Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Greatest U.S. Military Victory?

National Review had a poll up yesterday asking readers to vote for the greatest U.S. military victory. I found that interesting, but I have problems with some of the selections and the results. I can't link the poll directly, but this was the list with percentage of votes:
  • Trenton 8%
  • Yorktown 12%
  • Mexico City 1%
  • Vicksburg 1%
  • Gettysburg 9%
  • Manila Bay 0%
  • Belleau Wood 1%
  • Midway 23%
  • D-Day 34%
  • The Bulge 5%
  • Iwo Jima 5%
  • Desert Storm 1%
Given those options, I voted for Yorktown. In my opinion it's difficult to argue with the victory that forced an end to Britain's reconquest attempt, and signaled that the U.S. would be established as an independent country. But looking at the two choices from the Revolutionary War reveals a glaring omission. Where's Saratoga? It was far more significant than Trenton and led to direct French involvement as an American ally, a development that was critical to U.S. success and crucial in the culminating victory at Yorktown.

Then there is the Civil War. I wouldn't nominate any battle of Americans fighting Americans as one of our greatest victories. That being said, 1% for Vicksburg vs. 9% for Gettysburg is ridiculous. In my opinion that just demonstrates that most people don't know much about military history. Gettysburg was a big important battle that turned back a heavy Confederate raid into Union territory. Arguably it crushed any chance for foreign intervention. But Vicksburg was not only a military masterpiece, it effectively severed the Confederacy into two pieces. At the very least it should be given equal weight.

I have no comment on the Spanish-American War or the WW1 selection, but then we come to WW2 and the biggest vote-getters. D-day? With the exception of Desert Storm -- which shouldn't have been included at all, given that it was a victory over a third-rate power that was completely outclassed -- all the other poll options are battles. Do they mean the entire Normandy Campaign, or just the landings? It is also worth pointing out that the Normandy campaign involved a massive British effort, and support from other allies including the Canadians, Free French, Poles and others. I wouldn't claim it as the greatest U.S. victory.

How about the Pacific? At sea, where is Leyte Gulf, the greatest naval battle of all time? If you have Iwo, why not Okinawa or Saipan? And where is Guadalcanal? Unlike Iwo, which for all the savage fighting was a foregone U.S. victory, Guadalcanal was in doubt for a long time and was fought on much more equal terms, on land, sea and air. In my opinion it was our greatest island victory in the Pacific. At sea I would vote for Midway, for similar reasons. The U.S. was actually at a force disparity yet inflicted a crushing defeat on the Imperial Japanese Navy.


  1. The problem is an insufficient definition of 'greatest' Is it 'most influential'? in that case, Yorktown or Saratoga would have to win; without them, none of the other battles would have happened. If by greatest, they mean 'famous/well-known', then Gettysburg or D-day would probably win, having been engraved into popular culture the most. On a third hand, if 'greatest' means 'most complete victory', I would pick the Battle of the Philippine Sea. There are probably half a dozen other interpretations I am missing, each with their own battle.

  2. Yeah, it's a vague poll. That's a problem with many poll questions.

  3. You can't count Operation Overlord as a solely American victory.