War and Peace


On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, by Donald Kagan, New York: Doubleday, 606 pages, $30.00

Twenty-five years ago, shortly after shifting from Cornell to Yale University, Donald Kagan launched a new lecture course, "Historical Studies in the Origins of War." Each fall, he would introduce hundreds of freshmen and sophomores to Greek history; and when neither on leave nor saddled with administrative duties as department chair or Yale College dean, he would invite a host of undergraduates to devote the spring to reconsidering the course of events that led to the Peloponnesian War, World War I, the Second Punic War, World War II, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. By now, the teaching assistants who have run sections for Kagan before wandering off to take up assistant professorships at campuses all over the country are many (I was one two decades ago), and they are greatly outnumbered by the Yale alumni who once chose to wrestle with the complex set of issues that Kagan raised.

In On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, Kagan, now Bass Professor of Western Civilization at Yale, makes it possible for readers throughout the world to share what was for many years an essential part of the Yale experience. He addresses the same four wars and the missile crisis, and he has apparently found a large audience. The book has been featured by the History Book Club and offered by the Book of the Month Club; its author has been interviewed on C -SPAN's Booknotes; and he has been invited to address the CEOs of the Fortune 500. Sales have been brisk.

It is easy to see why. Kagan's writing is clear; his book is well adorned with maps; his topic is one of permanent importance; and his presumptions are quite sensible. Nowhere does he suggest that we can hope for a world without war, but neither does he succumb to fatalism. While acknowledging that we operate within constraints, he insists that statesmen frequently have real choices to make and that these choices can be made wisely or foolishly. Kagan stoutly resists both the social scientist's instinct to force dissimilar situations into a similar mold and the historian's proclivity for presuming that no two situations are genuinely comparable. While demonstrating that the devil is in the details, he makes analogies where appropriate, keeping his eyes open for that which is permanent in the human condition.

If there is one conclusion to be drawn from these carefully linked studies, it is that statesmanship matters. Kagan insists that, in the absence of careful management, the international system tends towards anarchy. The maintenance of peace requires the presence of a great power willing to devote its efforts to avoiding a general conflagration. This superintending entity must be a satisfied power: No country possessed of territorial ambitions or revolutionary intentions likely to bring it into conflict with other states can be trusted to serve as an honest broker. This state must be powerful: In the best of circumstances, it should hold the balance between contending rivals. At the very least, it should be clear to all concerned that its intervention on one side or another in a given conflict will make a real difference to the outcome. Finally, this country must be aware of the role that it is called on to play; its citizens must be willing to shoulder the burden; and it must be shrewdly led.

Kagan concludes that, when these conditions are absent, a general war will almost certainly be the result; and in the course of five discrete narratives, he indicates why this is so. Kagan's contention ought to be a sobering thought for Americans. The United States is the only satisfied power in today's world with the political, economic, and moral capital to play what he takes to be the requisite role, and we may now be inclined to presume that "a return to normalcy" means for us a withdrawal from the world and a massive reduction in armaments. This Kagan thinks exceedingly dangerous. As a consequence, his book ought to be read by every citizen willing seriously to ponder whither we are tending. It should be force-fed to Bill Clinton, to his Republican rivals, and to the leaders of both parties in the two houses of Congress—for if its author is right, we as a nation cannot afford to be wrong.

At the beginning and throughout the book, Kagan emphasizes the first item on Thucydides' list of the three great concerns that influence political communities. While contemporary readers will not be surprised by the notion "that fear and interest move states to war," Kagan writes, it may seem strange to them that a "concern for honor should do so." Of course, he notes, "if we take honor to mean fame, glory, renown, or splendor, it may appear applicable only to an earlier time." If, on the other hand, "we understand its significance as deference, esteem, just due, regard, respect, or prestige we will find it an important motive of nations in the modern world as well."

Honor, Kagan insists, is "desirable in itself," but "it also has practical importance in the competition for power. When it is on the wane, so, too, is the power of the state losing it, and the reverse is also true. Power and honor have a reciprocal relationship." Above all else, an otherwise formidable state tends to lose prestige, and with it the capacity to accomplish its goals, when it is "seen to lack the will to use its material power." Kagan warns his readers that they "may be surprised by how small a role…considerations of practical utility and material gain, and even ambition for power itself, play in bringing on wars and how often some aspect of honor is decisive."

Such was the case with the Peloponnesian War. As Kagan tells the story, Thucydides was right in general and wrong in particular: This great conflict was by no means inevitable. Neither the Spartans nor the Athenians were intent on war. They had come to blows in the recent past, and neither side had proved able to eliminate or secure a decisive advantage over the other. There were circumstances that could encourage confrontation: Athens ruled a maritime empire, and Sparta was a land power, which led and dominated the so-called Peloponnesian League. Instability within either alliance might tempt the other to intervene. But the Spartans, outnumbered as they were by a restive and troublesome servile population, were exceedingly reluctant to take risks; and Athens, which was the less vulnerable of the two, was led by Pericles, a sober and capable statesman graced with firsthand experience of the dangers that one subjected one's country to when one embarked on such a war.

In the event, Corinth, a maritime power that happened to be the most independent of Sparta's allies, became embroiled in a conflict in the Adriatic. The Athenians were drawn in when faced with the prospect that the Corinthians might conquer hitherto neutral Corcyra and, by bringing together under their control the second and third largest fleets in Greece, emerge as a threat to Athens on the sea. When the Athenians intervened to prevent the Corinthians from achieving this goal, the latter successfully pressed the Spartans for a declaration of war.

The Corinthians were driven chiefly by honor; the Spartans, by the fear that their alliance would come apart, by the conviction that war would in any case eventually come, and by the desire not to dishonor themselves by abandoning a longtime ally. Initially, the Athenians were concerned with their own safety. Under Pericles' leadership, they came to the defense of Corcyra but did so in an unprovocative manner. They blundered only when, in anger, out of a sense of honor, they retaliated against Megara for her participation in Corinth's Corcyraean adventure by imposing a trade embargo on that Spartan ally. By putting pressure on the very community that Athens had taken from Sparta at the beginning of the earlier war, Pericles touched a nerve, bringing Sparta into the conflict.

Pericles, though he failed in the end, is the hero of the piece, as he was in Kagan's Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy (1991). But here he serves primarily as a foil for a figure who appears to have been an even greater man: Otto von Bismarck, the statesman most responsible for the formation of Germany.

As Kagan recounts the tale, Bismarck was a man who knew what could be done and what could not. After forging German unity, he recognized that further German expansion would unite the rest of Europe against the upstart power. He therefore presented his country to its neighbors as a saturated power intent on the preservation of peace, willing and able to serve as an honest broker. Having injured France by the seizure of Alsace-Lorraine, he sought at the same time to isolate that potentially revanchist power and to soothe its fears. Recognizing the danger that Russian ambitions might pose, he tried both the carrot and the stick, neither encouraging adventurism on Russia's part nor drawing so close to Austria-Hungary that Russia would be estranged. It was, as Kagan emphasizes, a bravura performance.

It ended when, after the death of Bismarck's patron Kaiser Wilhelm I, that fortunate monarch's grandson Wilhelm II asked for the great statesman's resignation. Under Wilhelm II, Germany embarked on a quest for power and glory. In the process, it needlessly alienated Russia; found itself forced to fall back on its alliance with Austria-Hungary; encouraged fear and revanchism in France; and built a fleet, for which it had no real need, that so threatened the British that they abandoned their traditional isolationism, drew near to their ancient enemy France, and eventually signed an alliance with Russia.

Having encircled themselves, the Kaiser and his advisers seized upon the crisis stirred up by the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo as an opportunity to drive a wedge between England, Russia, and France, taking "a calculated risk" that ended in a general war. If Bismarck's story is a tale of a difficult situation magnificently handled, the history of Wilhelmine Germany is a case study in what not to do.

Kagan juxtaposes the Peloponnesian War with World War I because, in each case, there were two opposed alliance systems, and one of the hegemonic powers found itself drawn into a conflict of intrinsic interest only to its chief ally. He juxtaposes the Second Punic War with World War II for comparable reasons. In each case, the war involved powers which had fought before, and one side had been victorious and had imposed a peace. In studying these last two examples, one can ponder what it is that makes a good postwar settlement and what is required to enforce or maintain the peace.

It should have been easy for Rome to forge a lasting settlement in the wake of the First Punic War. Once Rome achieved full control of the sea, Carthage was helpless. Rome could have destroyed its rival. But the Romans were reluctant to govern an empire, and so they sought to turn Carthage into a client state. In the Peace of Lutatius, they defined for the powers two separate spheres, taking Sicily and the nearby islands for themselves and leaving Carthage with Sardinia and the Maghreb. In principle, this might have worked—but Carthage had been a great power long before Rome was worthy of notice, and it is by no means clear that it would have been satisfied with second-class status. In any case, when the Carthaginians became embroiled in a conflict in North Africa with their own mercenaries and rebellious mercenaries in Sardinia offered that island to Rome, the Romans hesitated; and when the offer was made a second time after the Carthaginians had put down the rebellion near home, the Romans pounced. After that, what little chance there was that the Carthaginians would ever trust the Romans and accept the hand that fate had recently dealt them disappeared.

Even then, Kagan insists, the peace might have been kept. The Romans might have attempted appeasement and they might have prevented the Carthaginians from establishing an empire in Spain. They did neither. Kagan's tale of what they did instead is a story of gross ineptitude.

Something of the sort can be said concerning the origins of World War II. Given what the victorious allies had suffered in the course of a war fought for the most part on French and Belgian soil, and given what they had learned concerning Germany's intentions from the terms imposed on the Soviet Union in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, one can hardly blame them for being wary of the prospect that Germany might emerge from the war as a power dominant on the continent of Europe. If the peace imposed on Germany was a Carthaginian Peace, as is sometimes said, it was not because the Versailles settlement was needlessly harsh but rather because it was not harsh enough. At the end of World War I, German industry was intact; the German economy had far better prospects for a quick recovery than the economies of her rivals. The peace imposed on Germany was bound to inspire resentment. It applied the principle of national self-determination to all but Germans, and it held the Central Powers responsible for the war. But the real problem was that, having added insult to injury, it left the aggrieved with the wherewithal to press hard for a general revision of the settlement in their favor. The Versailles settlement was not a peace that would enforce itself.

That would not have been fatal had the Allies been willing to enforce the peace themselves. The French were willing, but they could not—or at least would not—do so alone. At Versailles, the French had pressed for the dismemberment of Germany. They had been persuaded to give way on the expectation that they would be awarded a defensive alliance with the United States and Britain. But when Woodrow Wilson failed to make good on his promises, Britain exercised its right to forgo the alliance, and France was left to her own devices.

In fact, after the peace was signed, neither the Americans nor the British were comfortable with the results. Wilson's pious hopes for collective security and his contempt for balance-of-power politics caught on, especially in the United Kingdom. Under the influence of those notions, the British set out to appease the Germans and bring them within the League of Nations—and the French, after a brief attempt to go it alone, followed their lead. In the 1930s, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain merely pursued to its logical conclusion the appeasement policy adopted the decade before.

Twenty years ago, Kagan's course tended to end on a note of triumph. Where Pericles and other statesmen had failed, John F. Kennedy had succeeded. The events of October 1962 were a diplomatic crisis well handled: It did not end in war. That was, of course, the impression left by the memoirs published by those inside the Kennedy administration. The release of hitherto classified data has altered the picture, and Kagan is no longer inclined to congratulate the Americans on their statesmanship. Kennedy emerges in this account as a man much more like Neville Chamberlain than Winston Churchill. He had, to be sure, a proclivity for extreme rhetoric, but that rhetoric was rarely, if ever, backed up by action.

In the 1960 election campaign, Kennedy publicly called for an invasion of Cuba by the Cuban exiles. Then he allowed it to fail. On Laos, where Eisenhower had been tough, he accepted a settlment unfavorable to the United States. At the Vienna Summit, he allowed Nikita Khrushchev to browbeat him. He did nothing to prevent the building of the Berlin Wall and may have encouraged Sen. J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to float the idea that the Soviets would be perfectly justified in closing the border and cutting off East German emigration to the West. When, in panic, Kennedy announced that America would not hesitate to launch a first strike if the Soviets invaded Western Europe, Khrushchev figured that it was worth the risk to try to put an end to America's nuclear superiority by shipping to Cuba middle-range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles bearing nuclear weapons. Even if the Americans discovered the missiles before they were operational, the Soviet leader appears to have reasoned, Kennedy lacked the courage to do anything to prevent them from being readied.

Kagan's account suggests that Khrushchev was right in his estimation of Kennedy. The deliberations of Ex Comm, the body that Kennedy set up to weigh America's options, were taped on Kennedy's orders. The transcripts are now available, and they demonstrate that neither Robert McNamara nor John F. Kennedy had any appreciation of the strategic consequences of allowing the missiles to stay in place. Both could think only of the elections that would take place in a few weeks. They evidently regretted Kennedy's public commitment, announced in early September, that the United States would not tolerate the introduction to Cuba of missiles with a nuclear payload. Neither appears to have been willing seriously to contemplate an American attack on the missiles' site or an American invasion of the island.

Kagan's judgment can, of course, be questioned. Twenty years ago, I was inclined to think that Pericles was less like Bismarck than like the last pre­–World War I German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, and I still suspect that the embargo against Megara was aimed at dividing Corinth from Sparta and splitting the Peloponnesian League so that Athens could fight an inevitable war on favorable terms. Others may wish to challenge Kagan's assessment of Bismarck or Kaiser Wilhelm II; of Roman statesmanship between the First and Second Punic Wars; of the Versailles Treaty; of Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, and Winston Churchill; of John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. But none of this detracts from the value of this book, for its purpose is less to tell one what to think than to make one do so. Even if Kagan is wrong on a given question, he has much to teach us concerning the questions that we must repeatedly ask—and, as anyone in the business of strategic management can testify, posing the right questions is where political prudence begins.

Paul A. Rahe ( is Jay P. Walker Professor of American History at the University of Tulsa. His book Republics Ancient and Modem: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution (1992) was reissued in August 1994 by the University of North Carolina Press in a three-volume paperback edition.