The United States has rarely been prepared for war, and minus a few exceptions never really came away with a decisive victory. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of plan or strategic outlook at the present. The list below isn’t comprehensive, but it covers major conflicts. After looking it over, you tell me – what can we expect going forward?
Preparedness: Very little. First open combat at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, between the British Army and Massachusetts militia. Continental Army established by Congress June 1775 with George Washington as commander-in-chief. Canada invaded December 1775. Independence declared July 1776. The Continental Congress relied on the colonies/states to supply soldiers, arms, and money to support the Continental Army and for the states to raise their own forces (militias).
Details: The Americans lost more battles than they won, but strategic retreats saved the army until the French joined the Americans after the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777.
Results: French participation eventually led to American victory and independence with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
War of 1812
Preparedness: Completely unprepared (both sides, really).
Details: Britain was fighting the French in Europe. Initially, they had few troops to spare. But they had the backing of some Native American groups. The Americans thought an invasion of Canada by state militias would quickly end the war and add new territory to the new nation. The Americans were promptly shown that taking Canada wasn’t going to happen. But even after defeating Napoleon and sending more troops to North America, the British couldn’t end the war decisively.
Result: The Treaty of Paris ended the war and pretty much put everything back to the way it was before the war started. New England states considered seceding from the Union because of the war. We did get our national anthem out of the war. And Andrew Jackson gained enough popularity after the Battle of New Orleans to parlay into the presidency.
Preparedness: The U.S. was prepared, though not overly so.
Details: Texas declared independence from Mexico in 1836. While Mexico went through a long period of instability after declaring its own independence in 1821, the Americans used Texas as a political football. Finally, in 1845, the U.S. annexed Texas making it the 28th state. Mexico wasn’t happy. Mexico’s refusal to give up its claim to Texas and disagreement over the border eventually led to hostilities. The war spread (purposefully) to Spanish California (which briefly had its own independence as the Bear Flag Republic). The U.S. eventually invaded Mexico, capturing a number of cities and towns, including the capital. Some Americans wanted the U.S. to annex most, if not all, of Mexico.
Result: The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war. The U.S. gained a large amount of territory as a result of the treaty (for a small sum – $15 million), including all of present-day California, Nevada, and Utah, and most of present-day Arizona and New Mexico, as well as parts of three other states. (Six years later, the U.S. purchased the remainder of present-day Arizona and New Mexico – a comparatively small sliver of land – for $10 million.)
Preparedness: This obviously wasn’t a foreign war, but both sides were largely unprepared, and most thought the war would end quickly in their favor.
Details: Fighting – both physical and verbal – had been occurring for decades over the issue of slavery. The election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 led to the secession of South Carolina in December of the same year. Other Southern states followed. Lincoln took office in March 1861 and war began the next month at Fort Sumter South Carolina.
Result: Somewhere between 600,000 and 750,000 American were killed. Somewhere in the area of 400,000 were wounded. Slavery was abolished. Lincoln was assassinated. Racial tensions continue 150+ years later.
Preparedness: I’d say the U.S. was looking forward to this.
Details: Cuban revolts against Spanish rule were sensationalized by the American press. When the USS Maine exploded in the harbor of Havana, the propaganda machine went into attack mode, and politicians followed. The American Navy destroyed the Spanish fleet in the Philippines very quickly to start off the war. The Americans captured Guam before defeating the Spanish in the Caribbean.
Result: The Treaty of Paris ended the war. The victory pretty much established the U.S. as a world power. The U.S. wound up with the Spanish possessions in the Caribbean, along with Guam. The U.S. paid $20 million to Spain for the Philippines. That led to another war.
Preparedness: Both sides were already in war mode.
Details: The Filipinos had been fighting the Spanish for independence. They assumed the Americans defeat of the Spanish would accomplish that. The Americans had different ideas. Atrocities were committed on both sides.
Result: The war ended with the Americans victorious, but the Filipinos gained some limited autonomy. Sporadic fighting continued until the Philippines gained independence following World War II.
World War I
Preparedness: The U.S. had been sending supplies to the Allies throughout the war. Despite years of efforts of staying neutral by President Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. was rather prepared.
Details: Unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans, and the Zimmerman Telegram, finally led to a U.S. declaration of war against Germany. It took some time for the U.S. to get involved, but fresh troops thrown into a grinding war tipped the scales to the allies.
Result: The Treaty of Versailles ended the war, but the provisions – blaming Germany for the war and levying devastating punitive reparations against them – eventually established conditions that laid the foundations for the Second World War.
World War II
Preparedness: The U.S. had been sending supplies to the Allies throughout the war. Despite years of staying neutral by President Franklin Roosevelt, the U.S. was rather prepared.
Details: Though the war had been going on in Asia and Europe and Africa since the early to mid-1930s, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan led to the American entry into the war. Much like WWI, it took some time for the U.S. to get involved. When they did, however, the fresh troops and industrial might of a nation unaffected by war tipped the scales again. It didn’t hurt that Russia held off the Germans on the eastern front, opening a two front war. Both sides raced for Berlin. The war in the Pacific ended when the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan.
Result: The empires of Germany, Japan, and Italy ended. The utter destruction of this war, both in lives lost (including about 6 million Jews in the Holocaust), and land and infrastructure destroyed, is almost beyond comprehension. The U.S. use of nuclear weapons led to the Cold War. The United Nations was created.
Preparedness: The U.S. was largely unprepared.
Details: Following WWII, the U.S. was concerned about Russian interference in Europe above all else. Not much thought was given to Asia (even though the Korean peninsula was split between a communist sphere in the north and a democratic sphere in the south). When North Korean forces invaded South Korea, the U.S. (under UN auspices) aided the South while China aided the North. The U.S. was concerned that sending in troops would provoke the Soviet Union and start another world war. Following Soviet assurance that they would not involve themselves, the U.S. escalated their involvement. As the war widened, China became more involved.
Result: Following some back and forth, a stalemate was reached and an armistice signed. The Korean Demilitarized Zone was established between the two nations. The border is still heavily armed and North Korea is still a thorn in the side of the U.S.
Preparedness: The U.S. became involved in 1963 with the overthrow of the Vietnamese President. U.S military advisers assisted the South Vietnamese during the early 1960s. Militarily the U.S. was prepared, in terms of men and equipment, but I’d say they weren’t prepared otherwise.
Details: The U.S. escalated the war to the point of no return. Americans were largely unprepared for the type of fighting used by their opponents. Indiscriminate bombing and the use of chemical weapons partially led to protests and resistance to the war in the U.S.
Result: The U.S. signed the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, officially ending involvement. They still supplied the South, however, but to no avail. A united Vietnam is ruled as a communist nation today.
Persian Gulf War
Preparedness: The U.S. was prepared. They also had been aiding Iraq in their war against Iran since the mid-1980s.
Details: Iraq, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait. Following failed diplomatic efforts, a coalition was created and the U.S. led the attack against Iraq to restore sovereignty to Kuwait and defend Saudi Arabia.
Result: The U.S. was successful and sanctions were levied against Iraq. Some were concerned that Hussein remained in power.
Dates: 2001-2014 (ongoing, really)
Preparedness: Prepared for war, but not for the aftermath.
Details: The Taliban, leading Afghanistan, were told to hand over Osama bin Laden and others associated with the September 11th attacks on the U.S. and to expel al-Qaeda. The Taliban did not comply and the U.S. and its allies launched an attack against Afghanistan. Guerrilla warfare and suicide attacks dogged the Americans for years. In 2011 bin Laden was found and killed in Pakistan. Combat operations were ended officially in 2014.
Result: The Taliban was overthrown. Osama bin Laden was killed. The U.S. still maintains a military presence in the country.
Preparedness: Prepared for war, but not for the aftermath.
Details: Under the pretext of destroying weapons of mass destruction stockpiled by Saddam Hussein (later found to be fabricated), the U.S. launched an invasion of Iraq, beginning with long-distance missile strikes. Unprepared for an insurgency and the power vacuum left after the execution of Hussein, fighting continued for many years, much as it had in Afghanistan until the U.S. withdrew its forces after democratic elections were held.
Result: Hussein was overthrown. The insurgency led to the emergence of al-Qaeda in Iraq. U.S. withdrawal led to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq.
As the new administration launched missiles at Syria, threatened to get tough with Iran, and alluded to nuke North Korea, what has the U.S. learned? Will we enter into a 6-plus-year-old civil war that includes not only the Syrian government under Assad and the rebels opposing him, but also includes Russia, Iran, Turkey, ISIS, the Kurds, and Hezbollah? Will we unleash a new nuclear arms race? Will we actually use nukes? Have we learned anything about what happens in the aftermath of our military actions? Are we even prepared for a possible wider war?