The United States, properly speaking, has always been a “maritime” world power, defined as a country that takes priority on its navy, rather than its army, for its “first line of defense.” In practical terms, that means that the country’s status as a global power has depended on its control of the sea lines and “access” areas of the world for authority rather than on land movements, normally against neighbors.
The classic “naval power,” of course, was Great Britain, an island at the tip of northern Europe without a huge population which, at the height of its world power, controlled about 25% of the world’s people and area. At one time, this included the United States, but, even afterward, it grew to include Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, much of Black Africa and the Middle East, India, Pakistan, Burma (now Myanmar), Malaya and Hong Kong, Singapore, and parts of China in Asia.
Being a maritime power does not exclude armed forces of another type. Both the U.S. and Britain have displayed powerful armed forces in both the army and air force and, when needed, used both to their advantage in wartime. Churchill himself, a naval enthusiast and former First Sea Lord, gave classic definition to the Royal Air Force (RAF) in August 1940 when he proclaimed that “Never have so many owed so much to so few.” Yet, Churchill was referring to the tactical and largely defensive side of war that allowed the RAF to defend Britain against Hitler’s Luftwaffe.
It was sea power, not airpower, that controlled the Seven Seas and allowed the two allies to win World War II on all fronts. The air offensives against Germany (and Japan) leveled the cities of each, but it was the navies of both that permitted their armies to land in the first place. Before you can defeat an enemy on the ground, you have to get there first. Recall: the B-29 that killed Hiroshima took off from a carrier.
Perhaps the most critical strategic fact of the American experience in the Vietnam War was this: the U.S. Air Force (USAF) tripled the bombing tonnage of all fronts (Asia, Europe) in World War II against North Vietnam but was still unable to affect the outcome. The final scenes of April 30, 1975, when Saigon fell to the North, of helicopters rescuing American personnel from the Embassy, summarize the issue for posterity.
Yet, it was history and geopolitics that determined the ways in which countries would defend and expand on the world stage. Britain had no neighbors whatsoever, only water, and hasn’t been invaded since 1066. What would an army do for them? In the beginning, America was separated from Europe by 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean and only heard of the Pacific. When the British Navy garrisoned the colonies with an army, American Patriots raised their own and defeated the “Redcoats” on the ground. But not without help from the French Navy, especially toward the end at Yorktown.
The strategic legacy of both, by definition and location, was maritime. Over the centuries, and in occupying much of the earth, Great Britain was able to build over 800 naval vessels of all kinds to support and defend its Empire. The “sun never sets” was the expression that defined the sea power of a small and isolated space of the earth that controlled more people than any other sovereignty that ever lived.
The infant American army that defeated England was never meant to expand beyond its shoreline and, apart from the Revolution, would exhaust itself in centuries of combat against over 100 native tribes that seldom united. These “Indian Wars” that occupied over three centuries allowed for European settlement across North America (“Manifest Destiny”) but never was intended to be a world force. The core definition of future U.S. foreign policy was contained in George Washington’s “Farewell Address” (1796) in which he laid down the law for centuries to come:
Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
Thus was born the American doctrine of “Isolationism” that was to govern foreign policy until after World War II.
America’s greatest ground combat, to this day, was the Civil War (1861-65), which turned out to be one of the worst cases of human carnage in the annals of historic combat. Before its short term was over, a total of approximately 750,000 soldiers (estimate) from both sides would die within a general population of 30 million. If the same percentage was applied today, the figure would approach 7 million, a lasting testimony to the complete lack of “strategic thought” in American ground warfare. The General (Grant) who won the war was nicknamed “Butcher,” by both sides.
In 1890, the definitive “gospel” of American strategy was published by Naval Captain Alfred T. Mahan. The Influence of Seapower Upon History remains to this day the ultimate definition of how and why this country has defended and expanded its shores and values.
Maritime policy guided the first overseas expansion in the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans, built the Panama Canal, led Theodore Roosevelt to send the “Great White Fleet” around the world (1908), shipped 2 million men to Europe in 1917 and 16 million throughout the globe after Pearl Harbor, won the vital “Battle of the Atlantic” in the same war, and allowed for the first policy of “containment,” the Marshall Plan, and NATO that saved Western Europe in the Cold War.
Today, Mahan’s book is translated into Chinese and is studied by China’s naval officers, who want both Taiwan and the South China Sea (for starters).
Compare that to our recent episode of “endless wars.”