New American Roles (detail from a Gulf War photograph)

Gulf War, 1991

In 1991, the United States became the world’s only superpower and began redefining its global role.

When Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990, President George H. W. Bush, with support from the United Nations, assembled a coalition of international allies. More than thirty countries, including Great Britain, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt, provided troops, in-kind support, and help to pay the $61 billion cost of the war.

America’s military leaders were determined that Iraq would not be another Vietnam. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Colin Powell ensured that the coalition used what he called “overwhelming force.” He also granted the coalition’s commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, wide latitude to direct operations from the field. In 1991, the American-led forces went to war to liberate oil-rich Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Military leaders amassed troops and material, constructed bases, and targeted Iraqi military command centers and critical infrastructures. After massive air assaults, ground troops joined the attack. By January 17, 1991, in little more than 100 hours, the combined air-ground campaign freed Kuwait, expelling Saddam Hussein’s armies. An American decision to let Hussein stay in power in Iraq quickly became controversial.

A half-million American men and women were deployed in the Gulf War; 148 died in combat. The speedy victory boosted public opinion of U.S. military prowess and public appreciation for the nation's all-volunteer armed forces. Troops returned home to flag-waving crowds and an outpouring of goodwill.

Antiaircraft fire directed at coalition bombers in the skies over Baghdad
An F-117 refueling at night
Generals Colin Powell (left) and Norman Schwarzkopf
The UN Security Council resolved to liberate Kuwait using “all necessary means,” 1990
Bystanders at victory parade in Washington, D.C., 1991

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