THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN WARS: From Colonial Times to World War I by T. Harry Williams

THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN WARS: From Colonial Times to World War I

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Had he lived to complete it (a big if), this might have proved one of the best of T. Harry Williams' 20-odd books--""a military history of the American people. . .from the colonial period to Vietnam"" with enough originality and vision to stand alongside Lincoln and His Generals (1952) or even Huey Long (1969), which earned Williams both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. His intention, it appears, was to trace the evolution and interaction of policy (why wars get fought) and strategy (how wars get fought)--not to rehash what happened in this or that engagement, still less to prolong conventional arguments over what should have happened. Planning, organization, staffing, supply, training, discipline, communications, technology--that is the sort of thing that interested Williams fully as much as battlefield tactics, and his expert knowledge of such matters gave him a fresh perspective on such diverse subjects as Washington's relations with the Board of War in the Revolution, American designs on Canada in the War of 1812, the confused origins of the Mexican War, Confederate resourcefulness in the Civil War, American preparedness for the Spanish-American War, among others. Military history buffs, indeed, will find Williams' analytical treatment no substitute for an epic narrative like Robert Leckie's The Wars of America (shortly to appear in a new edition). A more serious problem, however, is that Williams, at his death, was far from done with the development of a coherent central theme: he had not progressed past World War I; some of his existing chapters were in rougher condition than others; and there were evidently no clues to what he would have done with World War II, Korea, Vietnam, or a host of minor invasions and interventions. As a result, his careful attention to policy and strategy seems to lead no further than the commonplace that Americans have never prepared properly for war, rarely know what they want from it, wage it clumsily, and don't know what to do when they win; why, Williams did not have the time to explain. We are thus left with an only partially-finished work--far enough along to suggest that Williams had found a new vantage point from which to study the history of American wars, yet not far enough for us to learn what, in the end, he had seen.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1981
Publisher: Knopf