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The Myth of the Inevitable War

U.S. military forces planned to ultimately seize Canada’s rich mineral resources around Sudbury, Ontario, but in the interim, they would launch surprise attacks on the key ports of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Vancouver. While many planners disliked the prospect of using poison gas on civilians, it was essential to knock out those strategic centers swiftly, before the British mounted their inevitable counter-offensive. The British amphibious invasion would most likely land between Ocean City, Md., and Rehoboth Beach, Del.

If the above sounds like a Harry Turtledove alternative history scenario, it isn’t. What I have just described is the War Plan Red developed by the U.S. armed forces in the late 1920s, which remained on the books as a formal contingency plan through 1939. Such planning—and many other imaginary scenarios developed before it—reminds us of how frequently the U.S. and other nations have identified particular foes who would certainly demand to be defeated and destroyed. Often has the refrain gone: if war with such an enemy is utterly inevitable, why not start it now, and get it over with?

A little historical perspective, though, should make us quite humble about the whole notion of “inevitability,” not to mention the prospect of perpetual enemies.

Two centuries ago, in 1815, the British Empire was fighting two key enemies, respectively: France’s Emperor Napoleon and the new United States of America. Although Britain and the U.S. formally concluded hostilities the previous year, the culminating Battle of New Orleans did not occur until the start of 1815. The decisive British victory at Waterloo followed in June.

Had you told any informed observer in 1815 that Britain would never again engage in formal hostilities against either of those nations—not even in two entire centuries—you would have probably have been labeled as insane. Rivalry with the French had been the absolutely consistent factor in British affairs since 1689, and was clearly not going to vanish overnight. As historian Jules Michelet sagely remarked later in the 19th century, in understanding world affairs, there is France and Britain, and that is all.

For the rest of the 19th century, the question of the next Anglo-French war would be when, not if. Tensions reached ugly heights in the late 1850s, immediately after the Anglo-French cooperation in the Crimean War. During the Indian Mutiny of 1857, patriotic French newspapers suggested immediately sending the fleet to help the rebels evict the British Raj. Britain suffered a full-scale invasion scare in 1859-60, when volunteer rifle companies sprang up across the country to resist the threat of French occupation. The two countries came within an ace of open warfare in 1898, over colonial rivalries on the Nile.

Somehow, though, the inevitable struggle never occurred. One can legitimately point out that the two armed forces were at war in the 1940s, when the British fought to evict the Vichy French from colonial territories like Syria and Madagascar. Technically, though, this fell short of actual declared warfare, and the resulting battles have slipped into the realm of polite oblivion.

But even if the French menace could somehow be contained, surely the next American war was truly only a matter of time.

In Herman Melville’s books, especially White-Jacket (1850), we repeatedly are given the sense that conflict on the seas was imminent and inevitable. Naval and imperial rivalries made warfare certain, as did U.S.-Canadian border rivalries: frontier disputes in the Oregon territory stirred American war fever in the 1840s. Between 1840 and 1900, serious war scares were running at about one per decade.

At the start of the Civil War, heavy-handed U.S. actions against Confederate envoys on the high seas almost brought the British into the struggle. The U.S. owes an immense debt to Prince Albert, who drafted the diplomatic documents that kept the British out of war, and presumably saved the American Union. Time and again, from the 1860s onwards, border-crossing activities by Irish guerrillas threatened to sabotage the fragile U.S.-British modus vivendi. The two countries once more came close to war over Venezuela’s borders in the 1890s.

And that brings us to the 1920s, the era of War Plan Red. To U.S. commanders observing the likely military future at that time, by far the deadliest danger they could foresee was a British-Japanese alliance that would overwhelm the U.S. Navy. Canada, tragically, would be the battleground between the two great English-speaking nations, those inevitable foes destined to fight until only one survived. Who can withstand destiny?

Needless to say, none of those nightmare scenarios ever came to fruition. Somehow, the British evolved from being our eternal foes to becoming those nice folk across the pond who send us Masterpiece Theatre and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Other seemingly inevitable crises likewise failed to materialize.

People of the boomer generation might remember the hyperventilated coverage of Chinese events during the Cultural Revolution of the post-1966 decade. According to most reports, the country had seemingly created a generation of tens of millions of crazed fanatics pledged to world conquest. How could they be stopped, short of a nuclear pre-emptive strike (which the Russians were actually contemplating in 1969)?

The Cultural Revolution was indeed a ghastly tragedy for the Chinese people, but the feared external aggressions never occurred. By the late 1970s, the main organizers of that fanaticism were themselves discredited and imprisoned, and China was ready to rejoin the world community. Again, the “inevitable” proved to be an illusion. Somehow, too, the “unavoidable” global clash between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was, well, avoided.

We can debate the best means of preventing wars, and sometimes, a strong and vigilant military might indeed be the best way of keeping the peace. But if anyone ever says today that conflict with a particular nation or cause is “inevitable,” whether that contemporary foe is Iran, China or Russia, history offers plenty of reasons to doubt such claims. Somewhere down the road, in fact, those adversaries might become our best friends. Never say never.

Or to quote Lord Palmerston, speaking of England: We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies.

Philip Jenkins is the author of Images of Terror: What We Can and Can’t Know About Terrorism [1]. He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "The Myth of the Inevitable War"

#1 Comment By Patrick Harris On May 13, 2015 @ 12:15 pm

I’m not sure I would read too far into War Plan Red; the military has long had contingency plans for all sorts of unlikely scenarios. The basis of War Plan Red was the empirical fact that a British/Japanese alliance was the only remotely plausible combination that could seriously threaten the US with a two-front war in the Western Hemisphere (at least in the 1920’s). Might as well be prepared, no?

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On May 13, 2015 @ 1:01 pm

I dunno, the imposition of Cumberbatch looks like a sneaky assault on the cultural patrimony of our Homeland. Didn’t he play Assange? Why not get it over with now, and launch a pre-emptive war to prevent far worse? We need to “Buck up” – ultimately it is even our precious bodily fluids that will be at stake.

#3 Comment By Room 237 On May 13, 2015 @ 3:42 pm

@PAtrick

ALso keep in mind that War Plan Red was not the only war plan. War Plan Orange for example postulated a Japanese attack on the Philippines followed by the US military engaging in leapfrog maneuvers recapturing islands in the Pacific, until eventually Japan would be blockaded.

Silly war plan, nothing happened like that at all.

#4 Comment By J Harlan On May 13, 2015 @ 3:56 pm

The Canadian Defence Scheme No. 1 called for it’s militia to invade New York State and run amok until the Royal Navy saved them. Canadian officers conducted covert intelligence gathering mission sin the 1920s and 30s. The plan was shelved in 1939 and the US and Canada signed the Ogdensburg Agreement in 1940 in which the us promised to protect Canada so it could ship troops overseas to fight Germany.

#5 Comment By Fran Macadam On May 13, 2015 @ 4:48 pm

” The basis of War Plan Red was the empirical fact that a British/Japanese alliance was the only remotely plausible [sic] combination that could seriously threaten the US with a two-front war in the Western Hemisphere (at least in the 1920′s). Might as well be prepared, no?”

Right after both the British and Canadians fought side by side with America just a few years previously?

Defense? No. Notably, pre-emptive plans for invasion and occupation.

Winning hearts and minds one occupied country at a time…?

How would we have responded if the Canadians had had such a plan? Might as well attack sooner rather than waiting for speculative future 1% Cheneyist probabilities?

The great journalist I.F. Stone was right never to trust the government – they are not in the business of telling the public the truth.

#6 Comment By RadicalCenter On May 13, 2015 @ 5:59 pm

Excellent analysis. Just one note. The author writes, “sometimes, a strong and vigilant military might indeed be the best way of keeping the peace.” I’d say that a strong and vigilant military is ALWAYS needed to maximize the chance of avoiding war, and of winning it if it cannot be avoided.

“Vigilant”, however, doesn’t mean “go out looking for trouble” like the US government done for decades.

#7 Comment By Tom On May 14, 2015 @ 8:03 pm

Right after both the British and Canadians fought side by side with America just a few years previously?

It was also right after both the British and Canadians fought side-by-side with Japan just a few years previously. In fact, the Imperial Japanese Navy was responsible for the defense of the Canadian Pacific coast during World War I.

The Anglo-Japanese alliance was a formal alliance that had stood for over a decade. There weren’t any likely points of conflict between Britain and Japan — that was why they became allies in the first place. The Japanese also joined the League of Nations, pledging to preserve the integrity of any other member of the League.

In contrast, the United States had insisted on being an Associated Power rather than an Allied Power. There was no formal alliance — just an association. The Americans also presumed to lecture the British at Versailles. To add insult to injury, they refused to join the League of Nations that they themselves had set up.

Conflict between the British Empire and either nation was unlikely, but if you had to pick one in 1920, you’d pick the United States. Similarly, if someone told you in 1900 that a European nation would kill its Jews within the next 50 years, you’d pick Russia.

History has a way of turning out differently from our expectations. In fact, isn’t that the whole point of this post? We should act on actual events, rather than assuming that our worst fears would come to pass.

#8 Comment By Worried On May 14, 2015 @ 10:53 pm

Re: “the hyperventilated coverage of Chinese events during the Cultural Revolution”

I recently watched Ingmar Bergman’s 1962 film “Winter Light.” This features Max von Sydow as a man who gets so depressed upon hearing that China is developing the Bomb that he commits suicide. From today’s perspective, the sad thing is that if he’d waited a few decades, he would have found that the Chinese were more interested in selling consumer products and getting rich, than in blowing up the world.

#9 Comment By str On May 15, 2015 @ 4:08 am

My guess is that what eliminated Britain as a possible enemy of the U.S. is that the 2nd World War weakened Britain so much that it could no longer play the role of a great power. This became evident in the Suez Crisis of 1956. Consequently, the Empire was also dismantled.

What those that predicted Chinese world conquest during the Cultural Revolution failed to see was that Mao had primarily internal goals when he started that Revolution, eliminating his rivals and reviving a revolutionary spirit. He commanded his fanatics to attack authorities in party, administration, schools but never the military, which he needed to prevent possible attacks from outside. Had he done away with the military and replaced it with the fanatics, the events might have spilled over to other countries. But that was never his intention.

I agree with RadicalCenter that “a strong and vigilant military” is always needed.

I would disagree (somewhat) with the author when he disputes that a >>conflict with a particular nation or cause is “inevitable”<< – IMHO sometimes a conflict is indeed inevitable unless one chooses to close one's eyes and ignore the threat. However, conflict doesn't automatically mean (hot) war, it can be a cold war, trade war or a diplomatic conflict.

#10 Comment By philadelphialawyer On May 15, 2015 @ 6:50 pm

I agree that most, perhaps all, potential wars are not “inevitable.” But the existence of war plans that were never used are hardly the way to prove that proposition. Between wars, what do the war planners have to do but develop plans to use in potential future wars? The word “plan” does not mean that the war itself is planned, much less inevitable, but only that, if the war does happen, here is a viable plan for fighting it, already worked out.

#11 Comment By Hoffies On May 20, 2015 @ 11:32 pm

we’ll never have another proper war between actual modern countries. which is sad imo. nukes and free trade & the modern economy ruined war. theres no point conquering others to steal their stuff because it’s way cheaper just to trade with them; if you fo rsome reason did go to war over something it’d soon get down to nukes. there is literally no reason to have real wars anymore which is why we havent had one since vietnam, which i guess wasnt even a real war in the end