October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
We have in recent years been greatly interested in finding historical parallels between our own Revolution and the post-1945 wars of national liberation in the Third World, those anticolonial movements in Algeria, Angola, Indochina, and elsewhere. Unable to stand up to imperial forces in open combat, modern revolutionists have turned to guerrilla warfare—engaging in small-unit operations, raiding outposts and ambushing supply columns, taking advantage of familiar foliage and terrain, living off the countryside, and relying on native farmers and villagers for support.
One hardly can deny the pervasiveness or the success of guerrillas—or partisans, as they also are called. As the French sociologist Raymond Aron has observed, “In our time, the war of partisans has changed the map of the world more than the classical or destructive machines…partisan warfare has given the coup de grace to European overseas empires.”
Was George Washington a guerrilla chieftain? And did his forces, in liquidating Britain’s colonial holdings in what became the United States, achieve the triumph of the first war of national liberation? Such a claim is commonly heard, although more often than not it comes from journalists and popularizers of history rather than from serious scholars. Assuredly colonial Americans were experienced in irregular forms of conflict: they had been fighting Indians and Frenchmen in a rough, forested wilderness environment for a century and a half before Lexington and Concord. But we also should point out that eighteenth-century British soldiers had some familiarity with guerrilla tactics in the Low Countries and Scotland and in the Seven Years War, the climactic Anglo-French duel for North America. Accordingly, one might conclude that both sides in the American Revolution engaged in a guerrilla confrontation, given their previous experiences with irregular operations and the rugged nature of the American countryside.
Interestingly, American writers, hooked on what we might call the Vietnam syndrome, have been far more inclined to see the military parallels between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries than have revolutionary leaders in the Third World. The latter’s military treatises—the most widely publicized primers are by China’s Mao Tse-tung and North Vietnam’s General Vo Nguyen Giap—ignore the American War of Independence and call for guerrilla activities along Marxist-Leninist concepts of revolutionary conflict. Even Marxist revolutionists in Africa and Asia, however, have frequently found inspiration in the American Revolution; but it has been the humanitarianism and idealism of the American experience that they have deemed attractive, not Washington’s methods of overturning foreign rule.
The truth is that both the British and their American adversaries opted for orthodox warfare during our Revolution, with guerrillas consigned an auxiliary status, supporting rather than replacing regular armies. As for the British, they, like the soldiers of European nations, continued to follow time-tested military science until the Napoleonic era saw the birth of flexible units equally skilled in raids and patrols and line fire. The Americans, on the other hand, had their own unique reasons for turning their backs on the kind of bushwhacking conflicts they knew best. As early as the Stamp Act crisis, a decade before the Revolution, Americans had resolved to exercise restraint in opposing unpopular British imperial laws and policies. Violence and physical intimidation, rarely employed, usually were confined to specific targets and conducted without bloodshed.
A guerrilla war that might achieve independence but wreck the institutions of society in the process would be a hollow victory; Americans had no wish to win the war and lose the peace. And indeed they had much to lose, for theirs was a society rapidly growing in maturity, sophistication, and material affluence—becoming more English rather than less so with each passing decade. Here we may note one of the most striking differences between our struggle for independence and those since 1945. Only in the American case do we find colonies closely tied to the imperial state by culture, language, and direct descent. Those intimate links explain the reluctance of the Americans to cut loose from their British moorings and their rejection of terrorism. Terrorists hate everything their opponents stand for, and nothing generates guerrilla warfare like terrorism; we have only to hear the latest bulletins from Northern Ireland and Lebanon for confirmation of that tragic truth.
Consequently, the revolutionists continued to pursue a goal of restraint after hostilities began, one best accomplished by a central army under the Continental Congress, an army—commanded by Washington—that performed rather like that of its British counterpart. William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, could thus confidently inform the House of Lords in 1777 that the armed rebels were not “wild and lawless banditti.”
Even so, circumstances and events just might have generated the terrorism and guerrilla conflict so opposed in principle by our forefathers. What if before 1775 British authorities had imprisoned rioters, had shipped patriot leaders like Samuel Adams to England to be tried for treason, and directed royal troops to enforce obnoxious Parliamentary acts with bayonets? In short, what if Britain had treated her dissident colonies in the New World the way she treated Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—with arbitrary arrests, treason trials, land confiscations, and so on? Doubtless there would have been violence and atrocities just as there were in Ireland. Americans, in contrast, had primarily constitutional complaints, which they voiced in speeches and petitions without fear of reprisals. They did so without apprehension because Britain’s physical hold on faroff America was weak and also because they possessed (unlike Ireland) legal and political institutions that could effectively cripple London’s ambitious imperial schemes.
In short, the American colonists knew their British cousins very well, knew what they could get away with. Two centuries later Mohandas Gandhi likewise understood the British and the methods his Indian people could use against them. Gandhi’s millions of peasants were weaponless and could scarcely be regimented militarily in any case. His scheme was to beat the British with the overriding quality that the multitudes had in abundance, their immutable inertia. If they regularly did nothing at home, he would have them do nothing in the streets—obstructing docks, trolleys, cars, and so on. Such a strategy would not have worked in all times and all places. But the Indians in the nineteen thirties and forties were not the Irish of an earlier day; and the British were not Hitler’s Nazis, who would have thought nothing of machine-gunning thousands of obstructionists. (In fact, to jump back to the eighteenth century, we should remember that the unplanned shooting of a few riffraff in Boston in 1770 by thoroughly provoked regulars—the so-called Boston Massacre—so embarrassed British authorities that they withdrew their soldiers from the city.)
While parallels between the American War of Independence and the Vietnam War have been exaggerated, some are valid. Britain in 1776 and America in the 1960’s were the superpowers of their day, each convinced it could not lose a war. Both American rebels and Vietnamese insurgents obtained military support from other nations. Both superpowers received lusty criticism at home from dissenting groups. The Johnson administration and George Ill’s ministers prolonged their respective wars because of their belief in a domino theory—for Britain this meant that the loss of the Thirteen Colonies would lead to secessionist movements in other parts of the empire; for the Johnson team it meant that communism eventually would prevail throughout Southeast Asia. Both Britain and America were fighting logistically arduous wars amid heavy foliage and rugged terrain in remote regions of the globe.
There are fewer comparisons, however, between the insurgency of the American rebels and the Vietcong and their allies. This is true in part because, as we have indicated, our independence struggle was not primarily a guerrilla war. (But it did have its irregular features. Local people often came forth to assist in repelling the invaders, especially in the South between 1780 and 1782, where even the American ranking general, Nathanael Greene, temporarily played the role of a partisan owing to the smallness of his command.)
Moreover, Americans intervened in an ongoing Vietnamese civil war. Our Revolution only became a civil war after fighting broke out between British regulars and American Whigs; only then did fence-straddlers and royalists have to show their real colors. In America the rebels began with most of the politically active people on their side. Therefore, the Vietcong had a much greater task in that it had to win a sizable part of the civilian population and build an underground political organization. The American rebels had in their colonial militias and provincial congresses a valuable revolutionary infrastructure from the opening clash of arms.
Why has the idea of the American Revolution as a guerrilla war taken such a hold on the public mind? Our recent concerns over the Vietcong and other wars of national liberation clearly provide us with much if not all of the answer. This ahistorical Vietnamization of the American Revolution should serve as a warning. Correctly viewed, the present is the product of the past; the past is not the product of the present.