From the seventeenth to the twentieth century, victory was achieved in two separate phases: limited military operations and diplomatic negotiations. As colonists, Americans witnessed their wars of empire settled in Europe, often well after hostilities ended in North America. The signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, ending the Revolutionary War, occurred two years after major military operations ceased. Perhaps most famously, Andrew Jackson's defeat of the British in the Battle of New Orleans occurred after the Treaty of Ghent concluded the War of 1812. Similarly, negotiations ended the Mexican War and the Spanish‐American War after the United States achieved strategic advantage in limited military operations.
There were notable exceptions: the Civil War and wars with Native Americans. Both belligerents entered the Civil War hoping to achieve victory quickly and with limited engagements. Initially, the opponents' conceptions of victory mirrored one another: for the Confederacy, independence; for the Union, reunion. Steadily, however, the war evolved into a protracted struggle. This led to an expansion of the Union's aims to include the elimination of slavery. President Abraham Lincoln as commander in chief integrated these political objectives with military strategy. Although scholars debate whether the Civil War was the first “modern” or “total war,” the combination of Ulysses S. Grant's campaign of attrition against the Army of Virginia and William Tecumseh Sherman's strike at the heart of the Confederacy's economy and civilian morale with his drive to Atlanta and then his march to the sea represented means to victory hitherto unprecedented in American history. Despite his expressed willingness to negotiate with the Confederacy, Lincoln's insistence on reunion and abolition of slavery as preconditions for any settlement linked “unconditional surrender” to the end of the war in popular memory.
In their wars against Native American nations, Americans rejected limited objectives and sought instead the forcible relocation or elimination of entire peoples. Therefore, from the Pequot War to the slaughter at the Battle of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on 29 December 1890, America's pursuit of victory against Native Americans approached wars of annihilation by means of bounties, fire, opportunistic alliances, and eventually superior firepower and mobility.
After the outbreak of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson hoped that the United States could serve as an impartial mediator to end the conflict. In this context, Wilson sought in his “Peace Without Victory” address (1917) to redefine “victory” as the imposition of a settlement by the victor upon the vanquished, a condition that inevitably bred resentment and undermined prospects for long‐term peace. Wilson juxtaposed against this portrait of traditional victory his vision of peace based upon the interests of all nations and the repudiation of traditional power politics. Although after the United States entered the war, he embraced “complete victory” and oversaw a mobilization that eclipsed the Civil War experience, Wilson nonetheless conceived of an American victory in the distinctive terms of creating a new international order as suggested in his Fourteen Points. But the compromises of the Treaty of Versailles, the American failure to join the League of Nations, and the subsequent deterioration of European stability all disenchanted Americans, until the entire experience seemed not a “peace without victory” but a military victory without meaningful peace.
This bitter experience shaped Americans' views of victory during World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed the objective of “absolute victory.” He then supervised the formulation of American strategy as Lincoln had. “V for Victory” symbolized a hybrid Wilsonian idealism and realpolitik. Such pronouncements as FDR's “Four Freedoms” Speech (6 January 1941), the Atlantic Charter (14 August 1941), and the United Nations Declaration (2 January 1942) linked victory to both the elimination of the military and ideological threat posed by the Axis powers and the creation of a new international order. Yet the United Nations' prospects for success were predicated on the continued leadership and cooperation of the Grand Alliance. For rhetorical and policy reasons, FDR resurrected “unconditional surrender” at the Casablanca Conference (1943) as a vital prerequisite for victory. To win such a victory, the United States adopted means approaching pure total war by expanding the boundaries of what Americans considered militarily legitimate—for example, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After World War II, the United States confronted a new strategic environment dominated by the Cold War with the USSR. The idea of seeking unconditional surrender in any future war with the USSR appeared fantastic. Against this backdrop, the United States intervened in the Korean War in June 1950, sought the reunification of the peninsula by force, and then changed its objectives to a return to the status quo ante bellum and circumscribed its means following the Communist Chinese intervention in late 1950. A new class of civilian strategists developed theories of Limited War, which postulated the Korean War as the likely norm in a world of two nuclear‐armed superpowers. Such ideas provided the intellectual foundation for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations' Flexible Response strategy. When applied to Vietnam, however, a policy emerged that did not emphasize American victory but rather the denial of victory to the Vietnamese Communists. President Lyndon B. Johnson's strategy led to a prolonged attrition of American will and ultimate failure.
This failure stimulated a reassessment of the relationship between military and political factors in war. As articulated in the so‐called Weinberger and Powell Doctrines and implemented in Panama (1989–90) and the Persian Gulf War (1991), current U.S. strategy emphasizes the application of overwhelming military force to terminate a conflict swiftly and decisively. Yet, despite the unmistakable battlefield triumph in the Gulf War, many doubt whether the final outcome constituted a true victory because of the perseverance of Saddam Hussein's regime. Therefore, even though the United States approached the end of the twentieth century as the world's sole superpower, it still confronted the central dilemma of achieving victory: finding the proper balance between political objectives and military means.
[See also Defeat; Limited War, Joint Chiefs of Staff and; Native American Wars: Wars Between Native Americans and Europeans and Euro‐Americans; Powell, Colin; War; Weinberger, Caspar.]
Fred Iklé , Every War Must End, 1971; rev. ed. 1991.
Bernard Brodie , War and Politics, 1973.
Russell F. Weigley , The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy, 1973.
Christopher M. Gacek , The Logic of Force: The Dilemma of Limited War in American Foreign Policy, 1994.
Andrew P. N. Erdmann
- Arc de Triomphe arch built in Paris by Napoleon to celebrate his conquests (1806–1836). [Fr. Hist.: Misc.]
- Arch of Trajan triumphal monument by emperor (c. 100). [Rom. Hist.: Misc.]
- bay leaves wreath used as victor’s crown. [Heraldry: Halberts, 20]
- Beethoven’s 5th symphony’s first four notes are Morse code for V, symbolizing victory. [Western Culture: Misc.]
- Greek cross symbol of Christ’s triumph over death. [Christian Iconog.: Jobes, 386]
- laurel wreath traditional symbol of victory, recognition, and reward. [Gk. and Rom. Hist.: Jobes, 374]
- Nike (Victoria ) winged goddess of triumph. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 757]
- palm sign of triumph. [N. T.: Revelation 7:9]
- V-E Day Allies accept Germany’s surrender in WWII (May 8, 1945). [World Hist.: Van Doren, 506]
- V- J Day Allies accept Japan’s surrender in VWVII (August 15, 1945). [World Hist.: Van Doren, 507]
victory sign a signal of triumph or celebration made by holding up the hand with the palm outwards and the first two fingers spread apart to represent the letter V; also known as the V-sign.
See also Pyrrhic victory at Pyrrhus, Winged Victory at winged.
vic·to·ry / ˈvikt(ə)rē/ • n. (pl. -ries) an act of defeating an enemy or opponent in a battle, game, or other competition: an election victory | they won their heat and went on to victory in the final.