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Choosing War: Presidential Decisions in the Maine, Lusitania, and Panay Incidents

Choosing War: Presidential Decisions in the Maine, Lusitania, and Panay Incidents by Douglas Carl Peifer, Oxford University Press, 2016, 331 pp.

Occasionally a work of history is not only factually correct, it is also timely. Choosing War: Presidential Decisions in the Maine, Lusitania, and Panay Incidents is just such a book that readers of Strategic Studies Quarterly should find educational. While reading it during the weeks of transition after the 2016 presidential election, the reviewer could not help but think of the South China Sea, the Persian Gulf, or the Red Sea as potential locations for incidents similar to those covered in this book. It does not take high-level predictive skills to be concerned over the inevitable challenges our new president will face. This book may be instructive for him should such an event occur.

The United States has experienced hundreds, perhaps thousands, of maritime incidents resulting in the destruction of ships or aircraft, along with a tragic loss of lives. Despite great anger among the citizenry and clamors for retribution few have directly led to war. Douglas Peifer, a professor of history and strategy at the Air War College, compares three incidents: the destruction of the USS Maine by persons unknown (or more likely by an accidental explosion) in 1898, the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat in 1915, and the attack and sinking of the USS Panay by Japanese forces in 1937. He describes the different methods that Presidents McKinley, Wilson, and Roosevelt used in response to these incidents.

The choice of these three incidents was prudent. They are recent enough that most adult readers are aware of them, but enough time has passed that all information on the incidents is in the public domain. The shroud of classified information over more recent incidents, such as those involving the USS Pueblo, Liberty, Stark, and Cole, render those incidents currently unsuitable for a full analysis.

Since the beginning, the US Navy has been the military tool of coercive diplomacy in the hands of a president. Whether cruising just over the horizon outside a country’s territorial waters, protecting freedom of navigation, gathering intelligence, or delivering humanitarian assistance, the Navy simultaneously serves many purposes. It is tangible evidence of our national ability and will to force decisions should they become necessary. In two of the cases studied here, Maine and Panay, the Navy was performing one or more of those functions. The Lusitania incident invoked the sinking of a civilian cruise ship under the flag of a belligerent, resulting in massive loss of American lives. The author addresses the theory that somehow our government was using civilians to test the limits of neutrality. The author takes on these crises in the complex contexts in which they erupted revealing a deeper understanding of the situations.

President William McKinley used the USS Maine as his tool to send a message to the Spanish government and to Cuban insurrectionists, hoping to force a peace between these two factions for the benefit of the United States. He dispatched the Maine to Cuba without consulting the US diplomat on the ground or gaining a formal invitation from Spanish authorities. The destruction of the ship as she lay at anchor in Havana harbor incensed the American public. McKinley did not personally want war, but his actions were shaped by the event and political environment. Personal opinion aside, the United States was soon at war with Spain. When it was over, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines were no longer Spanish colonies.

The Lusitania crisis was a tragedy of massive proportion. It thrust the neutral-leaning President Woodrow Wilson between belligerents. It was a political minefield that could have pushed the United States into war against England, had Wilson fully bought into the German accusation that England manipulated the circumstances to the inevitable conclusion. The president’s deft handling of the crisis kept the unprepared nation out of the war until it was ready. Peifer also addresses, in an enlightening and thought-provoking manner, the complex meaning of neutrality and how it applied in this case.

The attack on the USS Panay, three American flagged oil tankers, and some British ships on the Yangtze River in China by Japanese aircraft was another case of an attack on neutral shipping by a belligerent force. President Franklin Roosevelt dealt with the attack as a diplomatic crisis, thereby sparing the United States from premature entry into war with Japan. He skillfully treated the crises as a political matter despite the loss of lives and a US warship so as not to directly confront the Japanese military. Although still facing a severe disadvantage, the United States was better prepared four years later when war came after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

These are not just three isolated incidents, nor are they carbon copies. There are enough similarities to make them appropriate for this study of presidential decision-making. The book breaks down the complexity of these incidents and illustrates the difficulties involved in responding to provocations. They may provide a template but they are not a roadmap. They are evidence that the United States exists in a turbulent world that requires constant vigilance and a robust military capability, combined with the flexibility to see and apply options short of war. Choosing War: Presidential Decisions in the Maine, Lusitania, and Panay Incidents not only explains the decisions of Presidents McKinley, Wilson, and Roosevelt; it gives rise to concern over contemporary responses in our modern world of resurging peer competitors, technological advances in missiles and communications, increased cyber threats, terrorism, not to mention a citizenry deeply divided over visions for America.

James H. Clifford


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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