Which U.S. Wars Actually Defended Our Freedoms?

When pondering which of our wars literally protected the liberties of U.S. citizens, it is important to first note that war tends to eradicate freedoms. Throughout U.S. history, war often meant curtailment of privacy rights (mass surveillance), speech rights (imprisonment for dissent), and even the freedom to choose your own fate (the draft).

It also should be stated upfront that this article is only meant to address the trope that “freedom isn’t free” — that military action overseas protects the rights and liberties we enjoy here at home (even if virulent bigotry meant different people had very different rights throughout our history and into our present). It will not focus on the freedoms of citizens in other nations that the U.S. may have helped establish or sustain through war, nor non-American lives saved in other countries. However, it will address legitimate threats to American lives (such a right to life is not de jure, but expected).

As a final caveat, I do not in any way advocate for war. That has been made exceptionally clear elsewhere. While violence may at times be ethically justified, in the vast majority of cases it is not, for a broad array of reasons. So nothing herein should be misconstrued as support for imperialism or violence; rather, I merely take a popular claim and determine, as objectively as possible, if it has any merit. To a large degree I play devil’s advocate. To say a war protected liberties back home is not to justify or support that war, nor violence in general, because there are many other causes and effects to consider which will go unaddressed.

In “A History of Violence: Facing U.S. Wars of Aggression,” I outlined hundreds of American bombings and invasions around the globe, from the conquest and slaughter of Native Americans to the drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and elsewhere today. It would do readers well to read that piece first to take in the scope of American war. We remember the American Revolution, the Civil War, the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and the War on Terror. But do we recall our bloody wars in Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, and the Philippines? Since its founding in 1776, 241 years ago, the United States has been at war for a combined 220 years, as chronicled by the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG). 91% of our existence has been marked by violence.

How many of those conflicts protected the liberties of U.S. citizens? How many years did the military literally defend our freedoms?

Well, what precisely is it that poses a threat to our freedoms? We can likely all agree that what qualify as freedoms are 1) rights to actions and words that can be expressed without any retribution, guaranteed by law, and 2) the total avoidance of miseries like enslavement, imprisonment, or death. Thus, a real threat to freedom would require either A) an occupation or overthrow of our government, resulting in changes to or violations of established constitutional liberties, or B) invasions, bombings, kidnappings, and other forms of attacks. If you read the article mentioned above, it goes without saying the U.S. has much experience in assaults on the freedoms of foreign peoples. Much of our violence was the violence of empire, with the expressed and sole purpose of seizing natural resources and strengthening national power.

So what we really need to ask is how close has the U.S. come to being occupied or U.S. citizens attacked? How many times have either of these things occurred? We must answer these questions honestly. Should it be said fighting Native American or Mexican armies protected freedom? No, the only reason our nation exists is because Europeans invaded their lands. We will include no war of conquest, from our fight with Spain over Florida to our invasion of Hawaii. We killed millions of innocent people in Vietnam. Were they going to attack America or Americans? No, we didn’t want the Vietnamese to (democratically) choose a Communist government. Now, you can believe that justifies violence if you wish. But the Vietnam War had nothing to do with defending our freedoms or lives. Neither did our invasion of Cuba in 1898. Nor our occupation of the Dominican Republic starting in 1916. Nor our wars with Saddam’s hopelessly weak Iraq. Nor many others.

Using this criteria, my estimate to the titular question is that only four wars, representing 19 years, could reasonably meet Qualification 1 (some also meet the second qualification). These conflicts protected or expanded our liberties by law:

The American Revolution (1775-1783): While the Revolution was partly motivated by Britain’s moves to abolish slavery in its colonies, it did expand self-governance and lawful rights for white male property-holders.

The War of 1812 (1812-1815): While U.S. involvement in the War of 1812 had imperialist motives (expansion into Indian and Canadian territories) and economic motives (preserving trade with Europe), Britain was kidnapping American sailors and forcing them to serve on their ships (“impressment”). This war might have simply been included below, in Qualification 2, except for the fact that Britain captured Washington, D.C., and burned down the Capitol and the White House — the closest the U.S. has ever come to foreign rule.

The Civil War (1861-1865): Southern states, in their declarations of independence, explicitly cited preserving slavery as their motive. Four years later, slavery was abolished by law. Full citizenship, equal protection under the law, and voting rights for all men were promised, if not given.

World War II (1941-1945): The Second World War could also have simply been placed in Qualification 2 below. Beyond freeing Southeast Asia and Europe from the Axis, we would say the U.S. was protecting its civilians from another Pearl Harbor or from more German submarine attacks on trade and passenger ships in the Atlantic. Yet it is reasonable to suppose the Axis also posed a real threat to American independence, the only real threat since the War of 1812.

Had Germany defeated the Soviet Union and Britain (as it might have without U.S. intervention), establishing Nazi supremacy over Europe, it is likely its attention would have turned increasingly to the United States. Between the threat of invasion from east (Germany) and west (Japan), history could have gone quite differently.

German plans to bomb New York were concocted before the war; Hitler’s favorite architect described him as eager to one day see New York in flames. Before he came to power, Hitler saw the U.S. as a new German Empire’s most serious threat after the Soviet Union (Hillgruber, Germany and the Two World Wars). Some Japanese commanders wanted to occupy Hawaii after their attack, to threaten the U.S. mainland (Caravaggio, “‘Winning’ the Pacific War”). After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. did not declare war on Germany; it was the reverse. Japan occupied a few Alaskan islands, shelled the Oregon and California coasts, dropped fire balloons on the mainland, and planned to bomb San Diego with chemical weapons. Germany snuck terrorists into New York and Florida. The Nazis designed their A-9 and A-10 rockets to reach the U.S., under the “Amerika Bomber” initiative. Also designed were new long-range bombers, including one, the Silbervogel, that could strike the U.S. from space. Hitler once said, “I shall no longer be there to see it, but I rejoice on behalf of the German people at the idea that one day we will see England and Germany marching together against America.” While an Axis invasion of the United States is really only speculation, it has some merit considering their modus operandi, plus an actual chance at success, unlike other claims.

19 years out of 220 is just 8.6% (we’ll use war-time years rather than total years, erring on the side of freedom).

Qualification 2 is harder to quantify. U.S. civilians in danger from foreign forces is a far more common event than the U.S. Constitution or government actually being in danger from foreign forces. We want to include dangers to American civilians both at home and overseas, and include not just prolonged campaigns but individual incidents like rescue missions. This will greatly expand the documented time the military spends “protecting freedom,” but such time is difficult to add up. Many military rescue operations last mere weeks, days, or hours. The Centre for Research on Globalization’s list focuses on major conflicts. We’ll need one that goes into detail on small-scale, isolated conflicts. We’ll want to look not just at the metric of time, but also the total number of incidents.

But first, we will use the CRG list and its year-based metric to consider Qualification 2. The following wars were meant, in some sense, to protect the lives of U.S. citizens at home and abroad. They do not meet the first qualification. Conflicts listed in Qualification 1 will not be repeated here. Five wars, representing 36 years, meet Qualification 2:

The Quasi-War (1798-1800): When the United States refused to pay its debts to France after the French Revolution, France attacked American merchant ships in the Mediterranean and Caribbean.

The Barbary Wars (1801-1805, 1815): The United States battled the Barbary States of Tripoli and Algiers after pirates sponsored by these nations began attacking American merchant ships.

The Anti-Piracy Wars (1814-1825): The U.S. fought pirates in the West Indies, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico.

World War I (1917-1918): The Great War nearly found itself in Qualification 1. After all, Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II made serious plans, in the 1890s, to invade the United States so it could colonize other parts of Central and South America. During World War I, Germany asked Mexico to be its ally against the U.S., promising to help it regain territory the U.S. stole 70 years earlier. However, invasion plans evaporated just a few years after 1900, and Mexico declined the offer. The Great War appears here for the American merchant and passenger ships sunk on their way to Europe by German submarines (not just the Lusitania).

The War on Terror (1998, 2001-2017): It is very difficult to include the War on Terror here because, as everyone from Osama bin Laden to U.S. intelligence attests, it’s U.S. violence in the Middle East and Africa that breeds anti-American terror attacks in the first place. Our invasions and bombings are not making us safer, but rather less safe by widening radicalism and hatred. However, though this predictably endless war is counterproductive to protecting American lives, it can be reasonably argued that that is one of its purposes (exploitation of natural resources aside) and that killing some terrorists can disrupt or stop attacks (even if this does more harm than good overall), so it must be included.

36 years out of 220 is 16.4%. Together, it could be reasonably argued that 25% of U.S. “war years” were spent either protecting our constitutional rights from foreign dismemberment or protecting citizen lives, or some combination of both.

But we can also look at the total number of conflicts this list presents: 106. Four wars out of 106 is 3.8%, another five is 4.7%. Let’s again err on the side of freedom and split the Barbary and Terror wars into their two phases, making seven wars for 6.6%. Adding 3.8% and 6.6% gives us 10.4% of conflicts protecting freedom.

Any such list is going to have problems. What does it include? What does it leave out? Does it describe the motivation or justification for violence? Does it do so accurately? Should recurring wars count as one or many? Does the list properly categorize events? This list labels U.S. forces violating Mexican territory to battle Native Americans and bandits as repeated “invasions of Mexico.” If Mexican forces did the same to the U.S., some of us would call it an invasion, others might rephrase. And couldn’t these incursions into a single nation be lumped together into a single conflict? Oppositely, the list lumps scores of U.S. invasions and occupations of most all Central and South American nations into a single conflict, the Banana Wars — something I take huge issue with. The solution to issues like these is to either create a superior list from scratch or bring other lists into the analysis.

Let’s look at “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad,” a report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). It is a bit different. First, it includes not just major conflicts but small, brief incidents as well, and it’s smarter about lumping conflicts together (no Banana Wars, no Anti-Piracy Wars, but the U.S. incursions into Mexico to fight Native Americans and bandits are listed as one conflict). Thus, 411 events are documented. Second, even this is too few, as the list begins at 1798 rather than 1776. Third, it does not include wars with Native Americans like the first list. This list is highly helpful because the CRS is an agency of the Library of Congress, conducting research and policy analysis for the House and Senate, and thus its justifications for military action closely reflect official government opinion.

We will apply the same standards to this list as to the last. We’ll include the nine conflicts we studied above if the timeframe allows, as well as any events that have to do with civilians, piracy, and counter-terrorism. We will thus modify 411 events in this way:

– 38 incidents/wars that involved “U.S. citizens,” “U.S. civilians,” “U.S. nationals,” “American nationals,” “American citizens,” etc.

– 9 incidents/wars related to “pirates” and “piracy” (does not include the rescue of U.S. citizen Jessica Buchanan, already counted above, nor Commodore Porter’s vicious 1824 revenge attack on the civilians of Fajardo, Puerto Rico, who were accused of harboring pirates)

– 6 official conflicts: the Quasi-War (“Undeclared Naval War with France”), two Barbary Wars, the War of 1812, and two World Wars (the Revolution does not appear on this list due to its timeframe; the Anti-Piracy Wars are included above, the War on Terror below)

+ 1 Civil War (it must be added, as it is not included on this list because it did not involve a foreign enemy)

– 27 incidents/wars related to combating “terrorism” or “terrorists”

That gives us 81 events that match Qualifications 1 and 2. 81 out of 412 is 19.7% — thus about one-fifth of military action since 1798 in some way relates to protecting Constitutional freedoms here at home or the right to life and safety for U.S. civilians around the globe. Of course, were we to only look at Qualification 1, we would have but three events — the War of 1812, the Civil War, and World War II — that preserved or expanded lawful rights, or 0.7% of our wars since 1798.

The CRS list does not break down some incidents into times shorter than years, and documenting those that are by days, weeks, or months is an enormous chore for a later day. Thus the estimation for time spent defending freedom will have to come from the CRG list: 25% of the time the military is active it is involved in at least one conflict that is protecting freedom. Also, just for some added information, there are 20 years on the CRS list where there is not a new or ongoing incident. That’s since 1798. This is almost identical to the 21 years of peace since 1776 in the CRG analysis. So of the 219 years since then, we’ve spent 91% of our time at war, the same as the CRG list since 1776 (or trimmed to 1798).

(A list created by a professor at Evergreen State College goes from 1890-2017 and has five years of peace. We’ve been at war 96% of the time since 1890. It lists 150 conflicts, with only 3 having to do with rescues or evacuations of Americans [2%], 11 having to do with the War on Terror in Arabia and Africa in 1998 and after 9/11 [7.3%], plus World War I [0.6%]. That’s 9.9% for Qualification 2. Throw in another 0.6% for World War II, and thus Qualification 1, and we have 10.5% of conflicts since 1890 protecting freedom. Because this list begins so late, however, we will not use it in our averaging. Doing so would require us to trim the other lists to 1890, cutting out the piracy era, the Revolution, the Civil War, etc.)

Averaging the percentages from the two lists relating to total conflicts gives us 2.3% for Qualification 1 and 15% for Qualification 2. 17.3% all together. Trimming the CRG list to begin at 1798 yields about the same result.

In sum, it could be reasonably asserted that the U.S. military protects our freedoms and lives in 17.3% of conflicts. (If we take out the War on Terror for its deadly counter-productivity, which I would prefer, that number drops to 10.8%, with 17% of war years spent defending American freedom.)