The central strategic objective of the United States is-as it always has been-the prevention of direct attack upon the United States. The fashionable phrases of present-day defense planning notwithstanding, the goal of U. S. foreign policy and military policy is to secure the Western Hemisphere in order to defend the United States.
Deterrence, Limited War, Escalation, and the rest of the jargon which often characterizes discussions involving national security-including the current debate on Vietnam-tend to obscure the strategic problem rather than to illuminate it.
The American Revolution was as much a response to the threat to the colonies from European powers as it was a reaction to English abuse of the colonists' liberties. Repeatedly, the colonists had been subjected to the consequences of wars that had originated in Europe, had been fought in North America, and invariably had been resolved to the benefit of England rather than of her colonies. American foreign policy after the Revolution was aimed at disengaging European powers from North America, not alone to permit American expansion but to keep the continent from becoming Europe's battlefield. The Civil War, whatever its economic and political origins, turned on the determination of Lincoln and the North to prevent the splitting of the United States into two separate nations. Such a split, had the Confederacy won, would have faced the North with endless coalitions between the Confederacy and any European powers with territorial ambitions in North America. It is easy to forget that one consequence of the long war was a French attempt to make an Austrian prince the ruler of Mexico. The victory of the North and the consequent reunion with the South effectively frustrated French ambitions. Had the South won, not only might Maximilian and his French master have succeeded in Mexico, but the expansion of the United States to the Pacific might once again have become subject to European arbitration rather than American determination.
Exclusion of the great European powers from North America permitted the growth of population and the expansion of the territory of the United States, leaving the young republic free to industrialize and prosper without European interference. A significant factor which influenced the rate of expansion and industrialization was the dominant position held by Great Britain as the principal sea power in the world.
Once Britain had finally accepted the viability of the United States demonstrated by a Northern victory in the Civil War and implied by the British North America Act of 1867 - which granted federation to Canada - it was British sea power which defended the American Atlantic Coast, excluded European adventures in South America, and permitted the long-existing U.S. commercial interests in the Far East to develop. British investment in American railroads, mining, and other burgeoning enterprises hastened U. S. industrialization while the British taxpayers subsidized American defense by maintaining a powerful and pugnacious Royal Navy.
That such Yankee development served British interests is self-evident. That it also served American interests is more easily overlooked. It should be enough to recall that there was no substantial threat to American territory between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I.
Military threats to the United States originate from the Eurasian land-mass because that enormous area-the largest in the world-is the home of all the other great world powers. Perhaps Americans would not be so quick to speak in terms of an Asiatic policy or a European policy if they were to visualize their own continent - North America – and South America as little more than continent-sized islands off the west coast of Europe and off the east coast of Asia.
Moreover, events in Europe have almost always affected U. S. interests in the Far East just as events in the Far East have affected U. S. interest in Europe.
The unification of Germany and its growth into a great military and naval power before World War I, for example, forced the withdrawal of British naval power from the Far East at a time when Japanese interests had begun to conflict with those of the United States, and Japanese power had become significant enough to defeat a European great power, Imperial Russia. To secure British interests in the Indian Ocean and the China seas, Britain became allied with Japan, whose respectable fleet provided willing substitute for the warships which Britain had been forced to withdraw to reinforce her fleet in the Channel and the North sea. That events transpiring in Europe could affect America's strategic position in the Far East was nowhere more evident than when, during the course of a war in Europe, a central European power – Germany - would offer an alliance to Japan and Mexico aimed at keeping the United States from supporting Britain and France against Germany.
When the United States entered World War I, it did so because of events that had been set in motion in Central Europe, events which appeared to have no relation to the defense of North America or the interests of the United States. Yet, those events and their consequences led to the deployment of two million U. S. servicemen into Europe. Units of the U. S. Battle Force operated with the British Grand Fleet from bases at Rosyth, Scapa Flow, and Invergordon. U. S. naval operations were carried on from the British Isles, the Coast of France, in the Bay of Biscay, and as far distant as Porto Corsino in the Adriatic. U.S. ships were sunk and U.S. seamen were killed within the coastal waters of the United States as a consequence of the policies of a government located in Central Europe.
A direct result of the European peace settlement was the transfer of the Marshall, Marianas, and Caroline Islands to the control of Japan. Japanese possession of those islands would contribute largely to American inability to defend the Philippines or to interfere with a swift Japanese conquest of territories from Melanesia west to the Burmese Indian frontier in the early months of 1942.
Despite the fact that the United States systematically avoided involvement in Europe after World War I, the policies of a re-arming Germany were to jeopardize American as well as British interests in the Far East. Distracted by events in Central Europe and the Mediterranean, Great Britain found itself incapable of providing any real barrier to Japanese expansion. The "no-war-for-ten-years" rule which governed British defense estimates in the Twenties and early Thirties left the one major British Far Eastern base, Singapore, without adequate defenses.
In 1940, the Fall of France, the Defense of Britain, and the war in the Mediterranean and the Middle East left Great Britain with little strength to spare for the defense of the Indian Ocean and Malaysia. Japanese occupation of Indochina, a consequence of French defeat in Europe, sealed the fate of Burma, Thailand, Malaya, the Netherlands East Indies, and Singapore. The course of the European war between 1939 and 1940 forced the deployment of American military power into the Atlantic. Once again, the policies of a Central European power were to result in the sinking of American coastal shipping and the death of American citizens in U. S. coastal waters.
Events transpiring in Europe were to provide the opportunity for Japanese expansion in the Far East. The attack on Pearl Harbor and eventually on parts of Alaska demonstrated that what occurred in the Far East could have direct and painful consequences for the people of the United States.
If many Americans had cherished the illusion that isolationism would protect them from the play of politics among the other great powers, the Army and Navy did not. They had formulated a national strategy which would meet and eventually defeat the threat from across both oceans.
It was not the strategy preferred by the men who thought in terms of continental defense and who bore the constitutional responsibility for providing the means with which to carry out that defense. Such a man, the Chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee in 1934, expressed his notion of what constituted an adequate strategy for the United States:
“As I view the situation, the Navy, upon a defensive mission, would have to guard, so far as the continental United States is concerned, only ten or twelve, possibly, of entry ports toward which any enemy fleet might advance in order to invade the integrity of the United States; whereas the Army, through its Air Force~ through its coast guard, and through its land forces, is expected to defend the entire frontier, whether by land or by water ...”
It was the good fortune of the United States to have military planners who grasped the strategic position of the United States better than did the Chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee. Captain Harry E. Yarnell, Commander W. S. Pye, and Commander H. H. Frost, in a confidential memorandum written in the Plans Division of the Office of Naval Operations in 1920 summarized that position:
“The strategic situation of the United States is unique in that it is situated at a great distance from all other naval powers. In a war between two maritime nations situated on the opposite sides of an ocean, no important results can be gained as long as the fleets of both nations remain in their home bases. In order to exert any decisive pressure upon a nation it is usually necessary to occupy important sectors of its territory and defeat its military forces; ... if it is considered essential to land important expeditionary forces in enemy territory, it is obviously necessary for our fleet to secure and exercise the command of the sea in a large sector off the enemy's coast. This means an overseas naval campaign.”
Captain Pye, writing in the U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings in December 1924, maintained further that even in a war for the defense of the United States only an offensive war could be expected to alter the policy of the attacking enemy.
If military and naval appropriations between the wars never approached the scale required for adequate defense of the United States, the military and naval professionals provided the country with the concepts and organization which would make it possible for the United States to carry the war into the enemy's homeland. The techniques of amphibious warfare, the fast carrier task force, long-range submarine operations, strategic air bombardment, and armored warfare were worked out sufficiently to shape the organization and training of the Army and Navy before the United States ever entered World War II.
The consequences of such foresight were seen within less than a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor. By the end of August 1942, American aircraft were in combat over Western Europe, and American troops had made their first landing in occupied France. By December 1942, an American field army was deployed in North Africa and American
forces were engaged on the road of Tokyo in the Southwest Pacific. In the course of the war, American soldiers and sailors fought countless battles in scores of campaigns, most of which were conducted far from the shores of the United States or even of the Western Hemisphere.
The conduct of U. S. military operations in World War II serves to emphasize the assumptions which have been the basis of U. S. military strategy in the 20th century. The first assumption is that it is preferable to defend the United States by fighting the initial defensive battles of any war as close to the enemy's homeland as possible or, at least, as far away from continental United States as possible.
The second assumption is that the initial strategic defensive in any war is only the prelude which will make possible the assumption of the strategic offensive should that be necessary.
The fundamental strategic situation of the United States has not altered since the end of World War II. The cost of America's failure to influence the development of events in Central Europe and the Far East in the 1920s and 1930s was the exhaustion of British power, expended to hold the line until the United States became half-ready. The disastrous defeat of British forces in the Far East in 1942 hastened the breakup of the British, French, and Dutch Empires in the Far East and destroyed any substantial hope of a China unified under a regime other than the Communists'. The price of America's illusion that it need not concern itself with events in Central Europe was the recession of British power, the defeat and eventual alienation of France, and the abandonment of Eastern Europe to the domination of the Soviet Union.
U. S. forces deployed in Germany and elsewhere around the world after World War II seemed to indicate that most Americans agreed that the principal threats to their country would continue to originate in Europe and Asia. And there is no comfort whatever in having been right; in having watched the ancient Eurasian volcano erupt again and again since the end of World War II-Berlin, Lebanon, Cuba, the Formosa Straits, and now Vietnam.
Yet, the war in Vietnam has raised serious issues in the minds of many Americans about the morality and utility of U. S. policy in Asia. The noisiest discussions are carried on by people who continue to enjoy without question the benefits of life in a powerful and rich America. The easy sentimentality of the American intellectual, himself shielded from the rigors of a world which often demands more of its inhabitants than it gives, focuses on the plight of the South Vietnamese and their determined attackers from the North. Nationalism and patriotism which seem despicable when manifested in their fellow Americans, is counted a virtue-for who but a patriot would explode a booby trap in some crowded South Vietnamese street?
Yet, more thoughful Americans, less given to polemics, also find themselves seriously disturbed. Their doubts, however, stem from the heavy price being paid by both Americans and Vietnamese as a consequence of U. S. operations in Vietnam.
What possible strategic imperatives could be served by U. S. operations in Vietnam? How do U. S. military operations there conform to the central strategic objective of the United States?
Part of the answer to these questions might lie in an examination of the sequence of events which led to the loss of Singapore in 1942. These events can help to define Vietnam's strategic significance. In 1939, Japan, engaged in the conquest of China, occupied the Island of Hainan in the Gulf of Tonkin and the Spratly Islands off the coast of Indochina. Following the surrender of France in June 1940, Japan forced France to accede to a Japanese share in the administration of Indochina as well as the right to use Saigon as an air base. In the following year, Japan progressively occupied the remainder of Indochina and began to bring pressure on Thailand. On the 8th of December 1941, from bases at Saigon, Camrahn Bay, and Hainan, attacks were launched by sea and air across the Gulf of Siam against the Siamese coast and Kota Baru in Malaya. With about 60,000 combat troops, supported by air and naval forces, the Japanese were able to seize Thailand, Malaya, and Singapore within 70 days. By the middle of 1942, the Japanese were in a position to make raids into the Bay of Bengal and to secure their hold on Burma, having conquered the Philippines and the Netherlands East Indies as well.
The strategic position of the Chinese today is similar to that of the Japanese in 1939 with some interesting differences. Chinese forces are on the borders of India, Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan. From Ladakh in Kashmir to the Diphu Pass in eastern Assam, Chinese forces intrude virtually at will across the Chinese frontier. The passes and old forts along the Burma-Chinese frontier are in Chinese hands by the treaty of 1960, while the Chinese promote disaffection among the Burmese border tribes. North Vietnam remains independent at the pleasure of the Chinese government. Malaysia is fraught with internal difficulties. Singapore has defected from the Federation, and Indonesia's situation is problematical.
The Chinese position includes air and naval bases on Hainan, the firm possession of the Chinese coast from North Vietnam to North Korea, and access at its pleasure to Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam. China is unified, save for Formosa, has a respectable and sizeable army, and shows a promising capacity to manufacture and deliver nuclear weapons. Besides 20-plus Soviet W-class submarines, the Chinese are building an undetermined number of G-class submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles.
The U. S. position in the Pacific is no longer what it was in 1941. The territory which came under direct Japanese attack early in the war, the Hawaiian Islands and the Aleutians are each sovereign states today. As territories, the United States could have bartered, sold, or ceded them with hardly a second thought. As states, Alaska and Hawaii may only be separated from the United States by changing the U. S. Constitution. Yet, Hawaii is closer to Peking than it is to Washington, D. C. The Aleutian Islands at their westernmost tip are closer to China than they are to Seattle, Washington.
Where once the security of the United States could conveniently, it seemed, rest on Alaska and Hawaii in the Pacific, those two states now have the right to demand the same kind of security which each of them once helped furnish to the continental United States.
It is easy to forget that the only base on U. S. territory close to China, is Guam. Should all the countries in the Far East ask the United States to abandon the American bases of their territory, the United States would still have Guam. Guam's significance is somewhat tarnished, however, when it is recalled that it took the Japanese about 20 minutes to seize it in December 1941.
Bases in the Philippines, South Korea, South Vietnam, Japan, and even Okinawa remain accessible to the United States only so long as it suits the interest of countries upon whose territories the bases are located. The French have already demonstrated how simple it is to get foreign military bases removed from national territory when the nation's interest so dictates. All one really has to do to get the United States to move its bases off one's territory is to ask the United States to leave.
U. S. bases in the Philippines, for example, are accessible only so long as it appears to the people of the Philippines that the United States is indeed capable of defending those islands. While we all like to think they remember the United States best for its liberation of the Philippines in World War II, it is quite possible that what the Filipinos really remember best is that the United States was incapable of holding the Philippines against the Japanese, and that MacArthur's sanguine "I shall return," marked the beginning of three years of painful Japanese occupation.
The U. S. base on Okinawa is secure only as long as the United States can side-step Japanese pressure for return of that island. American access to bases within Japan will continue just so long as the Japanese feel that America has a chance of remaining a significant force in the Far East. Formosa will remain available as long as Chiang Kai-shek or his successors think the illusion of a triumphant Nationalist return to the mainland is worth cherishing.
The United States may not, at present, deploy forces into Malaysia or Singapore, and the British, under financial pressure at home, are reducing their forces in that area.
Yet, American bases overseas are the one means of reducing the probability that a major war would be fought on U. S. territory while contributing to the possibility that major war may be avoided entirely. The capacity to carry war to the enemy is essential to the national strategy in war, the possession of such a capability may deter the outbreak of war entirely. If the enemy faces the realization that resorting to war will lead to his certain defeat, he may eschew war in order to avoid the possibility of having to live with the fruits of his defeat.
If war comes in any case, American bases on the enemy's periphery force him to deploy forces to reduce those bases, thereby limiting his freedom of action in the initial stages of the war. Even in a strategic nuclear war, those bases overseas from which U. S. forces may launch nuclear strikes are targets with the highest priority. Thus, tactical aircraft in forward positions, aircraft carriers, medium bombers, and Polaris submarines are capable of launching devastating nuclear strikes against any country without U. S. - based ICBMs having to be engaged. If an enemy chooses to strike the United States first, he does so at the risk of receiving a devastating attack from U. S. nuclear power based overseas. If an enemy chooses to employ his strategic forces, in part, to take out U. S. nuclear forces overseas, then he has fewer missiles to fire at strategic striking forces based in the United States.
It is this kind of strategic imperative which must be borne in mind when considering the war in Vietnam and U. S. policy in Asia. It is not just that the dominoes might fall if the United States were to withdraw from Vietnam without defeating the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. It is more than that. Such a withdrawal would signal the general withdrawal of U. S. forces from the island shield of Asia.
Thailand, like Cambodia, would be forced to accept an accommodation advantageous to China. South Vietnam would be reunited with North Vietnam and both would remain independent-if that was China's wish. The possibility that Ho Chi Minh might be an Asian Tito is nonsense. Chinese forces are in a position to dominate completely the borders of North Vietnam with China and the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, the coastal waters of North Vietnam.
The withdrawal of U. S. forces from Indochina and Thailand would leave northern Malaysia exposed to the same kind of attack to which they were exposed in World War II. There are already guerrilla bands operating in the border areas between south Thailand and Malaysia.
Such a defeat of U. S. policy in the Far East would force the Philippines to reconsider their attitude toward China and at best would lead them to an alliance with Japan if not subject them to a massive revival of Huk operations. Indonesia, barely able to sustain itself politically and economically, would at best dissolve into civil war and at worst become stepping stones for the extension of Chinese influence.
For the Japanese, an alliance with the United States unable to maintain its position in Indochina would become unthinkable. After all, if the United States cannot defeat a minor Asian power like North Vietnam, could one really assume that it could defeat China? Therefore, Japan would have to consider its own interest, which might require the development of a large nuclear arsenal to meet the threat from China and entertain the notion of an alliance between Japan and the Soviet Union.
What would eventuate for the strategic position of the United States would be a defense of the Pacific Coast resting on Hawaii and Alaska. The initiative in any Pacific war would rest with the Asiatic power which might, under those conditions, be Japan and the Soviet Union as easily as it might be China.
If, on the other hand, the United States and its allies in South Vietnam can secure that country from attack by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, it is possible that a stable and prosperous country may be formed which can defend its own borders sufficiently to force any attacker to mount a serious offensive, an offensive which would trigger U. S. response in the form of deployment of U. S. forces back into the bases which have been established in that country.
The strategic defense of the United States in any war with China would be eased considerably if American power had bases from which to deploy close to the coast of China. From bases in South Vietnam, U. S. air may cover the operations of carrier task forces and antisubmarine warfare elements which can close the South China Sea to Chinese use. A strategic threat may be posed against the Chinese base on Hainan and in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. From bases in the Philippines, South Korea, Formosa, and Okinawa, Chinese access to the sea may be severely restricted while the Chinese must deploy forces along their entire coast from the Gulf of Chihli to North Vietnam to meet the possibility of attacks which might be launched anywhere along the coast at the convenience of a sea power which controlled Chinese coastal waters.
Chinese forces deployed to meet the threat of lightning descents on their exposed coastline would not be available for attacks on India, Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand. Under such conditions, the Chinese would be confronted by a war in which the United States could levy damage at will on the Chinese homeland, while itself possessing only nominal power to attack the United States directly.
Without such a strategic position in the Far East, the United States must be prepared to meet ballistic missile attacks on Hawaii, Alaska, and the coast of the mainland United States, with forces that could be deployed only from continental United States, Alaska, and Hawaii.
The choice confronting the United States is either to continue to fight in Vietnam with the hope that a military defeat administered to South Vietnam's attackers will promote the stability of that country and provide deterrence to any Chinese thought of war with the United States, or else wait and risk war with China when that country has developed a full-sized nuclear arsenal, backed by the capacity to command the sea areas around the island shield of Asia.
Events in Asia, as we have noted, influence events in Europe and they, in turn, bear directly on U. S. interests. Were the United States to become involved in a war with China, one must expect that the Soviet Union would use the occasion to solve some of its outstanding problems in Europe. In return for a pledge of Soviet neutrality in a Sino-American war, the Soviet Union would attempt to extract concessions from the United States in Europe and the Middle East. Berlin would be the most obvious concession. Soviet neutrality spelled out in terms of the best interest of the Soviet Union would mean the supply of materials to China so that she might continue the war with the United States under conditions where the United States would be in no position to object or even to interfere. Such developments might well lead to an isolated America whose only recourse for resisting Soviet incursions into Western Europe and Chinese occupation of the island shield of Asia would be trans-oceanic nuclear war. This would mean war on the soil of the United States, the very eventuality which generations of Americans have sacrificed to avoid.
It is an enduring quality of Americans that they are critical and oftentimes cynical of U. S. foreign policy and of the conduct of American wars. At the same time, Americans are impatient of programs whose fulfillment is long delayed. The defense of the United States and the promotion of free governments wherever possible are closely related goals of U. S. foreign policy. It must not be expected that realization of those goals can come only through occasional effort in those international situations which provide completely unambiguous threats. Every threat will be ambiguous, the more so, the earlier the United States attempts to meet it.
It was no comfort to the people of Poland in September 1939 that the threat from Germany was at last unequivocal. It will be no comfort to the American people a decade hence that they can at last be certain that the threat from China is real, if the United States is no longer in a position to meet and cancel the threat.
Foreign policies and the imperatives of strategy do not change to suit the mood of the current intellectual fashions in criticism. The hard facts of great power politics and the constant threat of war are the price of existence in a world peopled by dogmatists. Idealism and compassion are rarely companions when the ideal has become dogma to be impressed on the non-believer. Whatever sympathy one may feel for the Chinese and Soviet peoples in their attempt to build the kind of world they wish to live in, one must not let such sympathy blind us to the fact that there is a fundamental difference between the world we would choose and the world they have chosen. Chinese and Russian drives to shape the world to their pleasure are the same drives that would deny Americans the right to do as well. Accommodation may one day be possible. But no one ever has to accommodate a loser.