Some weeks ago, on the History Department Facebook page, we posted an article by George Dvorsky on the “Eight Biggest Disasters in U.S. Military History.” As expected, the post generated some discussion, much of it critical of the list. Professors Dubrulle and Masur thought a discussion of this flawed list would provide a good opportunity to offer their own thoughts on what does and does not constitute an American military disaster. In doing so, they hoped their ideas would show something about how historians attack a question.
The original post offered the following criteria in determining what the biggest military disasters were: “For the purposes of this list, therefore, a ‘military disaster’ will be defined as a historically significant episode in which the U.S. military endured any of the following problems: protracted mission failure, an inability to thwart enemy action, or a breakdown in command and control structure. It can also include an embarrassing, lopsided, or unexpected defeat.”
Using this standard, Dvorsky’s list was as follows:
The American Invasion of Canada (1812)
The Capture of Harper’s Ferry (1862)
The Battle of Antietam (1862)
The Pancho Villa Expedition (1916-1917)
The American Defense of the Philippines (1941-1942)
The Battle of Kasserine Pass (1943)
The Bay of Pigs Invasion (1961)
The American Disbanding of the Iraqi Army (2003)
Let’s start with Professor Masur’s thoughts. . . .
I’m not sure that I am equipped to provide my own list of America’s “top military disasters.” I’m not a military historian, and as a result I would say that I am not particularly well-versed on specific details of America’s military conflicts. Moreover, I tend to focus on America in the twentieth century, meaning my knowledge of earlier American military affairs is a bit sketchy. That’s too bad, because the earlier discussion highlighted how many Civil War battles would be good candidates for this list. Finally, while my own research deals with an American military conflict (the Vietnam War), it is a conflict that is often studied without a primary focus on the sorts of military engagements that might make up a list of this nature.
Before offering a list, I’ll try to explain the general rules or guidelines I am using for determining what is a “military disaster.”
- The result of a decision or action that was made, primarily or in large part, by members of the military. This rules out, e.g., the decision to commit American support to South Vietnam and eventually escalate and Americanize the conflict. It also rules out the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. These two decisions would likely rank among the biggest foreign policy mistakes since World War II, and they of course had significant repercussions for the military. But the decisions themselves were not, in my view, military disasters.
- The decision had significant negative repercussions for the United States, and the negative consequences can be persuasively seen as outweighing any positive outcomes that may have resulted from the decision. This might mean that the decision resulted in significant American casualties, but it could also mean that the decision had economic repercussions or in some way undermined America’s strategic interests. Both the Vietnam War and the second Gulf War would meet the this standard.
- The negative consequences of the disaster can be reasonably traced to the decision itself. The failure to convincingly defeat Germany in World War I may have created conditions that contributed to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party. But so many other factors emerged in the years after World War I that it would be hard for me to consider this a direct result of World War I.
There are a couple of military disasters that popped into my head, but for a variety of reasons I decided to leave them off the list.
The Tet Offensive (1968)
Historians have written countless pages on the Tet Offensive, devoting a significant portion to debating whether or not the battle was a defeat for the United States and its South Vietnamese allies. The consensus today seems to be that the battle was not militarily crippling for either U.S. forces or the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN—the South Vietnamese armed forces who were allied with the U.S.). In fact, the National Liberation Front or “Viet Cong” suffered terrible losses in the fighting. At the same time, the battle did contribute to growing American discontent with the prolonged military effort. U.S. forces may have erred in not being more prepared for the attack, but because the U.S. reacted quickly and repelled the offensive it was not, in my estimation, a military disaster.
Pearl Harbor (1941)
This is an interesting candidate. A number of people commenting on the original piece noted that Pearl Harbor would be an obvious choice. While it was a disaster for the United States, an intriguing counterargument could be made that Pearl Harbor was a far greater military disaster for Japan. Professor Dubrulle can correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that some Japanese observers at the time anticipated that Pearl Harbor would spell the eventual doom for Japan’s expansion in the Pacific. This raises a semantic or philosophical point: can the same battle be a disaster for both sides? I can see the argument for yes, but for the purposes of this discussion I’ll go with “no” and therefore keep Pearl Harbor off my list.
So with all of that out of the way, what would I include?
Little Bighorn (1876)
I know next to nothing about the serious scholarship on Little Bighorn, so my view is rooted almost entirely in the way the battle is perceived in the popular imagination. But come on—Custer and his men getting annihilated by the Dakota Indians? Of course that has to be on the list.
The Decision to Push North of the 38th Parallel and Approach the Chinese Border in the Korean War (1950)
This makes sense because it so clearly falls at the feet of the military commander, General Douglas MacArthur. His decision to press the advantage against the North Koreans was arrogant and reckless. Moreover, he stubbornly refused to consider the consequences of his decision. His decision arguably prolonged the war, leading to widespread American casualties. And it is worth remembering that the victims of his decision were not entirely or even primarily Americans—Chinese, North Korean, and South Korean troops all suffered heavy losses, and the war had disastrous consequences for Korean civilians.
Westmoreland’s Attrition Strategy in Vietnam (1964)
This was, as far as I know, a decision made by William Westmoreland, the American commander in Vietnam from 1964-68. Most historians admit that it was a terrible mistake. Interestingly, this is one of the few issues that “orthodox” Vietnam War historians (that is, historians who tend to think the American intervention was a mistake) and “revisionist” Vietnam War historians (those who think that it was a justifiable and necessary war that could have been won) tend to agree upon. The orthodox historians view it as evidence of America’s inability to understand the conflict in Vietnam, particularly its political and social dimensions. The revisionists argue that Westmoreland’s decision was one of the factors that prevent the United States from prevailing in the conflict—an outcome, they argue, that was within reach.
There are probably more disasters to include. I’ll give honorable mention to two disasters from the Spanish-American War. One was the pacification of the Philippines once the war ended. The pacification effort lasted for years and was far more deadly for both Americans and Filipinos than the war itself. I don’t know enough about it to say whether this was the responsibility of the military or civilian leadership. The Spanish-American War was also notoriously mismanaged. The U.S. prevailed in spite of this mismanagement, but it likely led to the unnecessary death of American soldiers who were improperly outfitted or fed during the conflict.
Now for Professor Dubrulle. . . .
I’d like to start by stating that I don’t like Dvorsky’s criteria. First, they are vague. What exactly is a “historically significant episode”? Second, “protracted mission failure” and “inability to thwart enemy action” amount to pretty much the same thing—an inability to impose one’s will on the enemy. Third, a “breakdown in command and control structure” seems like an unusual item to include on the list. Is that an essential feature of military disaster? Fourth, “embarrassing, lopsided, or unexpected defeat” could mean many things. Yet perhaps most important of all, this list is something of a catch-all, consisting of very different and inconsistent ideas. (Indeed, the list seems to be inspired by the Wikipedia entry for “List of Military Disasters.”)
At the same time, I don’t believe that Dvorsky has applied his own criteria particularly well. Was the Pancho Villa expedition a “historically significant episode”? Why was the Battle of the Wabash (1791) left out? It was very badly fought, and as a result, a quarter of the U.S. regular army was wiped out by the Western Indian Confederacy. Moreover, a number of Civil War battles could meet Dvorsky’s standard better than Harper’s Ferry and Antietam. And the Bay of Pigs? Really?
The phrase “military disaster” requires a more precise definition. It could mean a) a battle that was badly fought and lost or b) a battle lost that had very bad ramifications. There is an important distinction between the two. For instance, the Fetterman Fight (1866) and the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876) fit in the former category. They were very badly lost, but their ramifications were somewhat limited. Pearl Harbor, however, definitely falls in the second category. Arguments could be made for both definitions of “military disaster,” but my preference would be for the second one because battles meeting this standard possess greater historical significance.
These considerations bring me to Matt’s thoughts. I know I shouldn’t have read his contribution before writing my own (that’s a bit like cheating), but I couldn’t stop myself. Matt makes a lot of sense to me, but in light of the comments I’ve made above, I’d like to modify one of his criteria—the one concerning “negative repercussions.” It makes sense that we define this phrase by identifying it with existential threats to the United States or, at the very least, extremely difficult (and ominous) political or strategic problems.
Otto von Bismarck supposedly once said, “There is a special providence for drunkards, fools, and the United States of America.” Americans have been lucky or powerful enough to avoid battles that presented existential threats to their nation. Yet we can still create an interesting list of battles based on this criterion.
The Battle of Long Island (1776)
Hardly anybody remembers this battle, but it was the largest of the Revolutionary War and almost led to the end of the American struggle for independence. It was fought in August 1776, shortly after the Second Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence. George Washington sought to defend New York City by stationing men on the southern tip of Manhattan and Brooklyn Heights on Long Island (which overlooked Manhattan). The British landed on Staten Island before sending a large force to Gravesend Bay on Long Island (east of where the Americans were). They drove Washington’s force off the Heights of Guan and pushed them into Brooklyn Village, pinning the Americans against the East River. In other words, the Americans were now surrounded—stuck between the East River and the British. At this point, had the British decided to press their advantage and attacked Washington’s disorganized army, they would have captured almost all of it. Instead, they settled in for a siege. This decision gave Washington time to escape to Manhattan. In a daring and risky operation, a regiment of fishermen from Marblehead, Massachusetts, under the command of John Glover, quietly rowed the American forces across the East River at night, practically under the nose of the Royal Navy. Had the British acted with more alacrity, they could have bagged 19,000 Continentals and militia along with Washington himself. The Revolution would have been over right after it had started, and there would have been no United States at all.
The Battle of Antietam (1862)
This battle belongs on the list, but not for Dvorsky’s reasons. During the summer of 1862, the British Cabinet began to think about either recognizing the Confederacy or intervening in the war. Recognition would only come, though, if the Confederacy had pretty much secured its independence beyond a doubt (after the Seven Days’ Battles and the Second Battle of Bull Run, some members of the Cabinet believed it was well on its way to attaining this objective). Lord Palmerston, the British Prime Minister, was of this opinion. Those who favored intervention (like Earl Russell, the Foreign Secretary, and William Gladstone, the Chancellor of the Exchequer) believed the war was a terrible humanitarian disaster for both America and Britain (due to the interruption of commerce, particularly cotton trade, and the potential for a huge slave insurrection) that had no end in sight. They favored British mediation (in conjunction with probably France and Russia) that would probably have led to the independence of the Confederacy. The traditional view of Antietam (which was a tactical draw but a strategic Northern victory) was that it arrested British moves toward recognition or intervention. The North showed that it still had plenty of fight, or so the argument went, and the battle allowed Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which helped make the war about slavery. The North’s willingness to keep fighting, along with the new moral crusade it had embraced, supposedly led the British to reconsider interfering in the war. However, as Howard Jones and a number of other scholars have pointed out, Antietam made some British Cabinet members more inclined to pursue mediation; the draw at Antietam suggested the war would drag on even longer, doing even more harm to both American and British interests. Fortunately, in November 1862, Sir George Cornewall Lewis, the Secretary of State for War, rallied the Cabinet against mediation (which France favored at that point). In all likelihood, mediation would have meant the splitting of the United States.
Pearl Harbor (1941)
I get the problem that Matt is struggling with when it comes to Pearl Harbor. By attacking Pearl Harbor, the Japanese started a war with the United States that it only had a slim chance of winning. Even the Japanese leadership felt this way. We can say, then, that in the long run and from a political point of view, the attack was a terrible Japanese mistake. But in the short run, the attack was a big tactical success and presented the United States with great operational and strategic difficulties. These difficulties hampered American attempts to deal with Japanese advances in the eastern Pacific. Among other things, they doomed the American garrison on the Philippines. The American disaster at Pearl Harbor, however, was mitigated by good luck and some excellent foresight. The Japanese did not catch any of the American aircraft carriers in the harbor, they failed to destroy American oil storage facilities in Hawaii, and of the eight battleships at Pearl Harbor, only two were permanently lost (one never left service, three returned to service in 1942, and two more became available in 1944). Even more important, in July 1940 Congress had passed the Vinson-Walsh Act (otherwise known as the Two-Ocean Navy Act) that funded a dramatic expansion of the U.S. Navy. The vessels funded by this act did not begin to become available until 1942, but the United States did not lose as much time as it might have otherwise in replacing its naval losses. Still, the attack forced the U.S. Navy to fight on its back heel for much of 1942—at the Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal.
Battle of Bataan (1942)
Pearl Harbor compromised the American defense of the Philippines. The Japanese were determined to take the Philippine archipelago because it sat astride their line of communication with their southeast Asian possessions. Although the American defense of Luzon (conducted by an army that consisted mainly of Filipinos), which eventually centered on the Bataan peninsula, was often marked by great courage, it was not always well led or conceived. Eventually, 15,000 American and 60,000 Filipino soldiers were compelled to surrender. This was the largest surrender of forces under American command ever. It deprived the United States of an important base from which to contest Japanese advances in Asia; the United States would have to work its way across the southern and central Pacific to get at Japan. And it was yet another defeat of Allied power in Asia (French Indochina, Dutch Indonesia, and British Malaysia and Burma were all conquered by the Japanese at this time) that did much to discredit Western colonialism in Asia–a development of world significance.
Tet Offensive (1968)
I will put Tet on my list. Yes, Tet was a military defeat for the Viet Cong and the People’s Army of Vietnam. But if war is a tool by which we seek political objectives, in the long run, Tet contributed in a big way to eventual North Vietnamese victory. As a result of Tet, much of the American public questioned the credibility and honesty of the American government, an attitude that was only augmented by the sudden rise in American casualties and the army’s request for troop increases in Vietnam. The request threatened to put America’s entire manpower policy under stress (it might have required a massive call-up of reservists), increase inflation, exacerbate America’s balance-of-payment problem, and worsen a looming economic crisis. More immediately, Tet shook the confidence of Lyndon Johnson and his advisors. Although nobody could see it clearly at the time, this was the beginning of the end. Of course, there’s defeat, and then there’s defeat. As a result of our loss, we did not have to bow to new North Vietnamese masters (see the Onion headline below). But the American defeat in Vietnam had a big impact on foreign policy, led to a long-running debate in the military about how best to fight little wars, and fundamentally shaped the attitudes of the public.
The Battle of Bladensburg (1814)
Enjoying control of Chesapeake Bay, the British were interested in launching a series of raids there to tie down American forces and make them unavailable for an invasion of Canada. Major General Robert Ross, relying on support from Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane’s fleet, decided to launch a raid against Washington, DC and Baltimore. For this task, he had only four battalions of regular infantry, one battalion of Royal Marines, and assorted auxiliaries—a total of 4,300 men. Facing him were something on the order of one regular infantry battalion, some dragoons from the regular army, a small collection of sailors, and over 6,000 American militiamen. To make a long story short, the British assaulted the Americans at Bladensburg and routed the militia which ran through the streets of Washington. The British were able, then, to enter the city and burn most of its public buildings, including the White House (then referred to as the Presidential Mansion) and the Capitol. The strategic results of this action were barren; the British failed to capture Baltimore, they had to retreat to their ships in the bay, and no significant long-term results issued from the burning of Washington. But, oh, the shame of having the young nation’s capital occupied and put to the torch! And after such an inglorious defeat!