President Obama at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, December 3rd, 2010 (Photo by Staff Sgt. David House, 17th Public Affairs Detachment, via Wikimedia Commons).

Mission Accomplished

How Wars End

At the end of May, President Barack Obama told the graduating class at West Point that “we are winding down our war in Afghanistan,” having committed to withdraw most US troops by the end of the year, and all of them by 2016. Ending the United States’ longest war has been a lengthy and gradual process, but have American wars typically had neat or definitive endings?

In this episode, BackStory casts its gaze over prominent conflicts of the last three centuries, and explores what it takes to end a war — both in legal terms, and in the popular imagination. From military and diplomatic maneuvers, to courtroom battles and ongoing cultural conflict, the hosts and their guests explore whether wars ever really end.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Full Episode Transcript

This is a transcript from an earlier broadcast of this episode, there may be slight differences in wording. 

PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf. In 1846, the United States invaded Mexico on what were essentially trumped up charges of having been attacked. The real goal was to get California, and maybe even some territory south of the Rio Grande while we are at it. The longer the war dragged on, the more unpopular it became.

AMY GREENBERG: This is a war that’s not started out of any principal at all. It simply started out of a desire for more land. And yet when the soldiers get down there, they don’t like the land, and they don’t like the people.

PETER: Today on the show, we’re looking at the ways Americans have and haven’t managed to bring the wars they fought to a close. The ends of wars have often seemed messy at the time, only to be cleaned up by subsequent generations looking back.

MICHAEL GORMAN: Then I have the actors up there on the [? porch, ?] and I’m trying to figure out some combination of gestures that I can have these guys do that would fit and look good. Because that’s a consideration when you’re on a film set. Not what happened, it’s what will sell.

PETER: The history of wars’ endings. Today on BackStory. Major funding for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and an anonymous donor.

BRIAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts. Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century Guy. And I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: I be the 19th Century Guy.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s bringing up the rear.

PETER: 18th Century Guy.


GEORGE W. BUSH: Thank you all very much Admiral Kelly, Captain Card, officers and sailors of the USS Abraham Lincoln, my fellow Americans. Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.


ED: 10 years ago this week, President George W. Bush delivered these words upon the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier. Standing in front of a giant banner reading “Mission Accomplished,” he thanked the men and women in uniform for a job well done. He thanked the upper brass. He said the work of reconstructing Iraq was just beginning. But through it all, he portrayed a sense of closure. A sense of finality.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Americans following a battle want nothing more than to return home. And that is your direction tonight.


ERICA BECK: I mean, we started filling out paperwork. And started getting these briefing about going home, and what to expect, and readjusting to civilian life. And then, of course, we ended up staying for 10 more years.

PETER: This is Erica Beck. She was a soldier in Baghdad at the time the speech. And for Erica, like a lot of soldiers, the end of combat operations didn’t really mean the end of the war.

ERICA BECK: I was an Arabic translator I should say. And I felt like I had a lot more to do and a lot more clear things in my mind that needed to be done after the combat ended. But it’s been funny. For the past decade, I’ve just been talking to people, both soldiers and the public, and everybody sort of has their own narrative about what happened in this war, and their own way of dealing with it, and thinking about it. And they’re all very, very different.

ISAAC GUNN: It didn’t really feel like a mission accomplished for us. I knew that we were basically just kind of doing an exchange. So for every ship that was coming back on that time, it was just a turnover of more ships going back that way.

BRIAN: Isaac Gunn was a Naval air crewman in 2003. He’s the guy who jumps out of the helicopter into the water if somebody ejects or crash lands on the sea. He said the lack of clarity of when the war and his service would end caused a lot of emotional turmoil. But on an even more practical level, he just didn’t pack appropriately.

ISAAC GUNN: I still had my two flight suits, and a pair of boots, and some underwear and an undershirt for just six days. It was like, I’m only going out for six days. This shouldn’t be too bad. Yeah. I wore two flight suits for about four months.

ERIC ATKINSON: And I certainly remember the statue being toppled in Baghdad. I remember seeing that image in the news.

ED: This is Eric Atkinson. He’s currently a lieutenant colonel in the Virginia Army National Guard.

ERIC ATKINSON: So I think for a few weeks there, maybe even a couple months, there was a strong feeling that probably a lot of people shared with the president that it was essentially over.

ED: Eric first served in Saudi Arabia during the First Gulf War. He returned to the region in 2003, and would eventually go back seven years later. But in those weeks after the statue came down, he said it was already feeling a little uncanny.

ERIC ATKINSON: One of the most surreal moments of my life was driving up a highway near Kuwait City in 2003 and thinking, gosh, this all looks familiar. There was a ridge line up ahead that looked familiar. And I suddenly realized it was the same spot I had been at on 12 years earlier, what the media called the Highway of Death. That was a very odd, surreal, and somewhat depressing moment for me. Because it did feel like, jeez, am I doomed to keep repeating this?

Honestly again, I don’t think I ever believed I would be back there a third time. And I was, and in fact, did see that highway again later. But I almost wondered if this is what the Romans felt like when they went back to Carthage for the second time. It was that odd kind of surreal thought.

PETER: The vast majority of war deaths in Iraq, both military and civilian, occurred after Bush’s aircraft carrier speech. President Obama declared a second end to major combat operations in 2010, the final withdrawal coming a year later. But with the many contractors, diplomats, and support personnel still in the country, it’s hard to tell when or if the war really ended.

BRIAN: And this isn’t a new phenomenon. Throughout American history, the line between wartime and peacetime has always been a bit blurry. And so today on the show, we’re going to take a closer look at that line. We’ll hear how efforts to end war sometimes lays the groundwork for more war. We’ll look at what we believe to be the one instance in American history where one man, just one man, ended a war on his own without the approval of the President. And we’ll figure out if the handshake that ended the Civil War at Appomattox was really as gentlemanly as it seems.

PETER: The Seven Years’ War, also known as the French and Indian War, holds a special place in the annals of messy, confusing American conflicts. Much of the war was fought in North America between the British and the French for control of the continent. The Indians were pulled in on both sides, though, for the most part, they were allied with the French.

ED: When the war finally ended, the British struggled to devise a solution that would make peace between the embattled British colonists and Indian neighbors. But unfortunately, the solution wound up causing more problems than it solved. Cathy Corman tells this story.

CATHY CORMAN: At the end of the Seven Years’ War, it was clear to the British, who had won, that making peace would be as, if not more, difficult than making war.

COLIN CALLOWAY: Should this be a punitive peace that would destroy the French as a rival to the British? Or would that simply spur the French on to seek revenge? Was Canada really worth keeping, when all that it seemed to produce was snow and beaver pelts?

CATHY CORMAN: This is Colin Calloway, professor of history and Native American studies at Dartmouth College. He says that the British realized that the heart of the problem was land, specifically Indian land along the colonies’ Western boundary. And so the British included an important provision in the peace, known as the Proclamation of 1763.

COLIN CALLOWAY: Sp the Proclamation of 1763 essentially says that the Appalachian Mountains will be a barrier between British settlement in the East and Indian country in the West. And that means that British traders will not operate in Indian country without a license, and that British settlers are not allowed to go into Indian country and trespass on Indian land.

CATHY CORMAN: This was a great idea in theory. Keep British colonists off the Indian land so cooler heads would prevail. But the Proclamation, Calloway says, actually proved to be the peace’s undoing. The problem comes in two parts. First, taxes. After the Seven Years’ War, the British found themselves buried under a pile of war-related debt. Their solution? Raise taxes on colonists.

COLIN CALLOWAY: And I think we all know where that went.


COLIN CALLOWAY: That’s not the real problem. The real problem is that the people who are really affected and upset by this Proclamation are not individual settlers, but they are members of the colonial elite, if you like, who have invested in Western land.

CATHY CORMAN: Like oil today, land was the hot commodity in 18th century North America. The Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, loved land as much as liberty. George Washington, a real estate mogul in his time. He wasn’t about to let the King of England prevent him and his friends from profiting on acreage west of the Appalachians. Here’s Washington in a letter he wrote to a fellow speculator in 1767.

MALE SPEAKER: I can never look upon the Proclamation in any other light than as a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians. But it must fall, of course, in a few years, especially when those Indians consent to our occupying those lands.

CATHY CORMAN: Taxes and land. Tensions boiled over in 1776 and resulted in the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War. The Americans won and declared peace in 1783. They met with the British in Paris and hammered out a treaty of peace. End of story? Not by a long shot.

COLIN CALLOWAY: There are no Indians in Paris when the peace is made. The Treaty of Paris doesn’t really even mention Indians. So what’s happening here is that you have European powers, or European-American powers transferring Indian land, Indian homelands, back and forth like some big board game.

CATHY CORMAN: Up until this point, European powers had always recognized Indians as key players deserving a seat at the table and a slice of the pie, just as the British had with the Royal Proclamation of 1763. But now, for the first time in the history of Indian diplomacy, the spoils simply went to the victors.

COLIN CALLOWAY: At first, the Indians are shell-shocked. And the news of the peace of Paris comes like a bombshell. Indians are thunderstruck. Joseph Brant says, this is unbelievable.

CATHY CORMAN: Joseph Brant was a Mohawk leader who spoke English fluently, wore a blue suit, and had visited London several times. He was so astonished to be left out of the peace that he wrote the British governor in Quebec, begging for clarification.

MALE SPEAKER: I’m now sent on behalf of all the King’s Indian allies to know whether they are included in the treaty with the Americans, and whether those lands which the Great Being above has pointed out for our ancestors and their descendants is secure to them, or whether the blood of their grandchildren is to be mingled with their bones.

CATHY CORMAN: Both sides felt legally entitled to the land. There was no peaceful way forward. So did they fight?

COLIN CALLOWAY: Yeah, they fight. And the Americans are not open to negotiate. The Americans really cannot negotiate. All they have is land. They have no money. They’re trying to build a government. They’re about trying to build a nation. The Indians have no choice if they’re going to survive but to try and defend that land.

CATHY CORMAN: And so, you wind up with more war.

COLIN CALLOWAY: So you wind up more war.

CATHY CORMAN: Shawnees, Mohawks, Miamis, Ojibwes, Pottawatomies, Ottawas, Delawares, and Wyandottes. They all banded together into a confederacy. They killed 900 of 1,400 American soldiers in three hours in 1791, essentially decimating the first American army.

But disease and a newly rebuilt American army took their toll. The Indians surrendered in 1794, and the next year, ceded most of what is now Ohio to the American government. With the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the British set up a boundary that tried to recognize competing rights and interests. In their attempt to end one war, they unknowingly set up a conflict. One that led to three more decades of bloody battle.

PETER: Cathy Corman teaches history and makes radio in Boston. We’ll post links to further reading on the Proclamation of 1763 at our website,

ED: It’s time for a quick break. When we get back, James K, Polk. A man on a mission.

AMY GREENBERG: James K. Polk believed God had put him on the Earth to bring territory under American control. He worked 16 hour days every day to win this war.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute. This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. We’re marking the 10th anniversary of President Bush’s infamous Mission Accomplished Speech, with a look back at the messy and often very prolonged ways that other American wars have ended.

BRIAN: The Iraq War was an example of how events on the ground can easily overtake the rosy scenarios of war planners. But they’re also have been times when events on the ground played out just as expected, only for war planners to get greedy and move the finish line.

ED: Such was the case 170 years ago in the Mexican-American War. Or as it was known at the time, Polk’s War. As in James K. Polk, the Tennessean elected to the White House in 1844 on what was essentially a single issue platform, Manifest Destiny.

AMY GREENBERG: James K. Pok believed God had put him on the Earth to bring territory under American control. That this was his mission. He worked 16 hour days every day to win this war.

PETER: This is historian Jamie Greenberg, author of a new book called A Wicked War. In it, she recounts how in the spring of 1846, Polk basically picked a fight with Mexico with the goal of taking California, southern Texas, and what is now the American Southwest from its Southern neighbor.

ED: It was supposed to be a quick war. And for a while, it looked like it would be. Americans won every single battle they fought. And by the end of the summer, they had taken control of Santa Fe, Southern Texas, all the major ports in California, and the northern Mexican city of Monterrey. Polk had essentially gotten what he was after. But the war did not end.

AMY GREENBERG: The reason why is because you can capture whatever territory you want, but unless the other side agrees that the war is over, it’s not. And Mexico’s in no mood to come to terms at this point, because they’re angry. If anything, they’re more angry now than they were at the start of the war.

PETER: Why? Because over the course of those three months, the American army, composed mainly of inexperienced volunteers, had committed widespread atrocities wherever they went. These included assaults on citizens, rape, murder in broad daylight.

ED: And so the war ground on. The American army moved farther south into Mexico. But at the same time, public opinion began to turn against the war. Enormous numbers of soldiers were dying from disease, and many Northerners started seeing the war as little more than a land grab by Southern Democrats, who were interested in expanding slavery.

PETER: Finally, in September of 1847, 15 months after the war had started, the Americans take Mexico City. And it’s here that our end game begins, an end game that stars a diplomat named Nicholas Trist. Polk had sent a few weeks earlier to negotiate for those original war aims. California would be American territory, and the Rio Grande would be the American border. Here is Amy Greenberg again.

AMY GREENBERG: Nicholas Trist is sort of the epitome of the kind of person that seems like he would never betray the Democratic Party. This is a guy who served as Thomas Jefferson’s private secretary, married Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter, is now the father of Thomas Jefferson’s great grandchildren. He was a man that Thomas Jefferson trusted so much that he made Trist an executor of his will.

After Jefferson died, Andrew Jackson, the father of the Democratic Party, took up Trist, made Trist his personal secretary. He seems like the perfect Democrat, and completely in line with the things the Polk believes in. So Polk thinks this guy’s going to be a great diplomat.

PETER: Well clearly, the moment had now come in which we should have the end of the war.

AMY GREENBERG: Absolutely.

PETER: And so what about Polk back in Washington? He’s beginning to rethink his war objectives, isn’t he? That is, Polk is thinking that maybe we could do better than the Rio Grande.

AMY GREENBERG: I mean, once you’ve captured the capital of a neighboring country, what’s to stop you from taking all of that country? Right? Isn’t that what spoils of war is? And a lot of people in the United States, especially Expansionists in New York City and in parts of the South, say, this is our moment to take all of Mexico. We’re never going to get another moment like this.

Polk doesn’t want to take all of Mexico. But he thinks actually taking maybe another third of the country would work out fine. So a lot of the people, the soldiers, the officers, the reporters, and the diplomats who go down to Mexico go down thinking this is the next stop on Manifest Destiny. But once they get to Mexico, they decide they don’t want it.

They decide that the people of Mexico will make bad citizens. That they’re not the kind of people that we want to integrate into the US. A lot of them think the land of Mexico is worthless. That it will be no value to the United States at all. And a lot of soldiers begin to question the whole point of this war. I mean, after all, this is a war that’s not started out of any principal at all. It simply started out of the desire for more land. And yet, when the soldiers get down there, they don’t like the land, and they don’t like the people. Now Trist happens to be surrounded by a group of people who are opposed to the war on moral reasons, or are coming to this conclusion that US control over the region will never work.

PETER: And Polk gets wind of this, and naturally wants to get rid of Trist and get somebody more amenable to his policy in Mexico.

AMY GREENBERG: Well, so Polk sends this message and says, look, you’re fired. You’re done. And I want you to come home right away. But when Trist gets Polk’s recall message, he does something really astounding, which is he refuses to go home. And it’s really at this point that movement towards a treaty happens, because the Mexicans have been dragging their feet, and Trist is able to go to Mexican diplomats and say, look, I’ve been recalled. If you want to make a treaty at all, you’ve got to make it with me right now. Because I guarantee you whoever comes after me is going to demand a lot more land.

PETER: So Trist’s credibility is enhanced by the very fact that Polk is recalling him.

AMY GREENBERG: Right. So Trist meets with Mexican negotiators in Guadalupe Hidalgo, a town which has a lot of sacred meaning to the people in Mexico. Finally, they sign a treaty in January of 1848. And this treaty that Trist negotiates, he knows is much less than Polk wants. But it’s basically the treaty that he was given when he was first sent down to Vera Cruz.

PETER: But Polk certainly could’ve repudiated the treaty, couldn’t he have?

AMY GREENBERG: Well, that’s a great question. So when Polk got this treaty, he was furious at Nicholas Trist. Furious at Trist. And he did not think the treaty was anywhere near what the United States deserved for this war. But he wrote in his diary that if he didn’t accept this treaty, that Congress would never continue to support the war anymore, and that he might very well lose New Mexico and California. So he found himself stuck in a situation where he had to accept the treaty.

PETER: Let me read to you from your book the letter that Trist wrote. “Trist says, Could those Mexicans at Guadelupe Hidalgo have seen into my heart at that moment, they would have known that my feeling of shame as an American was far stronger than theirs could be as Mexicans.” Why was Trist ashamed?

AMY GREENBERG: He was ashamed because he thought the US had behaved in a terrible manner. I mean, the United States is a country which set itself up as this exemplar to all other nations. And yet, the United States had persecuted this war against Mexico just for land.

And so when the Mexican diplomat said to Trist, this must be a very proud moment for you as an American, it’s a moment a shame to us, this was all that Trist could think, was that he actually is the one who felt shame. And that’s what he wrote back to his family.

PETER: We know about the anti-war sentiment in the North, and Henry David Thoreau, and all the principled objections to the war. But what’s most interesting about your book is the extent to which there was anti-war sentiment from the people who were fighting that war.

AMY GREENBERG: Absolutely. The soldiers.

PETER: Yeah. And that’s really the key condition, or circumstance, for Trist, is being surrounded or immersed in that world of these Americans in Mexico, wondering what they were doing there.

AMY GREENBERG: Absolutely. And the initial volunteers for the war, they signed up for a 12 month term. Because nobody thought the war would last more than 12 months. And they come home in the summer of 1847 after having served for 12 months. And you see this huge spike in anti-war letters and editorials that run in America’s newspapers. And I’m convinced that it’s from veterans coming back to the US and saying, this war is terrible. We don’t want Mexico. Everybody got ill and died. And there’s nothing glorious about this war. And the war should come to an end.

PETER: Amy, you’ve told us a moving story about how a man of conscience violated his orders, and turned against his president, and negotiated a treaty, and knew that this would wreck his political career. So what did happen to Nicholas Trist?

AMY GREENBERG: Well, Polk coal the quote, “impudent and unqualified scoundrel” and withheld his pay from the time that he spent in Mexico. And then Polk made sure that Trist didn’t work in Washington again. So Trist came back. He had no job. He was sort of unqualified, I think he said, by taste and intellect, from taking a normal job that a normal person would have. A job for pay.

And basically, the Trists spent about 10 years in poverty. I mean, utter poverty as a result of this. And it wasn’t until Ulysses S. Grant became president that Trist finally was awarded that back pay with interest that he had accrued during the Mexican War. And he was given the post-mastership of Alexandria, Virginia. And then he died soon after that. So really, the last decades of his life were spent in poverty, financial distress, and with no acknowledgement, no acknowledgement, of what he did.

PETER: Amy Greenberg is a history professor at Penn State and the author of A Wicked War– Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 US Invasion of Mexico. Thanks for joining us, Amy.


ED: We all have images in our mind of how wars end. If you saw the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln, you might remember this image of how the Civil War ended. The two General Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, they’ve agreed to terms of surrender. The heroic music swells in the background. Lee mounts his white horse. Grant stands silently before him, then slowly takes of his hat.

Almost in unison, the US troops behind him also lift their hats to the gallant, defeated general. Lee turns and rides off. And that’s it. The war is over.

This story comes largely from one source, a Union soldier named Horace Porter. Porter was Grant’s personal aide, and he had been present at Appomattox in 1865. But he didn’t publish his account of that day for another three decades. So how close his version is to reality, well, that’s an open question.

MICHAEL GORMAN: Nobody ever corroborated this or said, you know, I saw this too.

ED: This is Mike Gorman, an historian who consulted with the Spielberg team on Lincoln.

MICHAEL GORMAN: Not that I think he’s outright lying. I just think he’s looking back with, I call it, memory eyes.

ED: Gorman’s job was to help the filmmakers get the history right. So we figured, OK, Porter isn’t the most reliable source. Even though he says all those Union soldiers took their hats off to Lee, maybe we shouldn’t put that in the film.

MICHAEL GORMAN: So I talked to Spielberg at the production meeting. And we sort of walked through what we wanted to do. And I said, you know, Horace Porter is here. I have some issues with it. I’m going to work them out. It’s going to look great. Give me about half an hour to work this out, and you can come take a look.

BRIAN: Gorman headed out to the house, where a group of actors in costume were waiting to film the scene.

MICHAEL GORMAN: So I started rehearsing with the actors. And I decided we would try a tip of the hat kind of thing. And then randomly, as Lee passed by, everybody would just acknowledge him with a manly tip of the hat or something like that. I had it looking great. I’m here to tell you. I mean, I was so happy.

See, the problem was, when you’re rehearsing actors, everybody wants to do it on cue. And action, and hat tip. So I had them all random. Some of them didn’t notice that Lee passed by, or they were talking to their buddy, and then they realized [INAUDIBLE]. Well, Spielberg showed up and said, well, you’re the one who gave me the account. It says they took off their hats. I want to have them take off their hats.

ED: And not surprisingly, they took off their hats.

MICHAEL GORMAN: And so of course, Spielberg completely overrides me. He’s Steven Spielberg. I think he can do that. So now we have them all taking all their hates in very emotional, dramatic way. And thus, we have Horace Porter on screen.

BRIAN: Now we can assume that Steven Spielberg wasn’t trying to misrepresent history. He was probably just looking for the best shot. But perhaps one reason that this shot of Union soldiers doffing their hats to Lee seemed so compelling was that it fits into the story we’re used to hearing about appomattox. You know, the idea of a gentleman’s agreement. That Grant respects Lee, and Lee respects Grant, and everybody else respects both of them. And the war ends– well, it ends with a handshake.

ED: Suffice it to say, though, that’s not how it seemed in 1865. Even Lee and Grant themselves didn’t agree on what had happened that April day at Appomattox.

ELIZABETH VARON: Grant and Lee had fundamentally and utterly irreconcilable understandings of the meaning of the peace of the terms, and of the war itself.

ED: This is Elizabeth Varon, a historian at the University of Virginia.

ELIZABETH VARON: Grant believed that the Union victory was a victory of right over wrong. Lee believed that the Union victory was a victory of might over right. Those are not compatible views of things.

ED: This conflict played out in a lot of ways. But let’s just look at one of them. The question of what would happen to the defeated Confederates. Lee’s army had just surrendered. And his soldiers were therefore prisoners of war. In theory, they could be tried for treason. But the two generals made a deal. As long as the POWs quit fighting, they could go home, resume their civilian lives, and they would not be disturbed. They were paroled, in the language of the day.

BRIAN: For Grant and his soldiers, the emphasis was on the first part of the agreement. As long as they stopped fighting.

ELIZABETH VARON: Essentially for Union men, this was a kind of reminder of the obligations attendant upon the Confederate status as prisoners.

BRIAN: Obligations like obeying the law, not starting a guerrilla war.

ED: But Lee and his men saw this in a completely different light. For them, the emphasis was on the second part of the agreement. The idea that ex-Confederates quote, “would not be disturbed.”

ELIZABETH VARON: For Southerners, this “would not be disturbed” was a promise that the North would not ask anything more of them than the surrender of their arms. And we see once Northerners begin to speak about things like black civil rights and black enfranchisement, Confederates will turn on them and say, but we didn’t agree to that at Appomattox. You promised we would not be disturbed. This disturbs us.

BRIAN: Ex-Conferderates felt like they had been betrayed. But Northern Republicans thought, hey, you said you’d obey Federal law. This is Federal law. Deal with it.

ED: This conflict over the POW question reflected a much deeper difference. Grant and Lee fundamentally disagreed about what the peace should accomplish. For Lee, it was all about recapturing a lost golden age.

ELIZABETH VARON: And his view of a peace is one in which somehow, the values of the early Republic are restored. He has this kind of imagined view of the past, Halcyon days in the early republic, before the politics of slavery had alienated North and South. Before the Union’s fall from grace. He believes that his army, his army, somehow embodies in a sort of pure form the very virtues of that founding era, and the virtues that the Union needs to preserve if it’s going to survive.

BRIAN: But Grant isn’t looking backwards. In fact, he was looking forward to the future of industrial and economic growth. He figured that defeated Confederates needed to accept that the war was over. Get on board with this new reality.

ED: These divergent views played out in the national stage the very next year. In February of 1866, Lee travelled to Washington to testify to a congressional committee. The committee had already heard dozens of witnesses, black and white, testify to the racial violence erupting across the defeated South.

But in his testimony, Lee insisted that black Southerners were being well-treated by their former masters. He was frustrated by what he saw as a betrayal of the terms of Appomattox. His fighters had laid down their arms as promised, and yet the radical Republicans kept pushing for deeper change.

ELIZABETH VARON: By May of 1866, when Grant gives an interview with a Northern paper, he says, Lee, he says in this interview, Lee is behaving badly. That Lee is setting an example of forced acquiescence so grudging and pernicious in its effects as to hardly be realized. Lee’s behavior, pernicious in Grant’s mind. Now Lee himself had very little taste for vigilante violence and didn’t favorite it.

But the cluster of ideas that justified the Confederate cause and denigrated the Union one inspired resistance, including violent resistance to reconstruction. So to imagine that these men’s handshake meant that they ceased to be enemies is a terrible oversimplification. And my point, in effect, is that to understand the surrender, we have to see Lee and Grant as their contemporaries saw them. And that is as consummate leaders who had a responsibility to champion their respective causes in peace, as they had championed those causes in war, not as people who would move to the sidelines and fade into the history books.

ED: That’s Elizabeth Varon, an historian at the University of Virginia. She’s the author of the forthcoming book, Appomattox, Victory, Defeat and Freedom at the end of the Civil War.

BRIAN: We’re going to take another break now. When we come back, we’re going to calculate just how many years the United States has been at peace since World War II. And here’s a hint. It’s a single digit.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute. We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, mission accomplished. We’re looking at how wars have ended or not ended in American history. As America came out of World War II, the nation had a new place on the world stage. It was a superpower. And with this new found power to fight, it also had the power to end fights. When it chose to do so.

PETER: In 1950, the United States began its first battle of the Cold War, Korea. The Communist North with backing from China and Stalinist Russia decided to make a move on the southern half of the peninsula to try to take it over. And frankly, the South wasn’t putting up much of a fight. And while America had initially been reluctant to join in the war, the fear of Communist expansion loomed large. And so with UN approval, the US came to the South’s assistance.

BRIAN: By the next year, 1951, somewhere between 750,000 and 1 million people were estimated to have died. The two sides realized they were evenly matched, and they decided to negotiate a truce.

GIDEON ROSE: The US generals went along with their dress uniforms. And the Chinese negotiators didn’t have winter clothes. Because everyone expected us to be wrapped up quickly.

BRIAN: This is Gideon Rose, the Editor of Foreign Affairs. He says that negotiations were tough, but both sides plowed through the main issues. For instance, they agreed on a border between North and South. They worked out cease fires, troop withdrawals. All in all, things were going OK. Until they got to the very last item on the agenda. Prisoner repatriation.

GIDEON ROSE: Traditionally what has happened in war is that after the war is over, the prisoners go back. Because once there’s no longer a state of war, the prisoners are no longer belligerent and there’s no big deal about. Korea is different.

BRIAN: And what makes it different is what happened just five years earlier during World War II. At the end of that war, Russian POWs were sent back to Russia. But Stalin, who is famously paranoid, saw them as outsiders. Now they were a threat to domestic stability. So he imprisoned them in the gulags, or he killed them.

PETER: President Truman felt that it was only right to prevent this from happening again. And as an added benefit, withholding prisoners might also serve a political purpose.

GIDEON ROSE: We have this opportunity to allow the Communist prisoners to choose asylum, and it will be both a propaganda coup, if some of them decide to stay, and it will get us out of the difficult position of forcing them to go back against their will if they don’t want to go.

PETER: There’s one kink in this plan. The POW camps are guarded by South Korean soldiers. And it turns out they weren’t particularly interested in Truman’s humanitarianism. They wanted to strike their own blow against Communists.

GIDEON ROSE: They said to people, OK, we’re going to go and have a vote on whether you want to stay or go. And Tuesday, we’re going to come by and ask you. So Tuesday comes. And they have a vote. And they say, OK, everybody who wants to go back, take a step forward. And everybody who wants to stay in the South, stay where you are.

And so, some people step forward. And then guards come out of the woodwork and start wailing on and beating up the people who stepped forward. And after this whole thing takes place, they say, OK, guess what? The actual test is. tomorrow. Not today. So who’s going to do that tomorrow?

BRIAN: The answer is not many. Nearly half of 132,000 prisoners said they wanted to stay. And when the Communists found out, they were visibly shaken. They demanded a return to the traditional all for all swap.

By now, the US couldn’t back down. It had been almost a year of fighting since they first sat down to negotiate. The prisoner swap was no longer a matter of standard military practice. It was now a war for public opinion. The US doubled down.

PETER: The real speed bump in all these negotiations was the man pulling the strings from Moscow, Joseph Stalin. Russia supplied many of the funds and arms to the North Koreans, and it quickly became, “what Stalin says, goes.” That is, until October of 1952.

GIDEON ROSE: Stalin’s death, first of all, removed Stalin, who wasn’t in favor of compromise, and second, puts in place a kind of committee slightly more liberal people who want to liquidate the ongoing conflict and agree to make some kinds of changes. Which picks up negotiations again in the spring.

PETER: With an end in sight, only one man stood in the way of a treaty. South Korean president, Syngman Rhee. In a bid to obstruct the talks, he released the Communist POWs into South Korea. The US panicked. And it was the Chinese who made the next move.

GIDEON ROSE: Finally, the Chinese, after a couple of offensives, which in effect make the South Koreans pay a price for their obstreperousness, agree to go forward with the remaining negotiations on one condition, which is that we, United States, will sign on the line for our Korean ally. In effect, they make us the guarantors of our local allies’ future behavior.

BRIAN: After three years of conflict and the deaths of more than 1.5 million people, the Communists and allies came to an armistice.

GIDEON ROSE: Which is not peace treaty. It doesn’t end the war. It just is a kind of stalemate locked in place.

BRIAN: Yes, we know that from reading the newspapers today.

GIDEON ROSE: And 60 years later, we’re in exactly the same place.

PETER: Rose says that the US could have been in that place a year and a half earlier, if it had originally agreed to an all for all swap of prisoners of war. This may also spared more lives.

GIDEON ROSE: There are more casualties when prisoners are the sole issue than there were prisoners in question. so On a pure utilitarian calculus, this was a dumb and immoral gesture, even if it was partly well-intentioned.

PETER: And yet our desire for a propaganda victory to make Communism look bad prolonged the fighting. And that, Rose says, tells us a lot about postwar America’s newfound power.

GIDEON ROSE: In some ways, it’s precisely our strength, it’s precisely our extraordinary relative power, the strongest position and international system that any state has ever known, that allowed us not only to fight for a relatively unimportant country halfway around the world in the first place, but then to fight over such a geostrategically irrelevant issue as the rights of asylum of the enemy prisoners in our hands. That’s kind of a luxury good. And we essentially continued the war for a year and a half over a luxury good that we had decided to purchase at high price.

BRIAN: Gideon Rose is a former national security official in the Clinton administration, and the author of the book How Wars End– Why We Always Fight the Last Battle.

PETER: We’re going to end this show today with the war that seems like it has the cleanest ending in American history. That war, of course, is World War II.

BRIAN: So let’s run through a couple of dates here. Dates that could be considered the end of the war. August 1945.

ED: That’s when Japan surrendered, and we get the memorable picture of the sailor kissing a woman in Times Square.

BRIAN: December of 1946.

PETER: That’s when President Truman declared an end to hostilities with Japan.

BRIAN: But what about four and a half years later, 1952? It’s the official end of hostilities with Germany, though the fighting had been over for years at that point. Suffice it to say, there are lots of options. So I put the question to Mary Dudziak, a legal historian at Emory University. You know, I think this is going to be very short interview. I really only have one question, and it’s pretty obvious. Can you tell me when World War II ended?

MARY DUDZIAK: The short answer is no.

BRIAN: [LAUGHING]. Well, great. Because we have a lot of radio time to fill. So maybe you can elaborate.

MARY DUDZIAK: Well, the Supreme Court actually had to decide your question. It had to decide, when did World War II end? And this came up in the context of a murder case. Lee v. Madigan. And Lee was accused of a murder that happened in a US Army prison in June 1949. And he was tried by a court martial and sentenced to death.

So the case went out all the way up to the Supreme Court, because under Article 92 of the Laws of War, you can’t be tried by court martial for rape or murder in the United States during times of peace. So Lee’s case hinged on the question of whether the date of the crime, June, 1949, was part of World War II, or whether World War II had ended before that.

Justice Douglas, he says, “The United States could be more for some purposes and at peace for others.” And so the question for this case was whether the United States was at war or peace for the purpose of Article 92 of the Laws of War. So it’s as if war and peace co-exist at any one time for the United States, depending upon what statute or regulation you’re looking at.

BRIAN: We’re talking about Supreme Court Justice Douglas. And what did he decide?

MARY DUDZIAK: And he decided that it was peacetime for the purpose of this case, essentially. And so therefore, the court martial and the death penalty were unconstitutional.

BRIAN: So if war existed or did not exist at different times, were there other instances where either the court or the legislative branch decided that war still went on?

MARY DUDZIAK: Absolutely. So Congress passed the Housing and Rent Act of 1947. This act allowed for rent control in certain defense areas. And this case was applied to the Cleveland defense area. So–

BRIAN: And I gather this was more than just the military base included.

MARY DUDZIAK: Absolutely. Absolutely.

BRIAN: These were commercial properties that we usually think of with rent control.

MARY DUDZIAK: So you couldn’t raise the rent more than 15%. There was a question about congressional power, because Congress usually isn’t involved in setting rents in localities.

BRIAN: Right.

MARY DUDZIAK: Right? But right after the act goes into effect, this landlord in Cleveland raises his rents 40% to 60% in violation of the act. So he gets sued. So the act comes up to the US Supreme Court. Supreme Court upholds it, and says that the effects of war on the economy can linger. There are continuing effects on the housing market from the war, largely because veterans were coming home in large numbers in ’45, ’46, ’47.

And then you had a slowdown in the housing market and housing construction during the war. And this combination of factors that was war-related was resulting in a housing shortage, which was then causing landlords to be able to spike up rents. So from the court’s perspective, this was a war-related effect. So the War Powers essentially continued beyond the war, and they appropriately sustained this legislation.

BRIAN: How could they argue the war was still going on in 1948?

MARY DUDZIAK: Well, we still had troops overseas. We had troops in Japan. We had troops in Germany.

BRIAN: You know what? We still do. So is World War II still going on, Mary?

MARY DUDZIAK: One of the ways I actually figure out start/stop dates is the US government issues military campaign service medals for particular hostilities. And if you look at start/stop dates for US military service medals, which are not medals for valor, they’re medals for honorable service during a particular conflict, those actually have firm dates.

BRIAN: And this is the military’s own decision as to whether there’s a war or not.

MARY DUDZIAK: Congress passes legislation authorizing these medals. So it’s actually a US government imprimatur. Here’s a war. Here’s where it ended. And so one way of answering your question, we still have troops in Germany and Japan, are we still in World War II? And one answer would be, well, you can no longer get a medal for that as a World War II campaign service medal, so no, we’re not at war.

BRIAN: When was the last World War II service medal handed out?

MARY DUDZIAK: Basically, it’s really complicated. But the official World War II medal ends December 31, 1946, which is the date that Truman declares the end of hostilities. But then we have all these ongoing medals that are available. Because you’ve got American troops stationed. So Austria, Germany, Italy, China, Korea, Berlin, and Japan, you basically have ongoing US deployments, but they’re going to call the medal something different.

And this happens in other contexts, like at one point in 2010, Obama announced that the conflict in Iraq had ended.

BRIAN: He didn’t say “mission accomplished,” did he?

MARY DUDZIAK: I call it his mission accomplished moment. Because basically, it was a media event. And the only people who seemed to think that the conflict in Iraq had ended were the Obama administration and NBC News that had all these embedded reporters. Embedded in trucks driving across the border. And so what happened right after that is, of course, there were 50,000 soldiers still in Iraq under dangerous conditions.

And so they said to their commanding officers, well, if conflict in Iraq has ended, does that mean we don’t get a medal anymore? Does that mean that our combat service pay goes away? And the army had to come right back and say, no, no, no, no. Combat in Iraq has ended, but combat conditions persist. And so, you’re still going to be able to get combat service pay and medals.

BRIAN: So Mary, judging just by looking at when medals were handed out, or perhaps judging by when combat pay was paid, using either measure, how long have we been at war since 1940? And how many years have we been at peace?

MARY DUDZIAK: Well, since 1940, there hasn’t been any peacetime.

BRIAN: Oh, come on.

MARY DUDZIAK: Again, if we look at campaign service medals, a soldier could always get a medal for being deployed under war-related circumstances since 1940. We’ve had soldiers deployed all over the world in conflicts large and small, in conflicts that break through to the radar screen of the American people and show up on TV, and conflicts that don’t.

BRIAN: Given everything that you’ve told us about really continuous war, why is it that we continue to divide history and time into wartime and peacetime? Why is it that we continue to expect Johnny to come marching home?

MARY DUDZIAK: The concept of wartime itself assumes that a war has a beginning and an end. Because outside of wartime is something that we call peace. And we persist in thinking that peace is actually the normal time and wartime is just a temporary disruption.

So this idea that peace is really the normal thing is a central cultural assumption. And so that’s one reason, I think, that we read these eras that are so full of war as eras that are peacetime.

BRIAN: Mary, thanks so much for joining us.

MARY DUDZIAK: Thank you so much, Brian.

BRIAN: Mary Dudziak is a legal historian at Emory University. She’s the author of Wartime– An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences.

That’s our show for today. But we’re eager to hear about your experience with today’s wars and the wars of the past. In what ways do they linger in your life? Drop us a comment at

ED: You can also join us on Facebook, Tumblr, or on Twitter. We’re at BackStory Radio.

PETER: Thanks for listening, and don’t be a stranger.


ED: Today’s show is produced by Jess Engebretson, Eric Mennel, Chioke I’anson, Emily Charnock and Tony Field. Jamal Millner is our engineer, and Allen Chen is our intern.

PETER: Special thanks today to Steve Metz and to our reader, Daniel Pearlman. Our executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel, History Made Every Day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh our professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.