Geographic Perspective: Last foreign invasion of the U.S.?

A not-very-heated debate about the last foreign invasion of the United States provides the fodder for today’s post. The question was when the United States last experienced a foreign invasion. The potential answers provide an illustration of our collective mental map and how it doesn’t always mesh with reality.

Like most, I assume that the last foreign invasion of the United States was the War of 1812. During that side-show of the Napoleonic Wars, the British invaded the U.S. from the north (subsequently burning Washington, D.C. in 1814) and the south (at the Battle of New Orleans).  Incidentally, New Orleans illustrates another critical military geography concept – the effects of distance on communications. The Treaty of Ghent (city in modern Belgium) was signed in December 24, 1814, signifying an end to the war. Although King George IV signed on December 30, 1814 this news didn’t reach the British in time to avert the battle. In fact, the British went on following this defeat to capture Fort Bowyer in Mobile Bay on February 12, 1815. Only when the British were planning to besiege Mobile, Alabama did the news reach the British Army (the U.S. Congress did not ratify until February 16). A note on Washington, Washington’s burning was more than likely in retaliation for the American burning of the Legislative Assembly in York (now Toronto), Canada a year earlier. Common wisdom is that the United States has suffered a foreign invasion in almost two centuries.

But that’s not true. The last foreign invasion of U.S. soil was the Imperial Japanese invasion and occupation of the Aleutian Islands starting in June 1942, specifically Attu and Kiska. As the Wikipedia article notes, the remoteness and rough topography of the islands prevented Allied reclamation of the islands for over a year. That we retook the islands (and subsequently forced Imperial Japan to surrender) is probably a good thing. The Soviet Union invaded and occupied the Kuril Islands, after Japan terminated the war on August 15, 1942, kicking out Japanese residents. The Kuril Islands dispute is an ongoing thorn in Russo-Japanese relations. Russia continues to administer the islands, despite Japanese demands their return.

It might be easy to forget about the Aleutian Islands, given that they’re not part of the continental United States, but they are still U.S. territory. Within the continental United States, the last foreign “invasion” might be the conflict that occurred in the border area of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora (Mexico) called the Battle of Ambos Nogales, 1918. Unlike the above incidents though, Ambos Nogales was hardly an “invasion” but a one-off conflict that occurred on U.S. and Mexican soil.

Our collective mental map of the United States is highly dependent on location. Several maps and articles have poked fun at American’s view of the whatever, typically a map with (usually) humorous names for countries. On a more serious note, our collective “forgetfulness” of past conflicts reflects our bias with not only the continental United States but with “large-scale” invasions. While this is understandable, its worth bearing in mind that most conflicts involving the United States, especially after World War II are “small-scale” affairs, with the exceptions of Korea and Vietnam. A good geographic perspective then, forces you to account for your own bias, and expand your mental map to consider phenomena “outside your map.”

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