When people talk about American wars, the Revolution, Civil War, First and Second World War, and Vietnam are always the ones people go to. And while they were extremely important conflicts, the significance of the smaller fights shouldn’t be understated, as they’re the ones that lay the groundwork for topics that history books love to cover. Here are three forgotten wars worth remembering.
The Barbary Wars (1801-1815)
The first two lines of the United States Marine Corps hymn mention the halls of Montezuma and the shores of Tripoli. The first line is a reference to the Mexican-American War, still a fairly well-known conflict even if the details are a bit hazy. The second line talks about the Barbary Wars, a conflict almost no one’s heard about.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a collection of North African states called the Barbary States were practicing state-sanctioned and supported piracy. It was a common enough practice, with many European countries doing the same any time they were at war with a neighbor, which was frequently. After the Revolution, the British government told the Barbary States that U.S. vessels no longer enjoyed the protection of the British navy and were open to attack. The American navy was virtually nonexistent at this point, which meant U.S. ships were easy targets.
As the U.S. navy grew in strength, it meant they could respond to the attacks with force, which eventually culminated in two wars: one with Tripoli from 1801 to 1805 and one with Algiers from 1815 to 1816. Both ended in United States victories and helped establish the U.S. as a significant player on the world stage, though it’d still be decades before the U.S. was taken seriously as a world power.
The Moro Rebellion (early 1900s-1913)
The European tradition of empire building isn’t a practice that’s generally associated with the United States, but we did dabble in it, which is where the Moro Rebellion comes in. In 1898, under President McKinley, the U.S. annexed the Philippines and provoked a nationalist rebellion on the part of Filipino natives. That war was primarily limited to the majority-Catholic northern islands and lasted until 1902.
From there, the U.S. set its sights on the southern islands, which had higher Muslim (also called Moro) populations, who began a bloody guerilla war in the jungles of the Philippine islands that lasted until 1913. Today, when it’s talked about, it’s portrayed as a religious conflict, with Muslim insurgents fighting Christian invaders. While that was certainly an element in the fight, the major conflict was closer to the classic invaded vs. invader narrative. The Moro simply didn’t want to bow to a foreign government after living under Spanish rule for 300 years.
The Secret War in Laos (1964-1973)
The true extent of the American involvement in East Asia during the Vietnam War is only just emerging, mostly thanks to how secretive the government was during the conflict. From 1964 to 1973, the American military ran an extensive bombing campaign in Laos as they tried to disrupt North Vietnamese movements over the Laotian border. In that campaign, American planes dropped more bombs on Laos than were dropped in all of World War II, and the public was simply never told that there was anything happening. It’d be as if we went through the entire second World War without ever hearing anything about what the Air Force did.
What’s worth remembering about the secret war in Laos is that it marked one aspect of a hugely significant change in the way the American government conducted itself in combat. Secrecy has always been important—necessary even—but before Vietnam and Laos, the military’s operations were fairly transparent. The secret war was the first time the public was treated with malice and distrust.