Plots to Destroy America, From British Redcoats to Al Qaeda

The U.S. has faced three eras of destruction: the age of invasion from 1783-1941, the age of missiles from 1941-1989, and since 1989, the age of viruses


In the summer of 1814, the British celebrated the imprisonment of the "Corsican ogre" Napoleon Bonaparte on the island of Elba, with a grand display of fireworks in London. "Each rocket contains a world of smaller rockets; it is discharged from a gun, bursts and flings aloft innumerable parcels of flame." Finally, after two decades of fighting, the weary nation looked forward to peace.

But Rear Admiral George Cockburn could not yet celebrate, for one war still raged--against the United States. For two years, London and Washington had been at blows. For Britain, it was a sideshow, a distraction from the game of national survival being played out in Europe. Now Cockburn, the son of a baronet, who had been at sea since age 14, would try to teach the Americans a lesson they wouldn't forget.

The English baronet, the Japanese engineer, and the Kuwaiti terrorist all struggled with the same strategic dilemma: How can the United States be destroyed?

How can the United States be defeated? Cockburn's challenge was one that America's enemies have long faced. And it is no easy task.

Place yourself, for a moment, in an adversary's shoes. Like the Greeks who marched on Troy, you encounter a mighty citadel--Fortress America. To even reach the United States, you must transport soldiers or weaponry across the moat, which in this case stretches 5,000 miles from the West Coast to Japan, and 3,000 miles from the East Coast to Europe.

The problems don't end there. The United States is a continent-sized country, able to absorb a strike against its walls, and draw on vast internal capabilities to fight back. And you cannot easily call on local allies to scale the fortress because of the military weakness of America's neighbors to north and south--Canada and Mexico.

As technology changed and U.S. power grew, America's enemies have tried many different strategies to overcome these obstacles and strike the homeland. At first they landed armed troops in the United States. Later on, they dispensed with the soldiers, and fired projectiles at the United States. Finally, they attacked with clandestine cells.

The result has been three ages of American destruction: the age of invasion from 1783-1941, the age of missiles from 1941-1989, and the age of viruses after 1989. 

But in none of these ages were U.S. opponents successful. Indeed, enemies had only one golden opportunity to destroy the United States--and they missed it.


Sporting a "sun-burnt visage and...rusty gold-laced hat," Cockburn had little love for Americans--and the animosity would soon be reciprocated. The British rear admiral concluded that the best strategy for victory in 1814 was to land an invading army and devastate the enemy's capital. As an aide-de-camp recalled, Cockburn "fixed an eye of peculiar interest upon Washington."

British troops sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and disembarked with 4,000 men. A much larger American force blocked the way at Bladensburg. But in a black day for the U.S. military, the American soldiers were brushed aside, and Washington lay undefended. The president, James Madison, became a refugee--although his wife had the presence of mind to tear out the canvas of George Washington's portrait before fleeing the White House.

The British army coolly began the destruction of Washington's public buildings. The Navy Yard was set alight. Next up were the Capitol and the Library of Congress--although the original Constitution had been spirited to safety in Virginia a week before. British troops entered the White House, finding the dinner table laid for forty covers. After drinking fine wines and toasting the success of His Majesty's forces, beds and curtains were set ablaze: "Our sailors were artists at the work."

While the destruction proceeded, Cockburn provided refreshments to a group of attractive American woman: "Now did you expect to see me such a clever fellow?"

And then, within a few hours, the British were gone. When Congress gathered in September, it met at the only government building left standing--the Post and Patent Office.

Cockburn's attack on Washington signified the age of invasion from 1783 to 1941. For the first 150 years of the American Republic, enemies plotted to destroy the United States by landing troops in the homeland. Given the state of military technology, there were few other ways to strike at Fortress America.

But invading armies faced two almost insurmountable problems. Raids like the British attack on Washington could not inflict a decisive defeat on the United States, and in 1814 London settled for a peace treaty that restored the pre-war status quo. And as American power grew during the nineteenth century, any kind of invasion became increasingly implausible.

U.S. enemies still dreamt their American dream--one where the United States was overrun. Before World War I, Germany developed a plan to sail its fleet to the Caribbean, bombard New York, land an invading army on Long Island, and capture Boston. The scheme was hair-brained, requiring complete surprise, the acquiescence of the British Royal Navy, and the maintenance of vulnerable supply lines.


The ill-advised Zimmerman Telegram of 1917. National Archives and Records Administration.

Even more outlandish was the Zimmermann Telegram of 1917, where Germany incited Mexico to invade the United States and reclaim the territories lost in the war of 1846-1848--a tough ask given that Mexico was gripped by civil war.

The award for chutzpah, however, may go to the 1921 Canadian war plan. Canada's director of military operations, James Sutherland "Buster" Brown entered the United States in civilian clothes. But he wasn't a tourist. He was conducting reconnaissance for possible Canadian invasion routes. If war loomed with Washington, Americans would face the terror of a Canuck Dawn. The Canadians planned to launch a preemptive surprise attack toward Albany, Minneapolis, Seattle, and other northern cities, and then conduct a fighting retreat on U.S. soil until British reinforcements arrived-- destroying bridges and railroad tracks to thwart their Yankee pursuers.

The Canadian fear of attack was not entirely outlandish. During the 1930s, the U.S. strategy for war against Britain, known as War Plan Red, involved the strategic bombing of Halifax, Montreal, and Quebec City, and the use of poison gas to force a quick Canadian surrender.

By World War II, adversaries had largely given up on the idea of storming Fortress America. Today, a Google search of "invasions" of the United States reveals such adversaries as parakeets, Burmese pythons--and especially illegal immigrants.

NEXT: How missiles and viruses dominated the next hundred years

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Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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