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Don’t Compare America Now With Britain Then

by Michael H. Creswell on Aug 29, 2001

Michael H. Creswell

As the United States confronts the New World of the 21st century, the nation must rethink how it can best defend and advance vital U.S. Interests. No longer concerned about a clash of arms with the old Soviet Union, America today faces new challenges to its security.

To this end, the Bush administration is now deciding America’s future international security strategy and the size and structure of the nation’s military. The administration has already abandoned a strategy that called on American forces to fight and win two regional wars simultaneously. Now U.S. forces must be able to win one war and carry out a number of holding actions around the globe.  Accordingly, the administration plans to reduce significantly the size of America’s military forces.

Critics contend that these and other decisions will leave the nation unprepared for war. One of the most vocal and influential critics is Frederick W. Kagan, a professor of military history, U.S. Military Academy at West Point. To make his point that cutting America’s armed forces will leave the nation unable to deter overseas aggression, he draws parallels between the United States in 2001 and Great Britain in the 1920s and 1930s.

He and others argue that unless the United States retains the will and means to maintain its present overseas positions and commitments, it will fail, as did Great Britain in the late 1930s, to deter would-be aggressors.  They warn that the proposed cuts in defense might render the United States unwilling to commit forces to one region in fear of leaving other regions open to aggression. More ominously, these critics predict that if the U.S. does go to war, its forces might suffer a pummeling similar to that administered to the British Army during the first half of the Second World War.

Yet this historical parallel is highly dubious. The current international political environment is hardly comparable to the one that existed between the two world wars. There also exists a vast difference in the power of the U.S. now and that of pre-1945 Great Britain.

In the earlier period, the democratic world faced three challengers: Germany, Italy, and Japan. Each was fueled by fanaticism and bent on forcibly changing the international status quo. But today there are no such nations on the scene. The major nations that do seek a radical revision of the international system, such as China and Russia, are either unwilling or unable to use force to effect such a change.

The scourge of extreme nationalism, which played an important role in igniting the conflagrations of 1914 and 1939, has been virtually extinguished among the leading economic and military powers.  Nations still troubled by an indigenous form of militant nationalism, such as China and Russia, see it as a destabilizing element, and thus work hard to keep it in check.

Another significant difference between the present and the 1920s and 1930s is the vast gulf in power between the U.S. now and Great Britain then. Today, the United States is by far the world’s dominant economic and military power, unlike inter-war Great Britain, which saw its power rapidly declining relative to its allies and adversaries. In 1940, Great Britain’s conventional forces were unable to deter Nazi Germany from attacking France and bombing London. In 2001, the United States spends more on defense than the next seven top defense spenders combined. U.S. defenses are thus robust enough to dissuade all but the most determined adversaries from directly assaulting America’s vital interests around the world.

There are other dissimilarities. At the outset of the Second World War, Great Britain had few powerful allies.  Today, the primary allies of the United States have the muscle to provide much of their own defense. When combined with the United States’ unparalleled ability to project power throughout the globe, it is highly unlikely that U.S. allies will fall like dominoes in the face of aggression.

The comparison between today’s America and yesterday’s Britain falls short in other ways as well. The industrial democracies after the First World War did not coordinate their defense policies, as do the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Today, any nation that attacked the United States would also have to face the other eighteen members of NATO.

And even if the United States failed to deter aggression and NATO failed to react, the situation would still be very different from that in 1941. Then the British faced a powerful Axis coalition, whose leadership sought conquest at almost any cost. But which nation or combination of nations is currently able and willing to attack the United States?  No serious analyst argues the United States will soon fight a war with another industrial democracy. And does anyone believe, for example, that Iraq and Syria, acting in concert, would escape almost total destruction for jointly attacking the U.S. mainland?

The primary candidates for coming clash are nations such as Iraq and North Korea. Yet it strains credulity to equate the military threat posed to the United States now by these two relatively weak military powers with the danger presented by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan 60 years ago.

Kagan and like-minded critics are correct in warning America not to become complacent about its security. New threats, such as drug trafficking and infectious disease, will add to America’s security concerns. Yet these critics sow confusion by making a flawed historical comparison. The Bush administration should reject this specious historical analogy in crafting a military strategy appropriate to present conditions.

Michael H. Creswell is in associate professor of history at Florida State University. The author of "A Question of Balance: How France and the United States Created Cold War Europe" (2006), he is also a writer for the History News Service.