- - Monday, October 3, 2016



By Douglas Carl Peifer

Oxford University Press, $34.95, 336 pages

While we all “Remember the Maine,” which touched off the Spanish-American War, and many of us recall that the sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania was one of the proximate causes of us entering World War I, few if any of us know much about the Japanese bombing of the U.S. Navy gunboat Panay in 1937, which could have nudged us into war with Japan four years early, but didn’t.

Author Carl Peifer is the chairman of the Strategy Department of the U.S. Air War College and makes a compelling and alarming case that the traditional American reliance on its global naval superiority throughout the last 75 years (and with it, its tandem dominance in air warfare) is becoming dangerously irrelevant and vulnerable to new weapons — Third World gunboats, guided missiles and even rubber boats with terrorist suicide bombers.

Presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to poor Barack Obama today have luxuriated in the certainty that we could project American force anywhere to solve any conflict that collided with our national interests. Mr. Peifer argues naval and air power no longer are adequate shortcuts to diplomacy.

Contrary to the standard historical portrait, President William McKinley was no jingoistic imperialist who wanted to expand America’s colonial outreach by force if necessary. He was the last president to have led troops in the Civil War and had been sobered by the catastrophic carnage. Cuba’s proximity to the U.S. mainland had long made it an object of interest but the periodic unsuccessful rebellions by the Cuban people against the draconian rule of Spain had found little sympathy among McKinley’s predecessors.

But a new rebellion which began in 1895 had proved more durable and more politically astute. Revolutionists launched an astonishingly modern public relations campaign with New York-based committees that publicized Spanish atrocities and portrayed their own aims in a compelling pro-American light. An indifferent American public mood was steadily won over and real jingoists such as Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge and McKinley’s hyper-ambitious Assistant Navy Secretary Theodore Roosevelt began to view Cuban intervention as a dandy way to test the power of the newly expanded modern U.S. Navy.

All it would take would be an incendiary incident. On Feb. 15, 1898 at dawn that incident exploded in the form of a bomb placed under the hull of the new battleship U.S.S. Maine, which was moored in Havana harbor. Whether it was Spanish or Cuban agents who planted the device is unclear, but it propelled McKinley and America into a war and to a far-flung empire that, for good or ill, established it as a global power.

Woodrow Wilson also was a reluctant warrior. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 shifted him from his role as perfectionist of American domestic superiority to that of impartial global peacemaker. Again, domestic considerations seemed to support this stance. Large German and Irish populations in big cities opposed support of the British-French alliance and big U.S. manufacturers needed the ability to sell arms and other goods to both sides.

But the Germans had a peculiar genius for infuriating American sensibilities with atrocities and outrages — the worst of which was its policy of submarine attacks on civilian shipping. Wilson was forced to draw a line in the sand against the submarine attacks when the Lusitania was torpedoed with 2,000 civilian passengers (200 of them Americans) aboard in 1915. The Germans temporarily halted the practice and Wilson won the 1916 re-election as the man who “kept us out of war. But when the attacks began again, Wilson was dragged into the abyss of that war by the public and congressional war hawks. He may have wept in private but he went to war nonetheless.

Franklin Roosevelt was luckier. Japan had been carving slices of China since 1931 when it seized Manchuria. In July 1937, it launched an all-out attack on China proper and in December Japanese bombers hit and sank the U.S.S. Panay, a shallow-draft gunboat that was part of a fleet that patrolled the Yangtze River to protect the large community of American missionaries, merchants and diplomats stationed there. By happenstance, the gunboat had already evacuated a number of U.S. civilians, including a number of news photographers and motion picture camera operators. The attack, the sinking and violence were graphically captured and caused a sensation back home.

Vexed by a persistent economic depression, a rebellion within his own congressional party, and a much reduced naval fleet in the Pacific, Roosevelt was in no mood to go to war. Fortunately, the Japanese government quickly proffered abject apologies and FDR was able to finesse public outrage by starting increasing embargoes on the vital fuel and metals exports the Japanese economy had depended upon. Satisfied that America would never go to war, and desperate for more raw materials, the war hawks in Tokyo began to plan on a conquest of all of Asia.

The moral: In surprise incidents like this, presidents have few good options. This book makes the case that those options have just gotten dangerously limited.

James Srodes’ latest book, “Spies in Palestine: Love Betrayal and the Heroic Life of Sarah Aaronsohn,” will be published next month.

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