“There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: the American Revolution, World War II and the Star Wars Trilogy.” – Bart Simpson
There have been times in our history when a declaration of war could not come fast enough.
Most students have knowledge of a list of conflicts considered the major wars of US history: the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and the Iraq War (I don’t think we count Afghanistan yet. If I’m wrong, let me know.)
Yet these have not been our only use of military force. According to a report published by the Congressional Research Service, the United States has been involved in hundreds of military actions since independence. Most have been actions recommended by the President and authorized by Congress. In some cases, a country declares war on us, and we don’t bother–we simply blow them up.
Whatever the case, here are some of our “small wars”, our smaller military engagements overseas.
What happens when you have to pay a bill from a restaurant that’s “under new management”? You get a naval war with France. The French Revolution put a stopper on the alliance the United States signed with the old Kingdom of France in 1778. Along the way, the US decided to no longer repay its debts to France, arguing that they made a treaty with the previous government, not the current one. Furthermore, the 1795 Jay Treaty helped smooth things over with Great Britain. France responds by going ape-shit on our shipping, capturing hundreds of tons of US cargo. This brief scuffle existed mostly at sea, and a sit-down with Napoleon Bonaparte in 1800 settled the matter–far too late to get John Adams re-elected President. Maybe Johnny should’ve turned this one into the real thing.
The Middle East was always a pain in our ass, dating back to Thomas Jefferson. The Barbary States of Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli were supposedly part of the Ottoman Empire, but they decided to ignore Constantinople since the 17th century for big money. These states supported pirate fleets across the Mediterranean, and demanded tribute from European powers wishing to sail in its turf. The British and French could afford the payouts, but not the US. They tried paying out in the 1780s, but the Barbary demands proved too much. Cue the nascent US Navy, whose four frigates and numerous small craft dealt a four-year pounding to the Barbary fleets–and helped create the Navy’s first heroes. It also helped that Britain and France were too busy fighting each other to mind. Treaties were signed by 1805, but apparently didn’t stick. By 1815, another whupping was needed. This time, they got the message.
Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to be the nice guy. The United States had a mission in China since the early 1800s, when the European powers were carving up the country into “spheres of influence.” The US decided to take the high road and enforce all countries to trade equally with China through the “Treaty ports” as in Canton, pictured above. Our forces found out, really quickly, that (a) keeping the foreigners in line was no easy task, and (b) keeping the locals in check was even harder. Throughout the 19th Century, the US would be engaged in skirmishes with locals, pirates, smugglers, other navies, etc. The climax was the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, which pitted rebellious Chinese–and their do-nothing government–against an eight-nation supersquad armed to the teeth. By now, the Americans were sick of being the nice guy and just wanted to get what’s coming. Our forces would be in China, off and on, until the Communist takeover of 1949. Something told me Chairman Mao was not thrilled about having us there.
America got into the imperialism business late: by the time we entered whole-hog in 1898, all the good stuff was taken–damn you, Belgium! Anyway, the only way to get our own foreigners to boss around was to steal them from someone else. Who better to steal from than the wounded gazelle that is the Spanish Empire. The Spanish-American War in 1898 gained us a colonial empire virtually overnight. The Philippines, however, did not understand this, and had the nerve to revolt against their US “liberators”. So began a brutal war of attrition that officially ended with the surrender of the rebels in 1902, but would continue sporadically in the hinterlands until 1913. The intervention was extremely controversial in the States, with Mark Twain doing his best Sean Penn impression as a celebrity meddling in politics. Thus began another great American tradition–celebrities sticking their noses in places where they don’t belong.
Another one of America’s great sticking points is Mexico–or as Zachary Taylor may have called it, “the part we didn’t steal.” I think they’re better off without California, to be honest. Anyway, the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1929 was putting Mexico into political and social turmoil. The American military was monitoring the situation closely, especially that of an erratic guerrilla leader named Francisco “Pancho” Villa. In 1915, in retaliation for US support of a rival presidential candidate, Villa’s forces crosse the border and attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico. A 10,000 man force led by General John Pershing was sent to find and punish Villa. The men found tequila and the brothels, instead, as Pershing was bogged down by orders and directives from Washington. The men withdrew in January 1917, just in time for the big dust-up across the Atlantic.
Remember the Monroe Doctrine? That 1825 protocol that stated that European nations cannot meddle in affairs in the Western Hemisphere? Well, for at least a century, the United States felt this was carte blanche to do whatever we wanted. Teddy Roosevelt even said so in his Roosevelt Corollary of 1904, when he extended US “police powers” to any Central or South American country that reneged on its debt payments. In this case, the US felt that the Panama Canal wasn’t enough: a bigger canal was needed across Nicaragua. Federal troops entered the country in order to (a) make sure no other country tries to build a canal, and (b) prop up the conservative governments in Nicaragua that have been so friendly to US interests. Yet time and the Great Depression would take their toll. The long-standing–and expensive–occupation ended in 1933 when Augusto Sandino led a group of revolutionaries against the occupation forces. US forces would withdraw, only to fight a proxy war with the same group fifty years later. Who do you think the Contras were fighting against? Does the word Sandinista ring a bell?
In 1916, after a period of political instability, the United States issued a warning to the Dominican Republic: pick a president or we’ll pick one for you. The guy the Dominicans picked turned out to be a dud, so the United States invaded the island nation and established a military dictatorship that lasted until 1924. The Dominicans, naturally, resisted this foreign rule, and rebellions were met with brutal suppression by US forces. However, the dictatorship managed to do what previous Dominican governments couldn’t–balance the budget, preserve order and stability, lowered the debt, built new roads and created a professional military for the country. By 1924, agreements between the DR and the US provided for free elections to be held, and the occupation was over. Today, Santo Domingo’s greatest ballplayers have come to return the favor.
Hispaniola is a small island, after all, and Haiti wanted its share of US aggression, as well. By 1915 Haiti had 6 presidents in 4 years, all of whom were killed or forced into exile. The US was worried that a German contingent in Haiti would wield too much power, so forces were sent in 1915 to “protect American and foreign interests.” They stayed as the de facto government until 1934. All decisions by the Haitian government had to be okayed by the military occupation. Infrastructure was built using forced labor gangs. Education was reorganized so that both rich and poor were equally pissed off. A rebellion in 1918 was crushed by Marines to the tune of 2000 Haitians dead. Even withdrawal between 1932 and 1934 didn’t help: Haiti would see a series of US-backed military dictatorships for the next half century.