*There is a common theme in the history of American War. Namely, the idea that the United States is a peace loving country that engages in military action only as a last resort.
Even with our gun culture, most Americans do desire peace. However, like most people we desire peace on our terms. Ergo military action has not always been the last resort if it will forward American interests. But that doesn’t sound very nice so our national narrative repeats this half truth about our reticence to go to war.
War of 1812 – France and Great Britain would not allow our ships to conduct their business, so we had to declare war.
World War I – Germany was enlisting Mexico as an ally and (somehow) democracy was being threatened as system of government, so we had to declare war.
World War II – We were attacked, so we had to declare war.
In these three incidences the United States was truly having its sovereignty ignored or seriously threatened. But the other two times Congress declared war involved dubious circumstances.
Mexican-American War – After annexing the Republic of Texas (according to the American perspective) and then entering into disputed territory, we were attacked; so we had to declare war.
Spanish-American War – After several newspaper articles emphasized alleged abuse of the Cuban people by Spain, an explosion wrongly identified as a Spanish attack sank one an American battleship; so we had to declare war.
Both of these incidents highlight that when America’s status can be enhanced or territory gained, we are not shy about fabricating a war.
Among the many undeclared military actions, the United States has undertaken, only the ones that fall into this category of “being forced into physical confrontation” are touted. This is how we all can reference the Vietnam and Korean Wars, while most of us can’t string two sentences together about any wars against Native Americans or the military action in Chile to install Augusto Pinochet as a pro-American dictator.
What, you might ask, does this have to do with the price of tea in China? Ultimately not a whole lot. But it is useful to understand the basis of American foreign policy decisions instead of denying that our country is just as selfish and self-serving as any other. Coming to the place where we as a voting public we do not blindly accept the justifications for policy decisions should lead to better decisions on the part of our policy makers because they will know we are watching and will hold them accountable.
This is the way our country was set up to operate, and unlike many other early situations setup in our Constitution this is a modus operandi that can and should be used today.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.