Two award-winning historians offer a groundbreaking new narrative of the role of war and freedom in the making of America
Americans often think of their nation's history as a movement toward ever-greater democracy, equality, and freedom. Wars in this story are understood both as necessary to defend those values and as exceptions to the rule of peaceful progress. In The Dominion of War, historians Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton boldly reinterpret the development of the United States, arguing instead that war has played a leading role in shaping North America from the sixteenth century to the present.
Anderson and Cayton bring their sweeping narrative to life by structuring it around the lives of eight men--Samuel de Champlain, William Penn, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, Ulysses S. Grant, Douglas MacArthur, and Colin Powell. This approach enables them to describe great events in concrete terms and to illuminate critical connections between often-forgotten imperial conflicts, such as the Seven Years' War and the Mexican-American War, and better-known events such as the War of Independence and the Civil War. The result is a provocative, highly readable account of the ways in which republic and empire have coexisted in American history as two faces of the same coin. The Dominion of War recasts familiar triumphs as tragedies, proposes an unconventional set of turning points, and depicts imperialism and republicanism as inseparable influences in a pattern of development in which war and freedom have long been intertwined. It offers a new perspective on America's attempts to define its role in the world at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
It can't be any mystery that "war and imperialism have powerfully influenced American development," as this book's authors say. But how powerfully did war and imperial ambition affect the U.S. when set against other factors? One wishes historians Anderson (author of the prize-winning Crucible of War) and Cayton (Frontier Indiana) had told us in this otherwise enterprising, readable work. Covering 500 years, they relate the nation's past through a narrative of colonists' and, later, citizens' determination to expand and secure by force their possessions. It's solid corrective history. Particularly appealing is the authors' organizing principle: they tell their tale through the lives and careers of such great military figures as George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, Douglas MacArthur and Colin Powell. The trouble is that by doing so, they often sacrifice analysis. They succeed in convincing us that wars and imperial expansion are fundamental impulses of the nation's history--arguably its central engine. But they overlook how those impulses may have grown out of the nation's immigrant origins, its democratic politics or its capitalist economy. That's too bad, because, in their telling, the U.S. looks a lot like other powerful nations, which may not be correct if these other, causative factors are taken into account. B&w photos, maps.
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November 28, 2005
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Excerpt from The Dominion of War by Fred Anderson
A View in Winter
The Mall in Washington, D.C., is a good deal less inviting in January than in April, when the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin burst into bloom and tourists loiter in the sun. But because the ways in which the Mall and its monuments give meaning to the events of American history are clearest in the winter--and because the story we have to tell is in many ways a wintry tale--it may not be amiss for us to begin on the Mall with the trees bare and the skies gray, walking down the path that leads from the Lincoln Memorial to the Vietnam War Memorial. In spring, the transition between the two would be muted by the trees and plantings of Constitution Gardens. In winter, the contrast is stark and unmistakable.
Behind us, the majesty of the Lincoln Memorial leaves no doubt about the importance of the sixteenth president and the Union that he, more than anyone else, preserved. The steps that visitors must climb to enter the monument prepare them for what they find within: an immense, melancholy statue of the Great Emancipator, bracketed by the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address--majestic phrases that explain the meaning of the greatest blood sacrifice in American history. But the Vietnam Memorial makes no such unmistakable statement. We do not climb to meet this monument or even look up; we merely walk along a gradually descending path beside a polished granite wall. The only words inscribed on the stone are the names of 58,000 American women and men who gave their lives between 1959 and 1975, in the longest war the United States has ever fought.
As we walk, the black wall seems to rise beside us, as if thrust from the earth by the columns of names that lengthen on its face. The roll of the dead begins almost imperceptibly at ground level, then rises inexorably--waist height, shoulder height, head height, higher--until at the monument's center the names of the dead hang over us with an almost unbearable weight of sadness. Here we are left to draw our own conclusions by a monument that does not presume to instruct us on the meaning of the deaths to which it bears witness. And here, at the turning of the path where the twin walls join, we pause, as so many do, to look back.
Because it is winter, the colonnade of Lincoln's Greek temple looms white through the screen of trunks and bare branches, and it is suddenly clear that the narrowing V of the wall has been sited precisely to direct our gaze upward to the Memorial and to the hillside crosses of Arlington National Cemetery beyond. Turning again and looking up the path, it also becomes apparent that the oblique angle at which the walls join is not merely the product of Maya Lin's superb aesthetic sense: the black arrow of the wall ahead points directly toward the marble shaft of the Washington Monument.
Here, surrounded by wars laid up in stone, the questions press in on us. Why this location, half in seclusion apart from the center of the Mall? Why this orientation, directing our attention toward the two great monuments that define the Mall's long axis? Why, for that matter, should the Korean War Memorial--less powerful emotionally but still evocative in its depiction of a rifle squad moving out, laden with combat gear--have been located in the counterpart space on the opposite flank of the Lincoln Memorial? And why, finally, do the facing halves of the new World War II monument bestride the Mall at the head of the Reflecting Pool, claiming a place as central as Washington's obelisk and Lincoln's Doric shrine?
Silent though their stones may be, the monuments on the Mall speak unmistakably to Americans about the relationships between, and the relative importance of, five wars--the Revolution, the Civil War, the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War, and World War II. Even stronger implicit messages can be discerned in the absence of monuments commemorating other conflicts: the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, numerous military interventions in the Caribbean and beyond, and three dozen or more Indian wars by which the citizens of the Republic appropriated lands that native peoples had called home for a thousand generations. All these messages are rooted in a commonly accepted "grand narrative" of American history, a story so familiar that the meanings of the memorials can be deciphered by almost any citizen who has had the benefit of a public school education.1
As everyone knows, wars have often punctuated the history of the United States and not infrequently have produced generals who become presidents. Nor have generals like Washington, Jackson, Grant, and Eisenhower been the only veterans to whom Americans have looked for political leadership. Even men who rose to only modest rank--Captain Harry Truman, Lieutenant John Kennedy, Lieutenant Commander Richard Nixon, and Lieutenant Jimmy Carter, for example--drew attention to their service records when they were candidates for the nation's highest office. Previous military service, of course, has never been a prerequisite for election; but whether the man is Thomas Jefferson or William Jefferson Clinton, presidential candidates who have never worn their nation's uniform have always been subject to the charge that they are unfit to act as commander in chief of the armed forces.
Of course a concentration on past wars is not enough to make Washington's memorials distinctive, any more than the tendency of successful generals to become political leaders is uniquely American. Every capital city in Europe and the Americas commemorates the glories and sacrifices of military conflict, and one needs to look no further than Cromwell, Napoleon, and de Gaulle to find notable examples of generals who have gone on to govern nations. But while the martial cast of their nation's capital is commonplace, Americans' reactions to it are not; nor has their willingness to elect former generals to the presidency made them immune to ambivalence about their wars, especially those wars that expanded the geographical domain of the United States. The rhetoric that justified the founding of the United States made inescapable connections between empire and tyranny. Perhaps for that reason, American historians have generally approached the imperial dimension of the nation's history obliquely, treating occurrences of jingoism like the war fevers of 1812, 1846, and 1898 as unfortunate exceptions to the antimilitarist rule of republicanism. No American Napoleon conquered this continent, no jackbooted legions subdued it; the United States grew by settlement. Apart from the regrettable Indian wars, the great movement west consisted of the essentially benign inclusion of ever-larger territorial realms into democracy's dominion, freedom's sphere. Or so Americans, for the most part, believe.
With great justification, Americans also think of the United States as a refuge from tyranny, where those willing to bear the burdens of work and the obligations of citizenship can share equally in the blessings of liberty. Since Americans believe themselves to be a peace-loving people, it is an article of faith that their wars have been forced upon them by those who would destroy their freedom. Thus since the autumn of 2001 Americans have remembered New York on September 11 as they have remembered Pearl Harbor since December 7, 1941--and as earlier generations remembered the explosion of the Maine, the bombardment of Fort Sumter, and the first shot fired at Lexington--as a moment in which an enemy of liberty showed his barbarous hand and thereby justified the response of a free people, terrible in its wrath. So Americans tend to believe that by winning wars, they make the world a better, safer, freer place. George Washington himself articulated this faith just one week before he took command of the Continental Army. On June 26, 1775, en route from Philadelphia to the army's headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he paused to reassure the Provincial Congress of New York that in taking up arms against the British empire, Americans were acting defensively, within limits and with a clear purpose in mind. "When we assumed the soldier," he said, "we did not lay aside the Citizen, & we shall most sincerely rejoice with you in that happy Hour, when the Establishment of American Liberty on the most firm, & solid Foundations, shall enable us to return to our private Stations in the bosom of a free, peaceful & happy Country."2 Americans do not fight, therefore, except to fulfill a solemn obligation to defend their own--or others'--liberty.
This is the argument that the monuments on the Mall sustain in marble and granite and bronze. This why they make three great wars for freedom--the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II--the central, defining moments of American history. And this is why there are no more important words on the Mall than those inscribed inside the Lincoln Memorial. The Gettysburg Address, composed in November 1863 to give meaning to the torrents of blood spilled in and around a small Pennsylvania town in early July, also gave meaning to the ordeal of the Union. There, in fewer than three hundred words, Abraham Lincoln made the Civil War something much nobler than a struggle by one part of a riven nation to bend another part to its will. It was a test of the capacity of human beings for self-government, the supreme trial of a revolutionary United States "conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." And at the heart of America's agonies, Lincoln explained sixteen months later in his Second Inaugural Address, was the need to expiate the great sin of slavery, to cleanse the Republic of the stain it had borne since birth.
It is impossible to imagine a more powerful conception of the nation's history than this. Because Americans so clearly identify liberty and equality as the core values of the Republic, they necessarily make the inception of those values in the Revolution, the extension of liberty's promise to all Americans, and the defense of liberty beyond America's borders central elements in their collective story. It is not, therefore, the size of the sacrifice but the transcendence of the ideals that motivated it to which the Washington, Lincoln, and World War II memorials speak. Counting the cost in human lives would only blur our sense of the significance of the great wars for freedom that they commemorate.
If Korea and Vietnam make it only to the margins of the Mall, it is hardly surprising that the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and the many wars against North American Indians are altogether missing from it. Less central to the grand scheme, they caused fewer deaths, created fewer heroes, and engaged smaller proportions of the population as soldiers and sailors. Controversial in their day, they seem in retrospect wars less to defend American liberty than to extend American power. They are, indeed, hard to see as anything but wars for empire. Yet these wars, too, are part of America's story.
While we acknowledge that the creation and preservation of the United States are events central to the history of North America, we also maintain that the Revolution and Civil War cannot be fully understood unless they are seen together with those other, less well remembered wars waged against native peoples, Mexicans, and the agents of European empires. Indeed, we maintain that the American Revolution and the Civil War can best be understood as unanticipated consequences of decisive victories in the great imperial wars--the Seven Years' War and the Mexican-American War--that preceded each by a little more than a decade. In both cases, the acquisition of vast territories created severe, protracted, and ultimately violent debates over sovereignty and citizenship. Those bitter postwar disputes over the empire's future led to civil wars and ultimately to revolutions that altered the fundamental meanings of rights and citizenship, and redefined the bases of imperial governance.
In the following pages we construct a history of North America that emphasizes wars and their effects and stresses the centrality of imperial ambitions to the development of the United States. It therefore stands in contrast to a set of popular notions about the shape of American history, which taken together comprise a grand narrative so deeply embedded in American culture that they persist despite the long-running efforts of professional historians to correct or revise them. This story might be diagramed to look like a great suspension bridge, in which Jamestown and Plymouth serve as anchor points for a chronicle of institutional growth and population expansion that rises to its first peak in the Revolution and the establishment of the federal Constitution. From there the narrative cables descend as post-Revolutionary political tensions diminish during the early national era, only to rise again as sectional conflicts grow between North and South, to reach a second peak in the Civil War. This great climax, the crisis of the Union, settles the all- important issues of citizenship, freedom, and nationhood that the Revolution had left unresolved. From Appomattox and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, the story descends once more, as Americans work out the implications of citizenship and equality before the law, to the twentieth century: the American Century, in which the United States finally fulfills its destiny in the world as a whole. Before assuming global leadership, however, the nation and its ideals must pass through a third great trial. Hence the Second World War stands as the last great pylon and the Cold War as the long descent of the cables to the present day.
Like a suspension bridge, this popular understanding of America's story offers a robust, serviceable, and aesthetically pleasing structure, a design arguably central to maintaining political community in a vast, chronically fragmented nation. But just as there are other means than bridges to cross bodies of water, there are other ways to tell the American story. Ours begins with the proposition that war itself has been an engine of change in North America for the past five centuries and indeed has largely defined that history's meaning. America's wars, however, have not been uniform in either their character or their consequences, and the story as we tell it depends on recognizing that wars can have very different implications and consequences depending (among other factors) on whether they are localized conflicts between nonstate groups, large-scale contests between empires, revolutionary wars, wars by which a triumphant empire consolidates control over its conquests, or wars of foreign intervention. Making such distinctions allows us to examine the interrelationships and interactions between wars and to explore the ways that one conflict has connected to another--and another, and another--over time.
At least from the middle of the eighteenth century to the present, American wars have either expressed a certain kind of imperial ambition or have resulted directly from successes in previous imperial conflicts. "Imperialism" is, of course, a loaded term, full of negative connotations. We suggest, however, that it can most productively be understood in the sense of the progressive extension of a polity's, or a people's, dominion over the lands or lives of others, as a means of imposing what the builders of empires understand as order and peace on dangerous or unstable peripheral regions. To found a narrative of American development on the concept of dominion is to forgo the exceptionalist traditions of American culture-- those durable notions that the United States is essentially not like other nations but rather an example for them to emulate, a "shining city on a hill"--in favor of a perspective more like the one from which historians routinely survey long periods of European, African, or Asian history. Indeed, because throughout recorded history "empire has been a way of life for most of the peoples of the world, either as conqueror or conquered,"3 the story we outline makes the long-term pattern of America's development look broadly similar to those of other large, successful nations.
Emphasizing the imperial elements in American history thus serves several purposes. It enables us to depict the continuities between the growth of Britain's American colonies and the revolutionary United States in the eighteenth century, the territorial expansion of United States in the nineteenth century, and the propagation of American power throughout the Western Hemisphere and the world in the twentieth. By offering an alternative story of American development, it serves the heuristic function of providing a different view of familiar episodes and personalities. Most of all, it illuminates the expansion of territorial domain and the extension of economic and political sway as features of the American experience so central to the nation's approach to the world that Americans may be more apt to see them as parts of the natural order than as products of specific, contingent historical circumstances. In that sense, the utility of such an approach may be to make it easier for Americans to perceive aspects of their nation's behavior that may seem natural or innocuous when viewed from within but that seem both intentional and troubling to those who view the United States from without.
More than anything else, ours is a story of power--or, more precisely, a story of how power has been acquired, defined, used, contested, and lost in North America. It describes a past, and implies a present, in which human beings exercise far less control over events than they think they do: a past in which the unintended consequences of a persistent quest for power are often the most important of all. To tell this tale, we divide a half millennium of North American history into four major periods: an Age of Contact (the 1500s), an Age of Colonization and Conflict (c. 1600-1750), an Age of Empires and Revolutions (c. 1750-1900), and an Age of Intervention (1900 to the present).
In describing the Age of Contact, we trace the consequences of the sixteenth-century collision between radically different systems of war, trade, and empire that had previously arisen in Europe and the Americas. In general, European expansion and the intrusion of various competing European groups throughout the Atlantic and Caribbean basins had tremendously disruptive effects for Europe and the Americas alike. The specific experiences of Spanish colonizers in this era also had effects that lasted well beyond it, as other Europeans began to imagine their own imperial destinies in the New World.
In the Age of Colonization and Conflict, Europeans from England, France, and the Low Countries sought to realize those dreams by establishing colonies in North America. Perhaps the most striking unanticipated result of these colonizing enterprises was the intensification of warfare among competing native groups. These tremendously destructive conflicts reflected larger patterns of cultural and diplomatic exchange by means of trade and war that the Europeans did not fully understand but nonetheless sought to exploit to their own advantage. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, interactions between Indian and European peoples resulted in the emergence of a diplomatic and political system that reflected a balance of power in which native groups played a balancing role. Indian diplomats playing one European power off against another helped to stabilize relations between competing empires until the middle of the century.
The vast conflict known in Europe as the Seven Years' War (1756-63; its North American phase, 1754-60, is sometimes called the French and Indian War) ended this period of relative stability, introducing our third epoch, the Age of Empires and Revolutions. Unlike the three previous wars between Britain and France, this one ended in a decisive victory, as a result of which the North American empire of France ceased to exist and Spain (France's ally in the final year of the war) was compelled to surrender its imperial claims east of the Mississippi River. This left Britain (in theory, at least) the proprietor of the eastern half of North America; it also marked a turning point in Native Americans' power to exert decisive influence over outcomes on the continent.
After 1763, dominion in North America, however hotly resisted, was exercised in the east by Great Britain and in the west and southwest by Spain. Both powers attempted in the postwar period to define the terms of membership in their empires in ways that would be acceptable to a wide range of peoples, including metropolitan Britons and Spaniards, Anglo-American and French colonists, and American Indians. The defeated Spanish succeeded best in reforming their empire, which survived for more than a half-century thereafter. The victorious British, by contrast, failed, so alienating their colonists by attempted reforms that just a dozen years after the Peace of Paris that ended the Seven Years' War, the thirteen North American colonies took up arms against the empire. In their efforts to mount resistance to a sovereign king in Parliament in the decade before war broke out, colonial leaders used arguments that stressed what had usually been called the rights of Englishmen, stressing the centrality of political freedom and the protection of property and other rights. Because the colonists were a chronically divided lot, however, the leaders of the resistance movement took care to couch their explanations and appeals in universalistic language: as defenses of natural rights, not merely the liberties of Englishmen.
The War for American Independence (1775-83) shattered the British empire and made those universalized ideas the foundation of American political identity. It took another dozen years after the end of the war in 1783, however, to produce the complex of agreements and understandings we call the Revolutionary Settlement, which became the basis of a new, successful, and aggressive American empire, the United States. In our scheme, therefore, imperial and republican elements together formed the basis of revolutionary political culture, and the American Revolution appears as a violent, institutionally creative phase lasting from 1775 to 1789 within a four-decade-long process that extended from 1754 to 1800, in which a monarchical empire expanded into the trans-Appalachian west, disintegrated, then was succeeded by an imperial republic capable of exerting control over the interior of the continent.
With the election of Thomas Jefferson as president, bands of white American citizens on the marches of the Republic defined the political community as a brotherhood of white Protestant men like themselves. Finding no place in their new world for native peoples, these borderers treated suddenly vulnerable Indians as racially different peoples to be removed--or exterminated. In the War of 1812, Americans conjoined defiance of British efforts to dictate their commercial and diplomatic policy with a war of conquest, by which they intended to secure control of eastern North America. Though the Americans failed to conquer Canada, they effectively destroyed the power of American Indians east of the Mississippi River, thereby consolidating the United States' claim to the region from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. The conquest of the Southwest, begun by Andrew Jackson in his campaigns against the Creeks in 1813-14 and continued in 1818 when he invaded and occupied Florida, came to completion in 1819 with the annexation of Florida and the subsequent removal of most Indians to lands west of the Mississippi.
As important as these aspects of the War of 1812 were, the war's most significant legacy proved to be a distinctively American just-war ideology. Unlike the members of the Revolutionary generation, who justified taking up arms to defend a fragile liberty against Britain's seemingly unlimited sovereign power, proponents of war argued that offensive warfare--against the British in Canada, the Creeks in Alabama, and the Spanish in Florida--was justified because conquest would liberate the oppressed and expand the sphere of freedom. It was a justification Americans applied again in their next imperial war--and indeed in every subsequent war in the Republic's history.
Great Britain and the United States ceased to compete militarily after 1815, leaving Mexico, which declared its independence from Spain in 1821, as the last remaining obstacle to the dominion of the United States in North America. Mexico's creole elite, staunch defenders of a conservative social order, were as capable of resenting metropolitan interference in the early nineteenth century as the leaders of Britain's North American colonies had been in the latter decades of the eighteenth, but their fears of political radicalism and racial warfare inhibited the growth of a viable revolutionary movement. When the Mexican elite finally agreed to declare Mexico's independence, therefore, it was not to defend the rights of individuals but rather to preserve the prerogatives of their class, the power of the Roman Catholic Church, and the stability of the social order. The Mexican leaders' fears of revolution and racial war, along with the rich geographic diversity of their nation, inhibited the emergence of an American-style revolutionary settlement and created a fertile field for caudillos, violence, and local rebellions. One of the latter, on the remote northeastern fringe of Mexico, created the Republic of Texas in 1836. A decade later, the United States annexed Texas, provoking a war with Mexico in 1846. Within two years American soldiers overwhelmed Mexican resistance, seized the national capital, and forced a peace, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), that deprived Mexico of fully half its territory.