Instances of U.S. Use of Military Force Abroad

Here is a chart I put together of instances of U.S. use of military force abroad, 1800-2009, by decade. Two caveats: 1) the numbers by themselves say nothing about the severity of any conflict, and 2) some cases are double-counted because they cross decades.

Source: Richard F. Grimmett, Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2010. Congressional Research Service. March 10, 2011.

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J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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5 Responses to Instances of U.S. Use of Military Force Abroad

  1. Dr X says:

    Interesting. What would you make of it, if anything?

  2. mcmillan says:

    I just took a quick skim over the report, but I’m not sure about how it’s defining an “instance”. For example a lot of the spike in the 1990s and 2000s seems due to multiple “instances” involving enforcing no-fly zones and reauthorization for ground forces in Iraq and Yugoslavia. Not sure if these should really be considered separate instances. This partly falls under your first caveat, but I think it’s a bit bigger of an issue than simply not capturing intensity of conflict, but also with uniqueness.

    On the other hand I was curious about the spike in the 1860s which seemed surprising given more local concerns for our military at the time and noticed one entry was “Naval forces protected the United States Minister to Japan when he visited Yedo to negotiate concerning some American claims against Japan,” which I could see being enough to trigger a lot more instances in more recent times.

    I think the general trend that the way we use our military has undergone a pretty dramatic shift is pretty clear.

    Also unlabeled axes are bad, especially when I’m skimming headlines on my feed reader before getting any caffeine and just catch “U.S. Use of Military Force abroad” and spent a bit trying figure out what was actually being plotted.

  3. James Hanley says:


    Apologies for not labeling my axes. Ironic, considering I have this posted on my office door. I think your methodological questions are on-target, and refinement would be valuable. But even as is I find it interesting.

    What do I make of it? I think we need another Great Depression.

    There’s a lot more action early on than I would have guessed. But what strikes me is that the ’90s and ’00s are distinct outliers, in the wrong direction.

  4. I’m not sure if this is a fair quibble, but my skim of the linked report does not seem to include Indian wars. Most of these were on “U.S.” soil as recognized by the European powers, but not necessarily by the Indian nations.

    I realize western standards of “nation” and “state” and “foreign territory” might have been decisively different from the way these concepts, or their equivalents, were understood by Indians. But I seem to recall an essay by Elliott West (printed in a collection called Ways to the West) in which he describes behavior as late as the 1840 that to me looks like the behavior of an entity that considers itself a non-dependent sovereign. (West’s article itself is about the disappearance of the buffalo and not about staking the claim I’m making.)

    My point is, including such considerations might make the 1800s seem more interventionist.

  5. James Hanley says:


    Good point. The report is clearly from the U.S. perspective–since we had claimed that territory, it was no longer a “foreign” intervention, from the perspective of the U.S. government.

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