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The True Costs of 100 Years of War

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Kissinger Chair Bradford Lee arrived at the Kluge Center this fall with an ambitious research question: were the results of one hundred years of American military interventions in foreign conflicts worth the costs of achieving them? He sat down with Jason Steinhauer to discuss his research, in particular his analysis of World War I, a focus of his tenure at the Library. 

Wounded soldier being carried back to second lines, Oise
Wounded soldier being carried back to second lines, Oise, France 1917. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, LC-USZ62-98917.

Brad, yours is a fascinating and complex project, to examine 100 years of American military intervention in foreign conflicts and assess the results. As a first question, perhaps you could tell us what led you to this research question.

The project was a convergence of different things. First, there were the withdrawals of American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. We could be looking at very disappointing outcomes in both places. I was aware that in modern American history, after each period of major warfare, even after World War II, there had been a strong wave of disillusionment over the results that our efforts had produced. I saw an opportunity to reach well beyond an academic audience and address a much larger audience, providing a longer-term perspective on all the major military interventions from 1917 to 2017.

I was also aware of the major number 100. Many other historians, especially in Britain, wrote on 1914 in 2014. For Americans, of course, the big centennial will come in 2017, 100 years after U.S. entry into World War I.

You’ve said that this is an examination of decision makers making decisions in war, not a retelling of the wars themselves. Could you expound on that: what sources are you examining and which have you chosen to omit?

I’ll be drilling deeply into what I regard as the most important policy, strategy, and operational decisions made by American leaders in World War I, World War II, the Cold War (with Korea and Vietnam treated as theaters in the larger war), and the Wars of the Muslim Rimland (as I have dubbed the warfare from 1979 on). But, of course, all the decisions had a context rooted in the past and consequences playing out in the future, so there will be a broad narrative sweep to the book. I do not want to rehash the story of each war. I want not only to bring to bear my own intellectual experience of straddling the very different worlds of historians, theorists, and practitioners, but also to get as close as I can to what was on the minds of the key wartime decision makers of the past century.

What are some of the decisions made by American military leaders that you are re-examining?

For World War I, I hope to throw new light both on the role of Admiral William Sowden Sims (the U.S. naval commander in Europe) in the critically important Anglo-American decision to counter German U-boats by convoying merchant ships and on the startling objection by General John J. Pershing (commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in France) to President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to negotiate an armistice with Germany in the fall of 1918.

For World War II, I will take a new look at the two-pronged offensives of 1943-1944 in both the Pacific (under General MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific and Admiral Nimitz in the Central Pacific) and Europe (in the Mediterranean and northern France). In particular, I’ll raise new questions about the decision to follow up the invasion of Sicily with an invasion of the Italian mainland and point out the merits of a more direct island-hopping route to southern France.

For Korea and Vietnam I have some fresh things to say about offensives that were undertaken in 1950 and 1965 and not undertaken in 1951, 1953, and 1969. For the end of the Cold War, using research I have done in Soviet Politburo documents, I will be able to illuminate, more clearly than has yet been done, the effects on Gorbachev of Reagan Administration decisions to impose costs on the Soviet economy.

Finally, for the Wars of the Muslim Rimland, I will have something new to offer about the decision not to send conventional forces to try to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora in December 2001, the unfortunate change in American diplomatic and military leadership in Kabul in 2005 (plus a change in the Afghan government that year), and the Obama Administration’s reassessment of US “Af-Pak” policy and strategy in 2009.

The value of counterfactual thinking has been contested among historians and social scientists. You’re embracing it in this project. What about counterfactual scenarios are illuminating for this particular type of study?

When historians or social scientists make an explicit argument about what caused some big historical development, there are counterfactuals implicit in that causal argument. Why not make explicit what is implicit? I also have, in the forefront of my mind, the 19th-century discussion of “critical analysis” by Carl von Clausewitz, the greatest strategic theorist. He says it is absolutely essential to the education of practitioners to have them grapple with historical cases in which the course of action decided upon did not turn out well. A would-be practitioner has to think about the options not chosen and consider which one of them might have produced better results.

So, in principle, I don’t think historians and social scientists should tremble at the sight of counterfactual scenarios. The rub is to do counterfactual analysis well. The best that one can do is to project a sense of possibilities and probabilities and engage readers in a dynamic swirl of arguments and counterarguments, relative pluses and minuses.

In principle, I don’t think historians and social scientists should tremble at the sight of counterfactual scenarios. The rub is to do counterfactual analysis well. The best that one can do is to project a sense of possibilities and probabilities and engage readers in a dynamic swirl of arguments and counterarguments, relative pluses and minuses.

While in residence at the Library, you’ve spent the bulk of your time researching World War I. Could you talk about some of the collections you’ve researched–any surprises or new discoveries?

One theme of my project is the importance of theater commanders, in both their military and diplomatic roles, in making military intervention not only operationally effective, but also politically cost-effective as well. So I have done a lot of research in the papers of Admiral Sims and General Pershing. They had to answer to their political superiors and their service chiefs back in Washington. So I have also done much research in the papers of Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Secretary of War Newton Baker and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William Benson and a series of Army Chiefs of Staff. The Commander in Chief was of course Woodrow Wilson. His papers, like those of the others I have just mentioned, are in the Library’s Manuscripts Division.

My overarching question is whether or not U.S. military intervention produced results worth the costs. To answer that question for World War I, I need to answer a more pointed question: were the operations of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army crucial first to preventing the defeat of Britain and France and then, after the transition to offensive operations in the summer of 1918, to bringing about the defeat of Germany. There is no smoking gun in the Sims and Pershing papers, but there are important clues that I will follow toward the answers I seek.

Woodrow Wilson
President Woodrow Wilson, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front, c. 1919. Wilson’s papers, as well as the papers of Admiral Sims, General Pershing and others, are held by the Library of Congress. Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. LC-USZC2-6247 (color film copy slide) LC-USZ62-7916 (b&w film copy neg.) Copyright by Harris & Ewing.

Was World War I worth the costs of involvement for the United States, in your estimation?

Jason, can’t I save some suspense for my presentation on May 7? For now I’ll maneuver a bit cryptically around your question. Even though American military intervention was of relatively short duration, the human and material costs were appallingly high. Pershing’s Meuse-Argonne campaign of 1918 may have been the bloodiest in American military history. Then, in trying to “win the peace,” President Wilson fell short of the lofty “positive” goals for which he fought this war that was supposed to end all wars (which would have made my book much shorter). I will explore the middle ground of potential compromise between President Wilson and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge that would have increased somewhat the probability of a more durable outcome of the First World War. That counterfactual outcome would have made the “worth it?” question more straightforward to answer!

Building on key insights from classical strategic thinkers and geopolitical thinkers can make for a better way of framing U.S. decisions to go to war in the future than one can usually find in the record of American decisions in the past.

Does 100 years of modern warfare offer us a better understanding of how and why we should enter wars in the first place?

Yes, or at least that’s my presumption. Building on key insights from classical strategic thinkers (Thucydides as well as Clausewitz) and geopolitical thinkers (Nicholas Spykman, with his focus on “rimlands” of Eurasia) can make for a better way of framing U.S. decisions to go to war in the future than one can usually find in the record of American decisions in the past. Of course, the nuclear shadow over most such decisions since the end of World War II is something that classical thinkers could not anticipate, and it adds a “riddle of rationality” in weighing potential risks against potential rewards that has made the decision to go to war even more treacherous.

Once in a war, in most cases, leaders will sooner or later face a decision about what new theaters of operation to open or contest. I have a framework to offer for that type of decision. And, finally, at the end of the war, leaders confront a decision about how far or long to carry on the fighting in pursuit of a greater probability of winning the peace. Here I pit two concepts of rationality–that of Clausewitz, which weighs the accumulation of “sunk” costs heavily, and that of modern economists, which looks forward in terms of increments of benefit weighed against increments of cost. My historical work shows that American leaders have in many cases let negative political passions about sunk costs crowd out a more forward-looking appreciation of going further militarily.

My bottom line for the beginning, the middle, and the end of a war is to broaden one’s time horizons and one’s balance sheet of costs and benefits. That prescription is easier to state in a book than to execute in the real world.

Bradford Lee is the fourteenth Kissinger Chair at the Library of Congress Kluge Center. He lectures on whether the results of U.S. military intervention in World War I were worth the costs on Thursday, May 7th at 4 p.m.

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