How Modern Wars Have Negatively Impacted U.S. National Security Interests
U.S. Involvement in major 20th and 21st century wars resulted in millions of unnecessary deaths while creating new enemies, making the U.S. much less secure.
Editor’s Note—This article was updated on January 11, 2023 to include a section on Ukraine and updates to the sections regarding US involvement in both world wars.
A study of the outcome of major wars fought over the past 125 years strongly suggests that U.S. military involvement in these conflicts has resulted in tragic and unforeseen consequences leading to millions of unnecessary deaths while also serving to create new enemies, making the U.S. much less safe and secure. Here is a list of major wars, that in retrospect, the U.S. never should have fought or should have fought differently to produce a far more successful outcome from the standpoint of U.S. national security:
Wars the U.S. Should Never Have Fought
Spanish-American War (1898)—Many historians have concluded that it is quite unlikely that Spain was responsible for sinking the battleship USS Maine, which served as the catalyst for the U.S. declaration of war against Spain. U.S. involvement in this war transformed it into a colonial empire as it took control of the Philippines and fought a three-year long war with Filipino nationalists that cost the lives of 220,000 Filipinos. It also resulted in U.S. military forces being stationed in the Western Pacific outside the Western Hemisphere for the first time in U.S. history making an unnecessary conflict with Japan much more likely.
World War One (1917-1918)—U.S. military involvement in this war essentially prevented Britain and France from being bankrupted and exhausted militarily by the conflict and being forced to negotiate a far more just and equitable compromise peace agreement. According to a new book “The Road Less Traveled—the Secret Battle to End the Great War 1916-17”, the Germans offered a similar peace proposal with terms acceptable to Britain and France in August 1916 requesting President Woodrow Wilson call and mediate a peace conference to end the war. However, Wilson failed to do so and the US ended up declaring war on Germany in April 1917 instead after Germany grew desperate and declared unrestricted submarine warfare in the belief that their peace campaign had failed.
With the U.S. tipping the scales heavily against the Central Powers, the result was that Imperial Germany was forced to accept the vengeful and punitive Treaty of Versailles that crushed the German economy, deprived it of 12-13% of its population and territory, broke it in two with the creation of the so-called Polish Corridor, and deprived it of its ability to defend itself against invasion by even small countries like Belgium that subsequently invaded it with impunity. This agreement was imposed upon the defeated Germans upon threat of an immediate French-led invasion and occupation of their entire country. The Germans were forced to accept these harsh terms even though its surrender had been expressly conditioned upon a peace implementing President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points understandably causing great resentment among the German populace without which Hitler and the Nazis could never have come to power. A compromise peace agreement would have prevented Nazi Germany, Communist China and perhaps even the Soviet Union (if the Germans decided to intervene in the Russian Civil War) from ever existing, saving the lives of up to a couple hundred million people who were mass murdered by those totalitarian regimes or who died in wars they started.
Vietnam War (1965-1973)—The U.S. war in Vietnam had an undeniably just cause which was to defend the Republic of South Vietnam from murderous Communist takeover. However, Vietnam was never a U.S. vital national interest and the loss of 58,000 soldiers killed in action was not justifiable and did nothing to further U.S. national security particularly in view of the fact that the Communist North Vietnam ended up annexing South Vietnam anyway and the Communists took control of Laos and Cambodia anyway. The Vietnam War proved to be the worst strategic mistake by U.S. leaders since Truman cut off all military assistance to the Nationalists in 1946 at a time when they were on the verge of winning the Chinese Civil War leading mainland China to fall to the Communists instead.
First Iraq War (1991)—This was an unnecessary war as Saddam Hussein did not threaten an invasion of Saudi Arabia as President George H.W. Bush claimed and because he issued a number of peace offers including one months earlier offering to withdraw from all of Kuwait except for the Kuwaiti portion of the Rumalian oil field and Bubiyan Island. Even had he not offered to withdraw his military forces, Iraqi control of Kuwait did not threaten U.S. national security in any way, particularly given the fact that Iraq had been a U.S. client state up until the time it invaded Kuwait in August 1990 after getting “a green light” to invade from U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie. The U.S. decision to decimate the Iraqi military in the process of forcing it out of Kuwait greatly weakened Iraq’s ability to continue fighting its war against Iranian terror, which had been strongly supported by President Ronald Reagan. The ensuing U.N. embargo and US bombings of Iraq continued for a decade after the war supposedly ended, causing the deaths of up to half a million Iraqi children. Most importantly, the U.S.-led war against Iraq also sparked a chain of events leading to Bin Laden’s attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, which resulted in an unnecessary U.S. Global War on Terror which cost the lives of several hundred thousand civilians spanning over two decades.
NATO-Yugoslav War (1999)—In this war, NATO armed the Islamist Kosovo Liberation Army narco-terrorists and fought on the same side as Al Qaeda insurgents against the Russian-backed Yugoslav government, bombing government and military forces, including the capital of Belgrade. It was the first unprovoked act of NATO aggression, seemingly fought to give it a new purpose for existing following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In many ways it might be said that this war, along with the expansion of NATO eastward into the former Warsaw Pact nations of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary that same year, marked the key turning point in US-Russian relations from a relationship defined by cooperation to one defined by conflict and confrontation. The subsequent replacement of Boris Yeltsin by Vladimir Putin as President of the Russian Federation at the end of the year signaled the commencement of the Second Cold War with Russia.
Second Iraq War (2003-present)—The US invasion of Iraq to overthrow its secular Baathist regime in 2003 was an entirely unprovoked, illegal war of aggression. As was proven following an exhaustive search for Weapons of Mass Destruction lasting a full year, Saddam Hussein had destroyed his entire modest 200-ton arsenal of nerve gas before the war and even if he had not, he had no history of sponsoring terrorist attacks against the U.S. or Israel and posed no threat to the U.S. which had 7,000 strategic nuclear weapons at the time. Iraq’s armed forces had been severely degraded losing over 60% of its tanks and other heavy weapons during the previous Iraq War and Saddam had not threatened its neighbors since the previous Iraq War ended. Due to the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, Islamist terrorists including Al Qaeda and ISIS were able to establish a strong foothold in Iraq and spread their influence to Syria starting a civil war there. Meanwhile, Iranian proxy Shiite Islamists took power in Iraq in a massively fraudulent election in 2005 spreading the Islamic Republic of Iran’s imperial influence further westward towards Israel. Estimates of the death toll stemming from the U.S. invasion of Iraq vary widely from a low of 151,000 to as many as 1,033,000 Iraqis. By comparison, Saddam Hussein is alleged to have killed up to 300,000 people during his near quarter century reign.
Syrian Civil War (2011-present)—U.S. military assistance to Islamist extremists and terrorists began with the CIA providing modern arms to the mujahadeen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-1989 and continued with the war in Kosovo as well as the wars in Libya and Syria even while the U.S. was fighting the so-called Global War on Terrorism. U.S. involvement in the Syrian Civil War against the Baathist regime of Bashar al Assad, has been very ironic as the U.S. has bombed ISIS rebels in Iraq while supporting them in Syria. The U.S. has provided military assistance to the Syrian rebels, who consist mostly of Islamist extremists, many of which have ties to Al Qaeda. As many as 610,000 Syrians are believed to have died in this conflict thus far.
First Libyan Civil War (2011)—The unprovoked NATO military intervention in the Libyan Civil War including NATO bombings of Russian-backed Libyan government forces in 2011 was very reminiscent of the unprovoked NATO bombing campaign against government forces in the Yugoslav Civil War in 1999 as well as the unprovoked US invasion of Iraq in 2003. NATO’s support of Islamist Libyan rebels was successful in achieving its objective of regime change in overthrowing and killing secular Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was successful in overthrowing and killing him. However, it led to a devastating civil war, lasting several years in which the country was divided and controlled by different factions with most of the country falling under the control of a group affiliated with Al Qaeda.
Russo-Ukrainian War (2014-present)—The Russian invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea in February 2014 was a direct response to the US supported and financed Maidan coup which overthrew Ukraine’s democratically elected President Viktor Yanukovych who had tried to forge a path of neutrality for Ukraine. When President George W. Bush pressured NATO to issue its Bucharest Declaration in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia would join NATO, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned him that if Ukraine joined NATO, Russia would take back Crimea and the Donbass region of Ukraine. Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was a response to the Strategic Partnership agreement signed between the US and Ukraine in which the US committed once again to support NATO membership for Ukraine. Putin responded by resubmitting his proposed mutual security agreement to the US and NATO and demanding that the US and NATO provide written guarantees that Ukraine would never be permitted to join NATO in order to avert a Russian invasion but President Joe Biden refused to do so.
Within two weeks of invading Ukraine, Russia offered reasonable peace terms to end the war and withdraw all Russian military forces except from the Donbass region. Initially, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was receptive but following the Russian withdrawal from three of eight Ukrainian oblasts, he abandoned Ukraine’s tentative peace agreement with Russia and has refused all of Russia’s peace offers since. The war has since continued to escalate with massive US arms shipments to Ukraine and increased involvement in cyber and sabotage operations to destroy Russian targets inside Russia have caused Putin to announce he is increasing the size of Russia’s active-duty troops by half a million men in preparation for a Russian winter offensive which will be personally led by Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, General Gerasimov. which Ukraine is predicting is likely to begin in early February 2023. The Biden administration needs to pressure Ukraine to agree to a cease fire in order to avert potential Russian nuclear escalation which could erupt into a full-scale world war that would likely cost the lives of over half a billion people including a quarter billion Americans.
Wars the U.S. should have fought differently
World War Two (1941-1945)—President Franklin Delano Roosevelt should not have provoked Imperial Japan to attack Pearl Harbor with his joint U.S.-UK-Dutch oil embargo in August 1941, but once the Japanese attacked the US. Pacific Fleet and Hitler declared war on the U.S., the U.S. had no choice but to fight both Nazi Germany and Japan. Engaging in an unholy alliance with the Evil Soviet Empire, and provide them with tens of thousands of tanks and combat aircraft as well as massive military-industrial assistance leading to a Communist takeover of one-third of the world’s territory and people within four years of the war’s end, proved to be one of the most tragic strategic blunders in U.S. history. A far better and more morally justifiable alternative would have been for the U.S. should have signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviets and supplied them with non-lethal military aid such as communications and optical equipment, flak jackets, helmets, uniforms, boots, medical supplies and medical equipment as well as non-industrial materials including food and fuel. Then the U.S. and U.K. could have raced the Soviets for control of Central and Eastern Europe, likely enabling the Western Allies to liberate all of Central and most of Eastern Europe in advance of the Red Army.
But there is a much overlooked, yet historically intriguing possibility, which could have won the war against Nazi Germany for the Western Allies in a matter of months rather than years were they to refrain from demanding Germany’s unconditional surrender which served no purpose other than to prolong the war unnecessarily by months or even years. FDR was aware of the lenient terms of Hitler’s peace offer to Britain in May 1941 and could have pressured British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to join the U.S. in negotiating a peace agreement with Nazi Germany on that basis in early 1942 including a full German military withdrawal from 83% of the European territory its troops had occupied since March 1939 including France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Yugoslavia and Greece, Libya and Egypt. Hitler even offered to restore an “independent” Polish state (almost certainly continuing under German occupation). In return for these unprecedented German concessions, the U.S. and U.K. would pledge not to provide military assistance to the Soviet Union. This could have served to liberate western and northern Europe without a drop of American blood being shed. Without German military support, Italy would also be forced to make peace with the Allies. Given that the forced resettlement of the Jews from Europe to Palestine was reportedly an express condition of Hitler’s peace offer, such an agreement would likely have saved the lives of 12-15 million people, including virtually all of the five to six million Jews who were mass murdered by the Nazis, potentially increasing the population of the future State of Israel many times over.
Here is a map of the world as it likely would have existed had the US and/or Britain accepted the terms of Hitler’s May 1941 peace offer including a restoration of limited independence for Poland. We are often told that if the US and UK had made peace with Hitler, it would have enabled Hitler to conquer the world but the truth is that Hitler’s territorial aims were far more limited and his military capabilities even more so. Accordingly, at most Hitler might have hoped to reclaim most of Germany’s lost colonies and to conclude an armistice with the Soviets that would have, at most, left Germany in control of the Baltics, Belarus, Ukraine and the oil-rich Caucuses region which Stalin would have likely fought successive wars with Germany to try to recover. This would have left Germany as only the fifth largest empire behind the British, the Soviets, the Americans and the French.
Meanwhile, if FDR had accepted Japan’s August-November 1941 peace offer to withdraw from Indochina and southern China and accept US mediation to negotiate an end to the Second Sino-Japanese War in exchange for an end to the crushing US-UK-Dutch oil embargo, Japanese territorial possessions would have likely been far more limited than actual history including northeast and east central China and perhaps the Soviet Far East leaving Burma, the Philippines and Indonesia free of Japanese occupation.
After Germany had completed its military withdrawals, the U.S. and U.K. could have provided largescale military aid to France, Belgium and Holland to help them to defend against potential future German aggression while also providing non-lethal and non-industrial assistance to the Soviet Union such as foodstuffs, medicine and military uniforms. The Western Allies could also have embargoed the sale of strategic materials including steel, aluminum and fuel to Nazi Germany to limit its military-industrial potential and applied the embargo to the Soviet Union as well to allay Hitler’s suspicions that the embargo of war materials was solely directed against Nazi Germany. Then the Western Allies could have watched on the sidelines as its two enemies Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union exhausted each other militarily over a period of many years. After the German military withdrawals had been completed, the U.S. and U.K. could have secretly supported the efforts of the German resistance to overthrow Hitler and the Nazis. Were Hitler to violate the terms of the peace treaty in any material way, the U.S. and U.K. could have resumed the war against Nazi Germany on much more advantageous terms.
However, the best possible outcome of the war would have been if the U.S. and U.K. had accepted German resistance leader Admiral Wilhelm Canaris’ offer to overthrow Hitler and the Nazis and surrender to the Western Allies with the only condition being that FDR provide a written guarantee that the US would keep the Red Army out of Europe and limit Soviet control to their prewar borders. His offer was actually accepted by the heads of U.S. and British intelligence in June 1943, but was subsequently rejected by both FDR and Churchill. Once Hitler and the Nazis had been overthrown and the U.S. and U.K. had accepted Germany’s surrender, the Germans could have been forced to accept the Soviets’ May 1943 offer of an armistice based upon the restoration of the USSR’s original August 1939 borders, effectively reversing the Soviet annexations of eastern Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the eastern half of Poland and northeastern Romania and restoring the independence of the Baltic states but leaving most of Belarus and most of Ukraine under Soviet control. The map below provides a rough outline of what a post-World War Two European order might have looked like had FDR and Churchill accepted Canaris’ peace offer rather than Soviet control of much of Central Europe and nearly all of Eastern Europe as was the case in actual history.
Under the terms of the peace agreement, the Germans would be forced to de-Nazify and hold immediate democratic elections while senior Nazi leaders would be tried for war crimes. Germany would have to return Alsace-Lorraine to France, permanently demilitarize the Rhineland and withdraw its troops from every country in Europe except Estonia and Latvia, which border on the Soviet Union. Germany would also be forced to restore Czech and Polish independence and give up all of the other territories it annexed in violation of the Munich Agreement from March 1939 onward. It would be restored to its pre-war borders which had been the official Allied war aim until the Casablanca Conference of January 1943. Danzig and the Polish Corridor, which comprised a little over four percent of pre-war Polish territory, would become a jointly controlled, demilitarized German-Polish condominium administered for the benefit of both nations expanding on an idea which Polish leaders briefly considered in actual history in early 1939 before rejecting it in March 1939 following the British military guarantee. Germany would then have to sign mutual defense pacts with all the countries bordering the Soviet Union including Finland, the Baltic states, Poland, Romania as well as Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria in what would effectively amount to a reverse Warsaw Pact. Britain, France, Italy, Turkey, Denmark, Norway and the Low Countries would have been encouraged to join this new collective security agreement in order to enable Europe to defend itself against future Soviet aggression. This would have enabled the U.S. to transfer most of its troops home from Europe to the Pacific to win the war against Japan much more rapidly, while the U.S. provided a nuclear umbrella for Europe against the Soviet Union from July 1945 onward. It also would have ended the war up to two years earlier and saved the lives of 15-20 million people, including several million Jews. Moreover, it would have enabled the Cold War with the Soviet Union to have been fought 1,000 kilometers farther to the east than it was in actual history.
Turning to Japan, Five days after the U.S. imposed its total oil embargo on August 1, 1941, Japanese leaders offered to withdraw its military forces from Indochina and accept US mediation to negotiate an end to the Second Sino-Japanese War, which would entail the withdrawal of Japanese forces from most or all of Chinese territory outside of Manchuria, Jehol province and Formosa which Japan had annexed in 1895. They made a few subsequent peace offers along similar lines to avoid war with the U.S. but FDR ignored and refused them all. Tens of millions of lives would have been saved if the U.S. had accepted Japan’s peace offer and ended the Pacific War before it began. If, on the other hand, FDR opted for war with Japan as in actual history, he could have accepted one of Japan’s peace offers as General Douglas MacArthur recommended he do in his January 1945 Memorandum. Japanese troops could have remained in Manchuria until Nationalist Chinese forces could arrive to accept their surrender and take over all of their military equipment along with tens of thousands of US tanks and combat aircraft that the U.S. gave to the Soviets in actual history. Without Soviet intervention in World War Two which enabled them to occupy Manchuria and northern Korea, the Nationalist Chinese would have defeated Mao Tse Tung’s Communist Chinese forces and won the Chinese Civil War and Communist China and North Korea would never have existed. That would have prevented the Korean and Vietnam Wars from ever taking place, saving the lives of nearly 100,000 U.S. soldiers who lost their lives fighting in those two wars.
Korean War (1950-1953)—The Korean War was the first major war in history in which the U.S. failed to achieve victory. Rather than firing America’s greatest General, Douglas MacArthur, for wanting to win the war, President Harry Truman should have approved his request to bomb the Yalu River bridges, Chinese rail stations and staging bases in Manchuria to drastically curtail the number of Chinese troops that were able to enter Korea to make sure that the war ended with a unified, democratic Korea and Communist North Korea ceased to exist. The commanding general of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army stated after the war that he would never have sent Chinese troops to cross the Yalu River into Korea if he hadn’t been assured that President Harry Truman would not allow MacArthur to retaliate by attacking Chinese territory.
Afghan War (2001-2021)—While U.S. military intervention was justified in Afghanistan in the wake of Al Qaeda’ s attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 that killed nearly 3,000 Americans, once the goal of the overthrow of the Taliban had been achieved and Bin Laden and Al Qaeda had been chased out of most of Afghanistan, U.S. military forces should have been withdrawn after a two-three month campaign by the end of that year. Instead, the U.S. waited to withdraw its troops until twenty years later, ten years after Biden Laden had been killed, with the end result being that the Taliban seized control of the country before U.S. military forces had even been withdrawn. The estimated death toll from the Afghan war has been up to 212,000 people.
The historical record strongly suggests that if the U.S. had fought World War II more wisely with an eye to a more just and lasting peace which firmly limited Soviet Communist power in Europe and Asia, Communist China and North Korea would not exist, leaving only the Russian Federation as a potential adversary. Furthermore, even if it had made the same grand strategic mistakes as it did in actual World War II history, but fought the Korean War more wisely, North Korea would not exist today. Had the U.S. not expanded NATO eastward and guaranteed Ukraine’s neutrality while including Russia in the security architecture in Europe, then the Russian invasion of Ukraine would have been entirely averted and Russia would cease to be an enemy enabling the U.S. to focus on peaceful economic, industrial and technological, rather than military, pursuits.
Had the U.S. employed a more realist foreign policy to avoid fighting unnecessary conflicts, the long-term adverse outcomes of these wars could have been averted and the number of adversaries that threaten U.S. national security greatly diminished. In addition, the implementation of such a policy would have likely served to preventing some wars from occurring altogether, saving tens of millions of lives. U.S. and NATO wars of aggressions against Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria and Libya undoubtedly served to belie NATO’s claims that it is a purely defensive alliance with no offensive aims against Russia and its allies and gave further credence to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s belief that NATO poses an existential threat to the Russian Federation. Without the eastward expansion of NATO and the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, it is very likely that this new Cold War with Russia and their subsequent invasion of Ukraine in 2022 would never have materialized, particularly if the US and NATO had found a way to include Russia in some kind of mutual security arrangement as some Western strategists like myself have long been advocating.
Applying these historical lessons to our time, U.S. leaders would be wise to replace our failed grand strategy of liberal hegemony, which has caused so many unnecessary conflicts, with one of offshore balancing in order to reduce the existential threats we face today. The implementation of such a strategy would serve to weaken the Sino-Russian military alliance and greatly reduce the risks of us stumbling into an unnecessary, and potentially nuclear, Third World War with Russia and China over Ukraine and Taiwan.
David T. Pyne, Esq. is a former U.S. Army combat arms and H.Q. staff officer with an M.A. in National Security Studies from Georgetown University. He currently serves as Deputy Director of National Operations for the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security and is a contributor to Dr. Peter Pry’s new book Blackout Warfare. He also serves as the host of the Defend America Radio Show on KTALK AM 1640 and as Editor of “The Real War” newsletter at dpyne.substack.com. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org