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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 351



Review:  For 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 home.

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.

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