What factors led to American success in the American War of Independence?

An essay by Birmingham War Studies graduate Rob Gillow.

American success in the War of Independence was primarily the result of the conflict escalating into a global struggle that the British did not want to fight.   The involvement of the French, Spanish and eventually the Dutch placed Britain in a vulnerable position from which both the politicians and the armed forces began to question the value of fighting in America. These doubts were increased when it became clear that Britain didn’t have the resources required to win in America whilst also protecting their other colonies and the home islands. This is in comparison to the American revolutionists whose commitment and will to fight was far greater than their enemies and itself was an important factor in American success. The resistance and dogged nature shown by the colonials and revolutionaries was reflected in their fighting style and capitalised on by good leadership. The American generals, aware of their deficiencies sought to wear down the British until America had established both allies and its own armed forces capable of victory. This victory can be seen as the British surrender of Yorktown on the 19th October 1781. Whilst it is still conceivable that Britain could have carried on fighting and even still won the war from this point the British had in fact given up. This is best expressed by the military theorist Clausewitz, who writes: “As soon, therefore, as the required outlay becomes so great that the political object is no longer equal in value, the object must be given up, and peace will be the result.” This essay will consider why Britain failed to subdue the revolution and why it didn’t commit enough to the conflict in North America, taking into account the global context of the war. However the role of America should not be overshadowed by the unwillingness of the British. The tactics and strategy employed by America as well as the excellent leadership demonstrated at times by both generals and politicians throughout the war played a vital role and ergo will also be considered.

Initially the American War of Independence was a confined and largely asymmetrical conflict. Britain possessed a more than adequate navy and highly trained armed forces. Furthermore Jeremy Black notes that “suppressing a rebellion within the dominions of the British Crown was not a novel problem for the British Armed Forces in the eighteenth century.” This highlights Britain’s experience in dealing with such matters which perhaps resulted in overconfidence when dealing with the conflict in America. The fighting itself started as a small scale conflict by European standards.

Yet Britain’s inability to crush the uprising or George Washington’s armies drew the attention of foreign powers, Britain appeared weak. Thus powers such as Bourbon France began to respond to the diplomatic advances of the American Congress and sent vital aid to America, such as guns and ammunition. They also began to consider the possibility of entering the conflict directly.  Following the defeat of the British at Saratoga the French stepped up their support of the Americans from smuggled aid to a fully signed treaty of alliance which was signed on the 6th of February 1778. Within the treaty was ‘Article 10’ Which stated: “The most Christian King and the United States, agree to invite or admit other Powers who may have received injuries from England to make common cause with them, and to accede to the present alliance, under such conditions as shall be freely agreed to and settled between all the Parties.” These injured parties included Spain and the Dutch who entered the conflict in June 1779 and December 1780 respectively.

This was disastrous for the British who had hoped for a quick and decisive victory, now due to foreign involvement they had to fully mobilise and faced the prospect of a long and costly war.  Furthermore the intervention of these powers and escalation of the war denied the British the naval supremacy they had long enjoyed and freely exploited in America. With a sizeable enemy navy now operating in the waters around America as well as commitments elsewhere the British navy could no longer stick to its trusted strategy of blockade and thus starve out the revolution. These ‘commitments elsewhere’ refer to the fact the Britain was now fighting in multiple theatres, conflict had arisen in the Caribbean, Africa, India and Europe. Even the Home islands themselves were threatened. Britain’s woes were further inflated by the lack of an ally on the continent. During the previous war Britain had Prussia as an ally who diverted and defeated large amounts of French resources, yet during this conflict Britain had no such luxury.  The Eastern European powers were focused upon themselves thus Britain had to fight the full force of France itself.

The full extent of the complications arisen from European involvement can be shown from the concerns of leading British politicians. General Amherst, who became Commander-in-Chief of the forces in April 1778, strongly advised pulling out of the war upon hearing of the Franco-American treaty. This idea was rejected as many felt abandoning the war would invite America to attack Canada and the West Indies, the consensus feeling that the West Indies in particular couldn’t afford to be lost.  Upon opposition to this idea Amherst instead insisted upon the king that “the colonial war was now a secondary consideration in a situation in which the primary concern had to be France.” As for the actual fighting in America the possibility of a decisive defeat of the main British Amy in the field was now feasible with French military intervention. This possibility came to realisation at Yorktown where the combined efforts of the American army and French navy resulted in the surrender of a British army. Following this defeat Britain sought terms however Benjamin Franklin noted of the British “That they were ready to treat of Peacebut intimated that if France should insist upon terms too humiliating to England, they could still continue the war, having yet great strength and many resources left.” This further highlights how the British concern was the French and not America, which it was now willing to relinquish.

As noted by Franklin the defeat at Yorktown did not necessarily mean the end of the war as Britain still had the resources to carry on fighting. K. Perry notes After 1782 Britain could have carried on the war having won back some form of naval superiority but the “political will to attempt it had gone.” Especially now the new administration of the Marquis of Rockingham that had replaced Lord North on the 27th March 1782 was ‘pro-independence’. However the reluctance to fight was not a result of Yorktown but had been present in Britain since the start of the outcome. Interestingly the conflict in America wasn’t the main concern for many. On the  6th December 1765 King George III stated “I am more and more grieved at the accounts from America where this spirit will end is not to be said; it is undoubtedly the most serious matter that ever came before Parliament it requires more deliberation, candour and temper then I fear it will meet with.” For many America was vital to British power and prosperity, this view was backed by the fact in 1772-3 America took roughly a quarter of all British exports. Yet for others it wasn’t, especially when compared to possession such as India. Notably after Massachusetts Assembly’s actions in 1768 the British cabinet met to discuss the matter but was more focused on the East India Bill.

This apprehension about the conflict in America is shown through Parliament’s constant refusal to send the required reinforcements to its generals in America, instead on the 21st March 1778 it ordered Clinton to send 5000 troops to attack St Lucia and 3000 to reinforce Florida. As well as not sending enough reinforcements Britain sent generals with orders to try and negotiate with the revolutionist. General Howe, who himself had great sympathy for the Americans, was instructed to treat with the Americans as well as destroy them. These paradoxical orders resulted in his reluctance to push hard on the Americans after the Long Island victory in hope of negotiating. This allowed Washington and his army to escape instead of a crushing victory which could have potentially ended the war.  Addressing parliament in 1779 to explain his actions Howe said “Would it not have had the effect of alienating the minds of the Americans from his Majesty’s government, rather than terrifying them into obedience.” Here in lies the main problem for Britain, even if they successfully put down the revolution they would still have to control a largely hostile population. Sir Charles Bunbury recognised this, calling for the war to be abandoned due to the high cost and “intractability of the war.” He recognised Britain was fighting an idea that couldn’t simply be put down by military strength. This is explained by Black who writes “The restoration of the colonies to royal government would be pointless if they required a substantial garrison and if embers of rebellion remained among a discontented population.” Ironically the only way to keep such a ‘substantial garrison’ in America would be to tax the colonies which was one of the main reason the war occurred in the first place, potentially creating an endless cycle of political unrest and conflict. It is because of this that Perry believed that “Britain had lost the colonies by 1775 and the war that followed was merely a painful way of learning that lesson.” Britain soon realised this and during negotiations agreed “The Allowing of American Independence on condition that England be put into the same Situation that she was left in by the Peace of 1763.”

The American will and determination for independence can therefore be seen as a major factor for American success in the war of independence. America had been witness to a “period of benign neglect” from the British following the seven years war and as such tension had grown. American suspicion about British intentions was fuelled by events such as the Boston massacre of 1770 and the introduction of the Stamp Act in 1765. The growing resentment of the Americans was seen by Sir John Wenthworth who was Governor of New Hampshire. Writing on the 2nd of November 1770 “although the violent effusions are and will be surpassed by navy and army – yet I verily think a far more dangerous spirit is thereby rooting in the minds of the people.” As events developed the British ministry was extremely surprised by the scale and spread of resistance they were faced with. Additionally the Colonials refused to be intimidated by British aggression and displays of military strength which had been hoped to scare the population and prevent the uprising from growing. Instead the unrest grew and on the 4th of July 1776 at Philadelphia the Continental Congress declared the colonies independent.

The importance of the Declaration of Independence as a factor for American success in the war has been greatly debated. To historians such as Robert Middlekauff it was a “glorious act”, a standard to fight under and for. This view is indeed shared by the American generals who witnessed an increase in volunteers and a vital boost to morale following it’s declaration despite crushing defeats. Washington had it read out to the troops preparing to fight at Long Island to boost morale and invigorate the troops. In contrast John Adams saw it more as a formal procedure and boldly felt “the revolution was complete, in the minds of the people, and the union of the colonies, before the war commenced in the skirmishes of Concord and Lexington on 14 April 1775.” This view, although very naïve of the military aspects highlights how the revolutionaries were determined to win the war at any cost. This dogged nature of the American fighters is best reflected by General Nathanael Greene whose campaign in the south featured numerous defeats in battle yet still ended up victorious. Of this campaign he said: “We fight, get beat, rise and fight again.”

This resilient nature featured throughout the war but was as much a product of British creation as American. Throughout the war British politicians and generals enraged the colonial population and ultimately fanned the fire of their own destruction. Following the declaration of Independence King George III passed the Intolerable act and made a speech which greatly infuriated the American revolutionists and scuppered any chance of negotiation to avoid further conflict.  Thomas Jefferson wrote of it how it “plainly proved a deliberate and systematically plan of reducing us to slavery.” Other examples include Burgoyne’s statement and threat to unleash the Indians on Northern America which ultimately rallied the dysfunctional army that opposed him in the north. His eventual defeat and the victory of the Trenton-Princeton campaign greatly boosted morale and proved a humiliation to Britain. These incidents’ consequences can be seen through America’s refusal to negotiate despite the numerous British victories. When asked to surrender by General Howe in July 1776 Benjamin Franklin replied “It is impossible we should think of submission to a government, that has with the most wanton barbarity and cruelty, burnt our defenceless towns in the midst of winter, excited the savages to massacre our farmers, and our slaves to murder their masters, and is even now bringing in foreign mercenaries to deluge our settlements with blood” The “foreign mercenaries” he refers to may well be the Hessian troops that were left to hold the Delaware River line over the winter of 1776. These troops greatly pillaged the land for food and supplies, ignoring the orders of British who still hoped to negotiate and thus didn’t ravage the land. The inability of the British to destroy the will of the enemy despite its numerous victories or to even bring America to the negotiating table can therefore be seen a vital factor in American success. Whilst a failing of the British, this is much more due to the will of the revolutionists and their desire for independence.

Ultimately the lack of political will and the spread of the conflict around the world resulted in a severe lack of supplies and reinforcement for the British. At the start of the conflict Britain was had the strongest navy and public finance system in the world. Yet America was 3000 miles away and was an extremely vast land that Britain lacked the army to conquer and control. Reinforcements were not forthcoming and such limitations were pressing matters for commanders,  General Howe was very aware he couldn’t afford to lose too many troops as they wouldn’t be replaced and hence took a cautious approach. The British army was small. In 1776 Britain had 40,522 men in North America, of which 13,482 were in Canada. Even then this inadequate number of troops was the biggest a British government had ever sent abroad. Surprisingly in October 1780, despite the need for reinforcements because of the escalation of the war and various setbacks the amount of troops in North America was smaller. They now numbered 15, 739 under Clinton in New York with a further 3838 in Canada. Meanwhile in Britain there were 34,977. This was the result of the war spreading to other theatres, some of which were deemed more important than America such as the West Indies where Britain’s naval commitment of ships of the line rose from 8% in July 1778 to 48% in April 1782.This shows how Britain’s strength did grow during the war. The British navy grew from 16,000 in 1775 to 107,000 in 1783. Yet the American campaign failed to receive the reinforcements it required whilst places such as Gibraltar received huge convoys of supplies which themselves required escorts during the course of a siege which lasted three and a half years.

This asks the question of why supplies and reinforcements weren’t sent to America if they were available. We’ve already established there was a lack of political will to fight but the reasons go beyond that. One main reason was that Britain hoped to mobilise the loyalist populations of America and use it as reinforcements to its army.  However Britain couldn’t offer the necessary protection to the loyalists and their land which they demanded in return for service. As well as the loyalists the British failed to gain Indian support to the same extent as they had in the Seven Years War. They also failed to take advantage of the slaves who made up 1/6th of population. Instead of using the local population Britain turned towards German auxiliaries which in 1778-9 made up 33% of the British strength in America. This was for more costly and added an unnecessary burden to an already overstretched budget, a cost which totalled £124 Million by the end of the war for the British.

Britain also thought it was fighting a losing battle on the supply and manpower front.  America was a wealthy society due to its plantation nature. This meant it could sustain a long war effort for a sufficient period and buy the vital equipment from its European allies. Furthermore there was a belief that America had a seemingly endless supply of reinforcements, as shown by Lieutenant James Hadden who wrote in May 1781 “we must conquer a people who get recruits within ten miles, while ours come three thousand.” However these beliefs were misguided as revolutionaries suffered almost as much as Britain in terms of supplies. Washington, like his British counterparts often called for reinforcements. He was promised 80,000 troops at the start of the war but had to wait for congress to recruit them in a fair and diplomatic manner. Furthermore in the winter of 1777-8 there was a crisis of transport and supply. Disaster was only narrowly avoided by the skill of Greene who in a new quartermaster general role sorted out logistical problems plaguing the armies. Despite these improvements Greene still observed of his army that “The regular force that is here is so naked and destitute of everything, that but little more than half of them are fit for any kind of duty.” Therefore we can see how resource problems plagued both sides in the conflict. If anything it proved a further reason for Britain to discontinue the war and the lack of will to carry on fighting it.

The fighting itself though must be considered when contemplating why America won the War of Independence. Throughout the war Britain won countless victories yet still lost overall. This idea of tactical defeat but strategic victory was vital in American success in the war. As discussed earlier Britain was unable to ever fully crush the continental army. According to Clausewitz the Destruction of an enemies force is vital for submission. Thus it was Washington’s belief that in this small war of attrition his “primary task was to keep his small army together through difficult times.” To this extent many saw Washington’s army as the revolution itself. This army was poor compared to its British enemies. This gap was slowly closed with the help of the Prussian Augustus von Steueben who developed new and simple drills to train the troops. Furthermore American culture played a factor as recognised by Charles Mellish MP who noted that there was “constant use of firelock from childhood.” Thus Washington had at his disposal a large amount of sharpshooters who wrecked havoc amongst the organised British.

The leadership demonstrated as well was vital for American success. The revolutionaries were lead by competent leaders. There was Washington who had learnt from his mistakes in the Seven Years War and was now more prudent and cautious because of it. Greene also was capable and possessed an “unrelenting belief in the ultimate victory of his cause.” The British commanders were left caught between trying to defeat their enemy and negotiate with them and as such never developed a decent strategy. Furthermore there was a lack of unity as generals and admirals all failed to work together. For example Burgoyne and Clinton had already set sail to attack from Canada by the time London learnt of Howe’s plan to attack Philadelphia by sea  and as a result neither armies were able to link up as planned and were defeated. The politicians as well were poor. Lord North was a good finance minister and parliamentary manager but not a war leader, his failings seemingly further exaggerated as he was following in the shadow of Pitt.

In conclusion it is clear there is a vast array of reasons as to why America was successful in the War of Independence. There is a line of argument that suggests the lack of will to fight from the British was the main reason although alternatively it was the American resolve for independence that forced Britain’s hand. Either way the development of the conflict from an isolated war into an international conflict was the key event and eventual factor that resulted in British defeat and therefore American victory. Yet it must be remembered that such a victory could not have been achieved without earlier success which greatly depended on the fine leadership and strategy of the revolutionary forces.


Black, J. War for America – The fight for Independence 1775-1783 (Stroud, 1991)

Clausewitz, C. On War (Wordsworth edn., London, 1997)

Dickinson, H. Britain and the American Revolution (London, 1998)

Middlekauff, R. The Glorious Cause (Oxford, 2005)

Parker, G. Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare (Cambridge, 1995)

Perry, K.  British Politics and the American Revolution (London, 1990)

Roberts, A. The Art of War (London, 2009)

Franklin Papers:






Why War Studies? – An Interview with A Graduate

University of Birmingham Graduate Zoë Vince on War Studies at Birmingham.

– What are the main advantages of a degree in War Studies? How would you try to convince someone considering this option?

War Studies is an extremely diverse, engaging and highly flexible subject to study at undergraduate level, offering a range of thematic and detailed modular options throughout three years of study.  I would recommend that anyone interested in the subjects of politics, sociology and history and their respective links to either past or present conflicts should consider the merits of a War Studies qualification.  I would also urge those interested in such a path to thoroughly research the alternative War Studies programmes in other universities than Birmingham, such as King’s College London (KCL), because each programme, due to institutional tradition, preferences and teaching staff, offers a different focus on the study of warfare.

Studying for a War Studies degree facilitates the development of sought-after transferable skills, as traditionally found with subjects such as history and English.  More than this, however, War Studies offers the opportunity to study a multidisciplinary subject, demonstrating to prospective employers a willingness to engage with diverse material and develop a broad, not merely detailed, knowledge base.  War Studies is a ‘stand-out’ degree; unlike more common subjects, answering the question “what did/do you study?” with “War Studies” will always be greeted with genuine interest.  Finally, I would posit that War Studies is a genuinely enjoyable subject and is always interesting and challenging.

– What are the differences and similarities with a history degree?

The War Studies department at the University of Birmingham is based in the School of History and Cultures, whereas KCL’s is part of the School of Social Science and Public Policy, meaning that Birmingham’s programme is more, although not exclusively, centred on historical conflicts.  The modular course structure affords a significant degree of flexibility, which results in War Studies and history students attending many of the same classes, depending on individual interests.  Indeed, I have found that many history students, having been unaware of the opportunity to study War Studies, have come to prefer War Studies-led modules and even express regret that they chose single honours history.

The main difference between War Studies and history at Birmingham is the core War Studies modules, of which there is one in first and third year, and two in second year.  These modules are: War, Armed Forces and Society (1st year), Strategy and Operational Art, Rise of Modern Warfare (2nd year) and Writing the History of Warfare (3rd year).  These War Studies modules cover many multifaceted topics, concerning conflicts from the ancient world up to the present.

By way of assessment, students are permitted to choose their preferred essay questions, allowing independent research into a topic of interest.  For example, I chose such subjects as Thucydides’ continued influence amongst Anglo-American historians and political scientists, the reasons behind Frederick the Great’s operational successes, and a comparative study of Blitzkrieg and Deep Battle theory.  Students then build on this by choosing more specific, elective modules, which are also attended by history students; some, however, believe that going back into a mixed class can dilute the quality of debate, the War Studies students having had the benefit of specialist teaching.

In short, history and War Studies at Birmingham are closely linked, but War Studies students will fiercely argue that they are presented with the opportunity to become truly knowledgeable in a broad field, compared with the history student’s command of often a (relatively) short period.

 What general skills, not directly related to the subject but in demand in the labour market, are best developed by students in this area?

As previously mentioned, War Studies students develop all of the best traits of those reading Arts degrees.  Employers commonly require evidence of verbal and written communication skills, presentation skills and independent research skills.  Time management, organisational skills and analytical skills are equally sought after.  Reading for Arts degrees, which have notoriously short contact hours and a high level of independence, and which require a series of long and detailed assessments, therefore provides students with an excellent foundation of skills for later employment.

With regards to War Studies specifically, there is a focus on subjects related to decision making and leadership, and the exploration of organisational structures and operational successes which can easily be applied to the workplace, our graduates having more of a detailed grasp on logical processes and the requirements of a successful organisation.  This would translate well to employers, in comparison with a history degree which largely addresses themes and theories.

What do War Studies graduates usually do after their first degree?

A large proportion of War Studies graduates go on to further study.  Some choose to complete Law conversion courses, while a small number go on to train as teachers.  Many apply to read conflict related postgraduate degrees, either at Birmingham in areas such as the world wars or religious warfare, or at KCL, for example, where more contemporary,  policy based MAs and PhDs can be studied.

For those continuing directly into employment there are a wide variety of paths to consider. Public service is a popular choice, with graduates working for the Civil Service FastStream, the management training programme, or research and development organisations such as MoD trading fund Dstl. Some graduates prefer literary careers, working for think tanks or journals as writers or researchers, or for publishing and editing companies; some of our undergraduates have completed internships with a locally based military book publisher, for example.  Legal careers at lower levels also appeal to some, and additionally we have graduates in areas such as social media, demonstrating the diversity of the degree.

As might be expected, a large percentage of War Studies graduates go on to successful careers in the Armed Forces, particularly the Army, for which Birmingham has a highly commended Officer Training Corps. Generally speaking, academic and military careers are the most popular for our graduates.

 Do you expect the coming centenary of the First World War to prompt more interest among students in applying for such degrees?

I am not sure if school-leavers will be more likely to choose War Studies, as many of our undergraduates are attracted to the broader phenomenon of war, rather than a specific conflict.  There may well be a surge in interest for universities which offer courses related to the subject, but this has to be weighed up with the hugely rising cost of undergraduate degrees and the relative merits of Arts degrees compared to their scientific and technical counterparts.

I do think, however, that the centenary will have a positive impact on those pursuing further study, or returning to study, by taking advantage of Birmingham’s specialism in the First World War and our excellent teaching staff, and undertaking a postgraduate qualification, at master’s or doctoral level.  It must be noted though, that the public perception of the First World War, which is likely to be enhanced by the government’s programme for commemorating the centenary, is noticeably incompatible with the university’s programme of revisionist study.  It is for this reason that I think that Birmingham will continue to attract only those genuinely interested in the thorough, detailed study of the conflict.

 What are the main strengths of Birmingham University in this area?

The University of Birmingham contains the highly regarded Centre for First World War Studies, founded by Dr John Bourne, which has benefited from the teachings of Gary Sheffield, Jonathan Boff, Spencer Jones, Maj. Gen. David Zabecki (U.S. Army, ret.), Pierre Purseigle and the late Bob Bushaway. These scholars and others have contributed a huge amount of research into a range of aspects of the Great War, which have been largely characterised by the revisionist ‘side’ of the debate over ‘Lions led by Donkeys’.  Birmingham can certainly offer those interested in studying the First World War a thoroughly enjoyable and highly regarded qualification in the subject.  The current First World War Studies Master’s degree is a part time course, taught through monthly Saturday schools across two years, and is therefore greatly suited those fascinated by the subject but unable to commit to full time study.

 How does the War Studies Society at Birmingham contribute to students’ learning?

The War Studies Society, founded by undergraduate students in 2009, largely served as an undergraduate social group and mediating body between students and staff, concerning academic matters, until late 2011.  Since then, the Society has embraced postgraduate students and broadened its focus to include careers opportunities and community work.  I would say that the Society contributes to students’ learning by offering students from all levels opportunities to interact and discuss their work, encouraging debate and a reinforcement of material learned through formal academic study.  Some postgraduates in particular, having been out of academia for a sometimes significant number of years, find it useful to discuss their methods and techniques for assessment with younger students.  Fostering this community of likeminded individuals really aids the learning process and also builds friendships and networking links.

Could you tell us a bit about some of the events and activities which the Society organised last year?

Last year we organised a range of activities, including social events like day trips, notably to Bletchley Park, as well as meals, pub crawls and quizzes.  A particular success has been the monthly postgraduate dinner, which gives the master’s students an opportunity, after their monthly day school, to socialise with undergraduates and occasionally professors.

In late November 2012 the Society held its first fundraising event, which raised £320 for the Armed Forces’ wing at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham.  The event involved a First World War-themed football match, emulating the Christmas 1914 truce between British and German soldiers.  All participants dressed up and there was a fantastic raffle, talks by the Western Front Association, authentic Edwardian cakes and period music by a live brass band.

Another first was the careers event held in Spring 2012, which hosted presentations from Jaguar Land Rover armoured vehicles, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), Helion military publishers and RUSI journal, as well as speakers with information about Law conversions, War Studies postgraduate courses and Birmingham’s accredited employability course.

Which one was your favourite?

My favourite was definitely the careers event, which I presented myself to over forty undergraduates.  Given that there are only 75 War Studies undergraduates in total, and that a percentage already have a career in mind, this was a very good turn-out.  A common complaint within the department is that information about related careers is scarce, with any History and Cultures careers events focusing on the heritage sector and academic pathways.  The War Studies Society thus filled a gap in the market, so to speak, by holding this event, and provided much desired information to students who were unaware that War Studies can be applicable to so many diverse careers.  I was particularly pleased to see students talking with the representatives, some signing up for internships, and even the representatives themselves exchanging details.  I am hoping that this careers focus will be continued, as it is clearly sought after by undergraduates.

Interview by Alex Calvo, WWII MA student at Birmingham University


By Alex Calvo

Introduction: two letters from Japanese PM Zenko Suzuki released

The latest batch of papers released by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation includes two letters from her then Japanese counterpart, PM  Zenko Suzuki, dated 12[1] and 24[2] April 2013. They make interesting reading, illustrating the Japanese position in the conflict[3]. While hoping that diplomacy would succeed, Tokyo was firm in rejecting the invasion.

Even before the first enemy troops landed in the Falklands, Great Britain began to work on the diplomatic front in order to secure an Argentine withdrawal or, should that not take place, achieve the greatest possible degree of international support for subsequent military operations. The result was UNSC Resolution 502. At that moment, Japan was one of the members of the UN Security Council and voted in favour. Tokyo did not impose economic sanctions on Argentina, however.

Japan and the Falklands:  First in a three-part series. The texts of both letters reflect Tokyo’s official position, made more interesting by the fact that Japan at that time held a seat at the UN Security Council. We shall examine the first one today, the anniversary of the invasion, and the second one at the next instalment in this series. Since their content reflects Japan’s national interests and her legal and constitutional approach to the use of armed force, we could also ask ourselves whether 30 years later Tokyo’s position and potential actions would be the same. Some things have changed. Among them, Japan has relaxed her embargo on weapons sales and signed a defence industry cooperation agreement with Great Britain. In addition, Tokyo is re-examining whether collective defence may be compatible with her constitution, and just a few weeks ago Prime Minister Abe publicly referred to the Falklands War in a speech before the Diet. Abe said that Japan’s national interests “lie in making the seas, which are the foundation of our nation’s existence, completely open, free and peaceful” and next quoted from Baroness Thatcher’s memoirs[4], where she had written that Britain was defending the fundamental principle that “international law should prevail over the use of force”[5]. We shall examine this question in the third and last part of this series[6].

12 April letter : Invasion rejected and hopes for diplomacy. In his letter[7], PM Suzuki thanks Thatcher for her “detailed message concerning the Falklands Islands issue” and notes that he has been following the situation “with grave concern … since military action was taken by the Argentine armed forces”. This last bit is significant because it makes it clear that, for the Japanese Government, the origin of the crisis lies in the invasion, with responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the Junta. This point is reinforced by the assertion that “The Government of Japan considers that the use of force by Argentina violates the basic principles of peaceful settlement of conflicts and non-use of force of the United Nations Charter and that such action can never be accepted. We strongly hope that the withdrawal of the Argentine forces will be promptly realized and that this dispute peacefully settled through diplomatic negotiations.” Again, this is highly significant at least on two counts. First of all, because it once again makes it clear where the origin of the crisis lies, adding that an invasion “can never be accepted”. Second, because although it calls for negotiations, it does not link them to the Argentine withdrawal, which must be “promptly realized”.

Thus Japan admits that there is an underlying sovereignty dispute and calls for diplomatic negotiations, while choosing not to support either British or Argentine views on sovereignty, but at the same time not linking the two issues. That is, Tokyo does not expect the withdrawal of the invaders to be linked to, or subject to, negotiations. This is an important departure from what Buenos Aires had been expecting all along, which was to force sovereignty negotiations from a position of strength once her forces had taken the Islands. The Argentine Foreign Minister Costa Mendez said: “in the diplomatic circumstances the peaceful and bloodless occupation of the islands[8] would make the Argentine will to negotiate the solution of the underlying conflict evident. This occupation would make it possible for us to negotiate once and for all the underlying dispute. It would also induce the international community, the interested parties and even the United States of America to pay more attention to the reasons for the dispute, its character and the need for a rapid solution. The United Nations would not be able to procrastinate if faced with a military action and would have to discuss it at the highest possible levels”[9]. This Argentine goal clearly failed as concerns Japan.

Suzuki explains that these views were the “basic standpoint” which led Tokyo to “immediately” support UNSC Resolution 502 and to “clearly” explain “our position both domestically and internationally”. Furthermore, Suzuki reveals that Japan had contacted Argentina directly to explain her position “on various occasions”. The last such contact had taken place on the same day that the letter was sent, 12 April, with “the Minister for Foreign Affairs, in conformity with my wishes” telling “the Argentine Ambassador”:

1.- “We deeply regret the use of force by Argentina and urge that its forces withdraw in compliance with the Security Council Resolution”, and

2.- “The Government of Japan places high expectations on good offices by the United States and hopes that Argentina will respond positively … and will try to reach a peaceful settlement through diplomatic negotiations”

Again we can see how, while Japan supported diplomacy, she made it clear that withdrawal had to take place first. This may not have been explicitly stated, but the structure of the letter, and the fact that withdrawal was always mentioned first, left no doubt about it.

Next, the Japanese Prime Minister turns his attention to the implementation of UNSC Resolution 502 and the concrete steps demanded by his British counterpart. After noting that “The basic idea of the Japanese Government is that measures to secure the implementation of the Security Council resolution adopted on April 3 should primarily be sought within the framework of the United Nations in accordance with its Charter”, Suzuki adds that his country is “certainly prepared to make efforts for the improvement of the situation by diplomatic and other means outside the United Nations, too”. We can thus see how Japan, a country not usually noted for her diplomatic activism, seems however ready to contribute to efforts to convince Buenos Aires to withdraw before the British task force reaches the Falklands. At the same time, though, this passage seems to refer to the trade embargo sought by London, which the EEC had agreed to[10] and which the US would end up imposing once Secretary of State Haig’s “shuttle diplomacy” had failed, but which Japan was reluctant to impose.

This is furthermore doubly-qualified, with Prime Minister Suzuki cautioning that “Such efforts should be naturally exerted in such a manner as not incompatible

with the existing international obligations” and that Japan should also act bearing in mind “what we judge for ourselves to be the long term interests of the Free World”. The first of these two limits comes as no surprise, although we may speculate on its exact meaning. Is Suzuki simply referring to international law in general, to Japan’s post-war renunciation of “war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes” in Article 9 of her Constitution[11], or to bilateral legal obligations? The fact that he writes “international obligations” seems to point out at international law, but in a way the shadow of Article 9 pervades the whole text. It is also likely that Suzuki was referring to trade agreements with Argentine, which in his view may have limited the scope for sanctions. This was a bone of contention between London and Tokyo, with PM Thatcher pressing Japan to impose and publicly declare a trade embargo on Argentina[12], and the Japanese authorities reluctant to go that far[13].

We must point out, however, that the logic of Article 9 cannot be seen in isolation. Could Japan have renounced war without enjoying the armed protection of another power? It is rather doubtful. Thus, while the 1951 US-Japan Security Treaty and its 1960 successor were strongly contested by many voices who saw them as basically incompatible with Article 9, and remain to some extent controversial to this day, it is difficult to see how the latter may have survived without them. Furthermore, although never formally amended, the official interpretation of this constitutional provision has undergone repeated reinterpretations[14], and this has provided the legal and constitutional basis for what we often refer to as Japan’s “normalization as a military power”[15].

In a way the Falklands War was not a first for Japan, since the Korean War had also been fought under a UN Resolution and with full Japanese logistical support. It was thus a precedent on which Japanese leaders could draw to support the UK diplomatically without fear of contravening their own constitution. There was, however, a major difference between Korea and the Falklands: in the latter, the aggressor was also a US ally. This is what may have prompted PM Suzuki to refer to “the long term interests of the Free World”. The Junta overestimated Argentina’s worth to the US[16] and the Free World in general, and this together with their faulty view of British resolve[17] ultimately led to their miscalculation. However, although the Argentines had an inflated view of their country’s importance, it was still true that it was in everybody’s best interest to contain the fallout from the war. In this sense, the Japanese may have already been thinking of Buenos Aires’ post-war rehabilitation.

The next issue dealt with in the letter is that of the arms embargo on Argentina. At that time, Japan was following a strict policy of not exporting weapons, which Suzuki refers to, saying that his country “pursues the policy of abstaining from exporting arms to foreign countries”, adding that “This policy is being applied strictly to Argentina”.

Finally, the Japanese prime minister explains that “Bearing these considerations in mind, we stated to the Argentine side in our representations of April 12 that if the present crisis is prolonged, it is feared that the confidence of the Government and people of Japan in that country’s future might be undermined and that the smooth development of relations between the two countries might be impeded, especially in the economic field”. In the absence of military aid for Great Britain, which would have contravened the ban on collective security seen as resulting from Article 9, Tokyo may thus have been applying economic pressure, going beyond the UN embargo. The letter concludes with the “hope that for these and other reasons the Argentine side will endeavour for an early solution of the current situation” and a promise that “We shall continue to see that the Argentine side is reminded of it”.

Conclusions. Japan, a fellow maritime democracy, provided strong diplomatic support to the United Kingdom and one of the key votes at the United Nations Security Council allowing Resolution 502 to be passed. The letter we have examined highlights how, as a matter of principle, Tokyo opposed the use of force to settle international disputes and did not fall into the Argentine trap of linking a withdrawal to negotiations, as Buenos Aires sought. The Japanese not only voted against aggression in New York but also engaged diplomatically the Argentines, hoping to help convince them to withdraw their occupation forces before the Task Force came into contact with them. This was in addition to supporting US Secretary of State Haig’s “shuttle diplomacy”. However, Tokyo did not comply with British demands for a trade embargo, although some economic pressure was brought to bear.

In his 12 April letter, PM Suzuki was careful to outline some limits to what Japan may do. These came from Tokyo’s domestic legislation (first and foremost Article 9 of her Constitution), interpretation of international law and role of the UN, bilateral trade agreements with Buenos Aires, and perceived need to keep Argentina in the Free World camp. In the next instalment of this series we will examine his 24 April letter, concluding with a third part examining how Japan’s continued “normalization” and the evolving scenario in East Asia may be prompting changes in Tokyo’s position in the event of renewed hostilities in the South Atlantic.

Alex Calvo is a student at Birmingham University’s MA in British WWII Studies

[1] “Falklands: Prime Minister Suzuki of Japan letter to MT (Argentine invasion of the Falklands) [Japan applying pressure on Argentina] [released 2013]”, Churchill Archive Centre, Thatcher MSS: THCR 3/1/20 f64 (T70/82), 12 April 1982, Margaret Thatcher Foundation, available at http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/5B93E112A45044FA9D022AA3368AD0EC.pdf <accessed on 1 April 2013>

[2] “Falklands: Prime Minister Suzuki of Japan message to MT (sanctions against Argentina) [Suzuki to pressure Japanese business not to “unduly take advantage” of EC and other measures to ban Argentine imports] [released 2013]”, Churchill Archive Centre, THCR 3/1/20 f111 (T85A/82), 24 April 1982, Margaret Thatcher Foundation, available at http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/D7E483EAB20C4878A6D9123AE07B17D9.pdf <accessed on 1 April 2013>

[3] A third letter, dated 5 November 1982 and not discussed in this series, refers to Tokyo’s views on post-war reconciliation. “Prime Minister Suzuki of Japan message to MT (Japan will vote in favour of proposed Argentine UN Resolution on future negotiations over Falklands sovereignty) [released 2013]”, Churchill Archive Centre, THCR 3/1/26 Part 1 f34 (T210/82), 5 November 1982, Margaret Thatcher Foundation, available at http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/7B9C219FF5944D869F6491EC79432175.pdf <accessed on 1 April 2013>

[4] “Japan uses Baroness Thatcher and Falkland Islands as inspiration”, Daily Telegraph, 28 February 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/falklandislands/9899206/Japan-uses-Baroness-Thatcher-and-Falkland-Islands-as-inspiration.html

[5] “Much was at stake: what we were fighting for eight thousand miles away in the South Atlantic was not only the territory and the people of the Falklands, important though they were. We were defending our honour as a nation, and principles of fundamental importance to the whole world – above all, that aggression should never succeed and that international law should prevail over the use of force” M. Thatcher, The Downing Street Years, (London: HarperCollins, 1993), p. 173

[6] These articles are not designed to provide an in-depth comprehensive treatment of Japanese policy during the Falklands War, but rather to illustrate some of its most significant aspects. It is important to bear in mind that the two letters examined are only a sample of the diplomatic correspondence between London and Tokyo those days.

[7] “Falklands: Prime Minister Suzuki of Japan letter to MT (Argentine invasion of the Falklands) [Japan applying pressure on Argentina] [released 2013]”, Churchill Archive Centre, Thatcher MSS: THCR 3/1/20 f64 (T70/82), 12 April 1982, Margaret Thatcher Foundation, available at http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/5B93E112A45044FA9D022AA3368AD0EC.pdf <accessed on 1 April 2013>

[8] “It is precisely to avoid such an scenario that Governor Sir Rex Hunt made sure the invading forces landing on South Georgia and the Falklands were met with force, so that Buenos Aires could not achieve its ideal outcome, a bloodless invasion. This would have made it much more difficult for the British Government to overcome both domestic and allied and international reluctance to the deployment of a task force. While careful to avoid prolonged combats which would have endangered both the limited forces at his disposal and the civilian population entrusted to him, Sir Rex Hunt started preparing the ground for the liberation of the Falklands right since the opening salvos of the war. He knew that if the Junta managed to grab them in a seemingly peaceful manner, it would be much more difficult for Great Britain to make her case in fora like the United Nations and before friends and allies. This was precisely the Argentine plan” A. Calvo,    “The third dimension of warfare and tactical stability in the Senkaku Islands”, Birmingham “on War”: The blog of the postgraduate students at the Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham,  09 January 2013, Birmingham University, available at http://warstudies.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/the-third-dimension-of-warfare-and-tactical-stability-in-the-senkaku-islands/

[9] Lawrence FREEDMAN and Virginia GAMBA-STONEHOUSE, Signals of War: the Falklands Conflict of 1982, (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), p. 81

[10] Although the degree to which it was implemented varied according to the member state concerned.

[11] An English-language version can be found at “The Constitution of Japan”, website of the Prime Minister of Japan and his Cabinet, available at http://www.kantei.go.jp/foreign/constitution_and_government_of_japan/constitution_e.html < accessed on 1 April 2013>

[12] This demand appears in earlier correspondence between the two prime ministers.

[13] This was openly admitted by the Japanese authorities themselves, as clear from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ summary of  major diplomatic efforts that year, which reads “The EC member countries prohibited the export of weapons and other munitions to Argentina and placed a total ban on imports from that country. However, Japan imposed no economic sanctions, such as an import ban on Argentina. But Japan made clear its policy of doing nothing to unduly exploit the EC’s import ban to Japan’s economic advantage. The Government of Japan thus guided the business circles to pay due attention not to unduly take advantage of the measures to ban imports from Argentina taken by the EC members and other countries for the benefit of the economic interests of Japan.” “Diplomatic Bluebook 1983. CHAPTER THREE: MAJOR DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS MADE BY JAPAN DURING 1982”, website of the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Japan, available at http://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/other/bluebook/1983/1983-3-1.htm < accessed on 1 April 2013>

[14] “The Government’s View on Article 9 of the Constitution” can be consulted in “Fundamental Concepts of National Defense: I. Constitution of Japan and Right of Self-Defense”, website of the Japanese Ministry of Defense, available at http://www.mod.go.jp/e/d_act/d_policy/dp01.html < accessed on 1 April 2013>

[15] For an in-depth view of its different aspects, see C. W. Hugues, Japan’s Remilitarisation, Adelphi Papers, Issue 403, (London: Routledge, 2009)

[16] “The Argentines saw the lifting of the Carter embargo as a victory for their hard-nosed line on Human Rights, but their obsessions led them to overrate their importance to US policy makers: not in Central America, where their role was indeed valued, but in the South Atlantic, where it was not. They based their self-delusion on the war across the South Atlantic in Angola, where some 36,000 Cuban troops, acting as proxies for the Soviet Union, maintained an avowedly Marxist-Leninist government in the face of two groups of insurgents backed respectively by South Africa and the USA. Soviet objectives were to gain preferential access to Angolan natural resources and to create a base from which their naval forces could threaten the Western jugular: the sea route for oil tankers from the Persian Gulf. The Argentines and South Africans alike convinced themselves that the USA needed their help to counter this threat, whereas the view from Washington was that their bases at the British islands of Ascension in the Atlantic and Diego García in the Indian Ocean were more than sufficient, and that the US Navy could protect the sea lanes without additional shore facilities. The Cape Route was indeed a vital US geopolitical concern, but the Argentines failed to realize that they counted for less than a couple of little British islands in the equation” H. Bicheno, Razor’s Edge. The Unofficial History of the Falklands War, (London: Phoenix, 2007), p. 77.

[17] “there can be little doubt that the Argentines would not have invaded the Falklands if Washington had warned them it would back Britain militarily. The main reason Washington did not is because, since the British had not themselves made it clear they would fight, there was no reason for the Americans to commit themselves in advance” H. Bicheno, Razor’s Edge. The Unofficial History of the Falklands War, (London: Phoenix, 2007), p. 74 and “Reagan made the US position clear to Galtieri in their private pre-invasion conversation. If the FCO/State combine had not so thoroughly muddled the waters, he would have followed this with a public declaration. What Reagan was not prepared to do was come out openly and unequivocally on the British side while there was the slightest chance they were bluffing and might cut a deal at the last minute. Thus as well as creating the preconditions for the original Argentine miscalculation, US and British diplomats ensured the matter would be settled in blood by misleading Reagan about Thatcher’s resolve” H. Bicheno, Razor’s Edge. The Unofficial History of the Falklands War, (London: Phoenix, 2007), p. 80.

America, Race and the Great War

This extended article discusses the extent to which views on race affected the fighting capacity and effectiveness of the American Army during World War One. It argues somewhat controversially that the contemporary racist views of white Americans had little effect on the fighting ability of the army.

The Harlem Hellfighters - Black soldiers from World War One

The Harlem Hellfighters – Black soldiers from World War One

American experiences during the First World War were limited by their late entry in to the war; their contributions came on a weakened enemy that was on the back foot. Nonetheless views upon race played an important role in how the United States fought; it can be seen at the tactical, operational and strategic levels. The natural discourse for a western liberal would be to assume that this would have a profoundly negative impact on the effectiveness of an army. Yet when one looks at the combat effectiveness of the racially segregated troops there appears to be little difference. This poses the question as to how far did racist views impact on how well troops of different ethnicity fought?

Part of the reason why race is perceived as to have a significant view upon how the blacks fought and therefore how America as a whole fought is due to the obscuring of the truth. The successes of black soldiers were side-lined, whilst their failures were highlighted. This has led to a discourse that ascribes race as a significant factor in its impact upon fighting. This article will focus upon the relationship between white and black Americans both at home and abroad. It will consider how white views impacted upon the tactical, operational and strategic use of black troops.

W. E. B. Du bois

W. E. B Du Bois

David Kennedy asserts that the majority of white Americans were loathsome of blacks “The average white person…whether buck private or general, didn’t want Negro soldiers.”  The strength of this sentiment meant that the American army would remain rigidly segregated along racial lines. David Levering Lewis points to a quote by W.E.B Du Bois that articulates the problem this caused; “The racial distinctions… present a formidable barrier to the existence of that feeling of comradeship which is essential to mutual confidence and esprit de corps.”

At the tactical level this attitude hindered black troops because they were predominantly led by officers who were “disproportionately recruited from white southerners.”  The fighting effectiveness at the tactical level was further compounded by the poor training black troops were given. An example of this was the lack of arrangements to train the all-black Ninety-Second division together; rather they were trained at seven widely separated camps. Moreover, they were not trained how to use artillery or machine guns on the premise that they were beyond the mental capabilities of blacks. Mistakes like this demonstrate the incompetence American leadership showed in dealing with the ‘black problem’.

W.E.B Du Bois could not decide whether the leadership were simply racists, incompetent, or both. He points to how the Ninety-Second’s black officer numbers dropped from 82 to 58 per-cent as they were “battered by a hailstorm of arbitrary transfers and courts-marshal.”  This led him to the conclusion that American officers fought more valiantly against Negroes that they did against the Germans.”  This may sound extreme but there is some reasoning that some whites disliked blacks far more than they disliked German militarism. To put as much effort in to fighting their own establishment rather than the enemy would surely have had a detrimental effect.

American leadership’s issues with balancing the need for black troops whilst also having to placate white people’s issues with the raising of these troops impacted on American operational and strategic planning. A prime example of this can be seen with the case of the Fifteenth New York Infantry at Spartanburg. John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, JR have outlined the options and their consequences available to the War Department after conflict broke out between black soldiers and white civilians in the area:

It could keep the regiment at Camp Wadsworth and face a violent eruption; it could remove the regiment to another camp, thereby conveying the impression that any community that exerted sufficient pressure could force the War Department to remove undesirable soldiers from their midst; or it could order the regiment overseas.

The decision was taken to send them overseas. From this we can see how conflicts about race gave American leadership problems that could have strategic impacts at home and therefore also abroad. The decision to send the regiment overseas calmed white fears, but must have tempted many blacks to believe that “the penalty for insisting upon full equality in the United States was a sentence to face, for a full season, the onslaught of German armies”

Another way that views on race at home influenced American prosecution of the war can be seen in the issues surrounding lynching. Ernest Allen, Jr describes the how these attacks caused disaffection and outcry from Afro-American communities;

Black public outcry against lynching, bordering on what some authorities considered to be “unpatriotic” expression in a time of war… which might well hinder prosecution of U.S. war aims overseas… the Afro-American press was nevertheless quite given to providing front-page coverage to these almost daily atrocities committed against black such stories.

The consequence of this was that the leadership “recognized that a rapid deterioration of race relations could harm civilian and military morale and that special measures to avoid deterioration might be needed.”  In the end it forced President Wilson in to making a strong statement against Lynching and mob violence. The fact that it this reached the level of the president shows how important an issue it was becoming and how it could affect the prosecution of the war.

To accuse race of being the main determinant of American strategy is to fall in to the lure of cultural determinism. Race evidently played a role, however, to assert that its role was fundamental to how America fought ignores the elements of realism within American leadership. Several points will be discussed to counter the culturally determinist approach; the directing of resources to the best suited place, the involvement of blacks in nearly all aspects of the army, and their role on the home front. However, as will be shown despite these realist tendencies race influenced the American army even when it was trying to be somewhat ‘colour-blind’

White Southerners strongly opposed the presence of Black regiments training in their regions, this sometimes boiled over in to violence, as already seen with the Spartanburg incident. Yet whilst in that case the government appeared to bend to White Southerners pressure, there was an element of realism within the army that realised that it would be necessary to have black soldiers in the South. According to Franklin and Moss “blacks were being sent to the camp, North or South, that best served the interests of the prosecution of the war.”   Thus the notion that American leadership was blinded by their racial ideology is undercut by the pragmatism that can be seen in some of their decision making. Nonetheless, the very fact that issues like this had to be dealt with shows how the racialist views distracted the authorities from focusing on pure military matters in order to deal with politico-racial issues, Franklin and Moss agree,

Henry Johnson, the first African American to be awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French, in WW I. He has also been posthumously nominated for the Medal of Honor.

Henry Johnson, the first African American to be awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French, in WW I. He has also been posthumously nominated for the Medal of Honor.

“This arrangement worked such a hardship upon the administration of the army’s program…”

A related point that has suggested is that despite their segregation black soldiers served in almost every branch of the army, from cavalry to chaplains to labour battalions. In whatever branch they were placed they were effective. The most decorated of these were these were those who served under the French, who desperate for manpower pounced upon them. The 369th United States Infantry spent 191 days in the trenches and earned the name “Hell Fighters” by the Germans. In addition the entire regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre for their efforts at Maison-en-Champagne.

Heroic actions tended to be overlooked by the military establishment, who sought to praise white soldiers and highlight black failures. This was despite the many failings of American White troops, Kennedy describes how “American gunners were ill-trained to provide the close support of a creeping barrage, and hence tended to favour long-range fire of dubious effect. Loose discipline further hampered the American attack, as small bodies of troops scattered themselves about, under no apparent control.”

Two opposing hypothesis are possible; it could imply that the black troops fought better under the French because they were more accommodating and tolerant of them. It could alternatively demonstrate the superiority of French organization and leadership in ensuring that their troops fought more efficiently, due to their greater experience. Perhaps most probable is that it was a combination of both, improved morale and better leadership would likely cause any unit to fight better. By looking at how black troops fought when divorced from the main body of the American army it is possible to see how views on race combined with ineptitude affected how well the American army could fight.

Regardless of their views, the White leaders realised how important the black workforce were in providing the resources necessary for war. The mass migration of Afro-Americans from the south to industrial centres in the north meant that it was necessary for more conciliatory tones to be made by the leadership to ensure that the industrial effort did not falter. To help ensure this Emmett J. Scott was employed as a special assistant for Negro affairs. His employment demonstrates how the White authorities recognised that some concessions would be necessary in order to prevent mass dissent in black communities. This is further affirmed through the close liaising between W.E.B Du Bois and Joel Elias Spingarn, Mark Ellis has argued that it was the relationship between these two that led to one of Du Bois most famous pieces “Close Ranks” which calls for black people to support the war “Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy…”  A cynic might suggest that the closeness of their relationship and his progressive ideals were to lead to him “being stripped of domestic duties and assigned once again to the theatre of war.”  Evidently, the authorities would only let realism on a short leash; ideology played a significant role in conditioning their thinking.

In summary it appears that race shaped America’s prosecution of the war in ways that were detrimental at the tactical, operational and strategic levels. At the tactical and operational levels came issues of how and where to train black soldiers. At the strategic level was how to employ these troops, which was compounded by issues with where and what their training was. To argue that race was the main factor in determining American strategy is misguided, general  incompetence due to lack of training, experience and failure to listen to their allies lay at the core of the issue. The reason for this is that the history of the America’s actions during World War One is littered with examples of incompetence and failures, when discussing American success at Saint-Mihiel one French officer commented “[T]he most unfortunate part of an otherwise successful operation…was that it confirmed the American High Command in an exaggerated estimate of the efficiency of the American military machine—and of their ability to control it.”  White soldiers were no better than their black counterparts. Thus trying to discern how race effected the prosecution of the war becomes more difficult. If white officers were as incompetent with white troops as they were with the blacks they disliked, it suggests that it was not their views on their racial superiority that led to the Americans fighting the war as they did but rather other factors.

Some Further Reading

J. Franklin & A. Moss, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans.

D. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society.

D. Lewis, W.E.B Du Bois: A Biography of a Race: 1868 – 1919.

J. Ross, J. E. Springarn and the Rise of the NAACP, 1911-1939.

E. Allen, “Close Ranks”: Major Joel E. Spingarn and the Tow Soul of Dr W.E.B Du Bois,

M. Ellis, “Closing Ranks” and “Seeking Honors”: W. E. B. Du Bois in World War I.

W.E.B Du Bois, Close ranks, http://www.udel.edu/History/suisman/206_08-Fall/Online-readings/dubois.pdf

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell… Homosexuals and the military.

This week Charlotte Bignell looks at the relationship between homosexuals and the armed forces.


The unique experience of war and gender-segregated military conditions have emerged in the studies of homosexuality as being some of the greatest opportunities for homosexuality to flourish, as researched by John D’Emilio and Allan Bérubé.  Militaries tend to have strong connections with their history, which may make them lean toward conservatism; this has led some critics to suggest that the US military’s views on homosexuality are archaic and backwards. This essay will focus mostly on the experiences of male homosexuals in the US military since the beginning of World War Two. In addition, the historiography on Britain by Emma Vickers and World War One by Margot Canaday will also be explored briefly to provide a wider picture and demonstrate the scope for future academia. Whilst the essay focus may just represent one aspect of gay military history, it raises interesting ideas about the leader of the Western World’s military being outdated and out of touch with mainstream society; homosexuality has been legalised in America for some time and is arguably widely accepted, yet the military ban on homosexuals was lifted only in 2011. The topic’s contemporary relevance makes the emerging history significant as earlier experiences may been seen to have shaped today’s society and the progression over recent times can be tracked to an extent, particularly with the interesting links between scholarship. The theory of World War Two as the trigger of modern homosexuality, the impacts of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ campaign, the importance of oral histories and the issues that arose because of the Vietnam War will all need further research to illustrate the ways in which it is significant that studies of homosexuality in the history of the military have emerged.

War has been described as a unique experience; one reason for this is because of the sense of detachment from reality. For example, individuals were only surrounded by members of the same-sex for long periods of time and had to confront death daily. Such circumstances make it is possible to see why homosexual opportunities are seized and bonds are formed which are unlikely to be possible in ‘normal life’. The intimacy, closeness and comradeship are felt by both gay and straight men which obviously poses difficulties with defining homosexuals in the military. Homosexual activity may not necessarily equate to the participant being gay; the prevalence of intimate contact and affection when threatened with death is not an uncommon practice. Leon Podles notes that “in our society, men aren’t supposed to show that kind of affection except under such stress as this.”  It is important for history to look at this unique topic as it has such a precise focus, perhaps unlike previous gay histories, but also because it holds a wide range of consequences and outcomes in the military and the greater society too.

The work of Bérubé has focused on the significance of World War Two as a nationwide ‘coming out’ experience for gay Americans and for many, their military experiences during this time became “the foundation upon which they built a post-war life.”  This counteracts the thoughts of many scholars who have placed emphasis on the Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969 as the trigger of the modern gay identity. The construction of urban gay communities in the 1940s owes much to the experiences of World War Two; homosexuals had had a taste of freedom and did not want to return to normal life or succumb to the post-war pressure of practising heterosexual and conventional family norms.  The urban gay centres of the US we know today, such as San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles all have strong links to the experiences of gay men in the war, who were consciously realising their own identity and searching for a like-minded community.


To address the theory of D’Emilio and look at why the US experience of World War Two led to the acknowledgement of gay identity and the formation of homosexual communities, the policy of homosexual screening at the draft boards needs to be explored. Bérubé developed on from D’Emilio’s earlier work on homosexuality in the history of the military by using oral histories, this demonstrates the significance of this topic as there is area for scope and the ability to expand on the scholarship. Bérubé’s oral methodology has gained considerable praise and has proved to be of huge significance to the subject because of the value of first-hand accounts which belong to a generation soon to die out; its aim is for the history not to be lost. With the increasing authority of psychiatrists in the armed forces, the homosexual screening process became mandatory for those wishing to enter the US army. By simply asking blunt questions about one’s sexual orientation, it was necessary for men to face their own sexual status which they may have not done previously in their lives.  Looking at World War Two as a time where conscious homosexual identity emerged is significant to the history of the military as it represents a turning point in the lives of many Americans and thus in post-war life, where urban gay communities increased dramatically.

The use of psychiatry in identifying homosexuals in the US military supported the notion of homosexuality as some form of mental illness. This had been a long-standing view of psychoanalysts, such as Sigmund Freud and sexologists, such as Magnus Hirschfield, but its application in military draft policy raises serious morality issues about one’s patriotism and not being accepted or wanted to represent and fight for one’s country. This will be discussed later when focusing on Vietnam and the work of Justin David Suran.

It is important to observe that the US military did address homosexuality in World War One, but did not have the resources to implement the sophisticated screening and surveillance as they did in World War Two.   Margot Canaday focuses on the dramatic change from the traditional law of sodomy as a punishable offence in the military to World War Two where the homosexual status became punishable and a reason for discharge or not recruiting in the first place.   This demonstrates significance in the emergence of studies of homosexuality in the military as it has the ability to track the transformation of the U.S over time into a more sexually conscious and sexually aware society. The change in punishment in the law from acts to status illustrates the wider society’s progression to ideas about acknowledging what you are with names and labels. The historiography suggests that to be a homosexual in World War One would have been easier than in World War Two because of the ability to go undetected and avoid trouble with the officers, compared to World War Two were homosexuals were actively sought out.

Relating back to the significance of oral histories in the study of homosexuality in the military, Vickers, who was researching homosexuality in the British Armed Forces in World War One, appeared to cause great insult to some veterans she wished to discuss the subject with. John Clarke was outraged with the claim that any of his fellow soldiers in the war may have been homosexual, as it was illegal and “un-British” . She was accused of disrespecting the sacredness of war and those who died for their country. With the abundance of research and evidence that many homosexuals did serve in the British Armed Forces in World War One and elsewhere, these accusations are likely to represent the continuance of heterosexual tradition and sexual stigma within the military. The apparent dishonour of claiming homosexuals served in the military relates back to the morality issues surrounding one’s patriotism and right to die for one’s country. The outdated beliefs of some military officials have significance to current debate, particularly relating to the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (DADT) policy. The continuance of social stigma toward homosexuals in the military is demonstrated by a retired Army chaplain, Ron Crews’ notion that DADT is a radical sexual experiment threatening the US military.

In order to identify ways in which the emergence of homosexuality in the history of the military has been significant, the contemporary relevance of the DADT policy and Bérubé’s scholarly influence cannot be ignored. DADT, implemented under President Bill Clinton in 1993 as a compromise with traditional military leaders, barred openly homosexual men and women from military service. To some, this may have appeared to be a success for the homosexual community; they were being allowed to serve in the military, as long as they didn’t discuss their sexual orientation or engage in any homosexual activity. Yet, DADT raised many issues and, it could be argued, was an even greater hindrance to the gay movement than previous policies. The experiences of gay servicemen were not improved and by essentially being forced to remain in the closet, there would have been great “costs to the individual’s identity and sense of human value.”  Joseph Rocha, who served in the US Navy from 2004 to 2007, spoke of the daily fear and anxiety of being discovered but also the grave unhappiness of lying about one’s true identity; “in order to be protected by DADT, it would require such a level of deceit and deception and such a removal of everything that is beautiful in your life – of relationships, of meaning, of friendships…that’s not human.”  Derek Burks finds that DADT serves only to highlight homosexuality undesirably in the military environment which is already characterised by heterosexuality and conservative gender norms.  This augments homosexual victimisation and diminishes the feeling of safety and confidence in one’s troop, resulting in an absence of victim reports and help seeking.  The general consensus of Steve Estes’ interviewees was that DADT “changing nothing or even made matters worse.”  The repeal of the policy and the emergence of these histories allowed gay servicemen the long-awaited feeling of acceptance and the ability to be open about one’s sexual identity without fear of discharge and the end of their military career.

By bringing homosexuality into the political sphere, DADT highlighted the outdated tradition of military law. The US military were backwards compared to US society. The implementation of this policy saw a resurgence of gay political activity, similar to the 1970s gay liberation movements. It is significant that the history of homosexuality in the military has emerged because, as seen here, it ties in with other aspects of social life, such as political protest. Another important aspect to consider is the credibility of the scholarship of homosexuality on this topic, highlighted by Bérubé’s work becoming part of contemporary debate in the 1990s. Being considered an expert on the topic, he himself was caught up in the political storm of DADT and was consulted on the issues of it.

Gay anti-Vietnam War protest and the conflicting pro-war stance of the Mattachine Society in the 1960s and 1970s is another area which highlights the significance of political links with homosexuality and the military. Suran studies the Vietnam War’s considerable impact on the lives of homosexual men and women, and criticises the other historiography of this subject for missing the conflict’s unique relevance to homosexuals and the gay rights movement of the era.  The Vietnam draft, like World War Two, forced many men to come to terms with their sexual identity because of the US Army’s screening process. Yet, times had moved on since World War Two with homosexual issues discussed more openly in the wider public and with the emergence of the gay liberation movement, homosexuality’s political connections were amplified. The US military’s controversial involvement in Vietnam spurred a split in the gay movement between gay veterans and gay activists. The Mattachine Society, which emerged post-World War Two, was a homophile organisation which sought to improve the rights of homosexuals. They were keen to assert their ability to conform to the conventional norms of society and exist as loyal, hard-working citizens. This led to pro-war attitudes among homophiles as it may have been a perfect opportunity to fit in with society and essentially prove their honour and devotion to their country. At the opposite end of the spectrum were younger, radical gay activists who were entirely opposed to conforming to the heterosexual, capitalist means behind fighting in Vietnam; they wanted no part in the masculine dominance and oppression of war.

Suran criticises D’Emilio for focusing on New York and Stonewall in the history of homosexuality, where he believes greater attention is needed in San Francisco where the anti-war protest and gay rights movements were at their height. Vietnam illustrates the significance of the study of homosexuality within military history as it highlights the individuality of homosexuals and their political views resulting in a division in the gay movement. It continues to track the changes in political views and what their implications were in the military and in wider society. Suran sees the Vietnam War as an unavoidable topic when tracing the history of homosexuality because of its formative influence of gay solidarity and urban, social protest.

In conclusion, it is of considerable significance that studies of homosexuality in the history of the military have emerged because it ties in with other areas and aspects of society, such as politics, protest, medical understanding, employment law and urban life. It provides a new perspective on how to understand the importance of war. The development of military history with new areas of relevance being explored provides historians with a richer understanding of the dynamics and experience of war. The abundance of sources in the form of draft boards, legal documents, letters, oral histories and the high standing of scholarship on the topic serve to promote and exemplify why homosexuality should be included in the history of the military. Bérubé concludes that World War Two was of great significance to the history of sexuality, as well as US and world history.  The experience of the military draft boards, and later with the political gay movements of the 1960s and 1970s, homosexuality was finally gaining public acknowledgement. Whilst, this may have excelled effeminate stereotypes as associated with the screening processes, some would argue that any public representation of homosexuality was better than none at all. A final point that should be made is that armies can be used to impose their country’s will on others, in America’s case this would be liberal democracy.  Since the majority of American civilians would consider themselves liberal and with the legalisation of homosexuality in America, it could be argued that the US army should have put American values into practice earlier than 2011 in order to be fully representative of US society. Nonetheless it is significant that homosexuality has become legalised within the US military as it represents a marked progress from their archaic laws that existed prior to this.


Bérubé, Coming Out Under Fire (North Carolina, 1990)

Bérubé, ‘Marching to a Different Drummer: Lesbian and Gay GIs in World War II’, in Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, George Chauncey (eds) Hidden from History: reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (London, 1990)

D. J. Burks, ‘Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Victimisation in the Military: An Unintended Consequence of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”?’, American Psychologist, Vol. 66, No. 7 (2011), pp.604-613

M. Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, 2009), ch 2, 5

G, Chauncey, ‘Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era’, Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, George Chauncey (eds) Hidden from History: reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (London, 1990)

J. D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities (University of Chicago Press, 1983), ch 1, 2

S. Estes, ‘Ask and Tell: Gay Veterans, Identity and Oral History on a Civil Rights Frontier’, The Oral History Review, Vol. 32, No. 2 (2005), pp. 21-47

R. Jennings, A Lesbian History of Britain (Oxford, 2007), ch 6

L. Meyer, ‘Creating GI Jane: The Regulation of Sexuality and Sexual Behaviour in the Women’s Army Corps During WWII’, Feminist Studies, Vol. 18, No. 3 (1992), pp. 581-601

J. D. Suran, ‘Coming out against the War: Antimilitarism and the Politicization of Homosexuality in the Era of Vietnam’, American Quarterly, vol. 53 (2001), pp. 452-488

E. Vickers, ‘The Good Fellow: Negotiation, Remembrance and Recollection – Homosexuality in the British Armed Forces, 1939-1945’, in D. Herzog, (ed.) Brutality and Desire: War and Sexuality in Europe’s Twentieth Century (Basingstoke, 2008), pp. 109-134

L. J. Podles, review of J. Boswell, Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (New York, 1994) <Online> http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=08-02-034-b

[accessed on 24/11/2012]

C. Heath, ‘Tell: An Intimate History of Gay Men in the Military’ <Online> http://www.gq.com/news-politics/big-issues/201109/dont-ask-dont-tell-gay-soldiers-military [accessed on 23/11/2012]

R. Crews, ‘Homosexuals in the Military Demand Special Privileges’ <Online> http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/sep/25/homosexuals-in-the-military-demand-special-privile/ [accessed on 23/11/2012]

K. Webley, ‘Brief History of Gays in the Military’ <Online> http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1960257,00.html [accessed on 24/11/2012]

Mali, Historical Precedents and France

Giles Longley-Cook looks at the situation in Mali and French involvement in the region.

Once again a rich Western power is involving itself militarily in the affairs of a third world nation, supplying aid and armed force to the side it deems friendly to its national interests. Time for protests, calls of corruption, anger, condemnation…

Oh wait; it’s not America intervening. OK cancel all that. No, the gung-ho power on this occasion is France. ‘What?’ you ask ‘The country we praised for not bowing to American pressure and invading Iraq with us?’

French Supporter

Yes France, not a country we consider too much militarily these days, has now involved itself, with the UK in close pursuit, in the military conflict in Mali. While not in large numbers, its troops are occupying frontline positions in the battle to eradicate Islamist rebels in the North.

With such similarities to the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan (the fight against Islamism, defence of dodgy allies, technological advantages and history of interference with the countries involved) it’s hard to see why one should be accepted as a necessary intervention while the others continue to attract revulsion as imperialist ventures. A certain level of snobbery can be detected in the opinions given of either. Europe, the old money, likes its international relations to remain small-scale, tasteful, unhindered by any vulgar overt displays of action or principle. America on the other hand is the Nouveau Riche power; brash, flashy, confidant, in-your-face. And like the quiet struggle between any elite and rising group, European disdain for the uncouth ways of our transatlantic cousins comes with a barely veiled hint of jealousy and fear.

The truth is that whatever the motivations behind and the methods used in American foreign policy, and boy can they be terrible in both, any imperialism or self-interest has come in varying degrees. If you want a record of foreign policy that bears an almost unbroken stream of both those two motivations, look no further than that of post ww2 France. Obvious early examples include the terror campaigns waged in their colonies in Algeria and Indochina in the 50’s, campaigns of a similar nature to the ones this country was waging simultaneously in our own holdings. Those wars were well-publicised and assignable to a forgotten/reviled colonial age. But with overt intervention off the table a new era has arisen in ex-French West Africa, one of covert financing, deals, non-committal support and, if putting troops on the ground is necessary, plausible deniability.

Earlier examples of such behaviour, and the worst, include the ‘friendly and fraternal’ cooperation with Jean-Bedel Bokassa, ruthless dictator of the Central African Republic, first putting him in power with a bloody coup, then propping up his vile regime, aiding his overthrow once he’d become too much of an embarrassment and finally giving him sanctuary on the French Riviera, avoiding cannibalism charges alongside other spat out despots. Since then the butcher’s bill has included French military and financial aid used to overthrow the progressive Sankara regime in Burkina Faso, reducing the nation to backward servitude, full on involvement in conflicts in Ivory Coast and Chad, and, while the rest of the world remained shamefully silent, involvement in the Rwandan genocide to save Europeans and sabotage the anti-genocide rebels.

Very rarely has the UN ever been consulted over these decisions and bare-faced self-interest, financial and political, from national levels to the personal business of presidents, has commonly been the deciding factor behind them. The recent Mali intervention is almost unique in that it is against evil totalitarian forces, but then so was the invasion of Afghanistan. The fact that one is seen as a crime and the other as reasonable has yet to be rectified.

We’re back!

After a long time off, the War Studies blog is up and running again.

In the coming weeks we will have articles discussing a variety of different topics, including; Mali, homosexuality in the military, and race issues in the American Army in World War Two.

First Article will be out tomorrow.


2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 9,900 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 17 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Between Shackleton and Chamberlain: Japanese options concerning the Senkaku Islands

The Falkland Islands: A lesson missed?

Thirty years and hundreds of books and articles after the 1982 Falklands War in the South Atlantic, not to mention films, documentaries, and academic conferences, it may not be unreasonable to expect that the lessons of the conflict had been learned. Foremost among those lessons would be that the failure to develop the economy of a contested territory sends a signal to would-be aggressors indicating that it will not be defended, thus inviting foreign powers to use force. This is what happened when successive British governments failed to invest in the Falkland Islands, insisting instead on forcing the local inhabitants to “cooperate” with Argentina in the hope that growing trade and investment links would pave the way to an orderly transfer of sovereignty. In the words of a minister to his Argentine counterparts, it was matter of “seduction, not rape.”

Not content with forcing the locals to accept an Argentine presence in key sectors such as air transportation, London commissioned a report by a committee headed by Lord Shackleton (son of the great explorer) with the thinly disguised intention of proving once and for all that the Falklands were an economic ‘dead end’ and not worthy of any attention. The move backfired, however, with the resulting text reaching the opposite conclusion that they did have a future as long as certain essential changes and investments took place. This advice, however, was not heeded even though it succeeded in convincing some in Argentina that British investors were about to intervene, creating the need for Argentina to act promptly to preempt Britain.

The Senkakus – History repeating itself?

The rest, as they say, is history. Unfortunately, though, not history whose lessons have been learned in countries such as Japan. There, the government keeps blocking the economic development of the Senkaku Islands, which China claims under the name “Diaoyu”, with Beijing orchestrating a constant string of incidents.  Taiwan also claims sovereignty over the islands, with Beijing and Chinese nationalists in Taiwan not too secretly hoping that this overlapping claim will help bring about the latter’s Anschluss.

Why is Tokyo still insisting on keeping the islands out of bounds for ordinary Japanese citizens? The issue is now under the spotlight following a string of incidents this summer and the proposal by Tokyo Governor Ishihara to buy three of the islands from their private owners with a view to their economic development. Ishihara later offered to desist in exchange for the Japanese Government building a fishing harbour in the area.

Bureaucrats at Japan’s Foreign Ministry, however, are still trying to achieve peace in our time with China and the government has moved to buy these islands, not to develop them as Governor Ishihara wanted, but to reinforce the policy of freezing them from any meaningful development of presence of Japanese citizens. Not surprisingly, this has been interpreted by China as a sign of weakness, and scenting blood the regime has authorized a number of demonstrations over recent months, many of which have turned violent. In addition to some attacks on Japanese citizens in China, a number of business facilities owned by Japan or somehow connected to the country have been set on fire or otherwise damaged.

Thousands of Anti-Japan protesters march in Shenzhen, Southern China

In spite of this, many mainstream newspapers are supporting the view that it is endless talks, instead of a firm posture, that will reduce the chances of war. Their reaction to the widespread riots has just been to ask for more talks, more dialogue, more peace initiatives, in other words more appeasement. They seem to have forgotten the lesson of the long years of talks between London and Buenos Aires, leaving the Falklands starved of much needed investment, and they are suggesting the same approach: talks without development.

How has such an important lesson in inviting aggression by a continental power bent on maritime expansion been forgotten? Should not the events leading to the 1982 Argentine invasion have acted as a warning to the well-meaning Japanese voices calling for talks instead of the economic development of the Senkaku? Unfortunately two traits in human nature militate against this: the expectation that by being reasonable so will be one’s adversaries, and that elusive but seemingly natural and superficially attractive search for “peace”.

After decades of keeping the Senkaku Islands “frozen”, as a token of good intentions and in a bid not to “provoke” Beijing, there is not the slightest thread of evidence that the policy has succeeded in moderating China’s claims or the options to which she may be ready to resort to secure her objectives. Furthermore, Japanese weakness is not only whetting Chinese appetites but offering them an opening to undermine Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty and ‘real’ democracy. Needless to say, preventing the island becoming part of China once more is a major Japanese national security imperative. We could even say that the value of the Senkaku Islands themselves lies to a great extent in their proximity to Taiwan, to a Taiwan out of China’s grasp. If Beijing came to dominate or even ‘Finlandize’ the island, Japan would see her Southern flank and some vital SLOCs (sea lines of communication) cut off anyway, regardless of the fate of the Senkaku.

Thus Japan has two options, just like Great Britain in the 1970s: the Shackleton approach, defended by Governor Ishihara, or that of the Foreign Office, still dominant in political circles. Although history rarely repeats itself exactly, those advocating the latter course would do well to examine some troubling historical precedents.


Alex Calvo is a student at the MA in WWII Studies, University of Birmingham