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Before U.S. Hegemony

Looking to the release of Firebox, I want to revive another discussion I first began in the historical notes for The Frontier –– in this case, a conversation about historic U.S. military power… or lack thereof.

For many of us alive today, the military strength of the United States has been a consistent truism. As Rome was the power of its time, and as Britannia once ruled the waves, the United States presently dominates geopolitics. For all the setbacks it has faced in asymmetrical wars, the strength of its Navy, Air Force, and Army cannot be denied. This being the case, it may be surprising to some that just a century ago, the United States was considered a military lightweight –– the butt of jokes told across Europe and in Asia.

The problem began at the end of the Civil War. While that bloody conflict proved the mettle of American soldiers and strategists, it also (quite justifiably) turned the United States against many notions of war. Indeed, the post-war disarmament was so abrupt that, within decades, the navies of three South American countries were vastly more formidable than the United States fleet.

At the same time, the U.S. Army turned from a massive conventional battlefield force, into one whose primary occupation was frontier policing. Cavalry became the most active arm, and instead of fielding large units, the Army divided into smaller formations scattered across the vast territories they were meant to protect. Politicians and glory-seekers moved in to make their names. Experience with coherent ‘modern’ (at the time) warfare eroded, replaced by small-unit fighting against the American ‘Indians’. While the veterans of this sort of combat were undoubtedly very well educated in the realities of warfare, such experiences won little respect overseas.

America’s military was thus dismissed by Europe –– broadly speaking, the country was seen to possess great strength, but no modern ‘scientific’ organization. At the time, armed forces were evolving fast around the globe –– Germany was unifying, Britain was fighting wars of Empire, and in Asia, Japan was rapidly adopting the most successful principles it could find. Focused on settling its own frontier, America simply didn’t participate in the game.

Future-President Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders atop San Juan Hill, during the Spanish-American War.

Things began to change around the dawn of the twentieth century. The Americans defeated the Spanish Empire, thus securing a swathe of possessions that required garrisons. This injected more life into both the Army and the Navy, but Europe still paid little attention; Spain’s Empire had been considered weak for centuries, and none of the battlefields in the fight with America had been European.

After that war, the U.S. Army marched into Mexico, chasing the bandit Pancho Villa. This was another formative experience for men like Black Jack Pershing, but again, was of little interest to Empires who were busy competing with each other in a vicious –– and expensive –– arms race.

The American military would continue to be ignored until the First World War annihilated much of Europe’s strength on the battlefield. Suddenly, a whole nation of soldiers (however ‘backward’) became quite appealing, and when the United States entered in 1917, the presence of so many fresh young men was welcomed. It was undoubtedly a turning point in the war.

Battleship Division Nine, United States Navy, which joined the First World War as the Sixth Battle Squadron of Britain’s Grand Fleet.

Of course, as it worked to shed its legacy of frontier policing, the newly-raised American Expeditionary Force was a somewhat haphazard affair. Not having learned first-hand from battles like the Somme, the Americans made mistakes, but they quickly adapted into a fearsome force. Meanwhile, Battleship Division Nine of the United States Navy became the Sixth Battle Squadron of Britain’s Grand Fleet, and learned much from the most professional Navy in the world.

This experience ushered in a shift for the United States military. Though isolationism would rise strongly after the war –– quite understandably, no one wanted to participate in another European bloodbath –– the Army and Navy had both evolved. America was not considered more powerful than the victorious British and French, but was certainly perceived as an equal. More vitally, a framework had been established, which would help shape the astounding growth of U.S. armed forces that began in 1941.

The Second World War elevated America’s military to the staggering heights we know today. With the entire country mobilized for the war effort, U.S. forces became peerless in the world –– fighting Empires in two theatres, and winning both contests. As the old powers were destroyed or crippled, America ascended in a way that would previously have been unthinkable, its hegemony contested only by the Soviets.

Probably the most famous photo op of the Pacific War, as a flag is (re)raised over Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima.

The rivalry between these two new superpowers solidified the U.S. military as we know it. The Cold War required America to maintain its armed forces at a level that, just decades before, would have been considered a waste of money. The nation then rapidly positioned itself as one of two states seeking to police the world. And so the United States became the power we know today –– one that, now somewhat uncontested, seems omnipresent around the globe.

But, of course, the question for an alternate history writer is simple: what if none of that happened?

In His Majesty’s New World, and in Champions, we’re dealing with a United States that fought neither the First World War, nor the Second World War. It did fight the Hubrin War in 1919-20, and that certainly forced Washington to modernize and evolve its military… but to what extent?

When we move into Firebox next week, we’ll get some hints about how well the United States Army is faring in this alternate world. Will it be the frontier police force, or the superpower we’re used to?

Alex, Stephanie and Strong will try to find out…