Accession Number:



The American Approach to Limited War

Descriptive Note:


Corporate Author:


Personal Author(s):

Report Date:


Pagination or Media Count:



Limited war has been a prominent feature in United States military history. Past applications of limited military power in war have dramatically furthered U.S. national interests. But despite encouraging experiences with limited war from independence to the 20th century, its inherent equivocations coupled with increasing apprehension over its costs and results have made this type of combat progressively less appealing to the American psyche. Moreover, the primary pillar that supported its advisability after World War II -- the presence of an adversary in the international system capable of devastating the United States with nuclear weapons -- has been undermined by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. This paper analyzes the particular historical circumstances of the American experience with limited war from early conflicts through the post-World War II period. It compares the U.S. perspective with principles of limited war described by military strategists, especially Carl von Clausewitz. The paper then examines how the evolution of American thinking about limited war has affected its usefulness as an instrument of U.S. national policy. It concludes by looking at the implications of the post-Cold War international environment for American political and military strategies to deal with limited uses of military power. Throughout the paper, examples of Americas limited war experiences are cited to illustrate judgments that are offered. The paper is not, however, about those wars. It is intended to analyze U.S. attitudes toward limited war and how these beliefs affect the relationship between this form of warfare and the pursuit of American political objectives.

Subject Categories:

  • Government and Political Science
  • Humanities and History
  • Psychology
  • Military Operations, Strategy and Tactics

Distribution Statement: