American Strategy from 1781-1991: The Durability of the Democratic Process and Constitution

 As we continue the summer look at strategy, it's time to turn to three of the major players in the Cold War...starting with the U.S. 

The analyses of American strategy presented show many common themes from 1783-1991. During these 200 years, both the Constitution and American society and culture have dominated American strategic thought, for better or worse. In addition, the unique factors of geography and circumstances have also influenced American strategy. When war has come, America has bent, but not broken some of the institutions and maxims of the Constitution to successfully wage war, and until 1945, returned to the status quo fairly quickly, shedding the wartime cloak needed to achieve victory. 
As all the essays agree, the Constitution, with its separation of powers designed to prevent a military capable of either implementing or siding with a dictatorship, remains the most significant influence on American strategy.

However, the provisions for the President’s role as commander-in-chief have gradually evolved from George Washington’s first term and during our two greatest crises, the Civil War and World War II, the U.S. was blessed (depending on your interpretation) with two strong chief executives that assumed near dictatorial powers. During the Civil War, Lincoln came about as close to a dictator as the U.S. would see, actually suspending habeas corpus and jailing opposition political leaders and newspapers during the course of the war. Franklin Roosevelt also planned and conducted strategy with little input from the Congress and mobilized large portions of the economy and society with little input from either the legislative and judicial branch. Even with these actions, successful American strategy did not emerge quickly, and in Lincoln’s case, it took almost three years, until Grant’s appointment as general in chief on early 1864, before the Union really made a strategic plan that incorporated their entire military might. Similarly, Roosevelt’s focus on Germany as the primary threat to America was not popular with many Americans eager to avenge Pearl Harbor, but it was a necessary decision made by a strong Chief Executive who needed to keep Britain and Russia in the war.[1] 

 From 1783-1914, U.S. strategy making was also significantly influenced by the role of geography and the lack of any real threat to American security. As Maslowski makes clear in his essay, the sheer geographical separation of the U.S. from Europe by the Atlantic Ocean and the lack of any real military enemy on the continent, made it possible for the U.S. to essentially ignore any large standing military or strategic planning for war and simply improvise a solution when war came.[2]

The U.S. had little trouble defeating the Indians, Mexicans and Spanish to conquer all of North America and could rely on ill-trained militia and improvised strategies for most military situations. The exception to this was the Civil War, where both North and South attempted to craft both a grand and theater strategy to defeat an equally determined foe. Although neither side was especially successful on either the grand or operational strategic level through most of the war, the North’s superior material resources did allow the painful development of Lincoln as a commander-in-chief and U.S. Grant to rise to the top of Union command in time to finally mobilize the Union armies with a coherent, although not always well implemented, strategy in the spring of 1864.[3] 

The aftermath of World War II and the rise of the Cold War brought the first real effort and a systematic process of strategic planning and thought as well as the need for a large standing military. The subsequent 50 years continued to show the influence of the Constitution and political and societal input into strategy as Congress periodically asserted more authority over foreign policy, defense planning and, in come cases, most notably Vietnam, the actual conduct of war. As Gray’s essay showed, there was a great deal of debate, repackaging and consternation over strategy during the Cold War, but through it all the American democratic process worked to maintain NATO, contain the USSR and provide a strategic balance of power. Congress and the President did have sharp disagreements over the growing power of the Executive to commit America to military action, culminating in the War Powers Act, but for the most part, the Constitution process for planning and waging war has functioned, even during the current conflict in Iraq, which was authorized by a vote in Congress and extensively debated through the Congressional budget process.[4]

Although some would debate the amount of power our departing President has exercised from September 11, for the most part the process of strategy making has continued to function according to the Constitution and the American political process.

[1] Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox and Alvin Bernstein, ed., The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States and War (New York: Cambridge University Press: 1994), 210-211, 226, 235, 237, 240, 435, 455. 
[2] Ibid., 207. 
[3] Ibid., 235-241. 
[4] Ibid., 584-585, 610-613.