For the past half century, the United States military has been the world‘s most dominant force. The full extent of U.S. military power was first perceived during WWII, and militarization efforts during the Cold War have only expanded its power and influence. The U.S. wasn’t always the dominant military power it is today, however, and even today it is unable to achieve all of its many goals. To provide an overall perspective on the history of the U.S. military, this list will name the 8 greatest victories (and 7 greatest defeats) of the U.S. military. To truly understand the genius of the U.S. military, one must also understand its many failures. No unit is infallible, and multiple operational failures have led to issues in overall conflicts like the Vietnam War and the conflict in Afghanistan. This list should serve as a comprehensive examination of the United States’ rich military history. All of these entries, of course, in no way reflect the brave men and women who were involved in them. If you can think of some great victories of the U.S. military, or some shocking defeats which didn’t make our list, feel free to mention them in the comments.
15. Victory – Inchon
Before the Vietnam disaster, Korea was thought to be the biggest failure of the United States armed forces. One bright spot in this overall unsuccessful war was General Douglas McArthur’s brilliant strategical victory at Ichon. At Inchon, McArthur pulled off one of the largest and most intricate amphibious landings in modern military history. This allowed U.S. forces to send the Korean troops fleeing, firmly establishing themselves at the 38 parallel. This amazing victory, however, came with some diplomatic shortcomings. The success of the Ichon operation helped McArthur to convince American policymakers to support a non-communist regime in Korea. This was, of course, a huge failure; leaving a bitter taste in many American mouths after the sweet victory of Ichon.
14. Defeat – Taking of New York
When students are taught about the American Revolution in elementary and middle school, it is not uncommon for the story to abruptly jump from the Declaration of Independence to George Washington and his troop’s harrowing winter at Valley Forge. In the interim, however, Washington got to spend almost three years getting his butt kicked by the British army. One such battle which had some significance for the war was Washington’s loss of New York City to General William Howe and his British regulars. Early on, the Brits realized the strategic advantages of New York City, so in 1776 they made it their first main objective of the war. The British troops were better trained and equipped, allowing them to quickly overcome Washington’s mostly novice troops. Such a significant loss so early in the war put Washington on the defensive and characterized the Colonial Army for most of the remainder of the conflict.
13. Victory – Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Though the morality of the decision has been questioned, it is hard to argue with the military strategy which led to United States dropping of the atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At this point in the conflict, all signs pointed to the U.S. being the ultimate victor of the Pacific arena of the war. Despite this, however, Japanese troops on several islands had absolutely refused to surrender. The Japanese heads of state had supported this ostentatious behavior, and the U.S. military was looking at a series of prolonged island sieges in their future. For this reason, in August of 1945, a set of U.S. bombers dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; causing the sort of devastation that the world had never seen, and finally convincing the Japanese government of the futility of their resistance.
12. Defeat – Attack on Pearl Harbor
To this day, there are historians that will tell you that Pearl Harbor was not a military battle. Something about the surprise nature of the attack (the Navy troops stationed at Pearl Harbor were caught completely off guard by the attack) leads these people to characterize the event as a sort of quasi-terrorist attack. The fact that the U.S. Navy was ill prepared for the attack, however, doesn’t change the fact that the Pearl Harbor bombing was an act of violence perpetrated by one state military versus another, separate state military. This battle was a huge defeat for the U.S. military not only because of how one sided the casualties were, but also because it hugely disadvantaged the United States’ Pacific fleet for the remainder of the war. To this day, the attack on Pearl Harbor remains the deadliest attack on American soil by a foreign nation.
11. Victory – Gettysburg
No American conflict has been more over-romanticized than the American Civil War (though an argument could be made for WWII). Something about the “brother versus brother” dynamic, combined with the underlying evil of slavery, makes this war extremely compelling. It makes sense then, that one of the most influential battles of the war would also be extremely well known. Gettysburg was a huge military victory for the United States because it effectively kept the Union intact. The campaign into Pennsylvania was the last great offensive launched by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. If Lee had won the battle, then the Confederacy would have potentially had the leverage to convince the Union to sign a treaty of peace. By winning the battle for the north, George Meade and his forces forced the Confederacy into the retreat mode which would characterize the remainder of the conflict
10. Defeat – 1812 Invasion of Canada
The nations hunger for territorial expansion is an important aspect of American history. While things like the Louisiana Purchase and Mexi-American War are celebrated for increasing United States’ territory, we often forget about the many failed attempts by the U.S. to gain new territory. A perfect example of this occurred shortly after the countries inception, with America’s disastrous attempt to conquer Canada in the War of 1812. President Thomas Jefferson called the U.S. invasion of Canada “a matter of walking”, signaling the hubris which filtrated the entirety of the U.S. armed forces, and poisoned any efforts to make this invasion work. Overall, this campaign was handicapped by ineptitude among American officers, with the final blow being a failed campaign in the heart of the Canadian winter.
9. Victory – Battle of Contreras
The Battle of Contreras was perhaps the most crucial battle of the Mexican-American War. This little–known war occurred from 1846-1848 and was largely because of the U.S. annexation of Texas; a territory which had previously been governed by the Mexican state. At the Battle of Contreras, Mexican President Santa Anna attempted to stop U.S. General Winfield Scott from capturing the Mexican capital of Mexico City. Utilizing a talented young Captain named Robert E. Lee (you may have heard of him), Scott was able to cross the Pedregal lava fields and route the Mexican army. As part of his spoils, Scott captured 22 pieces of artillery and 4 generals. Even more important, the U.S. victory left the Mexican capital completely defenseless.
8. Defeat – Bay of Pigs Invasion
Admittedly, our next entry didn’t involve the U.S. military proper, but it did involve several CIA agents in a period where the CIA had become heavily militarized. The Bay of Pigs Invasion was a failed invasion of Cuba carried out by the Kennedy administration shortly after JFK’s inauguration. Cuban exiles trained by the CIA stormed the beaches at the Bay of Pigs, but the Cuban people did not rise up against Fidel Castro, and all of the exiles were either killed or captured. This was a major embarrassment for not only Kennedy, but for the U.S. in general. This disastrous event for the U.S. military led to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the decline of U.S.-Cuban relations which has lasted well into the present day.
7. Victory – Medina Ridge (Gulf War)
When most people think about the greatest battles of the U.S. military, their minds are drawn back to the World Wars or even farther to the Civil War and Revolutionary eras. There have, however, been some important military battles in the past 20 years which certainly deserve our attention. One such battle is the Battle of Medina Ridge, a tank battle fought in February of 1991 in the midst of the Gulf War. The Battle of Medina Ridge was a large-scale tank battle (there is some debate whether this was the largest tank battle in American history) between U.S. forces and Iraq’s 2nd Brigade. Most military historians are of the opinion that the Americans’ overwhelming air support is what allowed them to win this battle, an important victory in one of the most contested arenas of the Gulf War.
6. Defeat – Entire Vietnam War
This list is meant to be composed of individual battles which were successful or disastrous for the U.S. military, however, the Vietnam War was so disastrous in its entirety that it deserves a spot on this list. From the beginning with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, it is apparent that the U.S. had no idea what it was doing by getting involved with Vietnam. The U.S. military, and more importantly the American public, were totally unprepared for what it would take to win this kind of conflict, and inefficiency and ineptitude among U.S. army officials plagued every operation which occurred in Vietnam. This would cause this war to be lost not only in a strategical sense, but also in a way which was felt in the soul and psyche of every American citizen.
5. Victory – Meuse-Argonne Offensive (WWI)
For a battle to be a critical victory in the history of the U.S. military, it should have some significant effect on the overarching conflict. Using this standard, World War I’s Meuse-Argonne Offensive has to be considered one of the biggest wins in U.S. military history. The Offensive was a series of battles which amounted to the final Allied offensive of WWI. This campaign took place along the whole range of the Western front. This offensive was the largest in U.S. history, reportedly involving as many as 1.2 million American soldiers (this doesn’t include the contributions from the other Allies). This offensive lasted until the 1918 Armistice, and was one of the major reasons for the war’s end. The American Expeditionary Force, commanded by U.S. General John Pershing, was the force which performed this daring offensive, an impressive military feat.
4. Defeat – Battle of Bataan (WWII)
One of the main reasons why the U.S. came out so heroic in WWII is that their armed forces were able to defeat the Japanese war machine which had previously demonstrated its superiority over the entire Pacific. This special ability, however, wouldn’t evolve until much later in the war. In fact, the early portion of the Pacific theatre was characterized by pointed Japanese dominance. A perfect example of this is the Battle of Bataan, a costly navy battle which saw the U.S. and General MacArthur suffer heavy losses at the hands of the Japanese. Most notably, 76,000 American soldiers surrendered after the battle; the largest surrender of U.S. soldiers since the U.S. Civil War. This fact, combined with the loss of the Philippines, would have huge ramifications for how the rest of the war was fought in the Pacific.
3. Victory – The Vicksburg Campaign
The decline of the Confederate war effort may have been obvious at Gettysburg, but the first crack in the southern armor appeared during the Vicksburg campaign of 1863. It was in this campaign that General Ulysses S. Grant rose to prominence, and it was here that the Union was able to gain a firm hold over the war’s western theatre. The actual campaign was a series of battles directed at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Vicksburg was a city-turned-fortress which allowed the Confederacy to control a significant portion of the Mississippi River. Ever a brilliant tactician, Grant would use his superior supplies and numbers to overwhelm the Confederate city, a good precursor to what he would do as the Union armies eventual commander.
2. Defeat – Antietam
The first few years of the Civil War were filled with disastrous battles for the Union Army. Every northern campaign to take the city of Richmond was hugely unsuccessful, and the Union war machine had stalled throughout much of the south. Perhaps the biggest failure of the U.S. (union) army in the war, however, occurred on northern territory, near Antietam, Maryland. In an attempt to scare the Union into peace talks, Robert E. Lee began a northern campaign which eventually ended in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On the way to Gettysburg, the North and South fought an important battle in Antietam. There is some debate whether the battle should be considered an official defeat or a draw, but there is no escaping the fact that the Union lost an incredibly large number of soldiers that day. This huge loss of men simply has to make the battle of Antietam one of the worst defeats in U.S. military history.
1. Victory – Battle of Trenton
There are very few battles that are as famous in American history as George Washington’s successful rouse at the Battle of Trenton in the midst of the American Revolution. All this accolade is pretty deserving, however, as the taking of the British forces was not only a brilliant military victory, but is also one of the primary reasons why America was even able to gain its independence. The victory signaled to other European powers (notably France and Spain) that the colonial forces were capable of winning the war, thus convincing them to side with the rebels against their British nemesis. The battle involved (then) General George Washington and his troops crossing the Delaware River, while a mercenary group called the Hessians were drunk celebrating Christmas Eve. This turned out to be an ingenious maneuver as GW and company caught the British hires totally unawares.
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