In its most general sense, grand strategy can be defined as the overarching vision that shapes a state’s foreign policy and approach to national security. Like any strategy, it requires the coherent articulation of the state’s ends and means, which necessitates prioritizing vital interests, identifying key threats and opportunities, and (within certain limits) adapting to circumstances. What makes it truly “grand” is that it encompasses both wartime and peacetime, harnesses immediate realities to long-term objectives, and requires the coordination of all instruments of power (military, economic, etc.). Although American leaders have practiced grand strategic thinking since the early days of the Republic, the concept of grand strategy itself only started to emerge during World War I due to the expansion and diversification of the state’s resources and prerogatives, the advent of industrial warfare, and the growing role of populations in domestic politics and international conflicts. Moreover, it was only during World War II that it detached itself from military strategy and gained real currency among decision-makers. The contours, desirability, and very feasibility of grand strategy have inspired lively debates. However, many scholars and leaders consider it a worthy (albeit complex) endeavor that can reduce the risk of resource-squandering, signal intentions to both allies and enemies, facilitate adjustments to international upheavals, and establish a baseline for accountability. America’s grand strategy evolved from relative isolationism to full-blown liberal internationalism after 1945. Yet its conceptualization and implementation are inherently contentious processes because of political/bureaucratic infighting and recurrent dilemmas such as the uncertain geographic delimitation of US interests, the clash of ideals and Realpolitik, and the tension between unilateralism and multilateralism. The end of the Cold War, the 9/11 attacks, China’s rise, and other challenges have further compounded those lines of fracture.
Thomas P. Cavanna
Michael R. Anderson
American strategy in the Asia Pacific over the past two centuries has been marked by strong and often contradictory impulses. On the one hand, the western Pacific has served as a fertile ground for Christian missionaries, an alluring destination for American commercial enterprises, and eventually a critical launchpad for U.S. global power projection. Yet on the other hand, American policymakers at times have subordinated Asian strategy to European-based interests, or have found themselves embroiled in area conflicts that have hampered efforts to extend U.S. regional hegemony. Furthermore, leading countries in the Asia-Pacific region at times have challenged U.S. economic and military objectives, and the assertion of “Asian values” in recent years has undermined efforts to expand Western political and cultural norms. The United States’s professed “pivot to Asia” has opened a new chapter in a centuries-long relationship, one that will determine the geopolitical fault lines of the 21st century.
Megan Kate Nelson
During the American Civil War, Union and Confederate commanders made the capture and destruction of enemy cities a central feature of their military campaigns. They did so for two reasons. First, most mid-19th-century cities had factories, foundries, and warehouses within their borders, churning out and storing war materiel; military officials believed that if they interrupted or incapacitated the enemy’s ability to arm or clothe themselves, the war would end. Second, it was believed that the widespread destruction of property—especially in major or capital cities—would also damage civilians’ morale, undermining their political convictions and decreasing their support for the war effort. Both Union and Confederate armies bombarded and burned cities with these goals in mind. Sometimes they fought battles on city streets but more often, Union troops initiated long-term sieges in order to capture Confederate cities and demoralize their inhabitants. Soldiers on both sides were motivated by vengeance when they set fire to city businesses and homes; these acts were controversial, as was defensive burning—the deliberate destruction of one’s own urban center in order to keep its war materiel out of the hands of the enemy. Urban destruction, particularly long-term sieges, took a psychological toll on (mostly southern) city residents. Many were wounded, lost property, or were forced to become refugees. Because of this, the destruction of cities during the American Civil War provoked widespread discussions about the nature of “civilized warfare” and the role that civilians played in military strategy. Both soldiers and civilians tried to make sense of the destruction of cities in writing, and also in illustrations and photographs; images in particular shaped both northern and southern memories of the war and its costs.
Spencer D. Bakich
The Persian Gulf War of 1990–1991 was something of a paradox. From the American perspective, the war had the hallmarks of a resounding victory. Responding to a flagrant case of interstate aggression by Iraq against Kuwait, the George H. W. Bush administration assembled a substantial international coalition to deter further Iraqi attacks against its neighbors in the Gulf and to compel Saddam Hussein into quitting Kuwait, to avoid war. When the latter proved infeasible, the United States led that coalition in forcibly ousting Iraq’s military from Kuwait, substantially degrading Iraqi combat power in the process. The war’s outcome resulted from an auspiciously altered geopolitical landscape at the end of the Cold War, the overwhelming superiority of American power vis-à-vis Iraq, and a US decision-making process that tightly knitted military and diplomatic objectives into a coherent—and coherently executed—wartime strategy. However, America’s historically lopsided victory in the Persian Gulf War proved fleeting. Iraq’s surviving military forces retained the capacity to crush domestic challenges to the Ba’athist regime and to threaten its Gulf neighbors. President Bush’s vision of a post-war new world order notwithstanding, Gulf security depended heavily on continuing military missions years after the Persian Gulf War ended. Despite wartime tactical and strategic successes, grand strategic success eluded the United States in the years after the war.
Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh
Despite the absence of a robust and well-articulated conception of strategy, American military and political leaders during the Civil War had an intuitive sense of how military operations should be coordinated with larger political ends. They also shared a general adherence to the straightforward strategic ideas of Antoine-Henri de Jomini, who emphasized the importance of concentrating one’s own military forces in opposition to dispersed opponents. In the case of the Union, however, victory would require not only a more sophisticated conception of strategy that superseded Jomini and coordinated military operations in geographically disconnected fronts but also the practical implementation of such ideas through well-selected subordinate commanders. It would take Ulysses S. Grant until the end of the war to complete all these tasks. In the case of the Confederacy, secessionist leaders faced the challenge of prioritizing different theaters in the face of their material inferiority to the Union. Robert E. Lee chose the plausible strategy of striking directly at Northern public opinion with aggressive operations waged by his own Army of Northern Virginia, but the final failure of the Confederate war effort raises fair questions about whether the Confederacy should have paid more attention to its western theater.
Gregory A. Daddis
For nearly a decade, American combat soldiers fought in South Vietnam to help sustain an independent, noncommunist nation in Southeast Asia. After U.S. troops departed in 1973, the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975 prompted a lasting search to explain the United States’ first lost war. Historians of the conflict and participants alike have since critiqued the ways in which civilian policymakers and uniformed leaders applied—some argued misapplied—military power that led to such an undesirable political outcome. While some claimed U.S. politicians failed to commit their nation’s full military might to a limited war, others contended that most officers fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the war they were fighting. Still others argued “winning” was essentially impossible given the true nature of a struggle over Vietnamese national identity in the postcolonial era. On their own, none of these arguments fully satisfy. Contemporary policymakers clearly understood the difficulties of waging a war in Southeast Asia against an enemy committed to national liberation. Yet the faith of these Americans in their power to resolve deep-seated local and regional sociopolitical problems eclipsed the possibility there might be limits to that power. By asking military strategists to simultaneously fight a war and build a nation, senior U.S. policymakers had asked too much of those crafting military strategy to deliver on overly ambitious political objectives. In the end, the Vietnam War exposed the limits of what American military power could achieve in the Cold War era.
Steve R. Waddell
With the outbreak of war in Europe, a growing fear of and ultimately a concerted effort to defeat Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany defined American involvement. Competing Allied national and strategic interests resulted in serious debates, but the common desire to defeat the enemy proved stronger than any disagreements. President Franklin Roosevelt, understanding the isolationist sentiments of the American public and the dangers of Nazism and Imperial Japan perhaps better than most, carefully led the nation through the difficult period of 1939–1941, overseeing a gradual increase in American military preparedness and support for those standing up to Nazi Germany, as the German military forces achieved victory after victory. Following American entry into the war, strategic discussions in 1942–1943 often involved ambitious American military plans countered by British voices of moderation. The forces and supplies available made a direct invasion of northern France unfeasible. The American desire to launch an immediate invasion across the English Channel gave way to the Allied invasion of North Africa and subsequent assault on Sicily and the Italian peninsula. The Tehran Conference in November 1943 marked a transition, as the buildup of American forces in Europe and the overwhelming contribution of war materials enabled the United States to determine American-British strategy from late 1943 to the end of the war. The final year and a half of the war in Europe saw a major shift in strategic leadership, as the United States along with the Soviet Union assumed greater control over the final steps toward victory over Nazi Germany. By the end of World War II (May 1945 in Europe and September 1945 in Asia), the United States had not only assumed the leadership of the Western Allies, it had achieved superpower status with the greatest air force and navy in the world. It was also the sole possessor of the atomic bomb. Even with the tensions with the Soviet Union and beginnings of a Cold War, most Americans felt the United States was the leader as the world entered the post-war era.