1100 GMT May 28, 2022
The United States has followed many roads to war. In some cases going to war has enjoyed considerable public support, sometimes for ethical reasons. In other cases, Presidents, sometimes pushed by determined groups of advisors within the executive branch, led the United States to undertake wars for geopolitical and entwined economic considerations that had little public support before the war. Below I will try to illustrate these many roads to war. I must admit, however, that the degree of public support for a war and the reasons for it are always difficult to assess. It difficult now, despite the availability of large-scale public opinion polls; far more difficult in earlier years.
The closely tied Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars reveal the two of the extremes in America’s paths to war. The Spanish-American War began in 1898. The trigger was the sinking of the Battleship Maine – the cause internal explosion or enemy action is still contested – in the harbor of Havana Cuba while a war was being fought in Cuba for independence from Spain. The destruction of an American warship meant the honor of the United States had been challenged, and this meant a surge in public support for war with Spain. However, a war with Spain to liberate Cuba enjoyed considerable public support before the sinking of the Maine because the public had been aroused by newspaper reports of atrocities committed by Spanish forces in their effort to suppress the independence movement. Many Americans sided with the independence movement. It reminded them of America’s war of revolution against Britain. The distinguished American poet and biographer of Abraham Lincoln, Carl Sandburg, tells us that he was inspired to volunteer for service in the war because he had read about the efforts of the Cuban Independence movement to free itself from Spain, and about the brutal tactics used by the Spanish military to defeat the movement. Economics, of course, was part of the story. Before the war U.S. newspapers carried exciting stories about events in Cuba, and about atrocities committed by Spanish forces, surely at least in part because it sold papers. In addition, U.S. business interests in Cuba, mainly sugar producers, thought they would benefit from an independent but U.S. aligned Cuba and as it turned out, they were right. They benefitted from treaties between the U.S. and Cuba after the war. However, there is no doubt that much of the public, like Sandburg, sided with the Independence movement for principled ethical reasons.
During the war, the American fleet sailed into the harbor at Manilla in the Philippines, also a colony of Spain, where it defeated the Spanish fleet. In the Philippines as in Cuba, there was an independence movement. One might have assumed that since the United States had fought in support of independence for Cuba it would now support independence for the Philippines.
Instead, however, the United States now began a brutal but ultimately successful war to defeat the independence movement and make the Philippines a colony of the United States. The most tragic part of the story is that the United States now used the same vicious tactics in the Philippines, such as concentration camps, that had outraged Americans when they read about the use of those tactics by Spanish forces in Cuba. There was, to be sure, widespread opposition in the United States to the Philippine-American War. The opposition included many prominent Americans such as the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. It also included the former Democratic candidate for President William Jennings Bryan, although Bryan in a tactical mistake urged his followers to support the treaty between the United States and Spain that assigned the Philippines to the United States, thinking that the United States would then grant independence to the Philippines. The military and President McKinley, however, supported the annexation of the Philippines.
This policy suppressing independence movements in the Philippines was continued by Theodore Roosevelt who became President in 1901 after the assassination of McKinley. Roosevelt believed firmly that naval power was the key to geopolitical and economic strength. He wanted to plant an American flag just “400 miles from China.” European nations were carving up China and Roosevelt wanted the United States to get its share of the China trade. This same view of world politics would lead him to run roughshod over the rights of other nations in his successful effort to build the Panama Canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific and reducing the cost of shipping American goods from ocean to ocean. How much Roosevelt’s successful imperialism contributed to the U.S. standard of living is a hard question to answer. However, foreign trade was about six percent of national income in those years, and much of the trade was with Europe. So it is doubtful that the average American would have been much poorer if the United States had shunned imperialism and instead followed the “good neighbor policy” that later became at least the ideal if not always the reality under Theodore Roosevelt’s distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
After the start of World War I, many Americans supported the British and the French from fraternal motives. After all, the United States was founded by Britain and speaks English, and France helped the United States win independence from Britain. However, it took the arousal of American anger at Germany produced by Germany’s use of unrestricted submarine warfare to bring the American people to the point where President Woodrow Wilson felt able to obtain a declaration of war from the U.S. Congress. The purpose, Wilson said, appealing to American idealism, was to make the world “safe for democracy.”
During the 1920s and 1930s there developed considerable opposition in the U.S. to undertaking another such war. The loss of life had been substantial. Certainly not on the scale experienced in Europe, but enough to stoke strong anti-war sentiments in the United States. The story also gained currency that manufacturers of weapons had pushed the United States into the war from purely pecuniary motives. These were the “Merchants of Death,” the title of an influential book. Moreover, it was claimed that Wall Street investors who held considerable amounts of British debts had pushed for the war to make sure they would be repaid.
This antiwar sentiment made it difficult for President Franklin Roosevelt to obtain a declaration of war against Nazi Germany despite the wars it had launched against our allies in Europe. Pearl Harbor, of course, changed everything. Now America’s honor was at stake; Americans wanted revenge. Hitler’s foolish decision to join his Japanese allies in their war against the United States, gave the Roosevelt Administration the basis for declaring war on Germany.
Once America was at war, the United States invested without hesitation in its strategic bombing campaign. It was an incredibly brutal way of waging war. There was a real effort, early on, to engage in the precision bombing of targets, for example Germany’s ball bearing factories, that were thought to be crucial to Germany’s ability to wage war. This policy, it was claimed, was the most humane way of using the bombers. In the end, however, the allies turned to mass destruction of enemy cities with the hope that this would destroy the enemy’s economy and its will to wage war even if that meant killing thousands upon thousands of civilians. One only needs to mention that perhaps – the numbers are uncertain – 40,000 people were killed in the firebombing of Hamburg Germany or that perhaps 225,000 died when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some immediately, some later from radiation poisoning and cancer, to understand the inhumaneness of strategic bombing. Many Americans now feel guilty over these actions and believe that they would have been among the critics of strategic bombing had they lived during the war. The proposal of some of the nuclear scientists that the Atomic bombs be dropped on empty land in order to send a message to the Japanese that America had this terrible weapon now seems to many Americans, the right thing to have done. However, at the time strategic bombing enjoyed enormous public support in the United States. A popular song of day, “Comin in on a Wing and a Prayer,” celebrated a bomber and its crew as it limped home after what it thought was a successful raid. As it turns out, we now know that that the bomber crews despite seeing explosions had little accurate information about the damage they had inflicted.
What about the costs of the bombing campaign? At the time, few Americans would have seen the expenditures for the strategic bomber fleet as excessive. First, military spending was lifting the nation out of the Depression. In a sense, the economic cost of the entire war was small because the expenditures increased real GDP through multiplier effects. The strategic bombing fleet, moreover, was only a part of a huge war effort. The development of the atomic bomb is estimated to have cost about $2 billion, approximately two tenths of one percent of U.S. GDP from 1940 to 1945. To be sure, however, there was more than the costs of building and maintain the fleet: a loss of thousands of pilots. In the song they all made it back, but in reality they didn’t. And the contribution of strategic bombing to winning the war is hard to measure. On the one hand, the evidence from the Strategic Bombing Survey shows that the Germany and its allies found many ways to maintain production of munitions despite the bombing. On the other hand, the bombing of Germany did constitute a second front that diverted some German resources from the war against the Soviet Union.
America’s subsequent wars in Korea and Vietnam were the outgrowth of America’s policy of containing communism. This policy, of course, was rooted partly in economics. Communism meant the end of private ownership of property, not something that capitalist America wanted to see happen in other countries. Containment, however, also reflected the way many ordinary Americans interpreted World War II. The war started and American was drawn in, it was widely believed, because the allies had appeased Hitler, a dictator who wanted to take over the world in the name of a violent land-hungry dogma. But appeasement had just whetted his appetite for more land. Now many Americans believed, America once again faced the same problem: land-hungry dictatorial regimes. The right thing to do was to do what we should have done with Hitler: draw a line that these regimes could not cross. If we did not do that, we would be appeasing them and whetting their appetite for more.
What can be done to dissuade the United States from undertaking an unjust military action? History does not provide a clear formula. One can say, however, that history shows that the American people do respond to ethical and moral concerns and that public opinion does have an influence, although often it is not sufficient to stop the forces pushing America to war. The opponents of an unjust war can at least strive to make their case as forcefully as possible.