Limited vs. Total War in American Military Doctrine

Atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

Image via Wikipedia

In 1953 General Mark Clark signed the peace document ending the Korean war, even though the official goals had pretty much been achieved he stated later “I cannot find it in me to exalt at this hour.” (Clark was the first U.S. commander to agree to an Armistice without victory)…

For over 150 years the United States officially held a philosophy of warfare that emphasized total victory at all costs. War was to be avoided whenever humanly possible but once embarked upon it should be fought with crusade-like vigor; it was an all-or-nothing proposition that took on a kind of religious aura– more than just a vehicle for political gain war was instead viewed as a life and death struggle between the forces of good vs. evil. It followed that in times of war military leaders should be unencumbered by politics and left to their own devices to win by any means necessary. The politicians and civilians were expected to provide the materials and manpower and then get out of the way.

We came to think that way as a result of our geographical and political detachment from the old world– in other words our isolationism was a primary influence in dictating our military doctrine for well over a century. This strain of absolutist thinking was vastly different from the balance of power arrangement that had existed in Europe since the Congress of Vienna following the Napoleonic wars. Carl von Clausewitz was not in vogue on this side of the pond.*

As time passed it became increasingly clear that the European model was not worth emulating, it had produced a series of continental wars that finally culminated in the carnage of WWI and WWII. By the end of WWII in 1945 there was no doubt that the American approach– war as crusade– embodied in FDR’s insistence that “there is no substitute for victory,” provided much of the crucial resolve required for the allies to prevail (with a big assist from our massive production capacity and superior scientific ingenuity).

The defeat of Germany and Japan signaled the highpoint for America’s absolutist war doctrine– it was the greatest achievement in human history and required an all out effort on all fronts. Ironically the crowning moment for the policy of total victory achieved through total war, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, also signaled its fall from prominence. With the advent of the Atomic Age and the Cold War the rules of the game were suddenly altered significantly. In Korea and Vietnam the spectre of the nuclear genie forced a new kind of warfare to the forefront– limited war. Put simply, limited wars were fought because total war was no longer conceivable in the shadow of possible nuclear annihilation. Destroying communism on the battlefield in one epic confrontation was not an option.

So the US would have to do it through tough policy backed up with the threat of force. The creation of the UN ushered in a new era of collective security, weighted in favor of the west. Through ingenious foreign strategy making such as the Marshall plan, the Truman Doctrine, and the creation of NATO the US embarked on a policy of containment aimed at checking the advance of world communism. It was a strategy of attrition aimed at slowly bleeding the communists to death.

The new cat and mouse strategy eschewed the total war doctrine. As a result it was wildly unpopular at home during both Korea and Vietnam; politicians and citizens alike, especially on the Right, called the Administrations’ positions everything from appeasement to outright conspiracy. That the fervent opposition was so strident should come as no surprise– after the total victories against Germany and Japan millions of Americans still clung to the absolutist view of total war for total victory (that we should use all means at our disposal to defeat an enemy, even atomic weapons). And still do today.

The argument over these competing war philosophies, balance of power vs. no holds barred, goes right to the heart of the wrenching division in opinions about the Country’s war experience since Korea. The battle lines, so famously drawn back in 1951 when the confrontation between Truman and MacArthur nearly caused a crisis in the republic, persist right down to today.

Its true, if you separate the two wars from the larger context and just look at the military side of things the crusaders have a valid argument, there is no denying that we didn’t prevail absolutely on the battlefield in either Korea or Vietnam. It is also true that outcomes surely would have been different had politicians made different geopolitical calculations and unleashed the full fury of the American arsenal. But looking back from the vantage point of today, the farsighted containment experiment championed by Marshall, Truman, Kennan, Acheson, Kennedy etc. has stood the test of time and has been somewhat vindicated– after all most of Asia and Europe is now democratic and solidly capitalist. These men realized that total war was no longer an option, that political considerations would frequently outweigh military ones in modern wars, and therefore the prosecution of military strategy shouldn’t be left exclusively in the domain of the Generals.

In Korea and Vietnam, for the first time in American history, our wars were prosecuted in the spirit of von Clausewitz–as a powerful extension of politics by other means where advancement of national interests depended on bargaining from a position of strength, morally, militarily and most of all politically. We didn’t win those wars but our soldiers’ sacrifices weren’t in vain– they held the battle lines and then we won the peace– who knows what would have happened had we blockaded and bombed China, or used nukes, like some were advocating?

The absolutist tradition of war, most famously personified in General MacArthur, has remained very much alive over the years– in Washington and on Main Street USA. It’s a distilled view of politics and war verging on eschatology that employs a nomenclature stocked with broadly brushed generalizations and easy to remember labels. Its proponents tend to want to paint a single face on a many headed beast so the threat can be more easily defined. In Korea for example the Soviets, the Chinese and the North Koreans were incorrectly believed to be a monolithic bloc– the Communists– with all strings leading back to Moscow. The same portrayal was popular in Vietnam when Ho Chi Minh was frequently presented as a mere vassal of Peking and Moscow. With the luxury of hindsight we now know these interpretations were off the mark and may have contributed to the lengthening of both wars.

* Carl von Clausewitz in On War teaches that war is a powerful extension of politics by other means, emphasizing balance of power strategies.

Further reading:

Korea: The Limited War. David Rees. 1964. St. Martins. New York

The Best and The Brightest. David Halberstam. 1969. Random House. New York

The Wise Men. Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas. 1986. Simon & Schuster. New York.

One response to “Limited vs. Total War in American Military Doctrine

  1. Pingback: Limited vs. Total War in American Military Doctrine | The Offbeat Archive

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