In the late 18th and early 19th century, Robert Fulton invented or imagined a score of weapons, each of which he in turn thought would be the ultimate weapon, against which no defence was proof and which would therefore make an end to war: the submarine, the torpedo, the seamine and the ironclad steam warship.
In 1871, The Battle of Dorking, a story of a future invasion of an unprepared Britain by the armies of the German Kaiser, was published as a warning to the English governments not to neglect the army. Its publication started a flood of similar tales coming out in Britain, France, Germany and other European countries, each in turn warning for their respective "natural" or "traditional" enemies.
In America, this sort of story got its start around 1880, just when America began to make the transition of frontier nation to world power. Its apex was arguably reached with the 1898 publication of Edison's Conquest of Mars, Garret P. Servis' answer to H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds, which transformed the latter warning and parable about imperialism into cheerful support for it.
While the European tradition of "future war" novels consisted largely of tracts warning a country to stay alert, in America, as seen with Edison's Conquest of Mars, this was transformed into a more science fictional genre, which emphasised the development of new superweapons, weapons so powerful and horrible they would automatically lead to peace, either enforced by America or by a lone wolf American inventor becoming world dictator for the sake of humanity.
It's this tradition that H. Bruce Franklin examines in War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination, to determine what influence it has had on the United States development as a superpower. War Stars was published in 1988, at a time when a real life superweapon, the socalled "Star Wars" programme, was supposed to bring peace and safety to America, by protecting it from any possible nuclear attack. In reality, even the plans for this "purely defensive weapon system made America less safe, by threatening the precarious balance that existed between the USA and the USSR. As such, the "Star Wars" programme was only the latest in a long line of "ultimate" weapons guaranteed to bring peace, and failing.
How is it that the US has consistently placed its trust in these superweapons as the answer to war? The core of Franklin's attempt to explain this is set out early in the book:
To create the objects that menace our existence, some people first had to imagine them. Then to build these weapons, a much larger number of people had to imagine the consequent scenarios--a resulting future-- that seemed desirable. Thus our actual superweapons originated in their imagined history, which forms a crucial part of our culture.
He therefore first sets out where this imagined history came from. Ultimately, its origins can be found in the writings of Robert Fulton, selling his latest weapon invention as the ultimate weapon and thus securer of peace. This image of the lone superscientist, working on terrible weapons for the good of humanity or America (often the same thing in these stories) would be an important part of the future war genre as published in the US from the 1880s onwards. For the American future war story went much further than its earlier European counterpart.
Typically, a story would open with dastartly attacks by the enemy dujour, be they Spanish just before the Spanish-American war, English during much of the 1880s and 1890s, Germany before World War I or Japan in the 1920ties and 1930ties, made worse by an unprepared and peaceloving America. Often, especially in those stories about the "Yellow Peril", these enemies would be aided by a fifth column of whatever nationality was the enemy this time, because even if they call themselves American, you cannot trust those Germans, Japanese, Chinese or Blacks.
Whereas the European war story would then go on to conventional battles, in which the roused nation would slough off the chians of the invaders, in the American version, relief would come from a lone genius working in an isolated laboratory on the ultimate weapon, which would not only vanquish the enemy, but because it was so horrible, force the nations of the earth into a benign Pax Americana.
Franklin argues that these stories not only reflect the anxieties of their times, but that they also helped shaped the myth of the superweapon, which in American hands could force peace on an unwilling planet. He shows how people like Thomas Edison, in his much publicised work for the War Department during World War I and Billy Mitchell, in his experiments with aerial bombardment in the 1920ies further shaped this myth, with its perverse effects only fully coming into view with the development of the atomic bomb.
Because this myth is so powerful it overwhelms the reality of America's development of superweapons. The truth is, far from being the one nationt hat would not use these weapons unless forced to, America used the atomic bomb while there was little or no military need for it, America enthusiastically pursued even more terrible weapons, the whole plethora of nuclear armament as it has been developed since 1945 even though there was no reason to and even before the atomic bomb, America had no qualms about firebombing the cities of Japan as much to cause terror as for military purposes.
Even though we managed to survive the Cold War, this myth is still active today --one could see it working in the pre-Irak invasion reports about Saddam Hussein' supposed weapons of mass destruction which could rain down on the US any minute now, all of which proven false, which would need new research into missile defence and new nuclear devices to counter. Or there are the still subdued rumbles about. War Stars, though somewhat dated now, is therefore still relevant.
Webpage created 28-03-2005, last updated 29-03-2005