Modern US History

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Category: Kevin Potocki

America’s Rise to Hegemony Through War

A nation born from war, and currently engaged in war, the United States has been involved in numerous conflicts throughout its relatively short history. Since the Spanish American War in 1898, the United States has been involved in two World Wars, numerous military interventions, and currently, a war that does not have an end in sight. All of these conflicts have taken place outside the United States, and serve as a testament to the United State’s military power. From the Spanish American War to the War on Terror, each conflict, and the reasons for going to war serve as an indicator to America’s rise as the predominant global hegemon.

The first instance where the United States rose to global prominence as the result of war, was the Spanish American War in 1898, where the United States acquired its first overseas territories. Prior to the war, the United States had numerous assets in Cuba, then controlled by Spain, and were constantly the subject of harassment from the Spanish[1]. Given that Spain did not intervene, resentment towards the Kingdom of Spain by the United States government was high before the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana. The American press was quick to blame Spain for the destruction of the warship, and Congress granted the president a Declaration of War on Spain[2]. After the conclusion of the war, the United States obtained Spain’s overseas colonies, and became an actor on the world stage[3].

The two conflicts that followed the Spanish American War, both World War I and World War II, beginning out of hostile actions taken before America entered the conflicts, and would further signal America’s growing role in global affairs. The deliberate attack of the Lusitania by a German submarine, and the Zimmerman Telegram were clear indicators to the United States that the German government acted with hostility towards America[4], and there was no alternative but to go to war. After seeing catastrophic loss of life on foreign soil, isolationism dominated American attitude towards global affairs, but it would be another attack that would bring the United States into another war. The preemptive strike carried out by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor left the United States no alternative, but to go to war with Japan, and its Axis allies[5]. The Second World War would give the United States a new perspective on readiness with the introduction of the “Pearl Harbor System,”[6] which the United States would take a more offensive stance towards threats abroad, and would also be the last time the United States officially declared war. Following World War II, the United States gained the status of a permanent member of the newly-formed United Nations Security Council, thus underlining the global influence of the United States.

With the conclusion of the Second World War, the United States faced a new adversary in the form of communism (primarily the Soviet Union), which would lead the United States into conflicts abroad without being directly provoked. Chiefly due to the ‘Long Telegram’ by George Kennan, which claimed that the Soviet Union acted out of paranoia, and would not negotiate with a rival power[7], America pursued the policy of containment: which meant fighting the spread of communism throughout the world. Thus, the ability to intervene worldwide to preserve the balance of power, while simultaneously combating the threat of communism, the United States had the ability to influence the globe in a manner that benefited American foreign policy interests highlights American supremacy on the world stage. The containment policy led to the Korean and Vietnam Wars, both incontrovertible cases of the overwhelming desire to halt the spread of communism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States became the undisputed global hegemon, and shifted the focus of its military interventions.

Given United States military supremacy and communism no longer a threat, The United States began to engage in military interventions that benefited the international community as a whole. The first conflict in which the United States engaged in after the Cold War, was Operation Desert Storm, in which Iraq invaded its neighboring nation of Kuwait. The United States, along with allies that formed a coalition, intervened and swiftly repelled the Iraqi invasion[8]. The United States also engaged in humanitarian assistance operations, such as Operation Gothic Serpent in Somalia, but the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 would bring about a new form of conflict for the United States. Given that terror organizations operate without borders, the United State’s overarching objective has been to combat terrorism worldwide to prevent similar attacks[9].

It is incontrovertible that America’s wars are indicators to its rise as the global hegemonic power. Beginning from acquiring overseas territories, to being able to intervene throughout the world, every conflict has built upon the United State’s status as a global superpower. The United States still wields the capability to intervene throughout the world, and will continue to do so throughout the ongoing Global War on Terror.

Work Cited:

1) Berner, Brad K., and Kalman Goldstein. 2014. The Spanish-American War. [Electronic Resource] : A Documentary History with Commentaries. College Complete (Ebook Central). Madison : Fairleigh Dickinson University Press ; Lanham, Maryland : Rowman & Littlefield, [2014].

2) U.S. Congress. Senate. Declaration of War with Spain. S. Res. H.R. 10086.

3) “1898: The Birth of a Superpower.” U.S. Department of State.

4)Boghardt, Thomas. 2012. The Zimmerman Telegram : Intelligence, Diplomacy and America’s Entry Into World War I. Annopolis: Naval Institute Press.

5) U.S. Congress. Senate. Declaration of War with Japan, WWII. S. Res. S.J.Res. 116.

6) Stuart, Douglas. Pearl Harbor System at 75*

7) Doc. The Kennan ‘Long Telegram’ at 7 (1946).


9)Valdez, Jamie. 2015. The Cost of War and Terror Operations Since 9-11. Terrorism, Hot Spots and Conflict-Related Issues. New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

Sinking of the U.S.S. Maine

A newspaper article in the New York Journal, following the sinking of the warship, U.S.S. Maine in Cuba (then a Spanish territory). Claiming that the United States Nave believed that the Spanish were responsible for the Maine’s destruction, the article intended to sway public opinion in favor of the United States going to war with Spain. While it was later discovered that the Maine exploded due to a mechanical issue, the pre-existing level of tension between the United States and the Kingdom of Spain, and the fact that the explosion took place in Cuba, made it easy to believe that the Spanish were to blame.

Declaration of War on Spain

The formal declaration of war with Spain, granted by Congress on April 25, 1898. The overarching significance of the declaration, was that this was the first time in which the United States went to war with an overseas power. The Spanish-American war ended in four months, and served as an indication of the United State’s ability to project power overseas.


Sinking of the Luisitania

An artist’s depiction of the passenger ship, Lusitania, sinking after being torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1915, published in the London News. The ship was bound for Liverpool, carrying a number of United States citizens that lost their lives in the sinking. England and France, making little headway on the Western Front in the First World War, repeatedly called upon the United States to enter the war. The sinking of the Lusitania was one of the key events that changed the opinion of the predominantly isolationist-leaning United States citizens towards a willingness to entering the war.

United States Declares War on Germany (WWI)

The United State’s declaration of war with Germany, granted by congress on April 6, 1917. The language of the declaration, such as using “that the state of war… has been thrust upon the United States” is indicative that the United States was left with no alternative, but to enter the war. The recent acts the declaration referred to, were the sinking of the Lusitania and the Zimmerman Telegram. In both instances, the United States did not provoke the Germans. As a result: the United States joined the First World War on the side of England and France, and provided much needed reinforcements to secure victory for the Triple Entente.

U.S.S. Arizona Burning in Pearl Harbor

The American Battleship U.S.S. Arizona burning in Pearl Harbor during the surprise attack by Imperial Japanese Naval Air Forces on December 7, 1941. The most famous casualty of Pear Harbor, a bomb exploded Arizona’s munitions magazine, triggering a massive explosion. At the time, the war in Europe was well underway, but the United States abstained from becoming militarily involved, despite pleas from the Allied powers. Believing that the United States was impervious to being attacked by a foreign power on American soil, given the vast expanse of ocean on both sides of the country, Pearl Harbor forever changed that mindset.

The United States Declares War on Japan

Granted by Congress on December 8, 1941, the United States enters the Second World War on the side of the Allies. Labelling Pearl Harbor as “a day which will live in infamy,” President Roosevelt petitioned congress to grant him the declaration one day following the attack. Citing the preemptive strike on Pearl Harbor, the United States was left with no alternative, but to enter  World War II. America would engage all three of the Axis powers: Japan, Germany, and Italy in a two-theater war. The shock of America being attacked on its own soil led to the objective of preventing future attacks of the same nature.This was also the last instance, in which the United States formally declared war on a nation.

George Kennan’s “Long Telegram”

One of the most influential pieces in shaping American foreign policy post-WWII, George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” outlined how he viewed the Soviet Union would act after the war. A diplomat in Moscow at the time, Kennan believed that the Soviet Union was highly paranoid, and would act to spread its Marxist ideology throughout the world, while simultaneously acting to counter capitalist efforts. In this excerpt, Kennan believed that the Kremlin sought the “total destruction of the rival power (the United States)” and was unwilling to negotiate. Such thinking shaped the United State’s “containment strategy,” which aimed to combat communism around the globe, to halt the spread of communism.

United States Marines Land at Incheon, South Korea (1950)

The first instance in which the United States executed the “containment policy” with military action, United States Marines land in South Korea, following North Korea’s advance into South Korea. President Truman, through the War Powers Act, deployed American forces to the Korean Peninsula, to aid the largely-overrun South Korean forces. America’s intervention resulted in North and South Korea being divided at the 38th Parallel. Thus, the spread of communism was halted in Korea.

Gulf of Tonkin Incident

An article in the New York Times, covering the second instance, in which United States Naval vessels engaged with alleged North Vietnamese patrol boats. While the article mentions that the conditions in the operating environment made it difficult to ascertain whether or not North Vietnamese patrol boats were present in the area,  President Johnson  ordered airstrikes on North Vietnamese targets. Given that a similar incident occurred weeks prior, the United States was highly willing to increase its presence in Vietnam, due to the perceived communist aggression.

President Johnson Debates Strategy Change for Vietnam

President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara debate the strategy of the United States in Vietnam. Johnson did not hide his dissatisfaction with the current strategy of continuous airstrikes, as the communists continued to advance despite American intervention. Johnson demanded to develop a new strategy that would yield greater results, which showed his willingness to put American soldiers in Vietnam. A continuation of the containment policy, the United States sent ground troops to aid the anti-communist South Vietnam, in what would be a long and bloody conflict.

Operation Desert Storm Begins

The fall of the Soviet Union signaled the United States no longer following the “containment policy,” and had to navigate uncertainty in conducting military operations. Operation Desert Storm began after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded the neighboring nation, and United States ally, Kuwait. Operation Desert Storm ended quickly, with the aid of coalition members, predominantly from Europe, and was highly successful in maintaining the territorial sovereignty of Kuwait. This military intervention led to the rise of the United States government hoping future military operations would be limited and brief, with the overarching objective of protecting nations from aggressor actors. Therefore demonstrating a perceived responsibility on behalf of the United States, to intervene for nations that were incapable of  repelling and enemy nation.

Failure of Operation Gothic Serpent

United States Army Rangers under fire in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993, during Operation Gothic Serpent. As Somalia was facing famine and internal conflict, the United Nations began a humanitarian mission, which required military assistance, as Somali warlords seized food shipments. In what became known as the “Black Hawk Down” raid, United States Army Rangers and Special Operations Forces troops attempted to capture a Somali warlord, which resulted in two helicopters being shot down and heavy casualties sustained by the United States troops. This event led to the withdraw of American forces in Somalia, and led to strong aversion from the United States in sending troops overseas.

World Trade Center Rubble

A worker in New York City, observing the rubble of the World Trade Center, after terrorists hijacked passenger planes and crashed them into the buildings on September 11, 2001. The first time in which the United States was attacked on its home soil since 1941, the terror attack served as a “rally around the flag” moment, where the United States public was willing to fully support the government in combating terrorism. This new threat, however, presented a major challenge: how to combat terror groups that operate without borders, and without a government? A challenge the United States still faces today.

President Bush Announces the Start of the Iraq War

Fearing the potential of Saddam Hussein to be in possession of weapons of mass destruction, President Bush announced the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003. With the backing of a multi-nation coalition, the United State’s objectives were limited: disarm and remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. The United States forces quickly accomplished the initial objectives, but internal issues in Iraq emerged, following Saddam’s ousting from power. The numerous issues that arose led to a prolonged United States military presence in Iraq, which led to American citizens becoming dissatisfied with the war.

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