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The War That Never Was

March 2023
2min read

Recently discovered documents have revealed that during the period between the two world wars America was seriously considering the possibility of a major war with Great Britain and her dominions.

A year ago, Lawrence Larsen of the University of Missouri-Kansas City found in the Kansas City Federal Archives and Records Center a report entitled “United States’ Army 1919 Contingency Plan to Defend North Dakota Against an Unspecified Invader From Canada.” The plan was drawn up by R. T. Ward, the Kansas City district head of the Army Corps of Engineers, who, familiar with the old saw about the best defense, recommended the invasion of Canada by American troops jumping off from Sweet Grass, Montana, and Northgate, North Dakota.

Ward’s study was launched in a straightforward way: he had a general in the War Department write Canadian officials asking for maps of their country. Canada’s chief geographer, having no idea how the maps were to be used, supplied them with “great pleasure.” In the meantime, a junior officer from Ward’s office was analyzing the Canadian border, and he eventually came up with the dazzling strategic information that the amount of rainfall was a major factor in the wet and dry seasons, that muddy fields dried most quickly under hot sunlight, and that, in those limitless flatlands, there were no railroad tunnels.

Ward also developed a contingency plan for dealing with military reverses that called for a retreat to south of the Missouri River, which involved yielding to the “unspecified invader” an area of well over fifty thousand square miles.

A more aggressive example of our Anglophobia was declassified in November, 1975, by the Pentagon, over the protests of the State Department, which called it a “very embarrassing item diplomatically.” The embarrassing item was a set of secret plans for the American invasion of Britain that had been drafted in Washington’s war plans division in 1928-29.

At that time the general staff believed that American inroads on British foreign trade might trigger a war between the two countries. According to the plan, whose color-keyed maps labeled Britain as “red” and Canada as “crimson,” American forces would “Destroy red armed forces in North America and the western North Atlantic, including the Caribbean and West Indian waters; isolate crimson from red; deny red the use of bases in the western hemisphere; occupy such territory in crimson and other red possessions as may be necessary and gain and exercise such control of sea communications as will contribute towards red’s economic exhaustion.”

Finally, an invasion of the British mainland—the first since William the Conqueror’s—would be launched from Ireland with the aid of “irreconcilable elements in the Irish Free State.”

And how would the war go? The planners looked back a decade to the dogged courage British troops had displayed during the butcheries in Passchendaele and on the Somme, and concluded that we would have a stiff fight on our hands: “The red [British] race is essentially homogeneous, more or less phlegmatic, but determined and persistent when once committed to a policy, and is noted for its ability to fight to a finish.”

Despite this, America “possesses an anti-red tradition … and the only considerable minority group, the American negro, has no political or racial ties with any other nation and is resistant to foreign propaganda.”

Bizarre as all this may seem, similar thinking was occurring on the other side of the Atlantic. The same year we were planning our third war with England, Austen Chamberlain, the foreign secretary, told the Committee of Imperial Defence that, while “war with Germany, Italy and Japan was inconceivable,” war with America was a possibility. And in a cabinet paper delivered a few months earlier, the foreign secretary had said that the United States would no longer tolerate the sort of blockade Britain had imposed during World War i, and “Any attempt by us to enforce our [belligerent rights] in a future war when the United States is neutral as we enforced them in the late war, would make war between us probable.”

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