This long essay is part one of a longer work written for an academic audience, but which might have value for others interested in military history and the root causes of war. The works cited in the essay can be provided, if there is interest.
What factors can make an individual or a nation decide to go to war?
“What is the force that compels a man to risk his life day after day, to endure the constant tension, the fear of death…the steady loss of his friends? What can possess a rational man to make him act so irrationally?” (McPherson, page 5) What force, indeed, can compel men to put their lives at risk? The question seems to have an endless list of answers. “This is experience lived at its most intense, this is issues of justice and injustice at their most stark. This is politics at its most vivid. This is life at its most extreme.” (Unidentified speaker, Reporting America at War, Part 1)
There are four general categories of factors into which motives for going to war might be assigned, be they individual or national: economic, political, conquest (military expansion) and humanitarian. Breaking down the factors for war into four categories is a generality used for purposes of discussion. Each of the four have various secondary reasons; ‘military expansion’, for example, might involve a pre-emptive attack to forestall an attack. Such was one of the justifications for the Iraqi War. ‘Economic’ might mean trade or tariffs, or it could mean an attempt to grab needed natural resources, the primary factor behind the Japanese decision to attack the United States. Then there could be a secondary factor, like finally creating the veneer of humanitarianism with the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which was nothing more than “tightening up the economic and political and military ties with China” (Sevareid, Japan Invades China- Crisis in the Far East) and was, in reality, “a propaganda gimmick”. (Professor Akira Iriye, Japan Invades China: Crisis in the Far East)
The focus of this essay will be on America and Americans, and how other countries were brought to wars that ultimately either influenced or involved the United States, the factors involving those other nations and why they and their people might have chosen to go to war. Nor does this essay convey more than what historian John A. Lynn described as “initial motivation…the reasons why men enlisted.” (Resch & Sargent, page 12) Let us add ‘and nations chose to fight.’ Regardless of how long a war might have lasted, the question at hand is what prompted the decision to go to war for both nation and individual. In making generalizations, it should be noted that in almost every case the factors bringing nations and individuals to war were not necessarily clear cut, even at the moment they were made. Indeed, there were likely multiple factors at work. Expanding a comment about the American Revolution into a generality, “there is no reason to assume self-interest and idealism did not coexist in the heart and mind of a continental soldier.” (Resch & Sargent, page 6) An extrapolation might be ‘there is no reason to assume merely one reason for a person or nation to go to war.’ A multitude of reasons could easily have motivated that American during the Revolution, or a Union or Confederate soldier, or a World War II G.I. or a Humvee driver in Baghdad. There are no simple answers and a framework of structure can only begin the discussion.
The United States has gone to war for all four categories over the course of its history, although at the time the reasons might have seemed different and the decisions were not always popular; some might even seem to be an excuse. Motives or factors evolve over time as new generations of historians look ever deeper for answers. The American Revolution is no exception. The national objective was independence, but the individual factors were often quite different or, at least, not strictly limited to the fight for independence. “Early in the twentieth century, American historians were attracted by the idea that perceived economic interest largely determines political behavior.” (Resch & Sargent, page 5) Men went to war for what benefitted them materially. The central tenant of this idea was that the war was essentially “an internal struggle between economic classes.” (Resch & Sargent, page 6) The American Revolution was fought by men low on the economic scale because it offered them a chance to improve their lot in life, whether from army pay, food and clothing, or from the bounties of serving for men who could afford to buy their way out of service. And yet, in terms of factors motivating men to initially go to war, the Revolutionary War was brought about by men of all classes, including men of wealth. “That first year…Royster calls the American rage militaire, when patriotism and enthusiasm reigned.” (Resch & Sargent, page 5) And not just such grandiose factors as idealism, or as common as needing a job, brought men into the fight. Emotions also played a part, such as revenge. “Violence itself could be a great motivator, prompting victims to fight back in almost any way that they could.” (Resch & Sargent, page 8) Economics, idealism, patriotism, revenge or just a taste for adventure, “War is high drama, it’s a greater experience than anything you could have in the theater, or in the opera or in a Greek tragedy.” (Unidentified, Reporting America at War-Part 1): individual motives are obviously a stew of many different factors.
African-Americans were no different than other men. “In a country that denied basic civil liberties to free and enslaved African-Americans alike, individuals joined the Continental Army, state troops, or local militia for a variety of reasons.” (Resch & Sargent, page 133) And yet, when pressed to be more specific during pension hearings, “as old men, the veterans often narrowed their motives to one cause-liberation.” (Resch & Sargent, page 133) Women, for the most part, did not engage in combat during the Revolution, but they nonetheless went to war alongside the men, contributing to the survival of the army in their own way. “Followers of the army contributed directly to that survival by performing essential services in supplying the forces, nursing the men, and performing such housekeeping chores as washing clothes and cooking meals.” (Resch & Sargent, page 236) They also serve who wash and cook.
Uncovering individual factors quickly becomes tricky, though, often leading to more questions than answers precisely because men were motivated by so many variable factors. “…Our analytical categories for relating war to society in Revolutionary America: the question of the soldier’s motivation has become an aspect of a much larger historiographical issue.” ( Resch & Sargent, page 8) All factors motivating soldiers to fight for the new country may never be fully uncovered or understood. “In the end, the question of motivation to serve and fight may be seen not as an irresistible question, but an analytical swamp.” (Resch & Sargent, page 8)
Looking at the other side of the struggle, British national factors for fighting seem far more straight-forward: their colonies were in revolt and therefore a part of the kingdom was threatened, so in self-defense they were going to put down the revolt. The course materials do not directly address the factors determining individual English soldier’s reasons for going to war, but there are some allusions. “Another, much older idea provides the context for this…the idea that soldiers are recruited disproportionately from the marginal elements of any society, from among men who have no other options, attracting those who see the chance to be fed, clothed and at least minimally paid as a genuine opportunity for a better life. Long before 1775, this model for every European army’s rank and file was well known and widely accepted.” (Resch & Sargent, page 5) The impression is that England’s army was motivated by money, notwithstanding hired mercenaries such as Hessians.
The U.S.-Mexican War is one of two declared wars involving the United States that might be considered wars of military expansion or conquest, driven by both economics and politics and even, in the American mind, touches of humanitarianism. In truth, there was no good reason for war with Mexico. A mutual lack of understanding also played a large part. “The U.S.-Mexican War was a clash between neighbors who were strangers. Two republics born into separate words. One was a brash, rapidly expanding nation of 20 million, driven by democratic ideals and new technologies…meanwhile Mexico’s 7 ½ million people were living a very different experience, rooted in Spanish and native traditions handed down for centuries.” (Narrator, The U.S.-Mexican War, Part 1) Mexico had won her independence from Spain in 1821 after a long war that left devastated both her economy and her population. The early years of the Mexican Republic were chaotic at best, the political situation chronically unstable; in the 27 years between winning independence in 1821 and the last year of the U.S.-Mexican War in 1848, Mexico underwent 22 changes of administration. Mexico “had lost its sense of leadership and political control.” (Jesus Velasco-Marquez, The U.S.-Mexican War, Part 1) She was vulnerable, and while Mexico’s greatest resource was land, with more than 1 ½ million square miles, its reduced population was “left unable to colonize its distant northern provinces.” (Narrator, The U.S.-Mexican War, Part 1)
That vulnerability and weakness aroused desire in America’s national heart.
Aside from the Indian lands, the United States had expanded primarily by purchasing territory from other countries. Mexico would not sell. “For them it was a matter of national honor, not just pride, to maintain the integrity of all the territory they had inherited from Spain.” (Miguel Gonzales-Quiroga, The U.S.-Mexican War, Part 1) Mexico feared that America would just take what it wanted anyway. After the Texas revolution of 1836 brought the Republic of Texas into being, “in Mexico, the loss unleashed a wave of anger against the United States.” (Narrator, The U.S.-Mexican War, Part 1) Foreigners had been invited to colonize Texas in the 1820’s and many Americans had done just that; now that policy had backfired and the Mexicans were furious, an anger that did not dissipate. American westward pressure continued, spurred on first by President Andrew Jackson, and later by his protege, President James Polk, who was inaugurated in 1845. “They believe the government should open up these regions so the natural resources there can be exploited and anything that gets in the way of that exploitation should obviously be removed.” (David Edmunds, The U.S.-Mexican War, Part 1) Since Mexico was in the way, Mexico would have to be removed.
Americans actually believed this forcible expansion was their birthright, something of a national mission. The name Manifest Destiny was coined to describe this belief. “A conviction that God had intended North America to be under the control of the Americans.” (David Pletcher, The U.S.-Mexican War, Part 1) The humanitarian factor could be added to the decision for expansion even at the cost of war because “to extend the boundary of the United States was to extend the area of freedom.” (Robert Johansen, The U.S.-Mexican War, Part 1) In other words, annexing people and territory was for their own good, whether they could see that or not. During his election campaign, Polk had called for the annexation and occupation of both Oregon and Texas. Mexico had never recognized the Republic of Texas and still considered that province as part of their national territory, making annexation by the United States a de facto declaration of war. In February, 1845, the Congress of the United States voted to annex Texas anyway. Mexican President Herrera tried to forestall war, knowing Mexico could not win, but Mexico was gripped with war fever and the politics of the situation were almost impossible for him to survive. Negotiations with U.S. emissary Slidell followed but President Polk not only reminded Mexico that she owed the United States more than 2 million dollars, he increased his demands and wanted Mexico to sell both New Mexico and California. War became inevitable, because “the one way to provoke the Mexicans into resistance was the way that Polk had chosen…negotiating with them at cannon’s point.” (David Pletcher, The U.S.-Mexican War, Part 1)
The individuals who made up the armies were a cross section of their respective nations. “The soldiers came from every region of their country…(on both sides), fought each other and died.” (Narrator, The U.S.-Mexican War, Part 1) General Zachary Taylor’s army of 4,000 men represented roughly half of the entire U.S. Army. His men were poorly paid, but almost half were recent immigrants and, for them, military life at least guaranteed food and clothing. U.S. officers were mostly West Point graduates, eager not only to prove their own mettle in battle but the worth of their school, which was in constant danger of being shut down by the government’s fear of militarism. Lieutenant Napoleon Dana is one example. “Lt. Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana arrived in Texas determined to find glory on his own.” (Narrator, The U.S.-Mexican War, Part 1) Overall, considering the effects on national mood of Manifest Destiny and reports of the wealth to be found in the far west, the United States decision to turn to military expansion was driven by the economics of a growing nation looking for new sources of wealth.
The American Civil War largely saw many veterans of the U.S.-Mexican War squaring off against each other for very different reasons; military expansion played no part. If the Confederacy is considered a nation, and it certainly saw itself as one, then it would have been seen as fighting for independence. The North, on the other hand, was fighting to maintain the political status quo. So deeply did soldiers for both the North and South believe in their respective causes that it’s hard for Americans to understand them today. Commenting on the Union attack on Bloody Lane during Antietam, General John Wickham said: “you couldn’t get American soldiers today to make an attack like that.” (McPherson, page 5) This illustrates not only the dedication of Civil War soldiers, but the evolving nature of the factors behind why Americans would go to war. “Duty and honor were indeed powerful motivating forces. They had to be, for some other traditional reasons that have caused men to fight in organized armies had little relevance in the Civil War. Religious fanaticism and ethnic hatreds played almost no role.” (McPherson, pages 5-6) Most Union soldiers had some notion of fighting to hold the Union together, of the primacy of Federal over State governments, even if they expressed it differently. “If the Unionists let the South secede…the West might want to separate next Presidential Election…others might want to follow and this country would be as bad as the German states…there would have to be another constitution wrote and after it was written who would obey it?” (McPherson, page 18) The author was obviously not overly educated, note the use of the word ‘wrote’ instead of ‘written,’ yet there is probably no more eloquent defense of the Union political position that can be found.
Slavery is often cited as a prime cause of the Civil War, and yet “Relatively few Union volunteers mentioned the slavery issue when they enlisted.” (McPherson, page 19) Some did, of course; it was not an issue on which opinions were soft. And, perhaps as expected, “Some Confederate volunteers did indeed avow the defense of slavery as a motive for enlisting.” (McPherson, page 19) More often, however, protecting slavery was bound within the framework of state’s rights and freedom. “This pairing of slavery and liberty as the twin goals for which Confederates fought appeared in many volunteers’ letters.” (McPherson, page 20) What is most surprising is the context in which the cause of slavery is debated. On the Union side the most common reaction would be considered humanitarian, “It is all humbug about slaves liking to stay with their masters…Men, women and children run off whenever they get a chance.” (McPherson, page 119) And yet, men of both sides also recognized the economics of slavery. One Union soldier wrote that “The institution of slavery is as much a curse to the whites as the blacks and kills industry and improvements of all kinds. Slavery has deadened all enterprise and prosperity.” (McPherson, page 118) A Confederate letter retorts that Lincoln: “has declared that one of the peculiar institutions of the South, which involves the value of four billions…is a ‘moral evil.’” (McPherson, page 19) Clearly, slavery was seen at the time in context and from all sides. The evolution of factors and motives, however, finds personal economics as small influence to Civil War soldiers. “They did not fight for money. The pay was poor and unreliable.” (McPherson, page 5) And what of black soldiers who fought for the north? Why did they do it? In an eerie echo of their ancestors who fought in the Revolution “they fought for their own freedom, and beyond that for the freedom of all four million slaves.” (McPherson, page 128) Few African-American testaments survive to lend first person credence to this, but the few that do are all in the same vein. “We have almost constantly been on the move, marching and fighting for the good old cause-Liberty!” (McPherson, page 128)
The Spanish-American War is an example of America going to war for humanitarian reasons, even if those reasons were grossly exaggerated and used as a mask to cover an expansionist undercurrent. On April 25, 1898, the United States declared war on Spain. “The war itself was seen as a just war.” (Knightley, Reporting America at War-Part 1) For the two previous years newspapers in the United States had printed lurid stories about events in Cuba, the Spanish colony where “the people of Cuba were fighting an on-going battle to free their country from Spanish control.” (Narrator, Reporting America at War, Part 1) The newspapers seemed genuinely sympathetic to the Cuban fight for freedom, a distant mirror to America’s own Revolution, but selling newspapers was a bigger concern. As the only real source for international news they greatly influenced the average American’s perceptions and “reports of Spanish atrocities, some of them entirely fictitious, had dominated the headlines for months, persuading many Americans that the United States had a duty to intervene…” (Narrator, Reporting America at War-Part 1) Other issues were brushed aside or downplayed, almost as if the nation were bored and looking for something to do. The most popular newspaper writer of the day, Richard Harding Davis, probably reflected this mood by his attitude that war was “a game, a big adventure.” (Narrator, Reporting America at War-Part 1)
World War I is not a subject of primary interest for the course. There are, however, some allusions that help at least partially answer the question of why the individuals and nations went to war. The gruesome reality of modern combat quickly became known to the combatant militaries. “The soldiers who went off to fight on the Western Front would encounter the fearsome new technology of war.” (Narrator, Reporting America at War- Part 1) The truth was that the horrors of war had become far worse than anything heretofore known and, so to keep the public from knowing the truth reporters were barred from the front lines because military authorities feared “that battle news would scare off volunteers.” (Narrator, Reporting America at War- Part 1) Therefore, at least in part, men volunteered for war because they were not told the whole truth about what faced them on the battlefield. America entered the war for a variety of reasons, among them the sinking of the passenger liner Laconia with heavy American loss of life. Once in, however, America learned from its allies. “Taking its cues from the British and French, the American government now enlisted the press in a vigorous campaign to mobilize public opinion behind the war.” Narrator, Reporting America at War- Part 1) More to the point, war was portrayed as “a crusade to advance democracy, and detailed lurid atrocities the Germans had never actually committed.” (Narrator, Reporting America at War- Part 1) Whipping up support (and surely recruiting) in the same way as had been done 20 years before, when the press also made up atrocity stories about the enemy before the Spanish-American War.
The after-effects of World War I itself were a major contributing factor in bringing about World War II. “The course of our lives was pre-ordained by the handling of international affairs in the 1920’s and 30’s.” (Sevareid, Versailles: The Lost Peace) The various nations of Europe were discouraged and demoralized, even (and perhaps especially) the so-called victors. Some 8 million young men had died, the flower of Europe, the Old World’s most irreplaceable asset. “These countries were never the same afterwards.” (Kennan, Versailles: The Lost Peace) When a new enemy awoke in resurgent Germany, the will to fight flickered weakly in the souls of the democracies.
An interesting sidebar to the factors motivating nations and individuals in going to war is Czechoslovakia in 1938, a country that did not go to war but, perhaps, should have. The Munich Agreement gave the Sudetenland to Germany, but the nations that signed the agreement did not include Czechoslovakia. The Czechs could have chosen to ignore a treaty signed by nations that had no power to enforce it, although it would have meant war with Germany, a war that, even without her allies, Czechoslovakia might not have lost. The Czech Army was “one of the strongest in Europe.” (Sevareid, The Phony War) In this case England and France chose not to go to war for both political and economic reasons, and the Czechs chose not to fight in self-defense. When Hitler swallowed the remainder of Czechoslovakia in 1939 it was too late to resist.
World War II was a war of conquest by military expansion, driven by Germany and Japan’s economic and political needs. However, the forces behind those needs were either set in motion or accelerated with the signing in 1919 of the Versailles Treaty, which sparked a long chain of events for both countries that lead to the decisions for war. In Germany’s case the single greatest factor leading to the decision to attack Poland in 1939 was Adolf Hitler, whose road to war began in 1907 when he found himself rejected by the Vienna Art Academy because he showed “no aptitude for painting.” (Sevareid, FDR and Hitler: Their Rise to Power) Bitter and vengeful, “Vienna left Hitler with a psychic scar.” (Sevareid, FDR and Hitler: Their Rise to Power) Following World War I Germany was in economic shambles from the effects of the Allied blockade, which was then made worse by the punishing Treaty of Versailles. “The victor may have vengeance or he may have peace, but he cannot have both.” (Sevareid, Versailles: The Lost Peace) France chose vengeance, led by her premier Georges Clemenceau. “Clemenceau symbolized France’s hostility and bitterness.” (Severaid, Versailles: The Lost Peace) Forced to pay crippling reparations to the victors the German economy was in almost constant danger of collapse. Politically, Germany was given a new form of government that she had never tried before, the Weimar Republic. Germans did not understand democracy and the Republic had no cohesive programs for healing the nation’s wounds. Into this vacuum of ideas stepped Adolf Hitler, bringing hope.
Once he became Chancellor in 1933, Hitler immediately set about re-shaping Germany to fit his own concept of what she should be. Anti-semitism was a first priority as a means of controlling the nations’s thought processes. “The era of exaggerated Jewish intellectualism is now finished, and the way is freed for a German course of action,” said Joseph Goebbels, the Propaganda minister. (Sevareid, FDR and Hitler: The Dynamics of Power) Politically, England and France watched with some concern, but England preferred fascism to communism and saw Hitler as something of a bulwark against Soviet Russia. This conscious choice lead to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of Appeasement. In essence, this involved sacrificing territory and people in exchange for peace. Hitler became convinced that the Western democracies would not fight, even when they warned that an attack on Poland would result in war.
Japan’s path to war began before World War I, perhaps as far back as 1853 when Commodore Perry forceably opened Japanese ports to American ships, but if the seeds were sown earlier it was at Versailles that they were fertilized by racism and paternalism. The impetus for her military expansion was driven by both economics and politics, with a veneer of humanitarianism given as the excuse for the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. In 1902, the future President Franklin Roosevelt was told by a Japanese classmate at Harvard “of Japan’s 100 year plan to take over Asia and the Pacific.” (Severaid, War Comes at Pearl Harbor) After Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt’s role as mediator of the peace treaty was seen as having “denied Japan the fruits of victory.” (Sevareid, War Comes at Pearl Harbor) There is a strong cultural component that factors into Japan’s politics and her aggression; the Japanese badly wanted recognition of equality from the Western nations. In 1918 Prince Konoye wrote a bitter essay about Western racism and Imperialism. The next year, at Versailles, Japanese delegates asked the League of Nations to guarantee racial equality but President Woodrow Wilson and the other allies refused. “Wilson managed to just brush it aside as being too embarrassing for the white western nations that dominated the world” (Reischauer, Versailles: The Lost Peace) The Japanese were insulted by this refusal and reacted angrily, “which was a rather dangerous sign of what was to come later”. (Reischauer, Versailles: The Lost Peace) The insult was reinforced in 1921 at the Washington Naval Conference by the 5-5-3 ratio of capital ships imposed upon Japan that angered the Navy’s cadre of young officers. General Billy Mitchell’s pioneering experiments with sinking ships using airplanes showed the Japanese a weapon with which to fight the west, a weapon in which all sides were then equal. Economically it seemed feasible to develop a new weapon’s system that could level the field of combat with Japan’s materially superior enemies. In 1924 America passed the infamous Exclusion Act, which not only cut off all Japanese immigration to the United States but forbade Japanese from owning land in America. Not only was this a political slap in the face to a former ally, but economically this put a clamp on Japan’s ability to expand and diversify her economy, forcing her away from the foreign economic ties without which her industry could not survive. The cumulative effect of these repeated insults on the proud Japanese national character cannot be understated and the economic rebuffs on her trade had a direct result on her increasingly militant political stance.
After World War I America was largely dis-interested in foreign affairs, with domestic politics being largely driven by a strong peace movement. “In the course of events the United States’ Senate laid both hands on foreign policy, control it would not give up until December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day.” (Sevareid, Return to Isolationism) Had the United States joined the League of Nations things might have been different, but “America refused to try in the 20’s and 30’s. Had it done so…maybe the world would have shaped up differently, but history does not disclose its alternatives.” (Sevareid, War comes at Pearl Harbor) When, in 1932, Japan took Manchuria from China and re-named it Manchukuo, “The forces of future conquest had been unleashed. By March, 1933 the forces of war were set in motion.” (Sevareid, Japan Invades China- Crisis in the Far East) This seemingly relentless tide that ultimately culminated in the attack on Pearl Harbor was unlike the situation in Europe. “While Europe was dominated by individuals, the Far East seemed to be dominated by powerful forces.” (Sevareid, Japan Invades China- Crisis in the Far East) Chinese domestic politics were a chaotic mess and the country was a “fragmented giant ripe for the expansionist Japanese.” (Sevareid, Japan Invades China- Crisis in the Far East) Japan subsequently developed a sort of duel government, with the Army making foreign policy and civilians running the country around it. The civilians were scared of a coup d’etat. When the League of Nations condemned Japanese aggression, Japan resigned; one more check on the militarists’ was removed and “it was a clear sign that moderates had lost control of Japan’s foreign policy.” (Sevareid, Japan invades China- Crisis in the Far East) In February, 1936, the coup that moderate Japanese had feared happened, and a number of politicians and military officers were assassinated. Although unsuccessful, the implications were clear: those who opposed Japanese expansion would be eliminated. “The revolt was aimed at opponents of the Army’s expansionist plans in China.” (Sevareid, Japan Invades China- Crisis in the Far East)
Despite Roosevelt’s late efforts to dissuade both Germany and Japan from war, the long-term neglect of the American armed forces mislead both of those potential enemies into thinking war with America was a winnable proposition. The Japanese decision to choose war was a ‘desperate gamble…based on the assumption that we were a weak, flabby people.” (Reischauer, War comes at Pearl Harbor) The Japanese believed the U.S. was “culturally inferior to them.” (Reicschauer, War Comes at Pearl Harbor) By 1941 Roosevelt was almost frantic to start a war with Germany, but “the last thing Roosevelt wanted was a war in the Pacific.” (Professor Arthur Schlesinger, War Comes At Pearl Harbor)
Women marched to World War II in unheard of numbers, mostly by doing work on the homefront that released men for active duty, but in some cases going into war zones themselves. WAACs, WASPs, whatever the acronym, the services they performed were invaluable and they did it for the gamut of reasons. Including humanitarian, as this nurse makes clear: “Somewhere in Italy. 1-18-44…we now have a mix of wounded and battle fatigued soldiers, each category tugs at your heart. The wounded were happy to be missing only one arm or leg…the patients need me.” (June, War Letters)
“Because it began along an artificial frontier dividing a single nation effectively into Soviet and American zones, as deal cut in part to lure the Russians into attacking the Japanese in 1945, Korea might be thought of as the last campaign of World War II; because of the way it ended in 1953, as the opening battle of Vietnam.” (Brady, page 1) The Korean War bore similarities to the Spanish Civil War in some ways. Although North and South Korea were two countries, they once were one, and in that respect it was akin to a civil war. Also, while Russian troops did not actively fight, the North Koreans and Chinese were very much their surrogates. All told, though, from the American standpoint reflected in the course materials, “Korea was a strange war in a strange land, a war the generals warned we should never fight, a ground war on the Asian mainland against the Chinese…Korea didn’t arouse America as the Second World War did…” (Brady, page 1) James Brady’s book The Coldest War represents only one man’s experience at going to fight in Korea, but substitutes for more numerous examples. In many respects Brady was representative, as were the U.S Marines were for all the military branches. “Men joined the Marines for many reasons: because of John Wayne movies or to keep from being sent to prison or because they were bored or because of the uniform or because they were the kind of men who enjoyed discipline and really wanted to serve. A few sought adventure. I joined to avoid the draft.” (Brady, page 8) President Truman committed U.S. troops to Korea on June 30,1950. Men were being sent to “a conflict that must go far to determine whether freedom will triumph over slavery.” (Newsreel- Reporting America at War- Part 2)
Perhaps more than any other American war, the Vietnam War shows a disconnect between the national decision to fight, even if war itself is never declared, and the individual reasons the soldiers themselves had for going into combat. If a generality is ever appropriate it would be so in Vietnam: most soldiers did not fight to carry out national policy or because they believed in something, they fought because they had to. “In Vietnam the soldier fought for his own survival, not a cause. The prevailing attitude was: do your time… keep your head down, stay out of trouble, get out alive.” (McPherson, page 4)
In one sense, the Vietnam war was simply more collateral damage from the tragedy that was the Treaty of Versailles. “A young revolutionist from Indo-China was there to seek a bill of rights for his people. He requested an audience with President Wilson and was refused. His name was Ho Chi Minh.” (Sevareid, Versailles: The Lost Peace) What if the bitter victors of World War I had worked with Ho instead of dismissing him? Would Indo-China have later become a springboard for Japanese expansion to the south? Would Dien Bien Phu have been avoided? Certainly the groundwork for the Vietnam War itself would seem to have been removed. As a factor in causing the conflict in Vietnam, that one, brief moment in time seems to hold more importance than it has generally been accorded. As David Halberstam put it: “we could have worked through Ho Chi Minh and had an outpost based on nationalism against the Chinese.” (Dorland, page 58)
“Active American support for South Vietnam dated back to 1954, when the U.S. had pledged to assist the President Ngo Dinh Diem in his ongoing battle against the communist Viet Cong.” (Narrator, Reporting America at War- Part 2) That is, his ongoing battle with forces commanded by Ho Chi Minh. The United States maintained a small advisory force in the country until 1961 when President Kennedy assigned them a more aggressive role. “By January of ‘63, the advisory commitment, the attempt to help a country save itself, had been in operation for…about 6, 8, 10 months and we kept picking up, from our sources, that it wasn’t working.” (Unidentified, Reporting America at War- Part 2) After the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, ARVN, was disaster beaten in battle at Ap Bac, the only way to ‘win’ seemed for the U.S. to take over the war. But what did ‘win’ mean? And when exactly did the war begin? When did America helping the South Vietnamese help themselves become South Vietnam helping the Americans defend them? In other words, when did the Vietnam War become America’s war?
America did not so much choose war in Vietnam as slide into it gradually. “This thinking
came out of the perversion of the military strategy during the Kennedy years.” (Dorland, page 46) The factors were not economic. Stopping the communist takeover of the south, a military expansion of the north, was political on the American side, a military expansion by the North Vietnamese. How could America stop this expansion? And, like most political decisions, the political ramifications were gauged on almost every escalation, with the ultimate choice of not fighting to win the war, which would have had potentially dangerous political consequences with China and Russia, but only to keep the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in check. What was never decided on was exactly what this meant and how it should be explained to the troops.
After the Diem assassination in 1963, “there was absolute political mayhem in Saigon. The government changed a dozen times, there were coup d’etats and the communists made huge gains in the countryside.” (Peter Arnett, Reporting America at War- Part 2) In the wake of the Diem assassination it became clear that if South Vietnam were going to be defended, America would have to do it. “To leave Vietnam to its fate would shake the confidence of all these people in the value of an America commitment.” (President Johnson, Reporting America at War- Part 2) That one sentence is a likely moment in time to pinpoint when Vietnam became an American war. Certainly the escalations would follow soon enough.