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What is a War Hawk?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A war hawk is someone who advocates going to war, sometimes in circumstances which may be ambiguous. Instead of war only for the purpose of self protection or self preservation, a war hawk supports preemptive aggression against other nations with the intent of advancing the political or economic advantages of his or her own nation. In some cases, a war hawk may also promote a war with the intention of supporting personal interests, such as an organization or company which the war hawk stands to profit from.

The term was coined to refer to members of the 12th United States Congress. Certain individuals in this Congress encouraged war with Britain, in the hopes of expanding the American frontier and reducing the amount of British influence on American shipping and transport. A Congressman from Virginia who was opposed to war with Britain first came up with the term, in reference to individuals such as Henry Clay who led the pro-war faction. Ultimately, the United States did go to war with Britain, an action which ended up costing thousands of lives on both sides.

The pejorative “chickenhawk” is sometimes used to describe someone who has not served in the military, but who supports military action. The implication is that this individual was afraid to serve, but has no issue with forcing other people to fight. The issue of previous military service has been a major issue for many American politicians, with some constituents preferring a candidate with prior military service. These constituents believe that serving in the military will make politicians less likely to promote a war, since they are well aware of the potential consequences.

The motivations of a war hawk are often called into question, since most people try to avoid war, as a general rule. A politician who promotes war or aggressive political action may be heavily investigated by the opposition, in the hopes of discovering personal motives for encouraging a war. General members of the public may also be curious about the connections a war hawk has, with some voicing loud criticisms about things like links to defense contractors and foreign governments.

The antithesis of a war hawk is a dove, someone who opposes going to war. Just as hawks are known for being very predatory, aggressive birds, doves are known for being generally peaceful and calm. These traits are reflected in the symbolism of many cultures, with birds like hawks and eagles often appearing on national and military crests, while doves are used as symbols of peace and negotiation.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Markerrag — On May 31, 2014

@Terrificli -- I don't know if you can call an isolationist a dove, really. A dove is opposed to war on principal, while an isolationist is against war until there is a clear and present danger to the country. That is a subtle difference, but an important one.

By Terrificli — On May 30, 2014

@Soulfox -- isolationism wasn't a bad foreign policy at all. After all, World War II cost a lot of American lives. Perhaps people weren't willing to go to war until it was very clear that there was a clear threat to the country.

It's hard to argue against such thinking. War is costly, so it had better be worth it to jump into one.

By Soulfox — On May 29, 2014

Sometimes a dove is just an isolationist. Prior to World War II, for example, there were a lot Americans who advocated staying out of the war because the Untied States was not threatened by the war in Europe and Asia. In a sense, isolationism was a huge component of American foreign policy at the time.

Those isolationists turned into war hawks in a hurry after Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. In other words, an isolationist just might be termed a dove until riled.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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