27 December 2006

Woodrow Wilson and the American Way of War, Part 2

For the second part of this ongoing series, I'd like to look at the second half of the title, "the American Way of War". Without doubt, all foreign wars in the history of the United States between 1783 and 1917 generated serious opposition among Americans. You don't have to look hard:

War of 1812: The Hartford Convention threatens the secession of the New England states.

Mexican-American War: This fellow made a name for himself as an opponent of the war, but he represented the views of a couple more key party associates. See documents 1 and 10 here.

Spanish-American War: Support for this relatively popular war demanded Congressional legislation that formally renounced any intention to annex Cuba. The war might have proved less popular without it. The legacy of the war, the annexation of the Philippines, was a different matter.

Even after 1918, the only near-universally supported foreign wars are the Second World War and the Korean War. (Although I wonder if the latter had lasted one more year whether serious opposition to it might have arisen. There's a sort of four-year rule related to American involvement in war.)

26 December 2006

Woodrow Wilson and the American Way of War, Part 1

I've been involved in a debate over Woodrow Wilson and America's enthusiasm for war in 1914-18, that has absorbed a lot of my blogging energy. I'd like to rehash the debate here, if only to clarify my own thoughts a little. What I would call the Conventional Interpretation goes something like as follows:
During 1914-16, the vast majority of Americans wanted to stay out of the war, as did Wilson. He genuinely thought he could do so, and was very lukewarm toward the Preparedness Movement. Wilson's patient efforts at trying to solve things by diplomacy rather than war continued even after the Lusitania sinking, efficient Allied propaganda within the USA, actual German "atrocities" like Edith Cavell shooting, German sabotage in America, and the Zimmermann Telegram had certainly convinced the vast majority of Americans that war was now the only option. Once Wilson had decided war was inevitable after the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans in February 1917, he was able to carry with him an (almost) united nation.

My debate is with the underlined portion. I'm not convinced the evidence that the vast majority of Americans thought war was the only option. My reading of the evidence is that most Americans remained unwilling participants in the war, but that they went along with government policy because that's what they do. The idea that there was a strong anti-war movement that possibly reflected a plurality passively opposed to the war just doesn't fit with our National Myth of America's progress to Superpower Status, which replaced our original, more isolationist, National Myth. I'll publish what I've found over the next few days, together with any new stuff I uncover as well.

11 December 2006

The New Galley Warfare?

I've always been interested in galley warfare, more than any other kind of naval warfare. During the confirmation hearings of Robert Gates to be the new Secretary of Defense, my ears pricked up when I heard him refer to the Littoral Combat Vessel. Now, if you take a map of a sea area, and superimpose a grid on it of some defined area - one mile squares for example - you can quickly see where littorals arise. I once did it for southern England and Wales, and basically there are three large areas, in the mouth of the Thames the Solent and in the Bristol Channel. Smaller areas can be found around Poole, and the south coasts of Devon and Cornwall. However, in the Mediterranean, especially around Greece and Asia Minor, there are lots. Thus, galley warfare could be thought of as another name for littoral warfare.

The first ship of this type, the USS Freedom (LCS 1) was launched on 23 September 2006 at its builder in Wisconsin. It displaces 3,000 tonnes, on a length of 377 feet, which is bigger than a J-class destroyer of the Royal Navy during the Second World War. These seem to be more of a sea control ship in narrow waters than actually reflecting the nature of combat in a littoral area.

A galley in the Mediterranean was predominantly a means of delivering fighting men. While some fleets, notably the Athenians and Carthaginians, relied on maneuver to ram and sink enemy vessls, boarding and capturing tactics were far more common throughout history. (Click on the link for "The Agony of War Under Oars" for a good description of Athenian galley tactics in the context of the crew's experience.) Furthermore, what is often overlooked is that galleys are effectively amphibious warfare ships. Their large crews can easily take up arms and fight ashore, in a relatively short space of time. Guilmartin's book Gunpowder and Galleys highlights this, and I view the Periclean strategy in the Peloponnesian wars as one to be analysed in terms of amphibious warfare, not sea control.

To move toward a galley model, the Littoral Combat Vessel needs support from something more like a floating armored personnel carrier or even an armoured cross-Channel roll-on, roll-off ferry. This would imply a heavy dual-purpose gun armament (firing both armor-piercing and high-explosive) or rocket artillery and the ability to carry a large number of men, such as a platoon or even a company of marines. Given the likely scenarios of naval combat facing the US Navy in the foreseeable future, this seems an interesting avenue for further prototypes to explore.

08 December 2006

Vietnam Study Group

The recent publication of the Iraq Study Group report has drawn parallels with the famous conclave of "wise men" to advise President Lyndon Johnson on his Vietnam policy around the time of the 1968 Tet offensive.

Johnson had been making use of a circle of non-administration foreign policy advisors for some time. A "Vietnam Panel" met on 8 July 1965 and offered an assessment of future policy. The most famous such meeting was held under state department auspices in November 1967 (document 377). However, at a subsequent meeting in March 1968 (document 142), it appears as if Johnson has lost confidence in the "wise men" approach. It's not clear if the comment referring to it being "a mistake to get a new super-Presidential board" should be attributed to him or to Dean Acheson (or maybe both). Twelve days later, Johnson made his dramatic announcement that he would not seek re-election.

06 December 2006


This is news is a little old, but a museum about America's experience in the First World War has opened in Kansas City. I'm hoping to attend a conference in St Louis next summer, so maybe I can convince the family to make the relatively short drive up to Kansas City to take a look. I've always been a little disappointed that the Great War is a relatively low profile conflict in the United States. More than the Second World War, the First World War created America the Superpower, although the fact that American politicians retreated into unilateralism almost immediately after the war's end kind of hid that. As we approach the centenary of this conflict, I hope Americans will notice the important role the war played in the destiny of our country.

04 December 2006

Tube Alloy Targets

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has declared that British possession of strategic nuclear weapons is crucial for long-term national strategic interests. The problem is that the British nuclear deterrent has never been truly independent. Originally both British and American atomic weapons were subject to one another's veto, under the terms of the 1943 Quebec Agreement on Tube Alloys. (Tube alloys was the term used to conceal the true nature of the Manhattan Project.) However, a combination of American legislation and straitened British economic circumstance put paid to any independent tube alloy ambitions for the British armed forces. The matter wasn't really of any significance until after the U.S. Air Force had based its strategic bombers in Britain again in July 1948, and both America and Britain were fighting together once again, in the Korean peninsula, after the North Korean invasion in June 1950. The National Security Archive at George Washington University has published a series of documents about the relationship between American nuclear weapons and British governments.

Britain's first atomic deterrent, a bomb delivered by an aircraft, entered service in November 1953. By this stage, NATO had come into existence, and in the circumstances targets for British weapons were likely to be determined by the alliance's command, a situation that was formalized in 1962 by the Athens Guidelines, paragraph 5. Thus, the concept of an independent British nuclear deterrent has always been more of a de jure than a de facto one.

01 December 2006

Bomber uncovered

A Halifax bomber, crewed by Canadians and Britons and shot down in August 1944, has been uncovered in Poland. The Polish project leader comments that only two Handley-Page Halifax bombers on display in the world. One of them is in Trenton, Ontario, coincidentally the first place in North America I stopped at during my last trip there in 2005. I didn't visit the Royal Canadian Air Force Museum there, owing to arriving late in the day and having to leave early en route to Kalamazoo, Michigan. The Halifax is a prized possesion, and you can find details about it (and about the museum if you follow round the links) here.