Saturday, July 6, 2013

who lost America?

One of the delights of summer for me is the chance to do more reading for pleasure. I like to look at books which offer to fill gaps in my knowledge or to answer questions that have long puzzled me. For example, that's why I enjoyed several books on the outbreak of World War I that revised my thinking about German war guilt.  That's also why I enjoyed books on the interaction between domestic politics and American foreign policy in 1939-41, leading to revised thinking about FDR.

I've just finished Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy's fine study of The Men Who Lost America that looks at the British side during the Revolutionary War. Previously, I knew little of what was happening in London and tended to think that our patriots won because they had a righteous cause, clever diplomacy, and armed forces that managed to struggle and avoid defeat while even winning a few important battles. But why, I wondered, did the war actually last 18 months after the battle of Yorktown and why did the British troops not evacuate New York until November, 1783?

Now I know. I don't pretend to offer a grand synthesis explaining British defeat, but I have learned some important facts and gained a British perspective on the conflict. Following are some nuggets gleaned from O'Shaughnessy's book:

-- King George III opposed American independence until the very last, succumbing only when his long-serving Prime Minister, Lord North, lost the confidence of parliament over the war and resigned in March, 1782.

-- North's own cabinet was riven by disputes throughout the fight with America and he lacked any real political tools for enforcing unity.

-- Most British leaders relied on bad intelligence and wishful thinking, always believing that the rebels were far outnumbered by loyalists. Best scholarly estimates now put the figure below 20%.

-- The British forces faced enormous logistical challenges in trying to resupply some 27 garrisons they maintained in America, as well as their armies on the move. These were compounded by bureaucratic conflicts not least because three different offices had responsibilities for supplying troops.

-- The civilian cabinet officer directly responsible for the war, Lord George Germain, was often in conflict with the first lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Sandwich, who gave greater priority to Royal Navy actions in the Caribbean than on the continent and who often failed to support land operations he opposed.

-- British forces wanted to practice what we would now call counterinsurgency but were quite inconsistent about it. They tried to limit their confiscation of supplies but still refused to relax martial law on cities thet occupied, like New York.

-- However much we Americans would like to think we won our independence, it seems to me now that Britain gave up because of broader strategic challenges: a war with France after 1778 that threatened an invasion of the home island; a strategic situation that left Britain with fewer military allies than even in the desperate summer of 1940; military challenges in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and even India.

-- Also interesting to me was the fact that public opinion was a growing force in British politics, with a surge in the number and circulation of newspapers and, starting only in the mid-1770s, the right of journalists to report on debates in parliament, including inflammatory speeches by those opposed to the war.

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