Mac - 9/22/2003

Here Here!

F.H. Thomas - 9/22/2003

Mr. Fleming has hit another big homer with his latest book, each of which proves again Bismark's maxim that the public must never see either sausage nor public policy being made. Both are too disgusting.

Bismark also remarked that there was a special guardian angel for drunkards and the United States. One hopes that angel is not now asleep.

I have to rate the top US wars of the 20th century as:

1. WW II. FDR's warmongering almost exceeds Churchill's, which is not to let anyone else off the hook. Guinness world record for death. Honorable mention for second worst mistreatment of American dissenters.

2. WW I. Wilson's treatment of dissenting Americans trashes US consitution. Guinness World record for combat deaths, and whopping battlefield lies about deaths.

3. Korea. Where did you say that defense line was, Mr. Atcheson? Guinness world record for unnecessary, totally aviodable death.

4. Vietnam: How many Hueys do we buy before the budget is met? Guinness world record for defense industry participation in government.

5. Spanish American: T.R. = Testerosterone Redux. Guinness world record for bogus causus belli. (What is all of this coal dust in your engine room, Mr. Gridley?)

6. Desert Storm: Really not so bad, by comparision. Almost idealistic, something to be nostalgic about. von Schlieffen: "the only unjust war is a long war". This was not one of those. Technological paradigm shift becomes evident in war-making. A envelopment like Cannae, with M-1s substituting for elephants.

7. Desert Storm, the sequel: Done for cross-purposes, to be sure but the best military management in US history, even better than Hitler's Balkan campaign, or Grant's Vicksburg campaign, but with a similar drawn-out, bloody aftermath.

Too bad the politics weren't so adroit. Mr. Fleming makes an entirely valid point. Electorial success is not necessarily the best guide to success in war, as military success is not necessarily beneficial for governing.

Paul N. Lewis - 9/22/2003

Welcome to HNN, aka Heaps of Neo-con Nonsense. We feature articles from the Right and from Carpenter. This week, by popular request, we present another in our continuing series, "How non-historians can distort history to support Vice President Cheney and his assistant from Texas".

Let the Revolutionary War begin in 1776. If anyone quibbles, well, Lexington and Concord were really just target practice, nobody reads Longfellow anymore, and Paul Revere is something you have to pay more than $49.99 for at Sears now, so who cares ? And forget Saratoga (races are boring anyway) and forget the French, excuse me, the Freedomers. That guy Chirac, the one the President is taking time from his busy schedule of million dollar a plate meals to talk to ? Forget him. Change the channel, there's bound to be something better on Fox, or on MSNBC, or Fox, or AM Radio (or Fox).

Ignore the origins of the Civil War. What are thirty years of Henry Clay's compromises compared to the endless agony of Hans Blix's long drawn-out inspections ?

Be sure to mention the American dead in World War I but not the hundreds of times higher casualties of the Europeans, mostly during the two and half years before the U.S. even entered the war. Whatever you do, definitely avoid discussing Wilson's 14 Points, his Nobel Peace Prize, his presidency of the American Historical Association or those huge crowds cheering him in Paris.

Try to imply somehow that no American President ever travelled to Europe before taking office, that all American wars were launched like Proctor & Gamble deodorants after Labor Day, designed to feature shock and awe conquest of entire countries for purposes of nation-building, and that Preemptive Aggression is a type of apple pie.

And always remember, even if you fail, even if the "Elect Bush President for the First Time in 2004" committee rejects your distorted "history", HNN will be sure to run it.

Bernard Mac - 9/22/2003

It would have been interesting to see some comparison between the USA and other "super-powers", i.e. did the USSR suffer from similar mistakes (Afghanistan)?
Are mistakes of this nature symptomatic of super powers or are they innate culturally to the USA.

the BZA - 9/22/2003

While I see no need to argue with Mr. Fleming's history, the conclusion he comes to makes no sense whatsoever. He is basically saying that every president has misled the country and poorly represented the interests of its population, so we shouldn't hold Bush accountable for what he has done. This is absurd.
It is finally time for the people of this country to stand up and tell our leaders that war, particularly for prevention, is not justifiable. When all wars in our history can be exposed as lies and manipulations, it does not mean we should give up. It means we should fight to change history. It means we should prevent men and women from dying overseas because our leaders, our ruling class, decides there is a threat to their security.
He claims at the end that "the real test is how a president performs after the illusions of war are replaced by hard realities." I think the real test should be how a president avoids those illusions and illustrates the hard realities to the american public, ultimately allowing them to decide for themselves how legitimate the threat is.