Libertarian perspective: “Were America’s “Early Wars” as noble as we are told?”

Did they defend freedom, or were they wars of conquest?

Render your verdict on four early U.S. wars.
By Perry Willis @ Downsize DC blog – Oct. 28th, 2017 


Randolph Bourne claimed that “War is the health of the state.” If true, this suggests that our state schools have a natural incentive to teach historical myths that promote war. This article is the start of a series designed to debunk those myths. I hope to persuade you of 3 points…

  1. Our “patriotic holidays” need to honor soldiers without mischaracterizing U.S. wars.
  2. The claim that U.S. soldiers “defended our freedom” is sweet-sounding but false. Freedom may be what most of our soldiers wanted to defend, but that’s not how our politicians actually used them.
  3. We must curtail the ability of politicians to wage war.

As you read what follows, please remember this crucial point — I am not blaming America for anything, but I am blaming U.S. politicians for lots of things. With that in mind, please ask yourself the following questions about each war I discuss below… 

  • Was it necessary to defend America?
  • Did it protect or harm freedom?
  • Did it make the world better or worse?

We’ll begin by reviewing four US wars from the 19th Century…

  • The War of 1812
  • The Mexican War
  • The Spanish-American War
  • The Philippines War

Were early US wars good or bad? My view: Only three early US wars had anything to do with freedom — the American Revolution, the Civil War, and (very) arguably, the war against the Barbary Pirates.* Every other war was not about freedom, or national defense, but about conquest and subjugation. Here’s the evidence…

The War of 1812 (1812 to 1815)

The late Christopher Hitchens was once asked what he thought would most surprise Thomas Jefferson about the modern U.S. Hitchens said that Jefferson would be stunned to learn we hadn’t conquered Canada. I think the War of 1812 provides evidence for that claim. Of course, the “comic book” history we all learned in our statist high schools painted a different picture. Most of us were taught that the War of 1812 had two main causes…

  • The impressment of U.S. sailors to serve on British ships.
  • British interference with U.S. trade in the name of fighting Napoleon.

These were indeed issues in the War of 1812, but…

  • The impressment matter was largely a red-herring designed to manipulate public emotions. Pretty much all countries impressed sailors, before and after the war, and even into the 20th Century. (See the term shanghaiing; See also point number two in this Smithsonian article.)
  • What really made the trade issue compelling was that it carried with it the possibility of annexing Canada. The U.S. could occupy Canada to win trade concessions from the British and/or make Canada a part of the United States.

Two other issues were not at stake in the War of 1812…

  • There was never any possibility that the British would attempt to reconquer the U.S.
  • There was never any danger that the American people would lose their freedom.

So the War of 1812 cannot be said to have defended America or American freedom. Instead, it was partially a war to defend the trading rights of wealthy shippers (much like the Barbary Pirates war), but mostly it was about potentially conquering Canada. Alas, we were repulsed from Canada, and the British burned our Capitol as revenge for our having burned Ontario’s Capitol, York. In other words, the War of 1812 was not a good war, but the next U.S. foreign war was even worse.

The Aggression against Mexico (1846 to 1848)

There’s no way to sugarcoat this — the war against Mexico was an act of criminal aggression aimed at conquest. A soldier in that war, Ulysses S. Grant, described how the crime was committed…

  • The U.S. made a land claim adjacent to Texas to provoke a dispute with Mexico.
  • President Polk then sent troops into the claimed area to incite a Mexican attack against U.S. forces.
  • That served as the pretext for an invasion of Mexico, with the aim of winning large land concessions.

The “comic book” history I learned in statist schools didn’t really make a point of the fact that our war with Mexico was an act of criminal aggression aimed at conquest. The focus was instead placed on the loot the U.S. gained — land that later became the states of New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and California. Of course, many Americans excuse the war for that reason. Would we really prefer to not have those states in our country? Of course not. But there was a moral way to achieve the same result without war. Please remember that U.S. politicians purchased…

The same could’ve been done with the lands President Polk conquered in 1848. Our politicians simply needed to wait for a bankrupt dictator to take power in Mexico.

Bottomline: U.S. aggression against Mexico defended neither America nor freedom.

U.S. politicians are racking up a bad record so far. We’ve looked at two wars, and both were about conquest, not freedom or national defense. But it’s about to get even worse…

The Spanish-American War (1898)

U.S. politicians and newspapers instigated this war by falsely accusing Spain of blowing up the U.S. battleship Maine when it was docked in Havana Harbor. But the Maine explosion was really an accident, and the U.S. was never threatened or attacked by Spain. This didn’t stop U.S. politicians from selling the war as an act of revenge (“Remember The Maine!”), and as a holy crusade to liberate Spanish colonies (Cuba Libre!). The politicians’ true intention was to build an empire of their own. Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines were all absorbed as U.S. colonies.

Bottomline: The Spanish-American War was not about national security or defending freedom. It was about conquest. And the sequel was even worse.

The Philippines War (1899 to 1902)

This one was pure evil. U.S. politicians promised to liberate the Philippines from Spain, but their real intent was to make it a colony. The Filipinos patriotically resisted so the U.S. waged war to subjugate them.

During that war American soldiers were ordered by their officers to torture and rape, destroy villages, and detain civilians in concentration camps. U.S. soldiers murdered roughly 250,000 Filipinos. Many of the pictures from this war look like something from the Holocaust.

Bottomline: These crimes defended neither America nor freedom. They are a stain on U.S. history. They also set a bad example that would later be emulated by the Japanese.

That completes the record of the primary U.S. wars of the 19th century.

  • None were about defending the country 
  • None were about defending freedom
  • All were about conquest
  • All made the world worse, not better
  • None can be used to claim that U.S. soldiers fought or died for freedom or national security.

Instead, U.S. politicians used American soldiers to commit massive crimes. That is the brutal truth. And it supports our three main claims…

  1. Our “patriotic holidays” need to honor soldiers without mischaracterizing U.S. wars.
  2. The claim that U.S. soldiers “defended our freedom” is sweet-sounding but false. Freedom may be what some U.S. soldiers wanted to defend, but that’s not how our politicians actually used them.
  3. We must curtail the future ability of politicians to aggress against foreign countries.

We’ll continue with the wars of the 20th Century starting with the next article in this series. If you find these articles valuable, please share them with others. Start a conversation about the correct way to honor veterans and the war dead. We believe it should be possible to honor their courage and mourn their loss, without telling lies about how the political class misused them. And if you’re new to our work, and you like what you see, please subscribe using the form near the bottom of our homepage! It’s free!

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about the wars discussed in this essay, I recommend the following books. I’ve read all of them, and they informed this article…

Perry Willis Downsize DC

* – It can be argued that the war against the Barbary Pirates served the cause of freedom by enabling trade and travel. But it can also be argued that the war was a form of corporate welfare. Rich travelers and traders could have armed their own ships and traveled in convoys for protection. Instead of bearing this cost themselves, the taxpayers paid it. A similar analysis can be made about the trade issues involved in the War of 1812.

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