Academic journal article McNair Papers

2. from Triumph to Crisis: World War II to Vietnam

Academic journal article McNair Papers

2. from Triumph to Crisis: World War II to Vietnam

Article excerpt

It is difficult to overstate the influence World War II had on the United States. With its entry into World War II, the United States began a course that marked a fundamental shift from the key tenet that had defined its political and military policies since President George Washington had warned the nation in his 1796 farewell address to "steer clear of permanent alliances, with any portion of the foreign world." (1) For the first time in its history, the United States was committed to the concept of collective security it had avoided following World War I, when it refused to join the League of Nations. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States became a player on the world stage and committed itself to further alliances guaranteed by its military might, defined for the services by their experiences in World War II.

In the main, each service had executed, with some adaptation, its prewar doctrine and had triumphed. The success of these doctrines in practice, at the head of a wartime alliance that had won the greatest conflict in human history, seemed to fulfill the services' prewar assumptions. In the aftermath of war, the tested paradigms formed the frames of reference for the generation of military leaders who led the Armed Forces of the United States into a future fundamentally different than the past.

The anchor of the alliances made by the United States was the imperative to contain Communism, viewed largely as a monolithic Soviet-led threat, until the waning years of the Vietnam War. The world had seemingly become bipolar and aligned in either the American or Soviet camp. Furthermore, the World War II experience framed how American policymakers viewed geopolitical issues. To many, the war was caused by the attempts of the Western democracies to appease, rather than confront, Hitler's aggression. Thus, Munich became a powerful symbol for a generation of statesmen and soldiers who argued for preparedness and the willingness to take a stand against aggression. (2) Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe seemed ominously familiar and clearly threatening.

The new American policy of containment was a radical departure from the traditional American military policy of defending the nation. In the aftermath of World War II, the military forces of the United States demobilized as they had after every war; it was, however, a temporary demobilization. For the first time in its history, the United States resolved to maintain a large peacetime military establishment to counter the "threat by the monolithic mass of Communistic Imperialism." (3) Thus, the new centerpiece of American military strategy, enunciated in 1948 by the State Department, was a new reality that recognized:

   while war "is always a possibility," the main purpose in
   maintaining armed forces was to provide "support for our
   political position"; other purposes were to act "as a
   deterrent," to encourage other nations attempting to resist
   Soviet aggression, and to %rage war successfully if war
   should develop." (4)

The passage in 1948 of a peacetime selective service law enabled the United States to maintain the active duty military posture necessary to support containment. A large National Guard and Reserve force undergirded the active component. (5)

Service Roles and Missions

The implications of a continual East-West confrontation, in the presence of nuclear weapons, had significant ramifications for the nation and its Armed Forces. Foremost among these issues were determining service roles and missions and national security policies. If there was any single military lesson from World War II, it was that air, sea, and land forces had to operate jointly. The highly decentralized and simplistic prewar conception, with the Army responsible for land operations and the Navy focused on command of the sea, was clearly inadequate. Still, plans to unify the armed services met stiff opposition, particularly from naval officers who believed their service would suffer in the postwar competition for resources with the Army and the Air Force. …

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