Revisionist Examination of Motivation for America's Wars

By Falk, Stanley L. | Army, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Revisionist Examination of Motivation for America's Wars


Falk, Stanley L., Army


Revisionist Examination of Motivation for America's Wars The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000. Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton. Viking. 520 pages; illustrations; maps; notes; index; $27.95.

In the two and one-half centuries since the American Revolution, the United States has been involved in an almost steady stream of wars. These include major wars-the Revolution itself, the Civil War, the two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam; lesser but still important conflicts-the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War; and a host of smaller military engagements, including the century-long Indian wars, fought on battlegrounds from Florida to California. All of these had a clear impact on the form and development of the nation-geographically, economically and politically-and on how America related to the rest of the world. The United States is, indeed, a country shaped by war, and it is this concept that constitutes the basis of Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton's stimulating and provocative study of American military history.

The two authors are academic historians with impressive publication records. They postulate two basic themes. The first is the very obvious effect of wars on the growing nation. They have little difficulty illustrating this relationship, although conceivably paying insufficient heed to a number of other key contributing factors. Still, their point is well made.

Their second theme is perhaps more original, certainly more complex and not as easily proven. American wars, they argue, that have long been regarded as having been fought for liberty and the spread of freedom were in fact begun for less idealistic purposes. They were, insist the authors, the result of "imperial ambition" and fought "less to preserve liberty than to extend the power of the United States in the name of liberty." America is thus no different than other imperial powers that sought to impose their rule on allegedly dangerous, unstable or desirable peripheral regions while claiming more altruistic motives. This proposition, while not entirely new, is stated here more boldly and explicitly than in many previous examinations of our history. It is difficult to ignore, however much one may question it.

Professors Anderson and Cayton support their thesis with a broad survey of American military history structured on the lives and times of eight key leaders. The first of these was the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who founded New France in Canada even as British colonies were establishing themselves further south along the Atlantic coast. Champlain's alliances with the Indians laid the groundwork for a century and a half of Anglo-French imperial conflict in North America. These struggles also saw the coercive exploitation of native tribes by both sides, setting a pattern for what would follow in future years. Then, the eventual triumph of British over French imperialism would lead in turn to the American Revolution and the establishment of what the authors term a new "imperial republic."

Meanwhile, in contrast to the violence that characterized most Anglo-French relations with the Indians, a different example was being set by the pacifist William Penn in the British colony that bore his name. Penn, an Englishman who died half a century before the American Revolution, offered the Indians peace, fair trade and benevolent treatment. He thus earned not only their trust, but also the means by which Pennsylvania flourished and expanded into Indian lands to its immediate west. This proved indeed to be the most efficient method of enlarging British territory in North America. It differed from the pattern of military expansion prevalent elsewhere but nonetheless marked Penn as a more successful imperialist than any of his fellow countrymen.

The Anglo-French struggles for eastern North America were part of a century-long series of dynastic and colonial wars fought in Europe and Asia as well as on this side of the Atlantic. …

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