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When “Sensitivity” Has Opened the Road to Victory

by Robert E. May on Aug 24, 2004

Robert E. May

In a critique of John Kerry’s presidential candidacy, Vice President Dick Cheney invoked historical memory to mock Kerry’s call for a “more sensitive” war on terrorism. Cheney told a Dayton, Ohio, gathering on Aug. 12 that none of America’s victories in war can be attributed to “being sensitive.”

To support his point, he summoned some of the heavy guns of America’s wartime leadership: Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Generals U.S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur.

It turns out that Cheney is dead wrong. It was their very sensitivity in conducting war that made Lincoln, Roosevelt, Grant and Eisenhower great wartime leaders.

Let’s start with Lincoln. In the Civil War’s early going, the Lincoln administration restrained its armies from all-out war in the hope that conciliatory policies might induce the Confederate states to rejoin the Union, or might at least ensure that the four border slave states still in the Union (Kentucky, Delaware, Maryland and Missouri) would not secede also.

Not only were orders issued for the protection of civilian property in the South, but Lincoln, always “sensitive” to the knowledge that effective war-making means much more than simply engaging the enemy, countermanded emancipation efforts by Union generals, despite his own hatred of slavery. Lincoln overruled Gen. John C. Fremont’s declaration freeing the slaves of active enemy supporters in Missouri a particularly telling move, given Fremont’s stature as a former presidential candidate of Lincoln’s party. Lincoln shrewdly waited to issue his Emancipation Proclamation until Union armies had substantially secured the four border states.

Cheney could learn much from Lincoln’s sensitivity, as he presses today’s war on terrorism, especially among Muslim populations who regard the United States with hostility. Not only did Lincoln manage to keep four slave states in the Union, gaining control of invaluable industrial and agricultural resources within their borders, but approximately 300,000 slave- state residents, including many thousands from states in the Confederacy, actually fought for the Union army.

Grant’s record also reveals the baseless nature of Cheney’s claim. When Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Grant near the end of the war, Grant allowed Lee and his men to return to their homes on parole with their horses and provided the Confederates with rations. Rather than unnecessarily humiliate his Confederate enemies, Grant “sensitively” allowed Lee and his fellow officers to keep their side arms, even though the Civil War was still being waged by Confederate forces in other locales.

In World War II, the United States also fought more sensitively than Cheney suggests, despite the American record of relentless saturation bombing and resort to nuclear weapons, as well as the savage nature of much of the fighting in the Pacific against Japan. President Roosevelt talked about “total victory” in wartime pronouncements and demanded the “unconditional surrender” of Germany, Japan and Italy. Yet to end the fighting with Italy and get Italy’s collaboration with the Allies, he abandoned his tough policy. Italy surrendered under an elaborate protocol from which the term “unconditional” had been intentionally removed.

Cheney also misrepresents Gen. Eisenhower, one of the most sensitive and successful coalition commanders of all time. Cheney forgets that Ike diverted U.S. and British forces approaching the German capital of Berlin from the west in 1945 to avert the possibility of an accidental collision with allied Soviet forces moving in on Berlin from the east. He also forgets that to accommodate their British allies’ strategic interests (as well as for logistical reasons), Eisenhower and other U.S. military leaders deferred from 1942 to 1944 their desired cross-channel invasion against Hitler. Successful coalition warfare requires restraint and compromise — “sensitivity,” in Cheney’s terms.

Many other chapters in our military history make the same point that successful commanders wage war by carefully weighing their options. For instance, Gen. Winfield Scott’s American army was able to conquer the enemy capital, Mexico City, in 1847, effectually ending the U.S.-Mexican War, because Scott’s campaign had been based on tactical finesse and restraint toward enemy civilians. Scott’s army frequently bypassed enemy strongholds, thus isolating them, and marched under strict orders to protect civilian property, especially Catholic churches. As a result, Scott’s vastly outnumbered forces of fewer than 7,000 effective troops never faced a mass uprising. Unlike U.S.commanders in Iraq today, Scott didn’t offend the religious sensibilities of native peoples.

Only Douglas MacArthur merits Cheney’s praise as being “insensitive.” But did this make him effective? MacArthur almost lost the Korean War by his insensitive decision to cross the 38th parallel into North Korea, despite strong signals from Chinese leaders that they would enter the war on North Korea’s side if that happened. Chinese troops nearly drove U.S. forces off the entire Korean Peninsula before the situation stabilized.

It’s not surprising that the Vice President should sample history for political advantage in a heated campaign. But his remarks suggest that his historical understanding is superficial. If Cheney’s views reflect the Bush administration’s perspective as a whole, they may go far to explain why the current administration has foundered so noticeably in Iraq, Afghanistan and other venues of its “war on terrorism.”


Robert E. May, a professor of history at Purdue University, is author of "Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America" (2002) and a writer for the History News Service.