The United States of America was born from a military clash. Even before the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress created the Continental Army in 1775 and appointed George Washington as its commander. That army faced a number of setbacks when confronting the British, the world's greatest military power at the time. But with the help of the French Navy off the coast of Yorktown, the Americans ultimately defeated the British, and a peace treaty was signed in 1783.
In subsequent years, we found that having some military capability was necessary. Barbary Pirates seized U.S. merchant ships and crews leading to the creation of a permanent U.S. Navy. Then the British came back in the War of 1812.Texas’ decision to join the Union led to a war with Mexico. But it was the Civil War that led to more American deaths than any war in history.
As the nation healed from the Civil War, it grew more connected with the outside world. President Theodore Roosevelt sent the “Great White Fleet” of U.S. Navy ships around the world as a demonstration of American military power. We did our best to stay out of conflicts involving other nations but got dragged into the First World War after Germany attacked ships carrying American passengers and conspired with Mexico to reclaim Texas.
Over one million Americans landed in Europe in World War I, and 116,000 of them lost their lives. The American forces made a decisive difference, and the Germans surrendered about 18 months after America's entry into the war. President Wilson participated in the peace conference at Versailles but could not convince Congress to join the League of Nations. We dismantled our military and withdrew back across the oceans.
But evil returned, as it tends to do, and the Europeans were not willing or able to stand up to it
in time. An even more devastating war came, ultimately resulting in the deaths of 70 to 80 million people; we will never know the exact number. More than 400,000 Americans were among them.
The devastation of World War II led to America making a different decision than we had made in the past, one that went against our history and our preferences. We decided to stay engaged in the world and keep a strong military. Motivated in part by the threat posed by Stalin's Soviet Union, we kept troops in Germany and Japan, founded NATO, and hosted the United Nations on U.S. soil. The next 70 years were not all peaceful, as the veterans of Korea and Vietnam can attest. But thanks to the service and sacrifice of them and others, it has been the most significant period of progress in world history. Whether measured by longer life expectancy, improved quality of life, the spread of democracy, or decrease in numbers affected by war, the last 70 years have been remarkable. All of that progress rests on the foundation of security provided by the American military.
It is also important to recognize one of the key advantages our military has enjoyed these last 70 years has been a network of allies and partners who share our values and most of our goals. Many of them need to do more to contribute to the international security that benefits us all so much, but none of our potential adversaries, such as Russia and China, have independent nations who voluntarily share the burdens required to deter aggression and allow for human flourishing. The American military has provided the leadership and the example for others to follow.
In upcoming columns, we will further explore the impact our military’s global presence has on our everyday lives.