Close Calls: 15 Times The U.S. Almost Went To War

America has been the world’s police force since its role in World War Two and subsequent economic and military hegemony. However, prior to the Allies’ victory over Hitler’s National Socialist forces, the U.S.A. wasn’t always a beacon of justice. World Population Review puts the number of countries visited by U.S. forces at 68, while others argue it has been much higher.

Christopher Kelly, author of America Invades: How We’ve Invaded Or Been Militarily Involved With Almost Every Country on Earth, claims the United States has clashed with 191 of 193 countries. However, there are times America almost went to war but didn’t, or didn’t declare war but had conflict. Full disclosure: in 1957, the Doomsday Clock was seven minutes to midnight; in 2024, we are 90 seconds away.

1. The Invasion of Saudi Arabia

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin
Image Credit: Warren K. Leffler/Wiki Commons.

The early ’70s was a strenuous time for international relations, not least those between the United States and the Middle East. In events echoing modern times, American support for Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War led to a Saudi Arabian oil embargo, which quadrupled crude oil prices, devastating the West with recession and unprecedented inflation. The images of people still lining up for gasoline, factories closing, and industries laying off thousands are still a strong one for those who lived through it. The New York Times reported in 2004 how declassified British intelligence documents revealed an American plan to invade Saudi Arabia and take control of the oil reserves. However, no invasion happened, and America’s economy rebounded spectacularly in the following decade.

2. The Dolphin Incident

Woodrow Wilson and his Cabinet
Image Credit: Harris & Ewing – Library of Congress/Wiki Commons.

President Woodrow Wilson was a tough president, and his reputation was confirmed after a failure in diplomacy between Mexican federales and an American Navy ship, the U.S.S. Dolphin. After federal forces accidentally arrested U.S. soldiers collecting supplies in Tampico Bay, the Dolphin’s commander demanded an explanation from General Ignacio Morelos Zaragoza. Before long, Admiral Mayo demanded a written apology and a 21-gun salute to the U.S. flag. Perturbed, Zaragoza agreed, though only if American forces did the same for the Mexican flag. Wilson responded by asking Congress for permission to invade and then occupying Veracruz Bay for many months. It wasn’t a full-on repeat of the American-Mexican War, but it demonstrated American supremacy in the region.

3. The Korean War #1

G.I. comforting a grieving infantryman, Korea
Image Credit: Sfc. Al Chang/Wiki Commons.

America’s role in the Korean War pitched them against all the communist forces of the region, albeit in proxy mode. North Korean and Chinese soldiers joined forces with Soviet air and ground defenses. Intelligently, the Soviets hid the fact they were involved, as did their American rivals, lest they provoke calls for an even bigger war. However, 30,000 feet above the land war, Korean, Chinese, and Soviet pilots traded shots with the American Air Force.

4. The Quasi-French War

Image Credit: Navy History and Heritage Command/Wiki Commons.

Two years shy of the 19th century, a newly independent United States of America was expanding fast, and part of this expansion involved trading with its former rulers, Britain. Of course, the Redcoats’ military campaign with Napoleon meant that French privateers captured any supply lines coming into the old country’s Caribbean colonies, so American trading rights were compromised. While no war against France was declared, American ships captured 85 French privateers in one year. It is unclear whether further hostilities would have led to war, but the Treaty of Mortefontaine ended hostilities in 1800, though the War of 1812 was just around the corner.

5. Obama’s Syria Declaration

Barack Obama
Image Credit: Pete Souza/Wiki Commons.

When the Arab Spring threatened oligarchies in the Middle East, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime met the resistance with no quarter. The ongoing conflicts led to a European refugee crisis and the emergence of ISIS, a terrorist militia organization that made its predecessor, Al-Qaeda, look tame. When hostilities culminated in the state using alleged chemical warfare against its people, President Barack Obama used “red line” rhetoric to stir up support for a military intervention. Reeling from the fallout of the Second Iraq War, the U.S. public and allies were weary of another regime-change war following the recent event. Few members of the House of Representatives and the general public had the stomach for another foreign dispute, voting Obama’s eventual bill down. Thankfully, a US-Russian deal resulted in Syria relinquishing its chemical weapons capabilities and joining the Chemical Weapons Convention.

6. The Pig War

US Army building Roberts Redoubt on San Juan Island
Image Credit: National Park Service/Wiki Commons.

In another humorous Canada-America skirmish, the two countries almost came to blows over a dead pig. The culprit was an American farmer from the Suan Juan Islands in Washington named Lyman Cutlar, who shot a potato-stealing pig owned by the Hudson Bay Company. While we cannot imagine such a standoff involving military forces in the present day, livestock held strong value in the past. In any case, British forces wanted to arrest Cutlar, and the U.S. Army sent a peacekeeping team to protect Cutlar’s land until the issue was resolved in an inquiry. The land was eventually deemed American soil, relinquishing Cutlar of any guilt.

7. The Iran Question

Image Credit: Cherie A. Thurlby/Wiki Commons.

Anybody who watched the Oliver Stone movie Bush (2008) will recall one dark scene depicting a cabinet meeting about invading Iraq. However, there is an elephant in the room. Former Vice President Richard Cheney was famously in control of the Bush administration’s foreign policy and presented the key (or so the movie alleges) to hegemony over the oil industry and American energy independence: Iran. We know the invasion never materialized, and the Iraq War’s failures still echo today, but current tensions over the Israel-Gaza situation may see the region’s terrorism paymasters and U.S. forces face off; let’s pray it doesn’t happen.

8. The Korean War #2

Image Credit: USACE/Wiki Commons.

China lost roughly 180,000 troops in the conflict between communist North Korea, South Korea, and America. Not many people are aware of how close American and Chinese soldiers came to blows during the Korean War. America and the U.N.’s support for the South Korean people led to battle lines coming close to the Chinese border, prompting a retaliation. One might say America had its first proxy war with China under the auspices of protecting Korea, though it wouldn’t be the first time the two superpowers would meet.

9. The Red Alert

President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger
Image Credit: Thomas J. O’Halloran/Wiki Commons.

Israel was at the heart of another almost-war between America and its Soviet arch-nemesis during the Israeli Yom Kippur War of 1973. When Israeli forces drove a surprise Egyptian offensive back to the Sinai Peninsular, the Soviets offered to be a peacekeeping force in the region. When President Nixon refused, the Soviets threatened to do so anyway, drawing a line in the sand for Nixon, who was reluctant to see Soviet forces intervening in the Middle East. Henry Kissinger and Nixon’s chiefs of staff issued a red nuclear alert, which forced the Soviets to back down.

10. The First Taiwan Straits Crisis

Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Another tense global crisis emerged in 1954 following the withdrawal of the U.S. naval blockade around Taiwan. In a pre-emptive measure, Taiwanese President Chiang Kai-shek ordered thousands of units to occupy Quemoy and the Matsu Islands on China’s coastal border. Naturally, this angered the People’s Liberation Army, which responded by launching shells across the sea. However, President Eisenhower ratified a defense treaty for the Chiang’s Republic of China (Taiwan), then promptly threatened China with a nuclear attack. With the specter of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still on the mind, China negotiated, and Taiwan’s forces retreated — the nuclear deterrent was once highly effective.

11. The Cuban Missile Crisis

President Kennedy
Image Credit: Cecil Stoughton/Wiki Commons.

Since the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Russia has presented many challenges to the global order, not least America’s traditional values of freedom and justice. Therefore, brinkmanship has ensued over the past century, beginning with the post-World War Two landscape and the Cold War. This period produced several near-misses, including the most famous of all — the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which Russian nuclear missiles were detected in Cuba to match American bases in Turkey and Italy. Thankfully, President John F. Kennedy’s diplomacy — and Washington’s secret promise to remove its European missile sites — saved the day. In the absence of reliable information, some have argued this faceoff and eventual standdown may have resulted in J.F.K.’s assassination.

12. The Trent Affair

The San Jacinto (right) stopping the Trent
Image Credit: Edward Sylvester Ellis/Wiki Commons.

The old British rule has been a bone of contention for Americans following the Revolutionary War of 1778-1783 and the birth of the American nation. However, the transition to the cross-pond “special relationship” was fraught with minor skirmishes — invariably involving British raids against its former colony. However, Team America struck during the Civil War in 1871 when the Union Navy captured the R.M.S. Trent, a British frigate carrying Confederate envoys looking for British and French recognition. Naturally, Victorian Britain was stunned when it heard the news, and British Atlantic forces in Canada prepared for an invasion on the Confederacy’s behalf. President Abraham Lincoln, recognizing the situation’s sensitive nature, gave into British demands and released the hostages, though no apology was forthcoming.

13. The Berlin Wall Incident

Checkpoint Charlie - Berlin Wall Crossing Point
Image Credit: Roger Wollstadt – CC BY-SA 2.0/Wiki Commons.

The Cold War era was fraught with tense brinkmanship, leaving the Doomsday Clock ticking ever closer to midnight. One unpleasant faceoff came when an American diplomat attempted to cross into East Germany but was stopped from progressing by East German police. The U.S. didn’t recognize East Berlin’s security guards’ status and reappeared with soldiers and jeeps, only to be rebuffed once more. Instead, he came back with tanks, called by the Soviets tank units, leading to a reticent three-day stare down. Soviet forces retreated one vehicle, which Americans mimicked — before long, all forces had retreated, and American forces stayed in West Berlin for the foreseeable future.

14. The Lumberjack War

Image Credit: Shutterstock.

Following a disagreement over lumber rights on the border between Maine and New Brunswick in 1838, British Canada and the young United States of America became embroiled in a fearsome standoff — over trees. America upped the ante after Congress green-lit a 50,000-strong force to head north and protect what it believed were American trees, resulting in an agreement between U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster and British Chancellor Baron Ashburton. The region would become a strategic maple syrup-producing territory and quite possibly slowed Canada’s future monopoly of the pancake market.

15. The Nuclear War of 1983

Image Credit: CC0/Wiki Commons.

While the Cuban Missile Crisis garnered the headlines and captured the zeitgeist’s imagination, there were several near misses, most of which the American public never heard about. The 1983 crisis was entirely off the record, though equally as dangerous as its 1962 predecessor. Declassified documents in 2015 uncovered the full extent of how close we came to nuclear Armageddon when a malfunction in the Soviet missile warning system led one brave Soviet engineer, Stanislav Petrov, to delay any further action until his suspicion of error was confirmed. His calmness prevented a retaliatory strike against the United States and likely the United Kingdom.


The Fugutive
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.


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