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Joint U.S. Army-Navy War Planning on the Eve of the First World War

Authored by Colonel Adolf Carlson. | February 1998

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All the histories of the First World War devote considerable attention to the impact of war plans and war planners?how in the foreign relations among the great powers war plans became factors in their own right. Many of these plans revealed volumes about the attitudes of the officers who wrote them, from the offensive a l?outrance of French plan XVII (?even the customs officials attack? 1)to the cold calculation of the Schlieffen plan, which called for the invasion of an unoffensive neutral country to achieve a military advantage.

Americans usually exclude themselves when they discuss the pre-war military plans, but there were U.S. war plans in 1914. How these plans were developed, and their impact on the development of American strategic thought will be the theme of this paper, revealing a United States less militarily naive than commonly thought and suggesting insights relevant to U.S. strategy on the eve of the next century.


Today, the early efforts of the Joint Planning Board appear quaint. It is amusing to see how wrong many of their operational assessments were. But on the big question, the need of the United States to prepare for war, they were dead right. That is the lesson that they can teach, that the nation?s security and survival depend so heavily on a smallgroup of professionals, contemplating and making provision for the worst case.

As the United States nears the turn of the next century, American strategic attitudes are in many ways analogous to those we faced at the end of the 19th century. It seems modern to argue that American security would most efficiently be maintained through economic strength, that the dangers of war have subsided, and that technology will provide an easy solution to the nation?s strategic needs. In reality, all these arguments are but echoes of the American strategic debate at the turn of the last century.

The United States was the economic superpower of the late 19th century, but in certain countries American wealth generated more envy than respect. No use of the economic instrument of power could deter the leaders of those countries who wished ill to the United States, and so against their very instincts Americans found they had to prepare for war.

The notion that the United States can be threatened from at least two different quarters is currently being questioned, in the hope of realizing a reduction of the defense spending necessary to respond to two major regional contingencies. In reality, however, the danger of two or more regional contingencies has been the rule in the history of American strategy, not the exception. The experiences of the late 19th and early 20th centuries strongly suggest that countries who aspire to take advantage of the United States will overcome regional rivalries and ideological differences to cooperate with each other, and nothing in the ensuing century suggests that that has changed.

Finally, some suggest that American security on the eve of the 21st century would best be provided for by what amounts to a technological upgrade to our 19th century triad of the Navy, the coast artillery, and the mobile army, with a strategic missile defense capability as the modern analog to the coast artillery. A strategic defense system might prove to be feasible, and some components of it mightbe prudent to field. If such a system is purchased at the expense of the ?mobile? conventional forces, however, the United States might have to relearn the lesson of 1917, that is that the nation?s most sure defense is the capability to deploy an expeditionary force to a foreign shore and destroy a hostile regime.


1. Jay Luvaas, The Military Legacy of the Civil War - The European Inheritance, Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1988, p. xviii.