War is a vehicle for federal power. Wars and threats of war create opportunities for the federal government to centralize military, economic, and political authority.

This is clearly laid out in Walter Karp’s absorbing book The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars Which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic.

Karp’s argument is that the relationship between politics and war is a two way street. Politicians use war for their own, domestic ends. But war and the threats of war, also fundamentally change the essence of government and alter what people expect their government can and should do for them.

Us and Them

Politicians want the status quo.

Think about the political parties in the current United States Congress. There is a majority, Republican Party, and a minority, Democratic Party. Despite the inflammatory and hostile rhetoric lobbed back and forth, they actually like this setup. Of course the Democrats would like be the majority party and Republicans don’t want to become the minority party. But as long as power is divided by the two major political parties they can, and do, negotiate for compromises that benefit each side and also exclude insurgent political factions.

This, according to Karp, was the situation in which the Democrat party of the 1890s found itself. An insurgent populist party was gaining ground – one that favored easy money and proto-socialist reforms. The national mood seemed ready to break-up the two-party duopoly:

To many, revolution itself seemed imminent, a revolution of debtors against creditors, of employees against employers, of all the underprivileged against all the over privileged.[1]

In time, both political parties understood that war would help them each achieve their respective goals.

America’s War for American Unity

In response, Republicans wanted to force their “large policy” on the American people. Making  the United States a world power was “necessary to the strength and dignity of any nation.”[2] It would unify the country to resolve domestic concerns and enlarge the role of the U.S. on the world stage – a goal in and of itself.

The Democrats did not have the same expansionist concerns, writes Karp. The Democrat party was, he says, fighting for its life. Factions were breaking away, and the national Democrat party needed a reason to coalesce. President Cleveland’s representative in Havana counseled Cleveland to wage war in Cuba

against Spain because it “might do much toward directing the minds of the people away from imaginary ills.”[3] This would be a war for political unity; history would remember it as the Spanish-American War

War became a tool; a way to strengthen the national parties.

America’s War for Dignity

You find many of these same themes in the second part of Karp’s book focusing on America’s entry in World War I. President Wilson wasn’t trying to distract from domestic politics.  Instead, he used war to build a sense of national dignity, and to encourage the idea that America was a great nation, destined to lead the world.

He badgered his own diplomates, foreign leaders and the American public to accept his vision of American independence. For example, he insisted that Americans should be able to travel aboard ships that were clearly being used to undermine Germany’s war effort – this made the ships vulnerable to attack by German submarines. This was a “right” for all Americans boasted Wilson. But, if it was a right, “scarcely a single American, ignorant or expert, even knew existed.” Wilson essentially made it up because it fit his narrative of American greatness and national dignity. Karp makes a convincing argument that it was Wilson’s ego for national glory that drove him to drag to the country into war. But, the historically non-interventionist Americans generally opposed the war.

A new policy was needed to teach Americans about the benefits that war can bring a country. A very small group of war-loving interventionists were eager to boast the virtues of war for the American spirit:

What American needed, [the interventionists] said, was not merely military preparedness but “moral preparedness.” This was to be achieved through universal military training, through “patriotic education,” through military drill in the public schools. They called for a new militarized polity – a “Prussianized” America… – that would forge a “national soul” and overcome “domestic shortcomings and discord.”[4]

The public campaign by vocal minority of war-lovers would, in their words:

  • Educate a country of selfish cowards that they have a right to travel on belligerent ships;
  • Teach people not to sing disgraceful songs like “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier”;
  • Tell Americans that opposition to war meant a “national loss of self-respect”;
  • Use public schooling to instill military discipline so people would learn “what it means to be American”;
  • Show Americans that “we have a part to play in the redemption of humanity and the future organization of the world.”[5]

Karp shows how Americans were politically and literally forced to fight in the Spanish-American War and World War I. Both wars required massive government disinformation campaigns to change the people’s perception of themselves and their country.

Karp’s The Politics of War has a story to tell: The political class uses war to centralize power and change culture. War is the  tool of the power elite to subjugate a nation.


[1] Karp, Walter, The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars Which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic. 1979. Franklin Square Press. Pg. 27

[2] Ibid Pg. 32

[3] Interestingly, these imaginary ills were, among other things, predominantly about monetary policies.

[4] Ibid Pg. 228

[5] Supra; for an excellent introduction into how the vocal minority of war-lovers came to think of the country as the redeemers of mankind see the book by Gamble, Richard, In Search of the City on A Hill: The making and Unmaking of an American Myth. 2012. Continuum International Publishing Group.

P.A. Deacon

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