Paul Poast

Lincoln’s Gamble: Fear of Intervention and the Onset of the American Civil War

Can fear of foreign intervention influence the onset of civil war?

The American Civil War provides an informative context to study this question. Drawing on preventive war literature, Poast argues that President Lincoln’s cabinet feared that recognition from European governments and the possibility of military aid could shift the balance of power in the Confederacy’s favor, and that this fear motivated Lincoln to initiate the Civil War’s first battle: the strike on Confederate forces at Manassas Junction. Poast concludes that this initial attack—Lincoln’s gamble—in fact helped prevent such European recognition. In effect, Lincoln concluded that it was better to fight in late June 1861 rather than risk the consequences of inaction, including diminished bargaining leverage and relative power, or war under less favorable circumstances. For Civil War scholars, this paper invites them to explore more recent, less conventional conflicts to determine whether recognition alone is enough to spur an escalation of violence, or if recognition must be coupled with a fear of material intervention.

Security Studies (2015)

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The University of Chicago