America’s great advantage when it entered world affairs after the Civil War was that its distance from Europe and Asia ensured that it was virtually immune from large sea-borne invasions.
The Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans proved far better barriers than even the forests and mountain ranges of Europe. At twenty-eight years old, Abraham Lincoln succinctly summed up America’s natural invincibility in his famous Lyceum Address of January 27, 1838: “All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.”
In an age before air power, missiles, and napalm, Lincoln understood that no great power had the expeditionary power to invade and hold the vast North American continent.
So Americans began to assume that while they might fight frequently abroad and send expeditionary armies and naval forces around the globe, the fight would never come to them at home. America’s security cocoon was reinforced after the mid-nineteenth century when there was no longer any danger from either a neighboring Canada or Mexico.
The rare times in our history that enemies breached our natural defenses and hit our cities caused national hysteria—and yet never approached the magnitude of a serious invasion.
The small British expeditionary army that left the West Indies to burn the White House in August 1814 was under orders not to venture inland, but to conduct raids of terror and then leave. The Japanese never managed a serious attack. Their pathetic efforts at launching armed balloons to hit the west coast or to shell shoreline facilities by submarines inflicted almost no damage. Such pinpricks only further reminded the world of innate U.S. defensive advantages.
Hitler talked grandly of a long-range, multi-engine “Amerika” bomber that could hit U.S. cities. But the weapon remained the stuff of fantasy. German U-boats did terrible damage to U.S. freighters off the East Coast in early and mid-1942. Yet they never were, nor could have been, the vanguard of a German expeditionary attack. Equally impotent were Nazi attempts to send terrorist teams to disrupt U.S. industry.
Even during the Civil War, the Union remained impervious to sustained attack on most of its homeland by either foreign or Confederate troops. The South’s planned and actual incursions into Northern territory caused temporary panic—such as Albert Sidney Johnston’s envisioned advance beyond Tennessee that failed at Shiloh, Robert E. Lee’s march into Pennsylvania that was turned at Gettysburg, and Jubal Early’s audacious attempt to sprint into Washington. But these Confederate efforts were never designed to take and hold vast Union cities.
The September 11, 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center killed thousands, destroyed and damaged iconic buildings, and sought to undermine U.S. resolve. But again, the terrorist operations were not part of a sustainable war aimed at destroying the U.S. mainland.
Only by the 1950s during the Cold War did the Soviet Union for the first time in U.S. history achieve the potential to destroy the U.S. homeland. But that aim was itself checked by the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. MAD ensured that any first-strike effort against American cities and bases would result in the total destruction of the Soviet Union itself by the American nuclear arsenal.
When “Red” China went nuclear in 1964, there were worries that Mao was an early Kim Jong-un-like figure—unhinged and not subject to deterrence. Thus he was feared for being capable of sending his small arsenal of nuclear tipped missiles against the West Coast without worries of an overwhelmingly destructive U.S. counter-strike. In fact, Mao, like Stalin had earlier, soon proved rational enough, with no desire to lose a Beijing or Shanghai in order to take out San Francisco, in an age before serious missile defense.
It was said that Ronald Reagan “broke” the Soviet Union with his arms build-up and vision of a space-based missile defense system (the Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed “Star Wars” by its critics). Such a promised escalation and expense challenged the ossified Russian economy to match it in kind, which it could not do, even if it had acquired the necessary commensurate technological know-how.
In sum, America has grown accustomed to believing that most foreign powers could never bring the war home to our shores—and the few who could accepted that it would be too insane to try.
Yet now, the United States is in quite new strategic territory.
Reagan’s envisioned SDI was never seriously pursued—given that it was often caricatured as a “hoax” and “destabilizing” by critics such as the Democratic Party’s 1984 presidential nominee Senator Walter Mondale. Subsequent liberal administrations predictably frowned upon missile defense. They felt that such a successful first-strike deterrent might make nuclear war more likely; or they wanted the money spent on domestic programs; or they were uneasy with ensuring that the United States achieved preeminent global strategic dominance.
The result was that missile defense systems during the Clinton and Obama administrations were either cut back or curtailed entirely.
Ironic that those who argue against the necessity for missile defense are the same people that make missile defense a necessity.
Obsolete before deployment…
August 7, 2018 — China just tested a hypersonic weapon the US can’t defend against
…and the test was successful.
Our anti-missile system has only been marginally successful in tests simulating conventional ICBMs. Forget about hitting these bullets with another bullet. We’ll need a laser or particle beam defense system to get and stay ahead of the curve. Not only would a waverider vehicle be ridiculously fast; its trajectory could also be unpredictably non-ballistic.
@Greg: Since this system is not operational yet, our missile defense is not obsolete. We are developing rail guns that will render all defenses useless against it. We are developing airborne lasers which will render all defenses useless against it. However, until they are operational, the existing defenses are still usable.
I’m sure the Chinese appreciate Bill, Hillary and Obama providing them with the technology to develop such weaponry.