Since the Civil War, America has seldom seen a generation of peace. In fact, a nonstop succession of wars has kept what Eisenhower termed "the military industrial complex" in lucrative business. From the Indian Wars to the World Wars to the Cold War to the war on Terror, Americana has expanded its foothold as an imperial power every step of the way -- even when isolationism appeared to be momentarily in vogue following World War I. This paper will look at the history of the progression of war in America from 1865 to present, showing how that history -- through social, economic, literary, political, and religious changes -- has both shaped and been shaped by American foreign and domestic policy.
Unit Once: 1865-1876
The Civil War had just ended on the home front, but that did not mean that America was at peace in 1865. Domestically, the effects of the bloodiest war on American soil were still felt in war-ravaged southern states, now crippled beyond measure. Yet, with the desire to expand its borders westward, the country proceeded to continue to wage war against the Native American tribes that failed to submit to American dominance. These were the Indian Wars, in which several tribes such as the Comanche and the Sioux contended with the American government on the Great Plains; the Navajo and the Apache in the southwest; the Nez Perce in the northwest; and more.
One of the most famous battles of this history is the Battle of Little Bighorn, which was waged by General George S. Custer in 1876, after he and a small number of his men (separated from their much larger unit) came upon the Lakota, who vastly outnumbered them and were led by Crazy Horse. Custer's defeat was popularized by saloons and the legend of "Custer's Last Stand" grew into a vision of American determinism. All the same, the war against the tribes was not embraced by all.
As James P. Boyd, one social issue America faced was how to peacefully deal with the tribes upon whose land the settlers were encroaching. Manifest Destiny had already been coined by John L. O'Sullivan in his 1845 issue of The Democratic Review which assured Americans that it was their fate "to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions" (Westward Expansion, 2011), and the effects of that pronouncement had already been seen in the expansionist wars inspired by Stephen F. Austin who spoke "grandly of colonizing the Mexican province of Texas with 'North American population, enterprise and intelligence'" (Westward Expansion).
Herman Melville, perhaps more than any other American author, sensed the crudity of the massacring of the Indian tribes -- and his American classic would ironically set the most famous whaling crew of all time aboard a ship named the Pequod, after the New England Pequot tribe (of the Algonquin family), a group of Native Americans that had been virtually wiped out as a "socio-political entity" in Connecticut. Melville's "in memoriam" was a reminder of the blood upon which the great industry of American civilization had been built -- Protestant and violent, its culture was made of a self-righteous ethos that would never cease to clamor for war as its mission expanded, just as Ahab's voyage does, around the globe.
Melville, of course, was not the only one to be horrified by the Indian Wars. According to Boyd (2000), "the Sioux war of 1876 'was dishonorable to the nation, and disgraceful to those who originated.' Such is the language of the Commissioners, appointed to negotiate for the surrender of the Black Hills and unceded Indian country, defined in the treaty of 1868, in their report to the President" (p. 129). Society, therefore, was not unaware of the viciousness with which the Native Americans were persecuted; but they also mindful of the savagery the tribes inflicted on settlers. The power of the United States, however, proved to be mightier in the end. But as Melville indicated, even that ship would sink at some point.
Unit II: 1877-1920
The Spanish-American War in 1898 began what has become known as the war conspiracy -- the knack with which America seems to be able to provoke popular sentiment against a foreign power. It happened in this unit when the American battleship Maine mysteriously sank in the Havana harbor. The American Media, already demonstrating its ability to whip up a frenzy of war-mongering, broadcasted the death of 266 sailors aboard the U.S.S. Maine as an atrocity of war -- an attack by the Spanish against America. President McKinley, who had hoped to avoid being drawn into a war, allowed his hand to be forced by the publications of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, whose yellow journalism convinced the American public that Spain's presence in Cuba was the reason American lives had been lost -- that Spain was to blame for the sinking of the Maine. Later investigations, of course, would show that the explosion that sank the battleship had come from within -- not from without -- and no evidence of Spanish aggression was ever found. But that did not deter the U.S. from declaring war. The theater expanded from Cuba to the Philippines, where Spanish forces were crushed by American naval power. Spain finally signed a peace treaty at the end of the 19th century, and America set up one of its most controversial bases in Guantanamo Bay.
The conflict, however, was just the beginning. America now had a taste of Imperial power, and it began to show itself in the Philippines, which the U.S. attempted to annex. The Philippine Republic, wishing to have independence for the foreign power, declared war against the U.S., and from 1899 to 1902, American forces occupied Southeast Asia and attempted to alter the colonial effects left by the Spanish.
One religious issue the country now faced was its tendency to promote WASP ideology: in the Philippines the Catholic Church was suppressed as a matter of American policy -- a policy that would also be shown on the home front in the early 20th century, as WASP ideals led to support of a cultural war between the Protestant elite and the Catholic immigrants increasing in political power in urban areas (Jones 140).
In response to the war in the Philippines, American author Mark Twain helped found the Anti-Imperialist League, which opposed the tendency to force American policy on peoples who did not consent to it. The Anti-Imperialist League, however, did not garner the popular support it needed to make much of a political difference. The war machine was already turning, and the 20th century would see an increase in American Imperialism. The Banana Wars in Latin America would last into the first half of the 20th century and some Filipinos would continue to rebel against American forces. By 1917, however, America would have a new distraction: World War I.
American entry into World War I in 1917 had come in despite of President Wilson's insistence that America remain neutral in the affairs of Europe. Again, the same tactics that roused public opinion to vote for war against Spain, now were used to urge Americans to enter the fray in Europe. Americans were shocked to learn from the media that Germany had torpedoed the British passenger liner RMS Lusitania, aboard which had been 128 Americans. The sinking of the Lusitania, like the sinking of the Maine, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the felling of the Twin Towers, was all that was needed to get the military industrial complex cranking again.
Unit III: 1921-1945
Following the conclusion of World War I, Americans appeared to desire to spend less attention in foreign affairs. The 1920s were a decade of a kind of domestic euphoria: the European "villains" had been defeated; America was strong; it was time for high living. The decade, as Paul Sann (1957) observes, has become known as the Lawless Decade -- it was one in which Charles Ponzi established model for the destructive banking schemes that would cause the Great Depression (in both 1929 and 2008); it was in which prohibition saw a Puritanical domestic crusade against alcohol turn into a war against bootleggers like Al Capone; it was one in which the Hays Production Code attempted to give Hollywood a spiritual gloss (following the trial of Fatty Arbuckle, which ruined his career); it was one in which domestic politics became a war of ideologies: a "battle between Rural American and the Big City, between Dry and Wet, between the true-blue Protestant and the shanty Irishman" (Sann, 1957).
The Irishman in this case was Al Smith, a Catholic politician whose bid for the White House ran up against a religious obstacle -- his faith. Despite Smith's popular stance against Prohibition, Herbert Hoover defeated the sincere, noble, realistic governor of New York; Smith was defeated by the bloated and self-righteous speeches of another politician…