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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 09/19/2007

Thompson's Wars

By washingtonpost.com Editors
Fred Thompson
"If you look back over our history, it will not take you long to realize that our people have shed more blood for other people's liberty than any other combination of nations in the history of the world." -- Fred Thompson, stump speech in Iowa, September 6, 2007.

The Facts

A grandiose claim that is hard to justify no matter how you define "other people's liberty." Let's begin by looking at American casualties in foreign wars. (Domestic conflicts such as the Revolutionary War and the Civil War are excluded.)

ConflictAmerican Deaths
Spanish American War2,446
World War I116,516
World War II405,399
Korean War36,574
Vietnam58,209
Persian Gulf War382
Iraq War and Afghanistan (until 9/18/2007)4,217
TOTAL623,288

SOURCES: Congressional Research Service, DoD, DoD Historical table

While heavy, U.S. military casualties are still relatively low in comparison to the military casualties of its World War II and World War I allies. In World War II alone, the Soviet Union suffered at least eight million military deaths, or ten times the number of U.S. deaths in all wars combined. According to Winston Churchill, the Red Army "tore the guts out of the Nazi war machine." Of course, it can be argued that Soviet soldiers were primarily fighting to free their homeland from Nazi occupation. After fighting their way to Berlin, the Soviet Union imposed its own dictatorship over eastern Europe. Even so, Soviet sacrifices clearly contributed greatly to the liberation of western Europe from Nazi domination. Soviet soldiers died for their own country and their own tyrannical regime, but they also spilled blood on behalf of their western allies.


Even if we exclude the Soviet Union from the calculation, U.S. military deaths in all wars combined remain lower than those of the British Commonwealth ("a combination of nations," in Thompson's phrase) in World War I and World War II. According to the Commonwealth War Graves commission, 1.7 million soldiers of the British commonwealth were killed in the two World Wars.

If we delve back into "the history of the world," as Thompson suggests, and consider all possible combinations of nations, we could start with the wars of the ancient Greeks. Surely some of the hundreds of millions killed by tyrants from Alexander the Great to Napoleon were fighting for "other people's liberty" in addition to their own. Three million people died in the Napoleonic wars alone.

Motives for going to war are always difficult to disentangle. Did the United States invade Iraq because of the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction (the original reason cited by President Bush), to protect its oil interests in the Middle East (as suggested by former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan in his recently published autobiography), or as part of a larger democracy-building effort? Or all of the above?

Neither Britain, nor the United States was invaded or occupied in either of the two world wars. Britain entered World War I to fulfill its treaty obligations to France and Belgium and entered World War II to fulfill a guarantee to Poland, following the September 1939 attack by Nazi Germany. The United States entered World War I after German submarines began attacking American merchant ships in the Atlantic. It entered World War II following the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

The Pinocchio Test

Thompson's jingoistic assertion cannot be supported by the facts, barring some very tortuous definition of the phrase "other people's liberty." We asked his campaign for factual support for the candidate's claim, but they have not so far responded. We therefore award Fred Thompson four Pinocchios. (About our rating scale.)

By washingtonpost.com Editors  | September 19, 2007; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  4 Pinocchios, Candidate Watch, History, War on Terror  
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