The proposed cases for this unit were chosen precisely because the policy decisions undertaken were controversial at the time and have remained the subject of lively historical debate ever since. Ample materials, many of them accessible to high school students, are available and provide historical context for and analysis of the actions undertaken by the United States. I will discuss the sources used in creating the unit in more detail in the next section. For the moment, however, it may be useful to briefly discuss the reasons for choosing the particular cases:
The American decision to use atomic weapons against Japan.
The decision to commit the United States to military involvement in Vietnam.
The decision to deploy American troops to support humanitarian relief efforts in Somalia.
All three proposed cases provide a snapshot of decisions taken during three distinct periods of American history in the twentieth century. The Atomic Bombings case captures policy decision-making at the moment the United States is emerging as a global superpower. The decision to escalate the conflict in Vietnam falls squarely within the postwar context of the bipolar international system marked by superpower rivalry between the United States and The Soviet Union. American military support for humanitarian relief efforts in Somalia in 1992-93 illustrates the complexities and dangers of foreign policy decision-making in the early phases of the so-called “New World Order” in international politics.
The Atomic Bombings of Japan
The decision to use atomic weapons against Japan has long raised serious moral and historical questions. In my own history classes, students routinely ask why the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were targeted? They view these cities as primarily civilian targets and often wonder why American planners did not choose more conventional military targets to avoid massive civilian casualties? In
The Decision To Use The Atomic Bomb
, Gar Alperovitz addresses this issue by providing evidence that the military significance of potential targets was of secondary importance to American planners. Indeed, the recommendations of the Target Committee concluded, “that psychological factors in the target selection were of great importance.” Two important aspects of this stated goal were, “obtaining the greatest psychological effect against Japan and making the initial use sufficiently spectacular for the importance of the weapon to be internationally recognized.”2
Demonstrating the political and military impact of atomic weapons highlights the American desire to send a clear political message to the Soviet Union and other potential adversaries that the United States possessed a new weapon that might prove the decisive factor in determining the relative balance of power in the postwar international system. Barton Bernstein’s article,
The Atomic Bombings Reconsidered,
points out that if all went as planned the bomb would serve the dual purpose of ending the war quickly and intimidating the Soviet Union.3
Issues such as targeting cities for maximum psychological effect and political signaling bring students squarely back to the moral questions surrounding the atomic bombing of Japan. Did the benefits of ending the war quickly, in terms of both American military lives saved and securing postwar strategic interests, outweigh the horrific costs of using atomic weapons against tens of thousands of non-combatants?
American Involvement in Vietnam
American involvement in Vietnam is perhaps the most complicated and the most controversial of the questions of war and peace in this unit plan. The complexity of the root causes of America’s involvement in Vietnam should not deter one from having students investigate this seminal event in our postwar history. Many of the better United States History textbooks do an excellent job of establishing the context for Vietnam through their treatment of the origins of the Cold War, containment doctrine, and the domino theory.4
The issues raised by our involvement in Vietnam are vitally important considering that it cost 58,000 American lives and over $150 billion. The Vietnam War tore at the very fabric of American society and influenced the political and social attitudes of an entire generation. In
The Vietnam War: Opposing Viewpoints,
David Bender contends that as the war in Vietnam dragged on and the prospects for victory faded, Americans were forced to “question the credibility of the factors motivating their government’s involvement.”5 The ultimate failure of U.S. military efforts in Vietnam certainly compelled many Americans to reconsider the assumption that containment could be sustained. Alvin Bernstein of the Strategy Department at the U.S. Naval War College goes as far to proclaim that, “Vietnam not only invalidated the U.S. strategy of containment but destroyed any consensus about what sorts of military operations are legitimate.6 This skepticism about the limits of U.S. power would play a key role in shaping American foreign policy throughout the decades of the 1970s and 1980s.
In the final analysis, the decision to escalate American involvement in the Vietnam conflict is worth investigating because it enables students to address the questions posed at the beginning of the unit plan such as how American policy-makers seek to balance domestic politics and strategic interests or what criteria should be used for defining vital American interests? Moreover, as Bernstein points out, the legacy of Vietnam shaped all subsequent U.S. military endeavors, not only in terms of doctrine but also in moral terms as well.
American Involvement in Somalia
The legacy of Vietnam is important for the final case presented in this unit plan, Somalia. American involvement in aiding humanitarian relief efforts in Somalia in 1992-93 was part of a major United Nations effort to stabilize that Africa nation. By 1992, inter-clan power rivalries had deteriorated into full-scale civil war. The anarchy became so pronounced that millions of Somalis were starving. Scott Peterson describes in
Me Against My Brother
how clan warlords used control of food as a political weapon against their rivals. Armed clan militias constantly harassed United Nations aid workers and international food shipments meant for starving refugees of the civil war were routinely looted.7
Graphic television news images brought the chaos and starvation in Somalia directly into American homes throughout 1992. These images eventually helped convince the first Bush administration, in its waning days in office, that the deployment of U.S. military forces was warranted to protect international aid workers and to ensure that food shipments reached the starving. As Mark Bowden observes in
Black Hawk Down,
1991-92 marked, “a brief heady period of post-Cold War innocence, when America and its allies felt they could sweep venal dictators and vicious tribal violence from the planet as easily and relatively bloodlessly as Saddam Hussein had been swept from Kuwait.”8 Bowden’s assessment is somewhat overblown, however it is true that success in the Persian Gulf War did leave many Americans, both in and out of government, with the feeling that the ghosts of Vietnam had at last been exorcised.
Unfortunately, the American experience in Somalia would demonstrate the pitfalls of involvement in complex nation-building missions in far-flung corners of the globe. The dangers and uncertainties of Somalia turned out to be as daunting those faced in Vietnam. The mission to protect food shipments quickly morphed into a wider nation-building exercise. The United Nations efforts to rebuild a political and civil infrastructure in Somalia threatened the power of the local warlords. One prominent warlord, Mohamed Farah Aidid, recognized this threat to his ambitions for uniting Somalia under his control. Aidid eventually turned against United Nations efforts in Somalia, leading to a deadly clash between his militia and U.N. forces from Pakistan. When the U.N. requested United States assistance in breaking Aidid’s power, American military forces found themselves, in Peterson’s estimation, crossing the line between humanitarian missions and choosing sides in a local battle. At that point, Peterson contends American forces “became Somalia’s chief warlord”.9
The results of the changing mission in Somalia were tragic for both the United States and Somalia. The ongoing mission to capture Aidid and break his power ended in the most intense firefight involving American forces since Vietnam on Sunday, October 3, 1993 in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. When the battle ended, eighteen American were dead and more than seventy badly injured. Conservative estimates put the Somali dead at least five hundred. Within one week of the battle in Mogadishu, President Clinton decided to withdrawal all U.S. forces at the earliest possible date.10 The shock of events in Somalia quickly aborted the feelings of post-Cold War optimism, described by Bowden, regarding the ability of American military power to impose a “New World Order.” One could also argue that failure in Somalia contributed directly to America’s muddled and drawn-out response to genocide in the former Yugoslavia as well as its complete inaction to genocide in Rwanda.