- The Washington Times - Friday, October 21, 2005

It is often forgotten or overlooked that the American Civil War had important global geopolitical consequences.

The war was fought during a time when the United States was aggressively pursuing its Manifest Destiny to occupy and politically control the center of North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from “sea to shining sea.” The war’s outcome would determine whether this immense territory would be home to one or two powerful countries.

Looking back from the perspective of 20th-century history, it is arguable that the fate of the world, not just of our own country, was at stake at Shiloh, Antietam, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Chattanooga, Atlanta, Petersburg and Appomattox.

The three most significant geopolitical events of the 19th century were the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte’s French Empire, the political unification of Germany and the rise of the United States to world power. The latter event — America’s rise to great-power status — depended on the outcome of the Civil War.

The United States in the first half of the 19th century pursued three broad, complementary policies that enabled it to expand its territory and power in security. First, it followed the wise counsel of its first president, George Washington, to remain aloof from most European conflicts.

Second, the United States exploited Europe’s rivalries in an effort to remove and then exclude European powers from the Western Hemisphere (the Monroe Doctrine).

Third, it opportunistically acquired territory by diplomacy (the Louisiana Purchase), war (the Mexican-American War) and the ruthless removal of native populations.

The creation of the Confederate States of America in 1861 threatened to stop Manifest Destiny in its tracks. The European powers understood this. In fact, an independent Confederacy that permanently split America into two strong and competing powers was an outcome of the Civil War greatly desired by British and French statesmen.

During the war, Russia’s minister to England reported: “The English Government … desires the separation of North America into two republics, which will watch each other jealously and counterbalance each other. Then England, on terms of peace and commerce with both, would have nothing to fear from either; for she would dominate them, restraining them by their rival ambitions.”

In September 1861, former Colonial secretary Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton remarked that a permanent division of the United States would benefit the “safety of Europe.” A continental-sized United States, he explained, “hung over Europe like a gathering and destructive thundercloud … [but] as America shall become subdivided into separate states … her ambition would be less formidable for the rest of the world.”

Dean B. Mahin explains at length in his excellent book “One War at a Time: The International Dimensions of the American Civil War” that British sympathy for the Confederacy was based on “geopolitical, political and economic factors.”

Napoleon III’s France desired Confederate independence for similar geopolitical reasons. France had imperial ambitions in Mexico. As Mahin explains, “Napoleon thought an independent Confederacy would provide a buffer between royalist Mexico and the republican United States.”

France’s minister to Washington, Edouard-Henri Mercier, was among the strongest advocates of European intervention on the side of the Confederacy. The threat of Anglo-French intervention on the side of the Confederacy was a constant source of concern for Lincoln throughout much of the war.

Ultimately, skillful diplomacy by the Lincoln administration combined with important and timely Union military victories persuaded the two European powers to refrain from official recognition of the Confederacy and intervention in the war.

The history of the 20th century proved that, in the long term, British and French sympathies during the Civil War were misplaced. Twice during that century, the United States effectively intervened in world wars to help defeat the enemies of Britain and France. During the long Cold War that followed, the United States formally and effectively guaranteed the security of Britain and France against the Soviet geopolitical threat.

Had the United States failed to defeat the Confederacy in the Civil War and thereafter shared the center of North America with a strong, hostile power, it is unlikely that it would have had the geopolitical freedom to intervene so effectively in European and Asian affairs during the 20th century.

As British historian Brian Holden Reid put it, “It is because the North brought the Civil War to a victorious conclusion and thus prevented the disintegration of the United States into two … competing republics, that the massive spread of American power and culture was able to occur in the twentieth century.”

In this geo-historical sense, the defeats of Hitler’s Germany, Imperial Japan and the Soviet Union were made possible by the Union victory in the Civil War.

Francis P. Sempa is an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University. He is the author of “Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century.”


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