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Time and again, America marches into battle confident of easy victory— only to find that war really is hell.

At a dinner party not too long ago, I met a prominent newsman who, during a conversation about America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, condemned President George W. Bush. He ridiculed Bush’s fanciful belief that the war could be won in a few months with a quick march to Baghdad and a rout of Saddam Hussein’s army. On the way home I found myself wondering if Bush’s overconfidence was so different from the attitude of other American leaders going into war. Soon I was reading what generals, presidents, and politicians from 1776 to the Iraq War were thinking and saying before the shooting started.

To an amazing degree, optimism in a swift, relatively easy war prevailed. We as a nation often march to war with illusions of victory that cloud how we view our enemies, our allies, and ourselves. We dismiss serious threats out of hand, or even invite them, blinded to the reality on the ground by grand ambitions, faith in our ideals, or just wishful thinking.

In 1775 leaders of the Continental Congress were mesmerized by the report issued by Samuel Adams and his colleagues in Massachusetts after the clashes at Lexington and Concord. This masterpiece of propaganda described the Americans as enraged citizens who rushed from their homes and mauled the intimidated British regulars. Omitted from the report was the fact that the “Minute Men” who made up the bulk of the American force were an embryo army that had been training three days a week for almost a year.

From this misleading account, Congress concluded that militia could meet British “mercenaries” as equals on a battlefield, because the Americans were infused with patriotic “spirit.” This was especially true if they outnumbered the enemy four or five to one, as they had during the British retreat from Concord to Boston. This heady impression soon coalesced with a plethora of supposed facts in an enormously influential tract, Common Sense, written by a newly arrived Englishman, Thomas Paine.

The first two-thirds of Common Sense was a savagely brilliant attack against kingship and the claims of a piddling island, Great Britain, to rule a continent. The last third was devoted to assuring Americans it would not be difficult to win independence. The British were still staggering under the enormous debt they had piled up fighting France and Spain in the Seven Years’ War a little more than a decade before, Paine argued, and could not sustain the cost of sending a large army to America.

From this consensus emerged the colonists’ conviction that the war would be settled in their favor in a single clash between a big American army and a small British one—what military thinkers in the 18th century called “a general action.” There was no need for trained regulars. When the newly appointed commander in chief, George Washington, suggested an army of 40,000 men, Congress told him that was far more than needed. Militia could always bolster the regulars to create the overwhelming force that would guarantee victory.

What happened? In 1776 the British appeared in New York harbor with the largest force they had ever sent overseas— 30,000 men, escorted by a fleet of more than 400 warships and transports. Washington meanwhile fielded barely 12,000 regulars, with another 7,000 to 11,000 militia, though their numbers were uncertain because members of the militia went home whenever they felt like it.

In the first major battle of the war, fought in what is now Brooklyn, the British outflanked and routed the Americans. With the help of a providential fog, Washington retreated to Manhattan. A New York clergyman could not understand why Washington had failed “to surround the king’s troops and make them prisoners with little trouble.” Many militia regiments decided against another encounter with the king’s bayonet-wielding regulars and went home en masse. More than a few regulars broke into houses and stole everything portable—a sign that personal profit, not patriotic “spirit,” motivated them.

A grim Washington informed Congress it was time to change strategy. From now on, he wrote, “we should on all occasions avoid a general action or put anything to the risk, unless compelled by a necessity, into which we ought never to be drawn.” Instead they should “protract the war” and make the British quit from exhaustion. It was among the most important letters Washington ever wrote, and his chief claim to being a great general. It also quashed America’s expectation of a short war. It would take another seven wearying years to win victory and independence.

The War of 1812 began with another burst of misplaced optimism. This time the goal was retaliation. As part of its blockade of Napoleon’s France, Great Britain kidnapped American merchant sailors, claiming they were fugitives from the Royal Navy. A group of Western congressmen, soon known as the War Hawks, decided the perfect reprisal would be to seize Canada, whose lands were vast and valuable.

The men in charge of the war, including President James Madison, agreed with Thomas Jefferson, who had argued during his presidency that a militia led by good officers could fight just as well as regulars. Disregarding the chief lesson of the Revolution, amateur armies swarmed into Canada and suffered humiliating defeats to British regulars and Canadian volunteers.

In 1814, British troops landed in Maryland, routed another militia army, and marched to Washington, where they burned the White House, the Capitol, and almost every other public building. It was the ultimate humiliation, and there was talk of impeaching President Madison. The New England states, which had opposed the war, convened a meeting in Hartford to consider secession. Madison’s pride—and that of the nation—was rescued by an improbable victory in distant New Orleans, where Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson shattered another invading British army. Meanwhile, days earlier, the British had accepted a peace treaty proposed by chastened American negotiators, who disavowed any and all interest in Canada.

The Mexican-American War was triggered by the 1845 decision to admit Texas into the Union, despite saber rattling from Mexico. Americans led by Sam Houston had won independence for Texas in 1836 and had since lobbied to join the United States. President James Polk attempted to finesse the situation by offering a bankrupt Mexico $20 million for territory that would complete America’s continental domain—the present states of New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

When Mexico rejected the offer, Polk ordered the American army to advance to the Rio Grande. Though the enemy had an army of 32,000 seasoned veterans—at least four times the size of America’s force of untested soldiers—the president was confident that the regulars, their officer corps bolstered by hundreds of recent West Point graduates, could win a quick peace. When Mexican cavalry attacked an American patrol, Polk in May 1846 asked Congress for a declaration of war.

The Americans won smashing victories at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, making Polk seem prescient, but the Mexicans declined to surrender. The next two battles, in northern Mexico at Monterey and Buena Vista, were far bloodier. Eventually the United States had to recruit and train a volunteer army. It landed at Veracruz and fought its way to Mexico City, where Americans in 1848 effectively dictated a peace treaty at gunpoint. Polk left office the next year an exhausted, dying man.

America’s losses in the Civil War are more and more regarded as the closest the country has come to a holocaust. At least 620,000 Americans died, which in today’s United States would be the equivalent of six million. But this war too began with predictions of swift victory.

Optimism among Northerners rested in part on the impression of slave owners as effete, corrupt, and indolent—a view promoted for 30 years by abolitionists. Southerners, many in the North came to believe, were too weak to resist a determined attack by the virtuous foes of an evil such as slavery. In the South, as rage at such insults mounted, a reflexive defiance fostered the doctrine that one Rebel could defeat 10 canting, lying Yankees.

For Northerners, the battle of Bull Run in 1861 put to rest the notion that their opponents were patsies. Abolitionists and their sympathizers—usually called Radical Republicans—formed a powerful bloc in Congress. They and their allies in the press helped browbeat President Abraham Lincoln into moving against Richmond, despite urgent warnings from his commanding general, Irwin McDowell, that the army was not ready to fight.

Confident members of Congress rode from Washington with the Federal troops. Some brought their wives along, plus picnic baskets, in anticipation of cheering an easy rout.

Most of the Union forces were raw troops summoned by President Lincoln for only 90 days’ service—a stint that reflected the president’s hopes for a short war. They were confident of victory, frequently dropping out of the ranks to pick blueberries and apples on their march to Bull Run, the little stream where the Southern army awaited them. A few hours later the congressmen and their friends joined the panicky remnants of the Federal army in a headlong retreat.

The Confederates would discover the true nature of their enemy the next year at Malvern Hill, the last of the Seven Days’ Battles. Union forces gathered outside Richmond on high ground above sloping, open fields. During the fighting, 20 brigades of Southern infantry advanced across this ground, only to be hurled back by cannon fire. When it was over the South had suffered more than 5,000 casualties.

“It was not war; it was murder,” Confederate general D. H. Hill wrote later.

The Spanish-American War began with two illusions. The first was the belief that it was Spanish agents who destroyed the battleship Maine in the Cuban harbor of Havana. The second was the Americans’ conviction that a majority of the Cubans were ready to fight and if necessary die for independence from Spain—an idea promoted by a wildly inaccurate media. This latter illusion evaporated when the U.S. Army, on the eve of Congress’s declaration of war in April 1898, covertly sent an officer to rebel general Calixto García to ask what assistance to expect from the Cubans. The answer, not revealed until years later, was: nada. García commanded a band of 2,000 half-starved refugees hiding in the mountains. There was no other organized resistance. Almost all the fighting and dying in this short, vicious war was done by Americans.

America’s entry into World War I is perhaps our best example of how ambition and idealism can conspire to create deep illusions. President Woodrow Wilson had run for reelection in 1916 on the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.” But Wilson, an Anglophile, wholeheartedly backed the British, French, and Russians in their cataclysmic clash with Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. His pretensions to neutrality were a sham. He never objected to the British blockade of Germany, and he permitted American corporations and farmers to sell the Allies tens of millions of dollars of war materiel and food.

Wilson and his foreign policy adviser, Edward House, were dupes of the British government. They accepted as gospel Britain’s claim that the Allies were winning the war. Wilson, who saw himself as a man with a mission to save the world, desperately wanted to play a leading role in the peace negotiations that the British assured him were imminent. When the German submarines in 1917 started sinking American ships in the war zone, Wilson seized his chance. Calling Germany an enemy of mankind, he went before Congress and asked for a declaration of war to “make the world safe for democracy.”

As eloquence, Wilson’s speech was a masterpiece. It appealed to the deep springs of idealism in American minds and hearts. Equally attractive was the assumption that victory could be se cured simply by giving the Allies cash as well as naval assistance against Germany’s submarines. There would be no need to send American soldiers to France.

Nothing revealed the power of this myth better than testimony before the Senate by Maj. Palmer S. Pierce, a member of the U.S. Army’s General Staff, three days after Congress declared war. Pierce asked the Senate Finance Committee to authorize $3 billion to enlarge the nation’s army. The chairman of the committee, Thomas Martin, demanded to know how this stupendous sum—at least $50 billion in today’s dollars—would be spent. Major Pierce listed how much it cost to build training camps and buy rifles, artillery, and airplanes. Somewhat nervously, he added: “And we may have to have an army in France.”

“Good Lord!” Martin said. “You’re not going to send soldiers over there, are you?”

A few weeks later British and French military missions arrived in the United States. Along with cash, they wanted American men—fast. The French army was mutinous after another failed offensive. The British army was not in much better shape. The Germans were very close to winning the war. A stunned Wilson did his best to conceal his humiliation. When the fighting ended 18 months later, there were two million American soldiers in France, and another 144,000 had died there.

As World War II opened and turned against the Allies, President Franklin D. Roosevelt frantically tried to insert Americans into the conflict before Adolf Hitler’s armies conquered all of Europe. But the New Dealers could not overcome the massive reluctance of Congress and the American people to get involved in another war abroad.

Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes revealed the president’s solution in his diary. On October 18, 1941, he wrote: “[O]ur best entrance into the war would be by way of Japan…. [I]f we go to war with Japan it will inevitably lead us to war against Germany.” (Japan was loosely allied with Germany and Italy in the so-called Tripartite Pact.) This solution appealed to the president and his advisers because they had little regard for Japan’s military ability. The country had been fighting a war against China since 1937, with only limited success. The New Dealers were convinced that the Japanese could neither shoot, nor sail, nor fly with the skill of white men. Endemic poor eyesight and weak numerical aptitude made them an inferior race. In a 1939 article, military commentator Fletcher Pratt dismissed Japanese warships as top heavy and poorly built and declared that the Japanese could “neither make good airplanes nor fly them well.”

Within six months of Pratt’s pronouncements, the Japanese added the world’s most advanced carrier fighter, the Zero, to their navy. It went unnoticed by the smug Americans and British. As the Zero began dominating the skies over China, Secretary Ickes wrote in his diary: “It seems to be pretty well understood…that the Japanese are naturally poor air men. They cannot cope with the fliers of other nations.”

Roosevelt soon gave his tacit approval to an obvious way to tempt Japan into starting a war: cut off the flow of United States oil that Japan’s war machine required to fight China. Though Japanese diplomats tried to reach a compromise, Roosevelt met these overtures with demands that the Japanese could not possibly accept—including a withdrawal of troops from China.

Roosevelt’s naive view of Japanese strength led to several missteps. He had previously sent 20,000 draftees to defend the Philippines but did nothing to bolster the small Far Eastern naval squadron. Instead he insisted that the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor could protect the Philippines if the Japanese attacked. This was an absurd fantasy—the Philippines were more than 5,000 nautical miles from Hawaii—but Roosevelt held to it, even rebuffing the warnings of Fleet Adm. James O. Richardson that the ships at Pearl Harbor were vulnerable and should be moved to San Diego.

When U.S. code breakers reported a Japanese move was imminent, FDR dropped all pretenses of diplomacy and ordered a hastily armed patrol boat, the Lanikai, into the China Sea in the hope that it would be attacked and sunk by Japanese war ships. The goal: make sure the Japanese could be accused of firing the first shot.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese did exactly that—with a devastating strike at Pearl Harbor. The Americans were totally surprised not only by the accuracy of the Japanese bombers but also by their specially designed shallow-draft torpedoes, which inflicted terrible damage on anchored battleships. At 1 p.m. that disastrous day, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox visited Roosevelt in the Oval Office. Later he described the president as “white as a sheet. He was visibly shaken…. [H]e expected to get hit; but he did not expect to get hurt.”

Knox was as shaken as the president. Three days before Pearl Harbor, he had told a group of businessmen that the United States would almost certainly be at war with Japan in a few days. But there was no need to worry, he said. The war would not last more than six months.

In the Philippines, three days after Pearl Harbor, Japanese fighter planes and bombers destroyed most of America’s air force on the ground. An agitated Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had made no attempt to disperse or conceal the planes, wailed that Tokyo must have acquired Germans or some white mercenaries to fly their planes. Not long after this debacle, the Japanese navy crippled a combined Allied fleet in the Java Sea.

In a desperate speech on December 9, Roosevelt did his utmost to link Hitler’s war machine to the attack on Pearl Harbor—a difficult feat since the Germans were as surprised as the Americans. Hitler, infuriated by Roosevelt’s insults, declared war on the United States, and the conflict FDR yearned to fight became a reality. The war with Japan tormented the Americans in the Pacific for the next four years. Japanese armies soon invaded the Philippines, capturing more than 20,000 American soldiers and sailors and subjecting them to years of cruel treatment in prison camps. Only hairsbreadth victories in the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway rescued Australia and Hawaii from conquest. After the war, a bitter Admiral Richardson wrote: “I believe the President’s responsibility for our initial defeats in the Pacific was direct, real and personal.”

America in its conflicts later in the 20th century followed the same painful pattern. It entered confident of easy victory, only to be rudely surprised by reality and find itself struggling to adapt. The 1991 Gulf War is the only exception to this sobering rule—there we intervened with massive force against an unprepared Iraqi army that was engaged in a virtually bloodless conquest of Kuwait. We fought the war we planned at the outset with amazing success, suffering only 146 battlefield deaths.

But President George H. W. Bush succumbed to the illusion that the people of Iraq, unarmed and untrained, could somehow take control of their government. The CIA–run radio, the Voice of Free Iraq, and the Arabic service of the Voice of America urged them to revolt—while Bush withdrew the 540,000-man American army. The civilians that we abandoned were soon suffering again at the hands of the ruthless Saddam Hussein.

Is there an explanation for why America enters its wars with such grand illusions? Historian Lloyd Gardner, an expert in American foreign policy, offers a good, if not complete, answer that’s also faintly consoling. In the mid-1980s, Gardner wrote A Covenant with Power, an influential book in which he argued that Americans like to see their covenant with the world—or their relationship with it—through the lens of the ideals proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. In other words, we believe that because our intentions in war—our causes—are noble and good, triumph should be inevitable and swift. But wars have taught us again and again that idealism does not create power. Wars remind us with their ultimate realism that power has to be sustained by force.

This conflict between idealism and realism is an often bloodstained thread that runs through America’s history. It was certainly evident in Vietnam. The U.S. military won a costly seven-year jungle war there, then left behind in South Vietnam an infant nation that was as committed to freedom as the South Korean state that emerged from the Korean War. But the Democratic majority in Congress, succumbing to a decade of antiwar agitation and its hatred of President Richard Nixon, sabotaged this birth of a nation by cutting the support the Vietnamese needed. The Democrats’ decision was rooted in idealism—an attempt to purify American foreign policy combined with the sort of naiveté about why and how men fight that resembled the Continental Congress’s confidence about militia with “spirit.” Meanwhile North Vietnam’s communist allies refitted its battered army and launched the massive tank-led 1975 attack that destroyed South Vietnam.

Gardner’s theory was also on display in the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. George W. Bush and his military planners fervently believed in the transformative power of democracy. The Iraqi people, after suffering for years under a vicious tyrant, would greet U.S. troops as liberators. Peace would naturally follow, they stubbornly assumed, only to discover that powerful ideals can’t always tidy up a messy and dangerous reality.

Nothing sums up this tension in America’s history better than an exchange between that quintessential idealist, President Woodrow Wilson, and Georges Clemenceau, the prime minister of France after World War I. Wilson urged the brutally realistic Frenchman to rely on the power of ideals in the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Clemenceau, who had spent several years in the United States during the 1860s, countered that Wilson did not understand how Americans had won their independence. The decisive factor was not Thomas Jefferson’s ideals in the Declaration of Independence; it was the regulars of George Washington’s Continental Army, plus the French fleet and army that played crucial roles in the climactic victory at Yorktown. Wilson was reduced to uncharacteristic silence.


Originally published in the Autumn 2010 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here