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.

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


130 years after Cockburn's raid on Washington, Japanese technical major Teiji Takada plotted the destruction of the continental United States. By late 1944, the Japanese home islands suffered from devastating U.S. air raids. As Takada recalled, "Trembling with fear of the raging fire, we desired to make use of the fire hoping its violence [would] be fully displayed in the enemy country."

How could Japan propel trembling fire 5,000 miles away to the United States? The answer lay with mulberry paper and potato flour. Japanese scientists had recently discovered "rivers of fast moving air" blowing easterly across the Pacific at 30,000 feet, which would later be called jet streams. Japanese high school girls glued mulberry paper together into balloons capable of carrying a 33-pound bomb. Filled with hydrogen, the balloons were designed to fly across the Pacific, and spark great forest fires in the United States, inducing panic and drawing manpower away from the U.S. war effort.

The first balloon was released in November 1944. Takada watched the device drift out across the ocean: "the balloon was visible only for several minutes following its release until it faded away as a spot in the blue sky like a daytime star." About 9,000 balloons were eventually launched, with perhaps 1,000 reaching North America. They landed across the continent, from Alaska to Mexico, from Nevada to Michigan. But the military impact was negligible. The only casualties were five children and a minster's wife, killed in Oregon during a church group picnic, when they tried to pull one of the balloon bombs from a tree.


In March 1942, Life magazine imagined a pincer movement invasion of the United States by Germany, Italy, and Japan, but none of the Axis powers had serious plans for such an assault. LIFE.

The balloons might seem like a primitive technology, but they were the first intercontinental weapons in history, and they symbolized a new phase in plots against America: the age of missiles from 1941 to 1989. Here, enemies planned to destroy the United States by firing projectiles at the continental United States, often from great distances.

In World War II, the threat didn't simply come from Japan. Nazi Germany developed the Amerika Bomber, which was a long-range aircraft designed to strike the United States from bases in the Azores--possibly with an atomic bomb--as well as winged rockets like the Amerika-Rakete, an early ICBM.

The Germans envisaged suicide attacks, with planes crashing into Manhattan skyscrapers. According to Germany's armaments minister, Albert Speer, Hitler fantasized about "how the skyscrapers would be transformed into gigantic, burning torches; how they collapsed onto one another, and how the glow of the bursting city brightened the dark sky." All of these Nazi projects were abandoned before they got much further than the prototype stage.

As technology evolved, balloons gave way to nuclear missiles. Stalin mobilized the slave labor of the Gulag archipelago in a crash program to build the Soviet Bomb, which was successfully tested in 1949.

In the age of missiles, the Soviet Union could conceivably devastate the United States in a matter of hours, with no defense. But nuclear deterrence made such a strike suicidal and induced a wary peace.

With the end of the Cold War, the age of missiles came to an end. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the immediate concern was the safeguarding of its nuclear stockpiles. The danger was no longer Russia's strength, but its weakness.


"Very helpful...when he talks to you he'll be smiling," was one classmate's description of this 1986 graduate from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. But Khalid Sheikh Mohammed followed an unusual post-graduation career trajectory, traveling to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and becoming one of the world's most prominent terrorist entrepreneurs.

Radicalized by his experience in Afghanistan, where he developed contacts with a network of jihadists, including Al Qaeda, Mohammed came to despise the United States for its support of Israel. He may also have seen the United States as a debauched society--although there were few signs of this when he lived in North Carolina. By the late 1990s, Mohammed was involved in a wide variety of terrorist plots, from car bombings to assassination.

Like the British in 1814 and the Japanese in 1944, Al Qaeda faced the strategic challenge of striking at the American homeland. The British had utilized their naval assets by raiding the Mid-Atlantic coast. The Japanese had bypassed the oceans with balloon bombs. Al Qaeda's answer was to employ the resources within Fortress America by hijacking American planes. The terrorists didn't need to transport weapons across the oceans: the weapons were already here. At 7.59 a.m., on September 11, 2001, American Airlines flight 11 departed from Boston, the first of four aircraft to be hijacked that morning. Three hours later, nearly 3,000 Americans were dead.

The 9/11 attacks symbolized the age of viruses, or the third era of plots against America. Viruses evade a body's immune response, penetrate a host cell, replicate using a cell's own machinery, and finally destroy the cell. U.S. enemies planned to attack like viruses, with small-scale operations that assembled within the host, and turned America's capabilities against itself.


Damage from the 1916 Black Tom explosion. Courtesy of Liberty State Park.

Terrorists are not the only actors to strike like viruses. An early state-sponsored attack came in 1916, when German saboteurs exploded a munitions stockpile on Black Tom Island in New York harbor. The United States had not yet entered World War I, but the weapons were destined for Germany's adversary, Britain. The explosion sounded like an earthquake and awoke people as far away as Maryland. Fragments from the explosion lodged in the arm of the Statue of Liberty, permanently closing it to tourists. Half-a dozen people were killed and hundreds were injured. In 1953, Germany agreed to pay $50 million in compensation for the attack, with the final payment coming in 1979.

Another type of virus strike is a cyber-attack, often originating from the state, criminal networks, or individual hackers in Russia or China. One of the most common cyber-attacks is spying by one business on another, with the objective of stealing research and product information--which can erode America's edge in technology and innovation.

Virus attacks rarely threaten the basic security of the United States. But they are also harder to defend against or deter. And they can be cheap and cost effective: Al Qaeda spent $500,000 to kill nearly 3,000 Americans.


One can hardly imagine three more different men than George Cockburn, Teiji Takada, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Yet the English baronet, the Japanese engineer, and the Kuwaiti terrorist all struggled with the same strategic dilemma: How can the United States be destroyed? They assailed America with invading armies, missiles, and viruses--all without decisive success.

America's enemies failed to pursue the one strategy that might have worked: sowing discord. Back in the 1860s, adversaries had a golden opportunity to destroy the United States by aiding the South in the Civil War. The French leader Napoleon III favored backing the Confederate cause. But he wouldn't act without British support. London refused to intervene until the Confederacy won a decisive victory--which never came.

Abraham Lincoln once remarked: "Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!...If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher."

Perhaps Lincoln was right. Foreigners cannot destroy the American project. Only Americans can do that.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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