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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 351


Review:  The History of American Wars, by T. Harry Williams


The History of American Wars is exactly what the title says:  a history of the wars of the United States, from the colonial wars through World War I.  Although T. Harry Williams intended the book to continue up through the Vietnam War, he died before he completed it.  Williams was a "traditional" military historian, and his book reflects this:  its focus on wars, its emphasis on battle history, and its 'top-down' viewpoint.  As an example of the last, he wrote of the Philippine guerrillas, "[The] leaders had a sound understanding of irregular warfare.  They instructed their followers to avoid pitched battles but to subject the Americans to unceasing harrassment . . .," assuming that the leaders had the knowledge and the "followers" simply followed their commands (p. 345).  The History of American Wars has other shortcomings as well.  Williams provides no overall analysis of the nature of American military institutions or strategy, but simply divides his book up between chapters on the wars and short "Interludes" between the wars.

For all that, Williams succeeded in writing a basic introduction to military history.  Despite the focus on battle history, The History of American Wars provides a remarkably comprehensive account of American military history through 1918.  Williams clearly and simply defines the terminology of military history in his introduction, and manages to summarize a wide range of interpretations of different aspects of the wars throughout the book.  The organization of the book helps immensely in this, most wars being covered in two or more chapters, with only one of these devoted to battle history.  For instance, four chapters are devoted to the Civil War: "Origins and Beginnings," "Means and Measures," "Strategy and First Shots," and "The Battles."  This division allows Williams to completely follow a theme, such as the manpower policies of North and South, without distracting the reader with the chronological flow of other events.

The book has no real thesis, but a recurring theme throughout is that the reasons for wars are usually unclear and often unknown even to the people that begin them.  Williams stated in his introduction, "The emotions and influences that bore on a people in a past age are not easy to recover.  And even if these can be identified, it is a formidable task to separate their impact." (p. xii)  He also makes the point , "Nations fight wars to attain political objectives," but even these goals were often unclear, as in the Mexican War or especially the Spanish-American War.  Getting beyond that to the underlying causes of the war is even more difficult, as he repeatedly emphasized in his discussions of 'the origins' of the various wars.

Another theme is Williams's belief in Manifest Destiny.  In his coverage of the Indian wars, he emphasized that they were doomed, that "the difference in numbers between the races, as well as their differing cultures, led inescapably to conflict," (p. 312) and that their destruction was "foreordained" (p. 316).  His views came out most clearly in his discussion of the start of the Mexican War: "Only the United States had the population and resources to settle California and New Mexico.  They would fall to the United States sooner or later by a natural process.  In resorting to war to realize them, Polk was only hastening an inevitable result." (p. 156)  This view also informs his treatment of the First World War, with the implication that the United States was destined for greatness, and the chapter (and the book) ends on an appropriate note: "Although this was not recognized immediately at home or abroad, the United States was now in fact the greatest power in the postwar world."

Despite its failings (and an infuriating absence of maps), The History of American Wars is an excellent introduction to American military history.  Its old-fashioned emphasis on battle history is more than made up for by its clarity, simplicity, and organization.  It is truly unfortunate that Williams did not live to bring his book up to the present.

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