This sense of innocence and invincibility had deep roots in American history. During the Revolutionary War, the American revolutionaries met with defeat and in many ways failed to live up to their own ideals. Led by the Continental army, Americans still won their independence. Once they did, they gave little credit to the army or to French aid, rarely dwelt on their defeats, but instead portrayed their victory as testimony to their own and the nation's virtue. The War of 1812 offered a greater challenge to Americans' mythmaking powers. The military met frequent defeat in battle and the outcome of the war could at best be labeled a draw. Nevertheless, Americans came to remember this war too as a victory.
In the century and a half that followed, the United States sometimes endured defeat on the battlefield, but won its wars. In the Mexican, Civil, Indian, and Spanish‐American Wars, the United States achieved the near‐total victories its strategists sought. This persistent success deepened Americans' faith in their innocence, invincibility, and special favor in God's sight. After World War I, some Americans, disillusioned by the peace as well as by the war, questioned whether U.S. intervention had been wise; but World War II, with its total, if hard‐earned, victory over foes Americans found evil, reaffirmed their conviction of invincibility and virtue. In the two decades that followed, the United States's sense of its power and rectitude never seemed surer.
Writing in the midst of this collective sense of American innocence, the historian C. Vann Woodward challenged it by pointing to the history of the American South. Unlike other Americans, Woodward argued, white Southerners had experienced military defeat. The loss of the Civil War, along with poverty, guilt, and other frustrations, could have created a unique southern identity, one that would have offered an important corrective to the sense of innocence and invincibility that dominated American culture as a whole. Many southern intellectuals embraced Woodward's view and maintained that southern culture had been chastened, yet ennobled, by defeat. Other historians questioned such assumptions. They found that white Southerners interpreted the loss of the war as a sign of God's favor, blamed defeat on factors outside of their control, and celebrated the heroism, nobility, and fighting ability of Confederates. Defeat did not force them to reexamine old myths and assumptions; rather, like other Americans, Southerners celebrated a glorious, military achievement. And in the Spanish‐American War, they demonstrated their continued faith in American invincibility and inevitable victory. They did as well, as Woodward himself noted, in their involvement in and support for the Vietnam War.
American defeat in Vietnam, though, forced Americans, North and South, to confront their assumptions of invincibility. A few Americans, including some political leaders, at times claimed that the United States had never really been defeated on the field of battle. But this time the mythmaking seemed to fail; most Americans accepted the reality of what they saw as America's first defeat in war. Others, especially those in the military, searched for the cause of this defeat. Some blamed it on antiwar protesters or the press; others questioned American strategy or pointed to mistakes made by the military. Almost all agreed that the absence of a national consensus in favor of the war and the policy of phased escalation contributed to America's failure.
The latter lesson of defeat, the importance of delivering massive amounts of force at the beginning of the war, clearly shaped military strategy in the United States's next “major” military confrontation, the Persian Gulf War. The military employed overwhelming airpower and as many soldiers as had served in Vietnam at its height to win the war in days. In the wake of the victory, some talked of having buried the ghosts of Vietnam, by which they apparently meant not just America's post‐Vietnam hesitancy to use military force abroad but also doubts about American innocence and invincibility as well. Whether the Gulf War has revived those myths remains to be seen, as does just how profoundly defeat in Vietnam has affected American attitudes toward war and its sense of providential blessing.
[See also War: American Way of War; Vietnam War: Changing Interpretations; Victory.]
C. Vann Woodward , The Burden of Southern History, 1960; 3rd rev. ed. 1993.
Russell F. Weigley , The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy, 1973.
Charles Royster , A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775–1783, 1979.
Gaines M. Foster , Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865–1913, 1987.
Gaines M. Foster , Coming to Terms with Defeat: Post‐Vietnam America and the Post–Civil War South, Virginia Quarterly Review, 66 (Winter 1990), pp. 17–35.
Gaines M. Foster
- Appomattox Courthouse scene of Lee’s surrender to Grant (1865). [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 22]
- Armada, Spanish defeat by English fleet marked Spain’s decline and England’s rise as a world power (1588). [Eur. Hist.: EB, 1: 521–522]
- Austerlitz defeat of Austro-Russian coalition by Napoleon (1805). [Fr. Hist.: Harbottle Battles, 23–24]
- Bataan Philippine peninsula where U.S. troops surrendered to Japanese (1942). [Am. Hist.: NCE, 245]
- Battle of the Boyne sealed Ireland’s fate as England’s vassal state (1690). [Br. Hist.: Harbottle Battles, 39]
- Battle of the Bulge final, futile German WWII offensive (1944–1945). [Eur. Hist.: Hitler, 1148–1153, 1154–1155]
- Caudine Forks mountain pass where Romans were humiliatingly defeated by the Samnites. [Rom. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 186]
- Culloden consolidated English supremacy; broke clan system (1746). [Br. Hist.: Harbottle Battles, 70]
- Dien Bien Phu Vietminh rout of French paved way for partition of Vietnam (1954). [Fr. Hist.: Van Doren, 541]
- Gallipoli poorly conceived and conducted battle ending in British disaster (1915). [Br. Hist.: Fuller, III, 240–261]
- Little Bighorn scene of General Ouster’s “last stand” (1876). [Am. Hist.: Van Doren, 274]
- Pearl Harbor Japan’s surprise attack destroys U.S. fleet (1941). [Am. Hist.: NCE, 2089]
- Pyrrhic victory a too costly victory; “Another such victory and we are lost.” [Rom. Hist.: “Asculum I” in Eggenburger, 30–31]
- Salt River up which losing political parties travel to oblivion. [Am. Slang: LLEI, I: 312]
- Sedan decisive German defeat of French (1870). [Fr. Hist.: Harbottle Battles, 225]
- Stalingrad German army succumbs to massive Soviet pincer movement (1942-1943). [Ger. Hist.: Fuller, III, 531–538]
- Waterloo British victory in Belgium signals end of Napoleon’s domination (1815). [Fr. Hist.: Harbottle Battles, 266]
- white flag a sign of surrender. [Western Folklore: Misc.]
de·feat / diˈfēt/ • v. [tr.] win a victory over (someone) in a battle or other contest; overcome or beat. ∎ prevent (someone) from achieving an aim: defeated by their criticism. ∎ prevent (an aim) from being achieved: allowing your body to droop defeats the object of the exercise. ∎ reject or block (a motion or proposal). ∎ be impossible for (someone) to understand: this line of reasoning defeats me. ∎ Law render null and void; annul. • n. an instance of defeating or being defeated.
Hence defeat sb. XVI. So defeatism, defeatist sb. and adj. XX. — F.