Today in military history: Wilson asks Congress to declare war - We Are The Mighty
Today in Military History

Today in military history: Wilson asks Congress to declare war

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany, bringing the United States into the first World War.

America had been committed to neutrality in the ‘Great War,’ but tensions between the United States and Germany were already high by 1917. At the start of the war, German U-Boats were aggressively attacking shipping vessels. In 1915, a U-Boat sank the British luxury liner Lusitania, killing 1,198 civilians — including 128 Americans.

Germany knew that American industrial might and manpower would tip the scales for the Allied powers, so they backed off on their attacks after sinking the Lusitania. But in 1917 they resumed their provocation, hoping to break the stalemate on the Western Front. 

President Wilson was not happy.

The German Foreign Minister then made matters worse for Germany by sending a telegram to the German Embassy in Mexico, instructing them to offer Mexico a military alliance in the event of a German-American war. The British intercepted the telegram, and their codebreakers decrypted this piece of political dynamite.

The United States had already broken off diplomatic ties with Germany in wake of the recent submarine attacks. The telegram was publicly released on February 28, and to everyone’s surprise, the Germans openly admitted the telegram was genuine.

Over the course of that month, five American ships were sunk by German U-boats. That led President Wilson to ask Congress to declare war on Germany. 

Wilson declared, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” 

117,465 Americans would be killed in The War to End All Wars.

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Today in military history: First use of Agent Orange in Vietnam

On Aug. 10, 1961, the U.S. Army used Agent Orange in Vietnam for the first time.

Agent Orange was a chemical herbicide used to destroy forest cover used by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops. In what became a program codenamed Operation Ranch Hand, the U.S. sprayed more than 19 million gallons of the chemical over 4.5 million acres of land, including roads, rivers, forests, crops and military buildings.

It should come as no surprise that Agent Orange was later revealed to cause very serious health problems, including tumors, birth defects and cancer among U.S. and Vietnamese personnel and their families. 

In addition to Trichlorophenoxyacetic and Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, Agent Orange also contains Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin. TCCD is known for being extremely dangerous, even in small amounts. When troops serving in Vietnam came home, many reported side effects of cancer, congenital disabilities in their children, miscarriages and skin diseases among others.

According to the History Channel, evidence of Agent Orange can still be found in many areas where the chemical was dropped decades ago.

Class-action lawsuits were filed on behalf of Vietnam war veterans and their families that were exposed, and finally President George H.W. Bush signed into law an act mandating that conditions resulting from exposure be treated by the VA. 

400,000 Vietnamese citizens were killed or injured by Agent Orange and millions more suffer from cancer or related illnesses. When Vietnamese citizens filed lawsuits against chemical companies responsible for the chemical, however, federal judges in the U.S. dismissed the suits. 

Let that sink in.

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Today in military history: Russia tests ICBM

On Aug. 26, 1957, the Soviet Union announced the successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Both the United States and the Soviets had been in a race to perfect a nuclear-capable long-range missile since World War II. 

In July of 1957, the U.S. launched an ICBM called the SM-65 Atlas, which was as successful as a modern North Korean missile test or a sloppy hookup after too many drinks: It was just an embarrassing failure to perform.

A month later, the Soviets announced their own ICBM test had gone swimmingly…though no details were given, leading to some dubious though wary reactions from the US. 

The launch of Sputnik two months later, however, would give the Russians the edge in the space race, causing the U.S. to accelerate its efforts to close the “missile gap.”

Today, Russia has an agreement on space cooperation with the United States until the end of December 2030 (in spite of the United States’ newly formed Space Force).

According to DW, “The agreement was first signed in 1992 and has since been extended four times. The pact included joint work on the International Space Station, which Russia said at the beginning of March will continue until 2028. It also included cooperation between Roscosmos and NASA — the two countries’ space agencies — as well as Russian rockets ferrying astronauts and supplies to the ISS, after NASA shelved its space shuttle fleet.”

At a time when political relations between the U.S. and Russian remain tense — the U.S. has accused Russia of hacking and election interference, among other actions — many still believe that science must transcend politics.

Featured Image: Atlas 2E Ballistic Missile on display at the San Diego Aerospace Museum, Gillespie Field, El Cajon, California.

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Today in military history: Paris liberated from Nazis

On Aug. 25, 1944, Paris was liberated from Nazi occupation.

In June 1940, Germany invaded France, and within two weeks, the French government fell and what remained signed an armistice with the Nazis, based in Vichy. 

However, General Charles de Gauille and Free French units who refused to join the Vichy kept fighting the good fight.

Four years later, after the Allied invasion of Normandy, de Galle convinced Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower to employ the Free French 2nd Armored Division and 4th Infantry Division to liberate Paris, even though Hitler ordered that the city be leveled before allowing it to fall into Allied hands. 

The German defenders went so far as to lay explosives under Parisian landmarks and bridges, but General Dietrich von Choltitz ultimately refused, claiming he did not want to go be remembered for destroying the “City of Light.” 

Von Choltitz was arrested and formally surrendered Paris to de Galle, who would lead France intermittently until 1969. 

During the war, Hitler spent three hours in Paris, but spent four years occupying northern France until Allied Forces liberated Paris. During his brief tour, he instructed friend and architect Albert Speer to take note of the city’s design to recreate similar yet superior German buildings.

“Wasn’t Paris beautiful?” Hitler reportedly asked Speer. “But Berlin must be far more beautiful. When we are finished in Berlin, Paris will only be a shadow.”

While sightseeing, Hitler also ordered the destruction of two French World War I monuments that reminded him of Germany’s bitter defeat. Thankfully, the Führer’s time in Paris — and on earth — came to an end.

Featured Image via German National Archive.

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Today in military history: Confederate invasion of Kentucky begins

On Aug. 14, 1862, the Confederate invasion of Kentucky began.

Wanting to draw the Union army away from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and hoping to win over Kentucky and the midwest for the South, Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith led ten thousand troops toward the Cumberland Gap and spent the month of August defeating Yankee forces throughout the state. 

Smith was joined by General Braxton Bragg’s forces, and throughout the fall the Confederates would repeatedly engage with Union General Don Carlos Buell, who finally secured a Yankee victory in October, causing the Confederates to retreat back to Tennessee. 

Often referred to as the Confederate Heartland Offensive, the Kentucky Campaign was a strategic failure overall. Though it would slow Union forces down, they would regain the lost ground within a year and Kentucky would remain in Union hands for the remainder of the war.

Featured Image: The Battle of Perryville as depicted in Harper’s Weekly. (Public Domain)

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Today in military history: Brits capture and burn Washington DC

On Aug. 24, 1814, British forces achieved victory in the Battle of Bladensburg, Maryland, and marched into Washington, D.C.

The burning of Washington was a retaliation attack for the American burning of Toronto and much of America’s capital was set on fire. Little remained of the original city, including the original White House.

The United States had been engaged in the War of 1812 against the British Empire for two years. Battles were rough and fierce, and it seemed like the war would never end. Then some British troops decided to burn down the White House – which had serious consequences.

There were lots of reasons for the war but there were two main ones. First, there were really strict regulations on American trade and secondly, the U.K. was falsely imprisoning American seamen. Plus, the Brits weren’t exactly happy about the fact that America was pushing its boundaries and trying to expand in all directions.

During the battle, President James Madison took command of one of the American batteries, becoming the only sitting U.S. president to engage in combat as commander-in-chief, but he and his wife were forced to flee the capital before the arrival of the invaders.

British General Robert Ross and his officers dined in the White House that night as British troops began to set the city on fire in retaliation for the burning of Canadian government buildings by American troops earlier in the war. They burned the White House, the Capitol building and the Library of Congress before rains fell, extinguishing the flames. 

After 24 hours of occupation, Ross withdrew from the city, leaving its charred remains behind. 

President Madison hired the original architect, James Hoban, to rebuild the White House, which was restored by 1817.

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Today in military history: John Paul Jones takes the fight to England

On April 22, 1778, naval Commander John Paul Jones led a raid against Whitehaven, England, where 400 British merchant ships laid in anchor.

Hoping to carry the war directly to King George III’s doorstep, Jones intended to prove to the English that their homeland was not impregnable. In a memorandum outlining his “plans for expeditions,” Jones had once proposed that “three fast frigates with tenders might burn Whitehaven and its fleet, rendering it nearly impossible to supply Ireland with coal next winter”  while bringing “inconceivable panic in England. It would convince the world of her vulnerability, and hurt her public credit.” 

Today in military history: Wilson asks Congress to declare war
Charles Willson Peale may have painted his museum portrait of Jones as early as 1781. Jones wears the French Cross of the Institution of Military Merit (the gold medal hanging from a blue ribbon through the top left buttonhole). Louis XVI presented this medal to him in 1780. (Public Domain)

The Royal Navy commanded the seas and Jones knew well enough that to confront His Majesty’s ships was foolish. Instead, he planned his raid on Whitehaven for the dead of night, hoping to arrive with the ebb tide at midnight.

He had more difficulty than planned whilst rowing to the port, which was protected by two forts. They didn’t arrive until dawn, and while Jones’ boat was able to successfully take the southern fort, the other boat reportedly “heard a noise” and abandoned the mission — and the northern fort.

Jones set fire to the southern fort and continued to raid the British Isles, earning a reputation for terrorizing the British navy. His sailing and fighting exploits during the American Revolution have gone down in history as some of the most notable of all time. 

Featured Image: “First Recognition of the American Flag by a Foreign Government” by Edward Moran, 1898. The painting depicts the Continental Navy ship Ranger, commanded by Captain John Paul Jones, receiving the salute of the French fleet at Quiberon Bay, France, on Feb. 14, 1778. (National Archives)

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Today in military history: President Truman relieves General MacArthur of duty

On April 11, 1951, President Truman relieved General of the Army Douglas MacArthur of duty during the Korean War. 

MacArthur, a graduate of the United States Military Academy, was considered a master of the art and execution of warfare. And by many accounts, he had the ego and arrogance to match. He was best known for his brilliance in both the Pacific theater of World War II and the Korean War, but he also had his share of missteps. 

Meanwhile, Truman had had an exceptionally difficult six years in the White House, beginning with replacing the iconic Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and making the call to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. He was committed to limiting the scope of the Korean War — and that’s where the two started to butt heads. 

MacArthur, simply put, sought to win. In his mind, that meant pushing further North and bombing the MiG bases in Manchuria, even if that meant bringing in Chinese Nationalist troops.

Things came to a head when MacArthur ordered the launch of an offensive on April 5, 1951. Two days later, American ships were sent off Formosa, trolling China. After the offensive launched, Truman met with senior advisors, who agreed MacArthur had to go, but warned it would be controversial.

On April 11, Truman relieved MacArthur to preserve civilian control of the military. MacArthur would receive some hype as a possible candidate for President, but ultimately he wouldn’t run. Instead, after a speech to Congress where he said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” he went into retirement until his death in 1964.

Featured Image:  President Truman and General MacArthur shake hands at Wake Island, 15 October 1950. (Image courtesy of of the Harry S. Truman Library)

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Today in military history: Union issues conduct code defining laws of combat for Civil War

On April 24, 1863, President Lincoln issued “General Orders No. 100: Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the Field.” Commonly referred to as the “Lieber Code” after its primary author Francis (Franz) Lieber, it dictated how soldiers should conduct themselves in wartime. The main sections concerned martial law, military jurisdiction, and the treatment of spies, deserters and prisoners of war.

Today in military history: Wilson asks Congress to declare war

The Lieber Code remains the basis of most regulations for the laws of war for the United States and many other countries who used it as a template for the codification of laws of war. Before the Lieber Code, the conduct of countries and combatants was mostly based on customs, which could vary widely from country to country. The Lieber Code is the first modern attempt to codify agreed upon laws of armed conflict and humanitarian law.

The Lieber Code was prepared by international lawyer Franz Lieber, who emigrated from Germany to the United States after being imprisoned as an “enemy of the state” due to his liberal nationalist views. In the United States, he became a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina, where he soon began to feel like an outsider due to his opposition to slavery. He moved to New York to teach at Columbia University and Columbia Law School, where he lectured on constitutional questions relating to times of war.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, President Lincoln wanted to provide instructions to Union officers about the treatment of Confederate soldiers. He turned to Lieber for guidance about issues such as whether Confederates should be treated as traitors subject to the death penalty or as prisoners of war as well as the treatment of “fugitives” fleeing enslavement.
Lieber and a committee of four generals came together to draw up a manual to address these concerns; the instructions were endorsed by Lincoln on April 24, 1863, and distributed to all Union commanders in the field. According to historical records, the Confederate government would also adopt some of the rules in the Lieber Code as well.

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Today in military history: US raids Hanoi

On Aug. 27, 1972, U.S. aircraft hit North Vietnamese barracks near Hanoi and Haiphong in the heaviest bombing in four years.

Earlier that year, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) launched a ferocious military operation known as the Easter Offensive, designed to gain as much territory and destroy as many U.S. and South Vietnamese units as possible. 

In response, President Nixon unleashed Operation Linebacker I, a continuous bombing effort against the North.

On Aug. 27, U.S. aircraft flattened NVA barracks near Hanoi and Haiphong and destroyed bridges on the railroad line to China as four ships shelled the Haiphong port and attacked two NVA patrol boats. 

Operation Linebacker One would continue through October and in December, Linebacker II would begin.

Tens of thousands of Americans would die as a result of the Vietnam War, with three hundred thousand more injured and countless traumatized. In 1995, Vietnam released an official estimate detailing as many as two million civilian deaths on both sides with somewhere between two hundred thousand and one million combatants killed. 

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Today in military history: ‘Swamp Fox’ victory in South Carolina

On Aug. 15, 1780, American Colonial militia leader Francis Marion continued to frustrate the British in South Carolina after an overwhelming win at Port’s Ferry.

Francis Marion learned guerrilla warfare as a militia lieutenant in a war against the Cherokee Indians in 1761. When the Revolutionary War began, Marion was named a captain and given command of an infantry unit. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and fought hard, but he was there when the battle of Camden ended organized resistance in South Carolina.

Rather than sit out the rest of the war, he enlisted a force of a few dozen men known as Marion’s Partisans and led them in harassing operations against the British. The Partisans scattered British and Loyalist forces on multiple occasions and once rescued 150 Patriot prisoners. Multiple British task forces to capture or kill Marion and the Partisans failed.

Called the “Swamp Fox” for his ability to hit the British and disappear without a trace into the South Carolina swamps, Marion was the only senior officer to escape the British capture of Charleston (and he went on to inspire Mel Gibson’s character in the 2000 film The Patriot).

Marion took command of a force of irregular troops who would hit British forces and terrorize Loyalists. He and his men fought for no pay and supplied their own horses, arms, and food.

The Swamp Fox and his irregular cavalry of 250 completely routed a loyalist force on the Pee Dee River at Port’s Ferry.

After General Horatio Gates sent Marion away from the main body of the Continental Army, Marion launched a strategic campaign against all British and Tory forces in the colony. Port’s Ferry was an important river crossing for the Swamp Fox’s forces.

Marion’s campaign was so successful that support for the British in South Carolina was largely restricted and Lt. Col. Francis Marion  was never captured.

Featured Image: Mel Gibson in The Patriot (Columbia Pictures)

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Today in military history: Americans and Soviets unite against Germany

On April 25, 1945, Eight Russian armies linked up with the American troops on the western bank of the Elbe river. Germany was, for all intents and purposes, Allied territory. The end of fighting on the Eastern Front of World War II was in sight.

This event signaled the first contact between Soviet and American troops after years of fierce fighting. Both forces successfully cut through multiple Wehrmacht divisions and met in the middle of Torgau, Germany.

The Allied powers had effectively cut Germany in two. 

By the 27th, the American and Soviet armies met for a photo op to reenact the meeting, and the Allied powers released statements in London, Moscow, and Washington, reassuring the world that the Third Reich was in its final days.

Although the date isn’t an official holiday, that doesn’t mean it isn’t celebrated. In 2015, 70 years after the original encounter, American and Soviet military units met up once again at the very site of the first meeting to reenact the historic event.

Happy Elbe Day!

Featured Image: In an arranged photo commemorating the meeting of the Soviet and American armies, 2nd Lt. William Robertson (U.S. Army) and Lt. Alexander Silvashko (Red Army) stand facing one another with hands clasped and arms around each other’s shoulders. In the background are two flags and a poster. (National Archives image)

Today in Military History

Today in military history: 173rd Airborne Brigade deploys to Vietnam

On May 3, 1965, the 173rd Airborne Brigade deployed to South Vietnam. They were the first U.S. Army ground unit committed to the war that would rage on for eight divisive and deadly years for the United States and ten more years for Vietnam

In the 1950s, tensions were rising between the United States and Communist countries like the Soviet Union and North Korea. Working under the “domino theory,” which held that if one Southeast Asian country fell to communism, many other countries would follow, in 1961 President John F. Kennedy provided aid to South Vietnam and stopped just short of military intervention on the peninsula. 

After the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson was hard-pressed to avoid war — he ordered retaliatory strikes against North Vietnam and deployed Operation Rolling Thunder, a series of air strikes, the following year.

Finally, on May 3rd, 1965, the Airborne Brigade deployed to Vietnam from Okinawa. Their mission was to hold off Communist forces from reaching the Saigon-Bien Hoa complex. Over the next several months, the 173rd was involved in numerous airborne operations and fought a major battle at Dak against an entrenched N.V.A. Army Regiment on Hill 875 – capturing it on Thanksgiving Day. The victory earned them the Presidential Unit Citation for bravery in action. The Brigade withdrew from combat operations in country six years later.

Leader of173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam
U.S. Taiwan Defense Command Commander Vice Admiral Melson (left) and the officer presiding over the Tien Bing No. 4 exercise, General Williamson (right), are having a conversation on stage.
(Public Domain)

They suffered 1,606 killed in action while 12 of their paratroopers earned the Medal of Honor.

More than 3 million people (including over 58,000 Americans) were killed in the Vietnam War, and more than half of the dead were Vietnamese civilians. 

Featured Image: 173rd Airborne Brigade Paratroopers along the Song Be near War Zone D, March 1966.

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