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For the Common Defense

A Military History of the United States from 1607 to 2012

Now fully updated and totally revised, this highly regarded classic remains the most comprehensive study available of America’s military history.

Called “the preeminent survey of American military history” by Russell F. Weigley, America’s foremost military historian, For the Common Defense is an essential contribution to the field of military history. This carefully researched third edition provides the most complete and current history of United States defense policy and military institutions and the conduct of America’s wars. Without diminishing the value of its earlier editions, authors Allan R. Millett, Peter Maslowski, and William B. Feis provide a fresh perspective on the continuing issues that characterize national security policy. They have updated the work with new material covering nearly twenty years of scholarship, including the history of the American military experience in the Balkans and Somalia, analyzing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 to 2012, and providing two new chapters on the Vietnam War.

For the Common Defense examines the nation’s pluralistic military institutions in both peace and war, the tangled civil-military relations that created the country’s commitment to civilian control of the military, the armed forces’ increasing nationalization and professionalization, and America’s growing reliance on sophisticated technologies spawned by the Industrial Revolution and the Computer and Information Ages. This edition is also a timely reminder that vigilance is indeed the price of liberty but that vigilance has always been—and continues to be—a costly, complex, and contentious undertaking in a world that continually tests America’s willingness and ability to provide for the common defense.

For the Common Defense Introduction
Although we are pleased that the original 1984 edition and 1994 revised edition of For the Common Defense have stood the test of time so well, the ongoing important national defense issues of the last eighteen years and the superb scholarship in military history since 1994 warrant this third edition. We have been encouraged in our efforts by teachers who have continued to use the second edition, even though American military history took on new directions in the Balkans and Muslim world since its publication.

We have reviewed all of the text for currency and accuracy. Where we found errors of fact and printing, we have corrected them. We have made the most changes in areas where our own research interests have taken us in the last eighteen years. I rewrote the account of the Korean War to reflect fifteen years of research. The Vietnam War is now divided into two chapters written by Peter, a subject of his recent research. There are now two chapters on the end of the Cold War and the new wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2001–2011, the decade characterized by the George W. Bush administration as the “Global War on Terrorism.”

Readers will search in vain in this book for dramatic new interpretations or radical departures in intellectual approach. We are aware that others may take issue with our reluctance to add novel twists and unexpected turns to our narrative. We have not taken the easy road of alternative or counter-factual history. We have tried to maintain the distinction between “what if” and “what was,” although “so what” remains a matter of reasonable debate. We hope we have provided the right balance of fact and interpretation to make any discussion of American military history meaningful, whether the debate involves contemporary defense policy or some aspect of American history, such as race relations, in which military history provides relevant testimony.

Our bibliographic suggestions ( and the Free Press author pages at require some explanation. Except in special cases, we have omitted journal articles, for several reasons. Many articles become books. Others are superseded by other books. The availability of journal contents on the internet makes finding an article by subject relatively easy. By stressing books, we have chosen works that are current, reliable, tested, and probably available at public and university libraries. We have leaned toward books that are in print. We have chosen to make selections on the principles of “If you were to read one book on . . . ,” although we know two or three books might be useful. We apologize to those authors who feel ignored or aggrieved, but modern technology has saved the works of the just and the unjust, so everyone now has electronic immortality, or at least their books do.

Writing military history is an ancient craft, but since classical times military historians have focused almost exclusively on battles and the conduct of war. After World War II, however, American historians began to treat military history in broad political, economic, social, and institutional terms. Although retaining some elements of the “old” military history, this book falls more clearly into the “new” military history genre of the post–World War II era. Battle connoisseurs will sniff a hint of gunpowder throughout the book, since it discusses the major campaigns in all of America’s wars. The details of military operations and the problems of combat leadership and tactics are limited to those developments and events that demonstrate the capabilities and limitations of the armed forces as they implement national policy. The primary purposes of this book are to analyze the development of military policy and to examine the characteristics of military policy as influenced by America’s international relations and domestic development.

Six major themes place United States military history within the broad context of American history. First, rational military considerations alone have rarely shaped military policies and programs. The political system and societal values have imposed constraints on defense affairs. A preoccupation with private gain, a reluctance to pay taxes, a distaste for military service, and a fear of large standing forces have at various times imposed severe limitations on the availability of monetary and manpower resources.

Second, American defense policy has traditionally been built upon pluralistic military institutions, most noticeably a mixed force of professionals and citizen-soldiers. These pluralistic institutions reflect the diverse attitudes of professional soldiers, citizen-soldiers, and antimilitary and pacifistic citizens about the role of state-sponsored force in the nation’s life.

Third, despite the popular belief that the United States has generally been unprepared for war, policymakers have done remarkably well in preserving the nation’s security. For most of American history, especially from the nineteenth century onward, policymakers realized that geographic distance from dangerous adversaries, the European balance of power, and growing material and manpower mobilization potential were powerful assets. When gauging America’s strength against potential enemies, policymakers realized that the nation could devote its energies and financial resources to internal development rather than to maintaining a large and expensive peacetime military establishment. However, mobilizing simultaneously with a war’s outbreak has extracted high costs in terms of speed and ease with each new mobilization.

Fourth, the nation’s firm commitment to civilian control of military policy requires careful attention to civil-military relations. The commitment to civilian control makes military policy a paramount function of the federal government, where the executive branch and Congress share the power to shape policy. The Constitution makes the president commander in chief (Article II, Section 2) and gives Congress the responsibility of organizing and funding the armed forces it creates, as well as passing laws about what forces do and how they are managed (Article I, Section 8). The Congress has the power to declare war, and it can influence any military activity through the legislative and appropriations process, should it choose to do so. The two branches are supposed to work in concert for “the common defense.”

Although the influence of the federal system on military policy faded by the end of the twentieth century, national-state-local relations have defined much of defense policy for the preceding three centuries. While the Constitution defines what the national government can do, the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments) tells the national government what it cannot do, and one prohibition is that the national government cannot monopolize military power. The Second Amendment permits other levels of government, like a state or county, to form military forces to meet local emergencies. In 1789 these crises might have included an invasion from Canada or Florida, piracy, Native American raids, slave revolts, urban or rural uprisings, political protests and election disruption, and ethnic and family feuds. It was an era in which civilian policing was notoriously ineffective in the hands of county sheriffs and urban constables. Depending on the threat and the powers of “calling forth” authority, citizens were supposed to arm themselves and be available for emergency service as an obligation of citizenship. There are, of course, other more novel interpretations of the Second Amendment.

Fifth, the armed forces have become progressively more nationalized and professionalized. Beginning with the American Revolution, the services have increasingly been raised and supported by the federal government and used for purposes defined by the federal government. Although civilians ultimately control military policy, the professionalization of officership, a trend that has progressed rapidly since the early nineteenth century, has had important consequences for the conduct of military affairs, since career officers in the national service (as opposed to officers appointed only in wartime) have progressively monopolized high command positions and advisory positions.

Finally, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, but especially during the twentieth century, industrialization has shaped the way the nation has fought. In particular, the United States has used increasingly sophisticated technology to overcome logistical limitations, primarily in transportation, and to match enemy numbers with firepower. This dependence upon industry and technology in executing military policy has placed enormous burdens on career military officers and the defense industry, and it is very costly.

Military history requires some attention to definitions. Policy is the sum of the assumptions, plans, programs, and actions taken by the citizens of the United States, principally through governmental action, to ensure the physical security of their lives, property, and way of life from external military attack and domestic insurrection. Although military force has been used in both domestic and foreign crises that did not involve national survival, the definition of policy remains rooted to the prevention or termination of a military threat faced collectively by the American people. War is a less elusive concept, since it enjoys centuries of political and judicial definition. It is the application of state violence in the name of policy. It involves killing and wounding people and destroying property until the survivors abandon their military resistance or the belligerents come to a negotiated agreement. War aims are the purposes for which wars are fought. Strategy, the general concepts for the use of military force, is derived from war aims. In wartime, strategy is normally expressed in terms of missions, geographic areas of operations, the timing of operations, and the allocation of forces.

Each element of the armed forces has an operational doctrine, which is an institutional concept for planning and conducting operations. Taking into account such factors as their mission, the enemy situation, the terrain, and the combat and logistical capabilities of the available forces, service leaders develop their organizations’ capabilities. For example, the U.S. Army Air Forces of World War II expressed a strategic theory when arguing that Nazi Germany could be bombed into submission. But when the USAAF chose to conduct the bombing with massed bomber formations in daylight raids against industrial targets, it defined an operational doctrine. Tactics is the actual conduct of battle, the application of fire and maneuver by fighting units in order to destroy the physical ability and will of the enemy’s armed forces. To continue the example of the bombing campaign against Germany, the USAAF bombers grouped themselves in combat “boxes” to create overlapping arcs of machine-gun fire against German fighters; their fighter escorts—when they had them—attacked the German fighters before they reached the bomber formations. In addition, the bombers varied their altitude and direction to confuse antiaircraft artillery fire. They also dropped tons of metallic chaff to foil enemy radar. These techniques were tactical, since their goal was the immediate destruction or demoralization of a specific enemy force.

Americans have had a peculiar ambivalence toward war. They have traditionally and sincerely viewed themselves as a peaceful, unmilitaristic people, and yet they have hardly been unwarlike. Statistics alone testify to the pervasive presence of war in the nation’s history, for tens of millions of Americans have served in wartime and more than a million have died in uniform. Understanding both this paradoxical love-hate attitude toward war and the relationship among military institutions, war, and society is essential in comprehending America’s past, its present, and its future.

Of the authors of The Federalist Papers, James Madison could claim the least familiarity with military affairs, for unlike Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, he had known neither the sting of battle nor the tension of international diplomacy during the American Revolution. In contrast to Hamilton, who had conducted an inquiry on post-Revolution defense policy, or Jay, who had directed the perilous diplomacy of the new nation under the Articles of Confederation, Madison had made his postwar reputation as a cerebral congressional surrogate for his famous Virginia colleague Thomas Jefferson. During the Constitutional Convention, however, Madison emerged as one of the architects of the Constitution with which its framers hoped to reorganize the newly independent states. Thus when the fight for ratification came to the crucial state of New York, Madison was a natural choice to be one of the three authors of “Publius” essays, advocating a stronger central government. Surprisingly, Madison contributed an essay on Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, applying his analytical skill to No. 41 of The Federalist Papers. The issue was empowering the government to conduct the nation’s defense.

To Madison, the Constitution’s provisions for the central control of military policy seemed self-evident. “Security against foreign danger is one of the primitive objects of civil society. It is an avowed and essential object of the American Union. The powers requisite for attaining it must be effectually confided to the federal councils.” It was unthinkable to him that defense would not be the domain of the national government. “Is the power of raising armies and equipping fleets necessary?” Madison could imagine no constitutional limits upon the government because there would be no limits upon the nation’s potential enemies. “How could the readiness for war in time of peace be safely prohibited, unless we could prohibit in like manner the preparations and establishments of every hostile nation?” Perhaps he remembered George Washington’s quip that the Constitution would not limit the size of other nations’ armies even if it set a ceiling on America’s standing forces. “The means of security can only be regulated by the means and danger of attack. They will, in fact, be ever determined by these rules and no other. It is in vain to oppose constitutional barriers to the impulse of self-preservation. It is worse than in vain. . . . If one nation maintains constantly a disciplined army, ready for service of ambition or revenge, it obliges the most pacific nations who may be within the reach of its enterprises to take corresponding precautions.”

Many seasons have passed and years have rolled by since Madison argued that the Constitution provided the best hope for the common defense, but his rationale stands intact. Although he could have foreseen neither the global reach of American interests nor the intricacies of dividing the responsibility for the common defense between the executive and legislative branches, Madison would not have been surprised to see the contentiousness with which the nation makes its decisions to spend the lives and treasure of its citizens. Thus it has been since the first shots on Lexington Green and at Concord Bridge. Madison understood that the cost of defense would always compete with the individual and collective “pursuit of happiness.” He could only hope that the innate wisdom of the American citizenry would correctly evaluate the degree of shared danger, the measure of ever-present risk, and allocate resources accordingly.

The dominant leaders of Madison’s generation understood that moral suasion alone could not guard the Republic. The question of national survival is no less compelling now than it was in the nation’s infant years. Whether or not the United States will rightly judge the delicate balance between its internal development and its influence upon world affairs, still shaped by the exercise of military power, remains a question that history can only partially answer. Yet the history of American military policy suggests that the dangers will not disappear. Neither will the political responsibility to face them, for they will not evaporate with wishful thinking. When the olive branches wilt, the arrows must be sturdy. Only another history can answer whether the people of the United States in the twenty-first century understand that constant vigilance is the price of liberty.

Allan R. Millett
New Orleans, 2012

Allan R. Millett is Professor of History and Director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans.
Peter Maslowski is professor of history at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Peter Maslowski is professor of history at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

"A work of fine research, peer review and precise, evenhanded writing that is standing the test of time." --Kirkus Reviews