The History of American Wars

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Nowhere in T. Harry Williams’ history does one find William Tecumseh Sherman’s 1879 remark, “War is Hell,” for Williams’ purpose is not to present war as a destroyer of lives and property, a destroyer, indeed, of cultures. Rather, Williams provides an objective, dispassionate, scholarly overview of America’s military past. His focus is upon successes and failures, brilliance and bungling, coups and catastrophes. As the book is divided into chapters devoted to the wars and to the periods between them, the “interludes,” he discusses also the political and social causes and effects of America’s wars, from the first organized colonial attack against Louisbourg in French Canada in 1745 through World War I, “the war to end all wars.”

The author seldom records the “shrieks and groans of the wounded” Sherman mentioned in his 1879 speech. Only in a handful of instances does Williams give such horrible and horrifying details, and even then, they are given as examples of guerrilla tactics or are shown to be exceptions to expected rules.

For example, after the war with Spain, the American army was unable to suppress the insurgent Filipinos. The native rebels did not particularly like the idea of exchanging their Spanish oppressors for American occupation—even though the American President said they were bringing “civilization” to the islands. Thus, the Filipinos continued to fight following the official end of the war and enjoyed the support of many of their countrymen. Finally in frustration over failure to gain information about rebel activities, the army developed the “water cure,” in which water was forced into the stomach of an individual until he gave the desired information. A more humorous example is provided by the citizen soldiers of the American Revolution, who had the audacity to shoot at and kill British officers, a most ungentlemanly behavior, but then the rebels often acted in unorthodox ways.

The basic value of a work such as The History of American Wars, however, is not in the insights one may gain in regard to any one conflict. The importance comes from Williams’ long view, his two-hundred-year perspective which allows his readers to see the cultural changes which have affected both the military and the civilian population.

Over the years, Americans have come to view most military conflicts through a kind of patriotic mist. That mist has obscured the fact that there has never been a war—whether declared by the Congress or not—which has received total support from the population.

Had there been bumper stickers in 1776, the popular slogan of the 1960’s, “Love It or Leave It,” certainly would have been appropriate. Most contemporary histories admit the absence of total support by the colonists for the rebellion against “the Mother Country,” but the enormity of the dissent against this most sacred of wars seldom is shown. Williams points out that of the two million white male inhabitants in the colonies at the time of war (women and most blacks were excluded from consideration), 700,000 either opposed the rebellion or did not care one way or the other who won it. Although firm figures are not available, most historians agree there were 500,000 Loyalists, or Tories, whose sympathies were with Britain. According to Williams, “it is known that 50,000 Loyalists served with the British armies.” To be “disloyal” was not an easy decision, and “in the Revolution, enlistment was for many men a wrenching act of rebellion.” The Continental Congress itself spent a year in debate before independence was declared.

The question of dissent relative to the Revolution also shows one of the strengths of Williams’ book—his balancing of viewpoints. Originally historians and political analysts accepted the idea that the colonies were fighting for “home rule,” for democracy. Later revisionist historians proposed that the fight was not over home rule but over “who should rule at home,” that is, over internal political considerations. Still later, Williams adds, the view developed that the colonists “enjoyed about as much democracy as they desired.” They did not rebel for more freedom but to keep that which they possessed and which “Britain had tried to subvert.”

For the Federalists in New England, the War of 1812 was evidence that the federal government had violated America’s political ideals. No war until Vietnam generated as much active opposition as did the declaration against Britain, a declaration supposedly based upon the principle of freedom of the seas, but based actually—in the Federalists’ view—on an attempt to gain more agricultural land by capturing Canada. For many New Englanders, this was a political ploy, a manipulation so blatant that the governor of Massachusetts called upon his people to fast to “atone” for the behavior of the central government. New England was such a locus of dissent that almost no bank in that area agreed to lend money to Washington for military purposes, merchants continued to trade with Canada, and some states refused to allow their militias to serve outside the state borders, thereby refusing support to any invasion of Canada.

Finally in 1814, delegates from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire met in the Hartford Convention to develop a plan of action against the federal government. Although they considered but rejected secession from the Union, they did send emissaries to Washington with a list of demands. Only news of Jackson’s victory in New Orleans and of the...

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The History of American Wars Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Business Week. July 20, 1981, p. 10.

Choice. XIX, November, 1981, p. 438.

Commentary. LXXII, November, 1981, p. 109.

The Economist. CCLXXX, July 18, 1981, p. 93.

Library Journal. CVI, June 1, 1981, p. 1220.

The New Republic. CLXXXIV, June 27, 1981, p. 32.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, August 2, 1981, p. 13.

The New Yorker. LVII, September 28, 1981, p. 159.