Just about ten years ago President Bush launched the American invasion of Iraq – a somber anniversary for the great majority of Americans. On such an occasion, we would do well to recall the times our nation remembered to think twice before opening the Pandora's box that is warfare. Here are ten such examples:
(1) Ever heard the phrase, "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight" and wonder what on earth it means? Find a map and go to where the fifty-fourth latitude line hits the New World's west coast and then go forty minutes north. In the 1840s, that was where many wanted the border between the Oregon Territory and British Canada to be - and they really wanted it. In the end Polk decided that a war with Mexico would be easier than one with the enormous British Empire.
(2) Even Abraham Lincoln, no great respecter of the Constitution, was wise enough to recognize how blatantly illegal Polk's invasion of Mexico was. Yet, things could have been worse. Plenty of Americans wanted to conquer the nation as a whole; doughfaced Senator Edward Hannegan even had the gall to attempt declaring that annexing all of Mexico would be legal and constitutional. There's bad... and there's worse.
(3) During the rough and tumble days of truly decentralized government, private armies would occasionally launch their own wars of conquest – often called a "filibuster." One extraordinary example of this is William Walker's conquest of Nicaragua in 1855. Following his military victory, he quickly reinstated slavery and declared English to be the official language, making him a popular figure with the American south and Tammany Hall too. Given how similar this story is to Hawaii and Texas, an American annexation could easily have come about, likely condemning the American military to a constant quelling of uprisings.
(4) Today it is easy to imagine an American military base in Chile, however, relations between the two nations in the Gilded Age were far from chummy. Shorty after President Hayes had backed the losing side in Chile's 1891 civil war, a riot between US sailors and the Chilean port-dwellers of Valparaiso broke out. Usually called the "USS Baltimore Affair," two Americans were killed and tensions became enflamed. Given 1891's proximity to upcoming American adventures in the Pacific, a war proves easy to envision. However, after Europeans warned off the American war machine, the Chilean government backed down and even paid Uncle Sam $75,000 to settle the matter.
(5) The political and military events that took place between the US and Mexico during Woodrow Wilson's presidency are astoundingly complex. But look at it this way: Polk's conquest of Mexico was justified because of skirmishes that broke out between American and Mexican forces after Polk ordered the US Army into disputed territory. In stark contrast, Pancho Villa openly crossed a well-established border to pillage, plunder, and kill. (Just Google, "Columbus, New Mexico raid" and see.) Wilson's response of sending a small expeditionary force into Mexico for less than a year while Europe was embroiled in total war over smaller offenses is incredible. Can you imagine what "Progressive" Teddy Roosevelt's response would have been?
(6) General Douglas MacArthur makes for a strange American hero. Anyone bother teaching you that MacArthur wanted to expand the Korean War into China? Possibly using atom bombs in the process? It is the truth. Truman did intervene in Korea without bothering to declare war, but he drew the line at nukes. Would such a bombing (or the equivalent with firebombs) of China launched WWIII? Frankly yes, it probably would have.
(7) Everybody knows about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it is commonly cited as the closest time the Cold War ever got, "hot." Yet the criticism JFK received while the ordeal was happening is often overlooked. Tricky Dick said that, "Kennedy pulled defeat out of the jaws of victory." General Curtis LeMay advised a massive bombing run followed by an invasion, and when JFK did not listen, LeMay told the president, "This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich." Imagine an entire planet incinerated over one Caribbean island.
(9) Instead of the Iranian Hostage Crisis taking place when it did, imagine it happening now. Carter's failed rescue attempt is generally criticized as a prime example of leftist weakness, but the war that George Kennan wanted would have likely involved giving an unholy quantity of aid to Saddam Hussein. An American occupied Persia would likely have made the coming Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, well, tense.
(10) The more things change the more they don't. Most everyone behind the scenes of Bush's Iraq invasion tried to convince Clinton of the same thing half a decade earlier. Kagan, Perle, Rumsfeld, and another dozen or so all signed a letter telling Clinton that, "removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power... needs to become the aim of American foreign policy." The charming document was signed "January 26, 1998" meaning that war was perhaps avoided because Clinton was paying too much attention to the Drudge Report...
Can anyone find me a historian who wrote a book about how America's honor was permanently scarred by the USS Baltimore Affair? Are you upset that America can't claim the city of Vancouver as its own? When all is said and done, I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier.