Listening the Bob Dole speak last night, I was reminded that one of the recurring debates between Democrats and Republicans is which party is responsible for starting more wars.
Democrats have a stereotype of Republican politicians as jingoistic warmongers, while Republicans like to point out that Democratic presidents presided over the bloodiest wars of the 20th century.
But, Democrats point out that those big wars were mostly situations where the US was attacked and was perfectly justified in using force to defend itself.
Beyond the conflicts we remember, there are literally dozens of smaller wars, incidents, conflicts, occupations, invasions, and armed interventions, a few undertaken for high-minded reasons, but just as many launched out of gross venality. Democrats are responsible for some of these adventures, but Republicans are responsible for just as many or more.
So, who’s right? Which party is more likely to start wars? Which party is more likely to continue or end them?
Using the source of all wisdom, Wikipedia, I looked up all military incidents involving the US since 1861, when the first Republican president was sworn into office.
I then totaled the total number of years that each conflict ran, rounding up — even if the actual hostilities just lasted for a few weeks or months — to get “war years”. Each year of each open conflict counted as one “war year.” If the nation had two or more different wars going simultaneously, it could accrue multiple war years in a single year.
In total, I counted 200 war years over a 156 year period.
I then looked at the broad reasons for each conflict and determined whether it was a “defensive” war or an “offensive” war.
A war counted as being defensive if the US was attacked without provocation, and where the US didn’t actively provoke a war through imperialistic or aggressive behavior, or had previously attempted to use diplomacy to avoid war. A war also counted as being “defensive” if the US was operating as part of a broad humanitarian or military alliance under the auspices of NATO, the UN, or similar international body. Other types of wars counted as being “offensive.” Obviously, my criteria for “offensive” and “defensive” were subjective.
I deliberately ignored wars against Native Americans, since those were bipartisan in nature, and by including them I would have vastly skewed the total number of “war years” in favor of Republicans who dominated the White House during the late 19th century. It’s worth pointing out that Democrats and Democratic Republicans, who dominated the presidency prior to the US Civil War, would have skewed the ratio of war years right back to parity had I included pre-Civil War Indian wars.
I also ignored conflicts which didn’t directly involve US military forces, but which did involve CIA assets such as the 1956 coup in Iran, or 1980s-era aid to Nicaraguan “contra” rebels. Several “wars” on the list, such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion and operations in Thailand, are borderline cases, since they mostly used covert assets, or just used US military assets in a support role.
Cold War operations short of war also had to be ignored since they were another example of bipartisan policy.
In all, I counted 56 “war years” of Defensive Wars, and 144 “war years” of Offensive Wars.
Defensive Wars: US Civil War (4 years), Garza Revolution (1), Rio de Janeiro Affair (1), Mexican Border War (10), World War I (2 — for the US), World War II (4 — for the US), Korean War (4), Multinational Force in Lebanon (3), Gulf War (2), Somalia (4), Bosnian War (2), Kosovo War (2), War in Afghanistan (13), Libyan Intervention (1), War on ISIL (3).
Offensive Wars: US Expedition to Korea (1), Las Cuevas War (1), San Elizario Salt War (1), Second Samoan Civil War (1), Spanish-American War (1), Philippine-American War (3), Moro Rebellion (14), Boxer Rebellion (3), Negro Rebellion (Cuba) (1), Occupation of Nicaragua (21), Occupation of Haiti (19), Occupation of Dominican Republic (8), Sugar Intervention (3), Russian Civil War (3 — for US), Lebanon Crisis (1), Bay of Pigs (1), Simba Rebellion (1), Dominican Civil War (2), Vietnam War (9), Communist Insurgency in Thailand (18), Shaba II (1), Invasion of Grenada (1), Tanker War (2),
Invasion of Panama (2), Intervention in Haiti (2), Invasion of Iraq (9), War in NW Pakistan (13), War in Afghanistan (2015-present) (2).
Next, I totaled up the number of years since 1861 that each party has held the White House. Things get a bit weird because Andrew Johnson was actually a Democrat and tried to govern as one once Lincoln was assassinated. (He was elected with Lincoln as part of a bipartisan National Unity ticket.)
This worked out to 156 years of presidents, 71 years of Democrats, 85 years of Republicans, or 45.5% Democrats, and 55.5% Republicans.
I then determined who was president during a particular war. If the war lasted long enough to be a bipartisan affair, I divided the number of war years based on the number of years that each party was in the White House while the war went on.
There have been 93 War Years under Democratic presidents, for 46.5%.
There have been 107 War Years under Republican presidents, for 53.5%.
While the raw numbers seem a bit bad for Republicans, the percentages work out to be about the same time as each party has held the White House, and are actually being a bit damning for Democrats since they were very slightly more likely to be engaged in a “war year” while in office.
Breaking things out:
There have been 30 “defensive” Democratic war years, for about 15% of the total.
There have been 25 “defensive” Republican war years, for about 12.5% of the total.
There have been 64 “offensive” Democratic war years, for about 32% of the total.
There have been 81 “offensive” Republican war years, for about 40.5% of the total.
So, Democrats are very slightly more likely to have been involved in “defensive” wars — wars launched in response to blatant acts of war, or sanctioned by a broad political alliance for humanitarian or political reasons .
Republicans are more slightly likely to have been involved in “offensive” wars — wars of imperialism, or wars launched without reasonable attempts to deescalate a political conflict.
There is no question that Democrats have been in power during the three big, “defensive” wars of the 20th century — the World Wars and Korea. Democrats are also responsible for starting and escalating the Vietnam conflict; the US’s first big “war of choice” since WW2.
That said, Richard Nixon actually presided over the Vietnam conflict for a longer period of time than Kennedy/Johnson did.
Furthermore, the Republican party must bear responsibility for being the party in the White House during the US Civil War, especially since that war was essentially triggered by Southern reaction to Republicans gaining power. It remains, in terms of military deaths, the bloodiest war in US history.
Republicans also take the blame for the Spanish-American War, and most of the subsequent conflicts in the Caribbean and the Philippines, which were entirely products of Republican imperialist policies.
Since WW2, Democratic presidents have been slightly less likely to order unilateral invasions of other countries, but their record is far from perfect, particularly during the Cold War.
Where Democrats are involved in “offensive wars”, they often “inherit” them from prior Republican administrations. For example, Franklin Roosevelt inherited US occupations in Nicaragua and Haiti from Republican administrations, Clinton inherited the Somalia crisis from Bush I, and Obama inherited the Iraq debacle from Bush II.
In some cases, Democratic presidents “wind down” these conflicts. In other cases, they escalate them (infamously, Kennedy allowing Eisenhower’s Bay of Pigs plan to go forward). Historically, the trend is to wind things down, although this is typically due to economic reasons, like the Great Depression or the Great Recession, or political expediency, rather than any great desire for peace.
So, neither party can take credit for being the party of peace, but Republicans are a slightly more likely — at least historically — to engage in aggressive wars of choice.