England’s Vietnam: The American Revolution

PrintPrintEmailEmailIf it is true that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, America’s last three Presidents might have profited by examining the ghostly footsteps of America’s last king before pursuing their adventure in Vietnam. As the United States concludes a decade of war in Southeast Asia, it is worth recalling the time, two centuries ago, when Britain faced the same agonizing problems in America that we have met in Vietnam. History seldom repeats itself exactly, and it would be a mistake to try to equate the ideologies or the motivating factors involved; but enough disturbing parallels may be drawn between those two distant events to make one wonder if the Messrs. Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon had their ears closed while the class was studying the American Revolution.

Britain, on the eve of that war, was the greatest empire since Rome. Never before had she known such wealth and power; never had the future seemed so bright, the prospects so glowing. All, that is, except the spreading sore of discontent in the American colonies that, after festering for a decade and more, finally erupted in violence at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. When news of the subsequent battle for Bunker Hill reached England that summer, George III and his ministers concluded that there was no alternative to using force to put down the insurrection. In the King’s mind, at least, there was no longer any hope of reconciliation—nor did the idea appeal to him. He was determined to teach the rebellious colonials a lesson, and no doubts troubled him as to the righteousness of (he course he had chosen. “I am not sorry that the line of conduct seems now chalked out,” he had said even before fighting began; later he told his prime minister, Lord North, “I know I am doing my Duty and I can never wish to retract.” And then, making acceptance of the war a matter of personal loyalty, “I wish nothing but good,” he said, “therefore anyone who does not agree with me is a traitor and a scoundrel.” Filled with high moral purpose and confidence, he was certain that “when once these rebels have felt a smart blow, they will submit…”


In British political and military circles there was general agreement that the war would be quickly and easily won. “Shall we be told,” asked one of the King’s men in Commons, “that [the Americans] can resist the powerful efforts of this nation?” Major John Pitcairn, writing home from Boston in March, 1775, said, “I am satisfied that one active campaign, a smart action, and burning two or three of their towns, will set everything to rights.” The man who would direct the British navy during seven years of war, the unprincipled, inefficient Earl of Sandwich, rose in the House of Lords to express his opinion of the provincial fighting man. “Suppose the Colonies do abound in men,” the First Lord of the Admiralty asked, “what does that signify? They are raw, undisciplined, cowardly men. I wish instead of forty or fifty thousand of these brave fellows they would produce in the field at least two hundred thousand; the more the better, the easier would be the conquest; if they did not run away, they would starve themselves into compliance with our measures.…” And General’James Murray, who had succeeded the great Wolfe in 1749 as commander in North America, called the native American “a very effeminate thing, very unfit for and very impatient of war.” Between these estimates of the colonial militiaman and a belief that the might of Great Britain was invincible, there was a kind of arrogant optimism in official quarters when the conflict began. “As there is not common sense in protracting a war of this sort,” wrote Lord George Germain, the secretary for the American colonies, in September, 1775, “I should be for exerting the utmost force of this Kingdom to finish the rebellion in one campaign.”

Optimism bred more optimism, arrogance more arrogance. One armchair strategist in the House of Commons, William Innés, outlined for the other members an elaborate scheme he had devised for the conduct of the war. First, he would remove the British troops from Boston, since that place was poorly situated for defense. Then, while the people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were treated like the madmen they were and shut up by the navy, the army would move to one of the southern colonies, fortify itself in an impregnable position, and let the provincials attack if they pleased. The British could sally forth from this and other defensive enclaves at will, and eventually “success against one-half of America will pave the way to the conquest of the whole.…” What was more, Innés went on, it was “more than probable you may find men to recruit your army in America.” There was a good possibility, in other words, that the British regulars would be replaced after a while by Americans who were loyal to their king, so that the army fighting the rebels would be Americanized, so to speak, and the Irish and English lads sent home. General James Robertson also believed that success lay in this scheme of Americanizing the combat force: “I never had an idea of subduing the Americans,” he said, “I meant to assist the good Americans to subdue the bad.”