X-Post: [H-Diplo] Rhodes on Peifer, "Choosing War: Presidential Decisions in the Maine, Lusitania, and Panay Incidents"

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Douglas Peifer.  Choosing War: Presidential Decisions in the Maine,
Lusitania, and Panay Incidents.  New York  Oxford University Press,
2016.  344 pp.  $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-026868-8.

Reviewed by Edward Rhodes (George Mason University)
Published on H-Diplo (January, 2017)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

As they try to steer the American ship of state through the world's
conflict-filled waters in search of a safe, happy harbor on the
future's shore, American presidents risk encounters with the icebergs
of foreign policy--unanticipated violent collisions that may send
passengers or crew running for lifeboats or provoke mutinous
objections to the course the captain has charted. The location of
particular icebergs is unpredictable: the ship of state may sail
through iceberg-filled waters without even a near miss, or it may
plow straight into one. This does not imply, however, that the danger
of foreign policy icebergs is one of pure chance. Particular kinds of
ship handling and particular voyages have obvious risks. American
foreign policy decisions that, by commission or omission, place
American military forces or civilians in overseas war zones have
historically fit this description. When the iceberg is struck--when
Americans in conflict zones are killed--presidents face the challenge
of trying to control or adjust to the domestic forces unleashed. In
_Choosing War, _Douglas Carl Peifer provides a wonderfully probing
and thought-provoking examination of three such cases in which
American presidents have struck a foreign policy iceberg and
struggled to manage the resultant domestic political crisis and
retain control over a political decision-making process as the nation
considered war.

_Choosing War _adds a historical account of three important naval
events. Peifer argues that this historical account is necessary
because historians have been too willing to concede the field of
security studies to political scientists. Equally unfortunate,
security practitioners have been too willing to accept historians'
absence. Peifer's study of the role of naval incidents in the run-up
to American entry into ongoing wars offers a compelling illustration
of the sort of insights that political scientists and practitioners
routinely miss. As Peifer gently reminds the social scientists and
practitioners among us, the context within which events develop
matters. Nuance and meaning associated with actions may disappear
when facts are served up as data points, spread out on the analytical
table, to be sorted through for lessons or picked and chosen for
employment in defense of theoretical propositions.

This, of course, is one face of a larger historiographical truth, one
that applies equally to the work of the historian as to that of the
social scientist. In his concluding remarks, "Valuing the
Particular," Peifer recalls E. H. Carr's observation from _What is
History? _The facts "the historian catches will depend, partly on
chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in
and what tackle he chooses to use.... History means interpretation"
(pp. 247, 248).[2] The historian's prior beliefs about the facts that
are worth fishing for, where these facts are to be found, and how
they are to be caught will, like the social scientist's theory, set
limits on the sort of intellectual catch even the most skilled
scholar-fisherman will bring to port.

Happily, the waters into which Peifer has chosen to cast his nets are
teeming with fish worth catching, and those brought in by his nets
make an intellectually sustaining meal. Peifer examines the political
crises that followed three naval incidents: the destruction of the
USS _Maine _in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898; the torpedoing of
the RMS _Lusitania _by the German submarine U-20 off the southern
coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915; and the bombing and strafing of the
USS _Panay _by Japanese aircraft on the Yangtze River on December 12,

On first glance, the three events would seem to have little in
common, apart from the fact that all involved the surprise, violent
destruction of a ship. One of the incidents involved a major warship;
another, a minor warship, scarcely more than a boat; and the third, a
civilian vessel. One occurred in the context of an ongoing, declared
war; another, in the context of an undeclared war; and the third, in
the context of an armed rebellion. One involved a vessel flying the
flag of one of the combatant powers; another, the flag of an
interested party external to the existing conflict; and the third,
the flag of a third party engaged in protecting the lives and
property of neutral civilians caught in a military crossfire. One
cost three lives; another, 258 lives; and the third, 1,196 lives,
including 94 children.

What the three do have in common, however, is the challenge they
posed for US decision-makers seeking to retain control over American
foreign policy. Each violently shook the domestic political tightrope
being walked by the president, as he tried to tread a course that
kept the nation out of war--or, in the case of Franklin Roosevelt,
prepared it for a future entry into war. For William McKinley,
attempting to press the Spanish government and Cuban insurgents to
reach a negotiated settlement, the sinking of the _Maine _did not
simply make the US-Spanish diplomatic high-wire harder to see but
generated powerful gusts of domestic crosswinds from the press, the
public, and Congress. In 1915, Woodrow Wilson managed to retain his
balance despite domestic political cross-pressures that reached all
the way into his cabinet, but only at substantial long-term cost.
Wilson's secretary of state William Jennings Bryan publicly resigned
from the cabinet over Wilson's handling of the matter; the inflexible
version of neutrality that Wilson found himself embracing placed the
United States and Germany on a collision course, while the red line
he drew on German U-boat warfare left him with little room for
maneuver when Germany resumed its submarine campaign in February
1917; and, as Peifer notes, the narrative that emerged from the
crisis would fuel the revisionist historiography stoked by the 1930s
isolationists. While the context of the 1937 _Panay _crisis was of
course quite different--Roosevelt at the time was in the process of
trying to build domestic support for naval rearmament and to defeat
the Ludlow Amendment, which would have required a national referendum
on any decision to go to war--the sinking of the _Panay, _like the
sinking of the _Maine _and _Lusitania, _gravely complicated
Roosevelt's domestic political calculations. Although on first glance
the incident would seem to have given Roosevelt leverage against
opponents of rearmament, it also served to link rearmament to
questions of American forward presence, to the role of American
forces in protecting British and other imperial interests in China,
and to the isolationist narrative regarding American involvement in
World War I.

As interesting as this examination of the connection between naval
incidents and war is, arguably the greater contribution made by this
volume is in its exploration of the historical pathways that led _to
_the naval incidents. It was not inevitable that the USS _Maine
_would be on extended port call in Havana harbor while an insurgency
raged across Cuba, or that the RMS _Lusitania _would be steaming off
the coast of Ireland, carrying American passengers as well as war
materiel, while German submarines prowled these waters, or that the
USS _Panay _would be smack-dab in the middle of a battle zone,
retreating upriver as the rampaging Japanese Imperial Army drove the
collapsing Chinese Nationalist forces back toward Chungking. The
presence of these vessels--or, in the case of the _Lusitania__, _the
presence of substantial numbers of Americans--was a consequence of
political decisions. These incidents occurred not only within
particular international and domestic political contexts but within
the context of ongoing American foreign policy. The _Maine _was sent
by McKinley to Havana in an exercise in coercive diplomacy; it was
there as part of a deliberate, if perhaps not clearly formulated,
American strategy to press Spain for concessions that McKinley hoped
would make a diplomatic solution of the Cuban insurgency possible.
The _Lusitania _was permitted by Wilson to sail from New York with
Americans on board despite explicit warnings from the German embassy
that Americans traveled into the "war zone" at their own risk;
Wilson's reluctance to warn Americans against this travel and his
insistence on holding Germany accountable for wartime infringements
on traditional neutral trade rights were part of an overarching
foreign policy. As for the _Panay, _Roosevelt left her and her sister
ships on the Yangtze as a visible American commitment to the Open
Door Policy and to the Nine-Power Treaty of 1922; even as it became
clear that it would be impossible to defend US and Western interests
in China without war, the implicit message that would have been
conveyed by removing the gunboats was regarded as politically

None of this is to suggest that the policies that led to the dispatch
of the _Maine__, _to the presence of Americans on the _Lusitania__,_
or to the continued Yangtze patrols by the _Panay _were somehow
"wrong." Peifer's effort to locate events within context, however,
helps us to understand not only why these incidents occurred but why
they created dilemmas for American foreign policymaking. In each of
Peifer's cases, US presidents were knowingly pursuing foreign
policies that involved taking risks. Vessels and lives were in harm's
way because foreign policy positions were being taken, positions that
at least risked a violent response. And in each case, when tragedy
struck the president was faced with the task of trying to control the
domestic political consequences of what, intended or not, was in
essence a failed bet.

Given his explicit intention of trying to begin to reclaim a portion
of the strategic studies field for historians, it may not be
surprising that Peifer's volume is likely to appeal more to political
scientists and to policymakers than to fellow historians. As Peifer
acknowledges, the strength of this work is not in bringing to light
new evidence about the _Maine__, Lusitania, _and
_Panay_incidents--all have already been meticulously researched.
Rather, this work's value lies in its careful use of what political
scientist Alexander George and Richard Smoke termed "focused
comparison."[2] For each of the three incidents he examines, Peifer
first explores the history of the incident itself, then the context,
then the immediate reaction by relevant audiences, then the
presidential decision process and analysis, and finally, the
aftermath and consequences. What is gained is a substantially
improved ability to compare not only the three incidents but the
policy matrix within which they occurred and the problems they posed
for politically vulnerable decision-makers.

The imposition of this self-conscious structure on Peifer's account
in no way reduces its readability. To the contrary, the combination
of this foreshadowed organization and Peifer's wonderfully clear
prose makes the volume a page-turner--a pleasure read as well as a
valuable tutorial. It is a book well designed to stimulate valuable
discussions in classes on American foreign policy making, at either
the graduate or advanced undergraduate level.

Perhaps the one front on which the volume arguably falls short of its
stated aims is in helping readers use a "historical mindset" (p. 5)
to think about the three present-day problems that Peifer identifies
as cause for concern (pp. 2-3): Chinese claims in the East and South
China Seas, the proliferation of naval anti-access and area-denial
(A2/AD) weapons, and terrorism at sea. Obviously, any or all of these
three may create or complicate naval incidents. But if the reason for
policymakers to read this volume is that they may face such
incidents, are there more specific insights that decision-makers and
decision-making institutions can learn about how prepare for the
future than that they should think historically? It is certainly good
advice that, "rather than using history to provide direct analogies
and 'lessons learned,' students of foreign affairs should employ
history to gain strategic depth, study interconnections, examine what
sort of options past presidents considered, and think about why they
acted as they did" (p. 248). But this begs the question of how
historians and histories can help busy, cognitively and emotionally
stressed decision-makers employ history--perhaps specifically the
history in this volume--in those ways. As a practical matter and with
lives depending on it, how do we help President Donald Trump think
historically when faced with possible naval incidents involving
China, A2/AD, or terrorism?

Peifer succeeds magnificently, however, in his primary objective.
There is value in approaching security studies with a historical
mindset. _Choosing War _provokes an abundance of rich reflection on
the risks created by forward presence in conflict zones, on the
variety of ways incidents like these interact with public and
congressional opinion to create pressures for (or against) executive
branch action, and on the strategies open to presidents for dealing
with such pressures.

Citation: Edward Rhodes. Review of Peifer, Douglas, _Choosing War:
Presidential Decisions in the Maine, Lusitania, and Panay Incidents_.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. January, 2017.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=47461

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
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