the Common Defense, by Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski
For the Common Defense is a survey of United States military history from
its origins in the 17th century through the Reagan defense buildup. The first nine chapters, written by Peter
Maslowski, cover the English settlement of the continent through the
Spanish-American War, and Allan Millett finished the book with eight chapters
on the twentieth century American military experience.
The book has no explicit thesis, but is intended as a
general reference on the military history and policy of the United States. The authors state three goals for the
book: "to analyze the development
of military policy; to examine the characteristics and behavior of the armed
forces in execution of that policy, and to illuminate the impact of military
policy on America's international relations and domestic
development." Wartime campaigns
and peacetime policy shifts are both treated with equal detail, and the authors
include discussion of the role of social, economic, and especially political
forces in shaping military policy.
As a textbook or reference, For the Common Defense
is excellent. At over six hundred
pages, with bibliographies after each chapter as well a general bibliography at
the end of the book, it recounts three centuries of American military history
with impressive detail. The book is
generally sympathetic to the military, but the authors managed an evenhanded
treatment of most policy issues throughout.
One area where they clearly had an axe to grind was the adverse impact
of anti-war movements on the successful waging of war, specifically relating to
the Vietnam War. From the British
policy in the Revolutionary War, which fatally "wavered between coercion
and conciliation" (p. 52), to the war with Mexico, where the
"American antiwar movement . . . indicated that continued resistance might
secure more favorable terms" (p. 149), to Reconstruction, which was
crippled because "northern public opinion never permitted the use of much
force." (p. 246), the authors never missed a chance to drive their point
This heavy-handedness was only a minor drawback in a
book which was full of insights into American military policy. The authors were best when discussing the
facets of a particular situation, such as the Army's ambivalent role in the
Indian wars of the late 19th century, the strategic problems facing both sides
in the Civil War, or how the disagreement over its mission hampered the efforts
at modernization in the 1920's and 30's.
I particularly liked Maslowski's point that the end of the frontier was
a major turning point for the Army. Its
primary peacetime mission, fighting the Indians, had been eliminated, which
left the Army searching for something to justify its existence.
What the authors consistently failed to do was tie the
many strands of their account together into a broader understanding of military
policy beyond the immediate issues.
Perhaps they felt that this fell outside the scope of military history,
but this shallow level of analysis often weakened their discussion. For example, "since the United States
was determined to exercise sovereignty and the Filipinos were equally
determined to be independent, the Treaty of Paris created an impasse solvable
only through war." (p. 289)
Maslowski ignored the real question of why the United States was
so determined to "exercise sovereignty" that it was willing to fight
a brutal guerilla war over it.
Similarly, Millett completely glossed over the transformation of
military policy leading to American entry into World War I: "American
involvement stemmed from economic self-interest as well as an emotional
commitment to support "democracy" . . . against
"autocracy." (p. 329)
For an understanding of broader issues, the authors do
not appreciably "[build] upon the insights of . . . Walter Millis's Arms
and Men," as they claim in their introduction. This should not detract from their
accomplishment, however. For the
Common Defense is a readable, well-researched reference book covering the
entire extent of American military history, and it provides real insights in
its analysis of focused areas of military policy.