By Jay Holmes
The United States and many Western European allies are presently involved in multiple military interventions around the world. In any country with a reasonable population that has access to something approximating free speech, military intervention will always be controversial. In my view, it is foolish for any nation to run to war too quickly. The costs and possible outcomes should be considered by those who pay for those interventions, as well as for failures to intervene. The taxpayers and their kids.
To do a minimal bit of justice to the subject, I will be publishing short articles in a series in which we will review several past interventions, their costs, and their impacts before considering the current interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Cote D’Ivoire. Then, we will look at a few of the potential cases for military intervention in the near future.
Fortunately, with history, we often have verifiable facts about the outcomes of an event, and we can view these outcomes without staging a second battle of Guadalcanal or Bastogne. One can prepare for war, fight in war or read about war. Having tried all three, I would say that preparing is somewhat tedious, but can, at times, prevent a war, and reading about other people’s wars is, in my view, the best of the three options. It’s great that, except in catholic school and military academies, there are no drill instructors forcing us to read the next page, and the book will usually not kill us (although some porn store customers might debate that point). And come to think of it, I did consider dying rather than finishing Steppenwolf in high school, but that’s the topic of another blog.
So, without bearing the expense of any real interventions, any consequences of not intervening, or any bullets, bombs, or aggravating journalists while intervening, let’s enjoy some arm-chair executive power and safe-distance “generalship” and dice up a few interventions. Feel free to disagree with any conclusions I might propose. Unchallenged ideas always remain imperfect, or may, in fact, simply be stupid. So unlike the youngsters on the obstacle course, you should feel free to appoint yourself Field Marshall, Admiral of the fleet, or Dictator for a day and decide how you might have better managed or avoided past interventions. Unfortunately, this promotion to dictator does not come with countless cowering servants or the treasury of any nation so you still have to clean your dishes tonight, but enjoy yourself nonetheless.
Let’s start with an American intervention. Not Yankees intervening somewhere else, but rather Europeans intervening in America. . . .
Hey Buddy, Can You Spare a Franc?
At Lexington, Massachusetts on April 19, 1775, some stubborn men and adventurous boys blocked an advancing British force of seven hundred well-trained British soldiers. The British were attempting to catch the Americans by surprise at Concord and capture their weapons and ammunition depot. Unknown to the British, the precious and scarce supplies had already been moved.
The British habit of planning operations at the dining room table in the company of their wives, mistresses, and servants was a valuable intelligence opportunity for the colonials, and on this and other occasions, timely intelligence saved the day. It is my unconfirmed suspicion that one unspoken reason the colonials took a stand at Lexington was to cover the success of their intelligence operations against the British camp. If so, they succeeded, and the British continued their careless Headquarters security habits.
The Battle of Lexington is usually considered the start of the American Revolution combat phase. But long before those stubborn Red Sox fans decided to exchange fire with the advancing British, the conservative rebel leaders were hard at work trying to gain the aid of European nations in their struggle against Great Britain. When Patrick Henry said, “. . . but as for me, give me liberty or give me death,” he may have been expecting more liberty for Americans and more death for the British. Henry and other members of the Congress were aware that, as an 18th century superpower, Britain had many enemies, and that chief amongst them were France and Spain.
Most Americans learn that the French Navy sent Admiral de Grasse to assist the colonies, and that the French fleet managed to win a battle against a British fleet in Chesapeake Bay, thanks to favorable winds and the late arrival of British naval reinforcements. We also know that many young low-ranking officers from France and other parts of Europe were quick to come to Philadelphia to seek commissions as high-ranking officers in the Continental Army. Many of those eager European officers were available because they lacked the talent to succeed in their own regiments at home.
However, two excellent European volunteers were Baron Friedrich von Steuben of Prussia and the loveable idealist, French cavalry officer Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Rocha Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, or simply “Lafayette” in the USA. Neither Lafayette nor Von Steuben was “sent” to the colonies by their governments. They both came at their own risk and expense. Von Steuben had a tremendous positive impact in the training of colonial recruits. As for Lafayette, he is best remembered for his courage and leadership on the battlefield, but his greatest service to America might well have been his influence in obtaining loans for financing the war and direct military aid from France.
It’s easy to understand why France, The Netherlands, and Spain were eager to see the Americans succeed against Great Britain. It’s also easy to understand why they hoped to keep their assistance covert as long as possible while publicly declaring neutrality toward the Colonies. In fact, the neutrality was broken before it was ever even announced. Long before de Grasse brought his fleet and French Army soldiers to fight in the colonies, France was clandestinely financing and supplying the Colonials.
Both King Carlos III of Spain and his cousin, King Louis XVI of France, were nervous about aiding a revolution against a ruling European monarch. As it turned out, Louis’ fears were well founded. But both countries were trying to prevent British hegemony in the Caribbean and the North Atlantic, and they both knew that a protracted American war with Britain would present a marvelous opportunity for their own countries.
While France has enjoyed its well-deserved recognition for intervening on behalf of the colonial rebels, Spain’s involvement was much quieter and more advantageous to itself. Spain maintained no illusions about America becoming a staunch ally of any European monarchy. Spain made loans of cash and supplies based on the assumption that they would eventually be repaid approximately 0% +/- zero of any investment made. Spain kept Great Britain guessing in the Caribbean, and actively engaged the British in the Mediterranean. As a result, Spain was able to use the opportunity provided by the American Revolution to remove British colonists from Central America and defeat the British Military units that were sent to capture Central America from Spain.
At the same time, Spain was shipping supplies from New Orleans across the Mississippi and overland to the rebels. In fact, during the first two years of the revolution, Spain supplied much of the rebels’ gunpowder via the Mississippi. During the revolution, Spain was able to evict Britain from her strongholds in Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida.
The Netherlands were allied to Great Britain at the outbreak of the American Revolution. The Prince of Orange had no intentions of assisting the Americans against the British, but the wealthy bankers and merchants of Holland undermined his policies. Dutch banking houses and merchants were quick to organize assistance in the form of money and contraband trade with the American colonies. The British quickly discovered this “silent conspiracy by vast committee” and ignored the Prince’s assertions of allegiance to Great Britain. Great Britain declared war on The Netherlands. The Dutch managed to fight the British navy to a draw, but while the British were capable of bringing in naval reinforcements, the Dutch were not, and The Netherlands signed a peace treaty that included the loss of their colonies in India.
The fledgling United States prospered immensely from the interventions by The Netherlands, France, and Spain. The early financial assistance from Dutch banks and merchants greatly benefitted the US early in the revolution. The financial support and direct military intervention by France helped tip the balance and made victory at the Battle of Yorktown possible. Spain supplied valuable weapons, powder, shot, supplies, and gold while keeping the British occupied in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Central America. They also kept a third of British forces in continental North America busy during the revolution. While The Netherlands lost from their involvement, and France “joined in” to the revolutionary spirit more than King Louis XVI would have cared for—it cost him his throne and his head—Spain handled itself adroitly.
Spain’s intervention in the American Revolution stands out as a remarkable example of skilled, rational statesmanship. Spain took the time to see the American revolutionaries accurately and accept them for what they were. King Carlos and his crew skillfully avoided clouding their judgments with wishful thinking or cultural biases about the Dutch, the French, the British, the American colonials or the native Americans in the new world.
A reading of the historical records of Spanish diplomatic and military communications from Madrid to the New World reveals a startling picture of 18th century statesman accurately predicting the results of both events that they could impact, and events that were beyond their control. King Carlos had excellent intelligence information, but more importantly, he and his government used that information dispassionately to form an amazingly accurate picture of a war that was fought thousands of miles from Madrid, long before the telegraph was invented. Two and a half centuries later, we Americans would be well served by following their example.