Choosing War

Choosing War

Presidential Decisions in the Maine, Lusitania, and Panay Incidents

Douglas Carl Peifer

Oxford University Press, New York, 2016, 344 pages

Book Review published on: April 28, 2017

Theodore Roosevelt once stated, “A good Navy is not a provocation to war. It is the surest guaranty of peace.” While the deterrent value of naval forces has long been recognized, the aura of sovereignty that makes them so valuable also carries serious risk. An attack on a naval vessel or ship carrying its nationals is often a potentially powerful causus belli. In Choosing War, Douglas Carl Peifer explores the relationship between the chosen naval incidents and presidential decisions regarding war.

Peifer ably tackles the challenge of drawing lessons from three examples, divergent in circumstances and spanning forty years. Included in his introduction is an explanation of his focus on relatively distant historical events. Government records of more recent incidents, from the Tonkin Gulf in 1964 to the USS Cole attack in 2000, present significant classification challenges that prove the wisdom of his choice. His methodology is chronological, with each chapter providing rich context, a detailed examination of public and governmental responses, and the author’s reflection on the perspective to be gained. His voluminous bibliography of both primary and secondary sources points to exhaustive research.

The first section on the USS Maine is eye opening to the casual student of history who might think of the ship’s destruction as a thunderclap that immediately led to war. But through a deft recounting of history, Peifer places the ship’s explosion at the center of a long and complicated policymaking process involving President William McKinley preparing for conflict but hoping for negotiation, a vociferous Cuba Lobby in Congress, and a press bent on war. In describing the incident as an accelerant to war, Peifer leaves open the option that perhaps all the sunken battleship did was hasten an inevitable clash of powers.

Regarding the RMS Lusitania sinking, Peifer’s clear narrative helps bind together a set of facts in many ways more complex than those surrounding the Maine. The passenger liner Lusitania, sailing under the British flag and carrying war materials and U.S. citizens, was sunk by a German submarine in a declared war zone. Peifer’s description of the factors influencing Wilson’s 1915 decision making is fascinating. The positions of Imperial Germany, British shipping interests, American isolationists (including Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan) and the large German-American community are expertly weaved into a complex war snare that Wilson was only able to elude for two years.

In the case of the 1937 USS Panay incident, Peifer again expertly limns the various political pressures bearing on President Franklin D. Roosevelt in crafting a response to the Japanese attack on the Yangtze River gunboat. He shows that, given America’s isolationist leanings in the late 1930s, the United States did not have the political will to go to war over a small vessel.

This work is very valuable to aspiring historians in its discussion of the uses of history. After making a convincing case that templating one incident on top of another is an ineffective method of analysis, Peifer can focus on history’s most valuable uses: gaining strategic depth of knowledge, ranges of options and how these are circumscribed by political constraints, and finally giving a sense of humility and skepticism to the student. But simply recommending this to students of history is to sell this work short. Peifer’s writing teaches us that even dramatic incidents at sea need to be viewed through a nuanced lens, tempered by history and politics. With at-sea incidents between U.S. and Iranian and Chinese ships on the rise, this book should be required reading for policymakers and national security professionals alike.

Book Review written by: Robert M. Brown, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas