World War II dominated the imagination of most people who lived through it. For decades afterward most Americans looked at world affairs through the lens ground to fit the vision they had of the 1930’s and the broad consensus as to what it revealed: the world had suffered a terrible war needlessly. The irresolution, timidity, division, and lack of resolve of the democracies had allowed aggressive and evil regimes in Italy, Japan, and especially Germany to grow so powerful as to threaten the freedom of the rest of the world. It had required a horrible and bloody war to put them down, whereas a determined collective effort could have deterred the aggressors or, at any rate, have defeated them quickly and without great cost had the democracies acted firmly soon enough. Weak and indecisive leaders had yielded to the natural tendency of democracies in peacetime, recklessly cutting defense expenditures, closing their eyes to unpleasant realities when ugly and dangerous governments came to power in restless and dissatisfied nations, turning to the fruitless and humiliating policy of appeasement when the bullies could no longer be ignored. Those policies were rejected and reversed only at the last minute, too late to save the European continent west of the Soviet Union and barely soon enough to save Britain and gain time for the power of the USSR and the United States to turn the tide.
These ideas were all summed up in the word “Munich,” and the determination that there should be no more Munichs lay behind most of the actions of the Western democracies, and especially the United States, in the years after the war. American isolationism had weakened the capacity of the democracies to resist aggression, so President Roosevelt was determined that the United States must play an active part in the new international organization, the United Nations. When the Soviet Union and Communism came to seem dangerous, the analogy of the 1930’s quickly came to mind and helped lead the Western states to unite in NATO, a serious military alliance capable of resisting aggression. The Munich analogy was foremost in the minds of President Truman and his advisers when they decided to resist the threat they perceived from Communism and the Soviet Union that led them to establish the Marshall Plan, set forth the Truman Doctrine, and join the NATO alliance.
During the Johnson years, however, as a result of the unpopularity in academic circles of the Vietnam war, the historical analogy of the 1930’s with recent events, whose validity, indeed primacy, had not previously been questioned except by apologists for the Soviet Union, came under attack even from liberals with impeccable anti-Communist credentials. For many American and British intellectuals it is now being replaced by a surge of analogies with the coming of the great war which broke out after the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated at Sarajevo in June of 1914.1
This reexamination of World War I has invariably produced lessons for our own time quite different from those that came from scrutinizing World War II. The proponents of what we may call the “Sarajevo” analogy are not much impressed with the importance of vigilance, preparedness, swift and determined responses to aggressive actions, with the need for firmness in the face of provocation. Instead they urge greater caution, a willingness to bargain, avoidance of attempts to undermine the strength of rival states, a more generous reading of their intentions, a greater willingness to understand the point of view of nations late in coming to power on the world scene.
The two cases, “Munich” and “Sarajevo,” are indeed different in many respects, yet it is far from clear that the lessons derived from them must be at odds.
The central assumptions that underlie the lessons emphasized by those we might call the neo-revisionists, though they rarely state them directly, are that Wilhelmine Germany, the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm II, was not really dangerous and that its actions in the two decades before the outbreak of the Great War of 1914 did not require the strong reaction they received from Britain; Germany’s intentions were not unappeasably aggressive, and it had no clear goals that were incompatible with Britain’s security. A recent formulation of this view goes even farther, finding fault not with German aggressiveness but with the reaction to it:
Geography and history conspired to make Germany’s rise late, rapid, vulnerable, and aggressive. The rest of the world reacted by crushing the upstart. If, in the process, the German state lost its bearings and was possessed by an evil demon, perhaps the proper conclusion is not so much that civilization was uniquely weak in Germany, but that it is so fragile everywhere. And perhaps the proper lesson is not so much the need for vigilance against aggressors, but the ruinous consequences of refusing reasonable accommodation to upstarts.2
The question is, what “accommodation” could the European states have made to the German “upstart” that would have brought satisfaction to Germany and stability to Europe? What, in fact, did Germany want? At the turn of the century Germany was the strongest military power in the world. It also had the strongest and most dynamic economy on the continent. In 1897, without any previous naval tradition, without any new challenge from the sea to justify an expensive change in policy, the Germans undertook the construction of a major battle fleet concentrated in the North Sea where it could threaten traditional English naval superiority and the security that went with it. The British gradually became alarmed as they came to recognize the threat Germany might pose.
In the Foreign Office, Eyre Crowe, the resident expert on Germany, suggested that the Germans might be “aiming at a general political hegemony and maritime ascendancy, threatening the independence of her neighbors and ultimately the existence of England.” Concern over German intentions had already caused Britain to abandon its policy of isolation and enter into a series of understandings and alliances with other countries. Repeated statements by the German emperor and many other leaders in and outside the government asserted that Germany was aiming at “world power,” that it demanded overseas colonies and “a place in the sun,” that “no question of world politics must be settled without the consent of the German emperor.”
Such statements might be dismissed as mere bombast or only the ebullience of a newly powerful nation, late in arriving at a place among the great powers, flexing its muscles and understandably asserting its right to equal treatment, but German actions made them seem a good deal less harmless. In the two Moroccan crises of 1905 and 1911 the Germans tried to bully France, make colonial gains, and break the link between France and Britain. Even more menacingly, the Germans continued to build big battleships in numbers that would destroy the security of Britain unless the British were willing to divert vast sums from domestic purposes to hold up their side in a naval race. All this converted the Liberal British government, whose Foreign Minister was Sir Edward Grey, to Crowe’s dark view of German intentions.
To be sure, the Liberal leaders’ policy of resistance to the German threat met criticism from radicals and pacifists both inside and outside the government and the party. Some claimed that Germany really presented no danger at all; fear of war was being stirred up by militarists and the arms manufacturers, the “merchants of death” who were their associates. Others argued that the British fleet was strong enough, in any case, to meet whatever challenge it might face and that no acceleration in the pace of production was needed. Even such hard-headed politicians as Lloyd George and Winston Churchill opposed increased naval expenditures because they would interfere with the domestic-welfare program to which the Liberal party was committed and which they were eager to bring about. Norman Angell wrote a book called The Great Illusion which argued that war was not only immoral but, in the modern world of interdependent economies, irrational and almost impossible. From such a perspective, joining in an arms race to deter a war would likewise be irrational. In spite of this opposition, the British competed in and won the naval race; they also maintained and strengthened their ties with their former enemies France and Russia because they feared the growth of the German navy and the uses to which it might be put.
Even on the evidence available to Crowe, Grey, and their colleagues their fears were well-founded. However often the Kaiser might proclaim his and Germany’s friendly feelings for England, and Admiral Tirpitz, his Naval Secretary, declare that the fleet was intended only to defend Germany, its colonies and commerce, the emphasis on big battleships, the concentration of the fleet in the North Sea, and the accelerating pace of construction justified British suspicion and fear, even without inside information about Germany’s motives. Recent scholarship, moreover, makes clear that Britain really was the target of the new German navy. It also shows that the likeliest explanation of Tirpitz’s otherwise irrational naval program is that it aimed at least at equality with the British fleet3 and, when combined with Germany’s great military power, would give Germany the ability to change the status quo in its favor and to the great and dangerous disadvantage of other powers, particularly Great Britain. It would be some years before the Germans could hope to approach parity at sea, but the British expected that even before the Germans were prepared for such a confrontation, they would use their “risk fleet” to secure concessions.
What concessions would they demand? Were these reasonable enough to permit Britain to make them without endangering British security? Would an attempt to understand the feelings and needs of the new German empire and to meet them have averted conflict? What, in fact, were Germany’s goals? The contemporary German historian Fritz Fischer believes that the Germans wanted to conquer and dominate the European continent from the English Channel to the Ukraine, to exploit its economic resources and use it as a base for a world empire. His main evidence is the program of war aims they drew up soon after the war broke out in 1914, the “September Program,” which spells out the European part of such a plan. Fischer argues that Germany planned and unleashed the war precisely to achieve its purposes.
We need not accept this entirely to believe that at least something of what the Germans hoped for before the war is reflected in the plans approved by the German Chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, only a month after it began. The central principle of those plans was “the safeguarding of the German empire for the foreseeable future in the East and West. Hence, France must be so weakened that it cannot rise again as a great power. Russia must be pushed back from the German frontier as far as possible, and its rule over the non-Russian vassal peoples must be broken.”
Since victory in the West seemed imminent, while the situation in the East was still unclear, the bulk of the September Program dealt with the West. The military would decide whether the French should cede Belfort, the western slopes of the Vosges, the coast from Dunkirk to Boulogne, and destroy their forts on the German frontier; the military at once decided they should. Germany would acquire the iron mines of Briey. A preferential trade treaty would make France “our export land,” and the French would be required to pay an indemnity that would make it impossible for them to manufacture armaments for at least twenty years. Belgium would lose Liège, Verviers, and probably Antwerp, and would become a vassal state, accepting German garrisons in its ports.
To this Belgian subsidiary of Germany would be attached French Flanders, and the channel ports of Dunkirk, Calais, and Boulogne. Holland would be ostensibly independent, “but essentially subject to us.” Luxembourg would be incorporated directly into the German empire. Apart from these territorial provisions, but by no means less important, was the plan for establishing “an economic organization of Mitteleuropa through mutual customs agreements . . . including France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Austria, Poland, and perhaps Italy, Sweden, and Norway,” that would guarantee German economic domination of Europe.
Plans for the East were not yet formulated so early, but what we know of ideas that were entertained shows that they led naturally to the settlement imposed on the new Bolshevik government of Russia by the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918. That treaty deprived Russia of Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, the Ukraine, and parts of the Caucasus. Though the treaty contained language about self-determination, there can be no doubt that all these lands would be under German control, one way or another.
We should remember that Bethmann Hollweg was a moderate in the context of Wilhelmine Germany and that his program fell far short of the wishes not only of right-wing extremists, both civilian and military, but even of most intellectuals and political moderates. A “Petition of Intellectuals” published in July 1915 was signed by a great number of theologians, teachers, artists, writers, and some 352 university professors; it demanded a program of annexations that went far beyond the September Program. At the same time that Bethmann Hollweg was approving his own scheme, the leader of the Catholic Center party, Matthias Erzberger, was demanding the annexation of Belgium, parts of France, and the entire Congo, the conversion of the Baltic states and the Ukraine into German dependencies, and the imposition of a reparations bill that would more than pay off the entire German national debt.
The course of the war showed that the Chancellor would have had to yield to more extreme opinions or make way for more extreme leaders. The chances are that a victorious Germany would have claimed more than was contained in the September Program and at least as much as was set down at Brest-Litovsk. In that event, Britain would have been faced with the destruction of the balance of power it had fought so long to maintain on the continent and its domination by a single power. The new master of Europe, moreover, would be far stronger and more dangerous than the Spain of Philip II or the France of Louis XIV. It would have the greatest army the world had ever seen, unprecedented economic resources with which to make its already significant navy, now able to operate from a series of channel ports, stronger than the British fleet, and reserves of manpower the British could not hope to match. The new Germany would have the power to exclude British trade from the continent, doing fearful damage to the British economy. If necessary it could even be capable of invading and subjugating the British Isles.
It is hard to see how the British could have regarded such an outcome as an acceptable “accommodation,” yet we have no evidentiary basis for believing that the Germans would have been satisfied with anything else.
The scholarship of the last quarter-century, almost completely ignored by the neorevisionists,4 makes it clear that Wilhelmine Germany was not just another European nation seeking to maintain its national interest or even to advance it by means tolerable to its neighbors. From the late 1890’s imperial Germany was a fundamentally dissatisfied power, eager to disrupt the status quo and to achieve its expansive goals, by bullying if possible, by war if necessary.
It might be argued that these grandiose aims, clear evidence for which only appears after the outbreak of war, grew and developed only after a long period of frustration and cold war, as a result of British intransigence. If the British had been more forthcoming earlier, some might say, a settlement could have been reached on more acceptable terms. The historical record will not support any such claim. As a keen student of the subject, Paul M. Kennedy, puts it:
The historian aware of the pressures for expansion in imperial Germany is bound to wonder whether a change of tone on Britain’s part, a greater generosity over this or that colonial boundary, would really have had a significant difference. They might have papered over the cracks in the Anglo-German relationship for a few more years, but it is difficult to see how such gestures would have altered the elemental German push to change the existing distribution of power—which, unless the British were willing to accept a substantial diminution in national influence and safety, was bound to provoke a reaction on their part.
But perhaps we should try applying another analogy to the outbreak of World War I, namely the one that arises from the study of “Munich.” Is it possible that the coming of the Great War of 1914 might have been averted had the British been not more conciliatory but more hard-headed, more realistic and determined?
Such suggestions and the criticism they imply did not need to wait for the lessons of the 1930’s to be learned. No sooner had war broken out in 1914 than the charge was leveled at the British government, and especially at Lord Grey, that the British might have deterred the Germans from launching the war if they had made formal and open military alliances with France and Russia instead of depending on non-binding agreements and understandings, and if Grey had made Britain’s support of those nations clearer and less equivocal during the crisis. But the evidence does not justify such claims, either. Britain and Grey made their position clear enough for anyone who chose not to avert his eyes. British War Secretary Haldane had made it plain that Britain would stand by France in case of attack by Germany as early as 1912, and the news sent the Kaiser into a tantrum. The mutually dependent dispositions of the British and French fleets made it even more obvious that Britain could not abandon France. The German ambassador during the crisis of July 1914 repeatedly and correctly informed Berlin of Britain’s intentions. Finally, Britain’s guarantee of Belgium went back to 1839, so the Germans had no reason to hope that Britain would stand aside when they invaded Belgium, as they would have to do according to the Schlieffen Plan, which called for a massive attack on France from the north through Belgium and Holland. Though British diplomacy could have been clearer and more firm, there is no reason to believe that the war came because of a German misperception of British intentions.
Some of the lessons of “Munich,” however, do seem appropriate to the situation in 1914, for in retrospect the British appear to have failed to take some of the actions and to make some of the sacrifices that might have deterred the war. Strengthening the fleet and making new friends were not enough to stop the Germans from trying to change the world balance in their favor, even if it meant war, because neither action nor both of them together guaranteed the defeat of Germany’s plan for a quick victory in a land war in the West followed by another swift victory on land against Russia. The British fleet could do nothing to prevent such victories, and any blockade it might impose would have no effect on a Germany that controlled the resources of all of Europe. The only thing that could be counted on to deter any German leader who was not insane was the certainty of the presence on the western front, soon after the outbreak of war, of an army large enough to make a German breakthrough and a quick victory impossible, an army of such a size as the British ultimately put into the field, too late to deter war but just in time to avoid defeat.
The British, of course, had long opposed maintaining a large army in peacetime and refused to recruit their small regular armed forces by conscription, as the continental powers did. The Germans had long known the significance of Britain’s military impotence. They knew that the British army was a small volunteer force meant to serve as a colonial police force and not intended for continental service. The fact that the British had no conscription, unlike the European powers, also meant that they had no trained reserve that could quickly be brought to bear on the western front. Schlieffen, therefore, thought it safe to ignore Britain’s army in his strategic calculations, and such thinking certainly continued after his death. That is what explains Germany’s willingness to go forward even after it was clear that Britain would fight.
Suppose, however, that the British had looked at their predicament clearly, honestly, and courageously in the years between 1898 and 1914. Suppose, knowing the Schlieffen Plan’s essentials, as everyone did, they had faced the fact that only the assurance of a large, well-trained British army that could quickly come to France’s aid in case of attack could make a German victory in the West impossible and obviously so. Suppose they had swallowed the bitter pill of introducing conscription, and in time of peace, at that. It would have meant going against an honored and comfortable tradition; it would have been costly and strained the British economy at a time when there was great pressure for domestic spending; it would have been at odds with the great libertarian ethic central to the British character—but the result would have been the presence of a standing army and a large trained reserve in 1914. That would have made the Schlieffen Plan or any conceivable German plan of war obviously absurd and certain to fail. Whatever Germany’s ambitions and frustrations, such a course of action would have forced Germany to abandon its reckless and unnecessary challenge to the stability of Europe with untold benefit to itself and the world. However painful such sacrifices might be, they could have spared Britain four terrible years of war, horrendous casualties, and the rapid loss of its place in the world.
The chief lesson that emerges from seeing the outbreak of World War I from this perspective is not the one learned by the new revisionists. It was not the unwillingness of the British to make reasonable concessions to a new competitor for power and prestige that allowed the war to come, but their refusal to pay the high price of deterring an ambitious opponent committed to changing the balance of power to their disadvantage and danger.
The single analogy and the lessons deriving from it that dominated the minds of British leaders in the years between the wars, however, was quite different, one created by the first wave of revisionists. For them the Great War and the terrible destruction that came from it were caused by the arms race, the alliance system, and the willingness of Britain to commit a land army of significant size to a war on the continent. British leaders were easily persuaded that the Western allies had been at least as responsible as the Germans for the war, that the arms race, stirred up by munitions makers and their associates, had been a major cause of bringing it on, that greater understanding, more generosity, and patience were better ways to avoid war than military deterrence. The result was the policy of appeasement, “Munich,” and World War II.
The story of these developments, though it dominated the thinking of an earlier generation, is not well known to that generation’s children, yet it remains important.
Deeply impressed by the ideas of the revisionists, the Western democracies, and especially the British, failed to react to the menace created by German ambitions between the wars even to the extent they had done before 1914. The role of Great Britain was more crucial in the later period because French power and will had been so reduced by the terrible experience of World War I as to lead French statesmen to look to the British for leadership. The British had suffered much less than the French, but their losses in men, wealth, and relative position in the world, their vivid memories of the horrors of the last war, and their belief that the introduction of aerial bombardment would make another war even more terrible, sapped the resolve of many British leaders. They were determined to avoid another continental war at any cost. They vaguely put their hopes for peace in international organizations such as the League of Nations, though no nation abandoned any sovereignty, and the League had no armed forces. In its first real test the League failed even to impose effective economic sanctions to prevent Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia in 1935. British support of sanctions was half-hearted, and the incident proved the emptiness of the concept of “collective security,” which was not backed by the will and the means to resist aggression.
The only remaining devices for deterring aggression and war were the traditional ones of armed strength and effective military alliances, but to the British leaders the analogy of 1914 made such ideas anathema. They regarded with suspicion and hostility all French attempts to prevent the resurgence of German power in the 1920’s, making ever clearer their desire to remain aloof from continental entanglements. Though they retained a strong navy, they allowed their army to sink to a level of total incapacity to wage a major war; they did not, of course, continue military conscription. They made their greatest effort in air power, but even there they did not build an air force strong enough to deter or win a future war.
Pacifism, isolationism, and other forms of wishful thinking were widespread in Britain and contributed to the mood favoring disarmament and concessions. The idea of maintaining peace through strength was not in fashion. Under Stanley Baldwin the British government was sympathetic to German claims of unfair treatment in the peace treaty and prepared to be reasonable in changing its provisions, even at the expense of the security of some of the new European states. When Hitler renounced the disarmament clauses of existing treaties, withdrew from the disarmament conference and the League of Nations, and launched a great program of rearmament, Britain took no action, nor was there a shortage of English defenders of what Germany had done.
A significant element in explaining British behavior throughout this period was the general belief that the new weapon of aerial bombardment was irresistible: “The man in the street must realize,” said Prime Minister Baldwin, that “the bomber will always get through.” No defense was possible. “When the next war comes . . . European civilization [will be] wiped out. . . .” Winston Churchill and a few others drew the conclusion that the way to avoid this terrible prospect was for the Western democracies to rearm to such an extent as to deter the discontented fascist powers from risking war, but they were isolated and ignored. When one of them told an electoral meeting in 1933 that “Germany was preparing for war on a scale and with an enthusiasm unmatched in history,” a hostile crowd shouted him down until the police could restore order. During the same year the young gentlemen of the Oxford Union voted by a large majority “That this house will in no circumstances fight for its King or country.”
Though not themselves pacifists, Britain’s leaders had done much to encourage such behavior and, in turn, used it to justify their policy of disarmament and conciliation even while the dictators increased their armaments and threats to the security of Europe. In March of 1936 Hitler sent an armed force into the Rhineland. This was a breach of the treaties of Versailles and Locarno, a clear violation of international law. If allowed to stand, moreover, the remilitarization of the Rhineland would alter the strategic situation and balance of power in Europe at a stroke. It would drastically reduce France’s security against an attack from Germany and make it much more difficult for France to threaten Germany from the West. This, in turn, would undermine France’s capacity to honor the treaties defending Czechoslovakia, Poland, and other states of Eastern Europe if they were attacked by Germany. The entire postwar settlement would be put in question. Assuming that France, at least, could not tolerate such an action, Poland offered its military assistance. The French and Polish armies alone greatly outnumbered Hitler’s forces, and German rearmament had only begun to show results. Hitler himself later said: “The forty-eight hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking in my life. If the French had then marched into the Rhineland we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs, for the military resources at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance.” Nevertheless, neither the French nor the British were willing to take any military action, and the British squelched the French proposal even for economic sanctions.
Why did the Western democracies permit so serious a development? If many Englishmen chose to see Hitler’s remilitarization, in the words of Lord Lothian, merely as his entering his own “back-garden,” few Frenchmen took that view. The French, however, in spite of their material superiority, were unable to take the offensive, even against the miserable division Hitler sent into the Rhineland. They were psychologically crippled by the memory of the slaughters of 1914-18 when excessive reliance on the offensive had led to disaster. French military and political leaders were dominated by only that one historical analogy. They built the Maginot Line and tried to hide behind it, though it was incomplete and provided an inadequate defense. Their war plans, such as they were, contained no thought of taking the offensive.
Had the French and the British between the wars examined their political and strategic situation objectively and realistically they would have seen that an offensive element was essential to their very defensive goals of maintaining peace and the security of the new Europe. There was no point in feeling guilty about what they had done to Germany at the peace conference. If the peace was unjust they should change its terms willingly, without compulsion, but what changes would satisfy Germany? Only those made at the expense of the new nations of Eastern Europe established on the high principle of national self-determination and the lower one of security for France against a revived and far more powerful Germany. Even a reasonable German nationalist like Gustav Stresemann sought changes unacceptable to the successor states. Hitler had repeated many times in speech and writing that he wanted the new nations obliterated. Changes such as the Germans sought were not possible without abandoning both principles.
The Western democracies, therefore, had no choice but to defend the status quo against all but minor revisions unless they were prepared to abandon all principle and all security. Once they faced that hard fact they would see that the easiest, cheapest, and safest way to accomplish that end was to keep the Germans effectively disarmed for the foreseeable future. Failing that, they must keep the Rhineland demilitarized and be prepared to launch an attack through it if the Germans attacked the Eastern states. Whatever its faults, such a program would have been operationally easy and inexpensive, it would have protected the security of Britain, France, and the successor states, and it would have avoided a major war.
Such a program was not undertaken because the Western leaders, and many of their people, did not examine their situation objectively and realistically but emotionally and hopefully. They were moved by the horror of war, the fear of its reappearance, and the blind hope that a refusal to contemplate war and prepare for it, combined with an attitude of conciliation and generosity toward the beaten foe, never mind at what cost to its potential victims, would somehow keep the peace. The one lesson they learned from their complete focus on the one most recent analogy was to avoid the “mistakes” they believed had caused the previous war.
Of no leader was this more true than the man who had the greatest control of British policy during the crucial years of the late 1930’s, Neville Chamberlain. A recent examination of Chamberlain’s performance makes this very clear:
At the public level, Chamberlain was like most of his contemporaries, profoundly affected by World War I, and he later entered politics with the conviction that, above all else, the mistakes of the past must not be repeated. So powerful were these historical memories that in 1938 at Munich, and in the months that followed, it was almost as if Chamberlain saw not Hitler and his unique threat to the peace of Europe, but rather the Kaiser of 1914 repeating the same disastrous mistakes which had led to the “Great War.”
Chamberlain believed that the alternative to coming to terms with Hitler would be another world war, infinitely more devastating than the last, and that therefore almost any act of political accommodation was fully justified, not only justified, but indeed the only conceivable course of moral action. It was these considerations rather than a belief that the Treaty of Versailles ought to be revised, or an appreciation of British weakness, or the need for domestic political unity, which were in the end decisive. As a result, Britain backed resolutely into war with Germany with her eyes focused doggedly on the past.5
Such attitudes were at least understandable while Germany was ostensibly disarmed and led by the divided, weak, and relatively unpopular governments of the Weimar republic, but the advent of Adolf Hitler and his powerfully centralized, militaristic Nazi regime, openly dedicated to a revision of the treaties ending the previous war and the balance of power they had created, produced no change of course. Chamberlain put little faith in the League of Nations or collective security. His plan was to achieve stability and peace by the active pursuit of the policy of appeasement, an attempt to discover Hitler’s demands and allow and even help him to achieve them without war. He did not permit himself to consider the possibility that those demands might be unacceptable or even unlimited. Nor did he let strategic considerations affect his willingness to accept actions and demands, such as Germany’s annexation of Austria and of the Sudeten area of Czechoslovakia, that threatened the security of Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, and therefore of France and Britain. To think of strategy was to consider the possibility of war, to plan for it and to prepare for it, and that was a course of action that was unthinkable.
Chamberlain was not a pacifist. Before becoming Prime Minister he had favored increased spending for armaments, though at a level pitifully below what would be needed. All he was prepared to support was a “quick fix,” a single investment that would raise the low level of British military power to a point that would permit the kind of diplomacy he had in mind. Thereafter he resisted calls for increased expenditure on armaments even as Germany’s power grew and its policy became more menacing.
There is no doubt that the cost of rearmament put a great strain on the British economy, already weakened by World War I and the Great Depression. The cost of defense went from 15 percent of a growing national budget in 1935 to 38 percent in 1938; taxes rose steadily, but they were not enough to bridge the gap without borrowing. The British seemed to face the dilemma of whether to rearm as quickly and fully as possible and endanger the economy or to accept what appeared to be necessary restraints without achieving security. In fact, both the economy and national defense had already been damaged by the government’s unwillingness to pay for reasonable armaments in the 1920’s and early 30’s. As Paul M. Kennedy has put it: “For a modest increase in defense expenditure not only would the services have had fewer deficiencies when the war came but unemployment would have been cut and unused resources exploited.” Keeping defense industries alive at a reasonable level, moreover, would have made it much easier to achieve faster rearmament later when the Nazi menace arose. As it turned out, the need for a sudden and great acceleration in rearmament put a terrible strain on an unprepared arms industry and a weak economy.
But this entire line of argument, which tries to justify Baldwin’s and Chamberlain’s policy because of the need to preserve the economy, examines only one side of the problem. The question is, after all, was there a real and serious threat to Britain’s security? If there was, then a failure to meet the challenge at any cost might mean that there would be no independent economy to preserve. The economic costs of all-out rearmament, in other words, must be measured against the economic as well as other costs of the alternative. In the event, Britain lost access to the European continent, was compelled to fight a war at high cost for more than five years, suffered heavy military and civilian casualties and terrible damage to London and other cities, and within a few years lost almost all of its empire.
Had the British been materially and psychologically prepared to resist at any time up to 1936, all of this could have been averted. Had they been ready even by 1938, the costs of the war would have been far smaller in every respect. The best study of the military and economic realities reaches this judgment of the Western democracies’ prospects in 1938 as compared to 1939 on the basis of the actual economic and military situation:
In terms of numbers of divisions, economic resources, industrial capacity, and naval forces, Germany would have faced overwhelming Allied superiority in 1938 whether she faced only Britain and France, or an enlarged coalition that included Russia and perhaps Poland. Even so, the war against Germany would not have been easy, nor would it have been quickly won. But the results would have been inevitable and would have led to the eventual collapse of the Nazi regime at considerably less cost than the war that broke out the following September.6
Even when Hitler demonstrated the unreality and futility of appeasement, Chamberlain was reluctant to give it up. As important segments of British opinion began to swing in the direction of resistance to Hitler, Chamberlain was able to use the very military weakness he had helped create as a reason to avoid confrontation and to continue to seek accommodation. Such expenditure as he had permitted he insisted be used unequally to build up the navy and air force. He was determined that there be no army large enough to provide the continental expeditionary force that had suffered such fearful losses in the Great War. He also opposed staff talks with the French. Without an army, a plan to use one, or any collaboration with France, how could Britain be expected to offer military opposition to German aggression? He had created what proved to be a vicious circle: commitment to appeasement prevented adequate rearmament, and the resulting military weakness supported the case for more appeasement.
In his efforts, Chamberlain received much help from the military chiefs, no less traumatized than their Prime Minister by the horrors of the previous war. They consistently assessed Britain’s strategic situation using the darkest of worst-case analyses at the same time as they wildly overestimated the economic, diplomatic, and military power of the enemy. Down to 1939 their testimony repeatedly made it easy for Chamberlain to persuade his colleagues that military action was unthinkable and appeasement the only course.
Hitler’s march into Austria did not change this attitude but only confirmed Chamberlain in his belief that appeasement was the right policy. The Anschluss or union with Austria proclaimed in March 1938 was of great strategic importance: it allowed Germany to surround Czechoslovakia on three sides, making its long-range defense impossible; it also moved the Germans into direct contact with the Balkans, allowing them to put pressure on those states, as well. Chamberlain, nevertheless, accepted the news calmly, expressing relief that “at any rate the question was now out of the way.”
The problem of Czechoslovakia now loomed. The British cabinet considered three courses of action: Churchill’s suggestion of a grand alliance against the dictators, a renewed commitment to France which would indirectly be a commitment to defend Czechoslovakia, or a refusal to make any commitments while pressing the Czechs to come to terms with Hitler. Chamberlain, of course, favored the last policy, arguing that “we should have to say that it was impracticable effectively to aid Czechoslovakia in time and that all we could do would be to make war on Germany, but we were in no position from the armament point of view to enter such a war. . . .”
Chamberlain’s main fear was that Britain would somehow be dragged into a war with Germany by the need to defend Czechoslovakia against Germany. Strategic considerations left him cold. His only concerns were that Germany be persuaded to take only the western part of Czechoslovakia, where the Sudeten Germans lived, and not the entire country, and that the Czechs not resist, thereby forcing the French to honor their treaty and facing the British with the horrible dilemma of either going to war or seeing France defeated by Germany. He vigorously pursued his policy of active appeasement, forcing the Czechs to give way, but until the last minute it seemed he would not be able to restrain Hitler from attacking the Czechs and threatening a general war. In London schoolchildren were being evacuated and hospitals prepared for the expected aerial attacks when a tired and discouraged Prime Minister addressed the nation by radio. He spoke not to rally his people to the defense of freedom, nor did he mention the stakes for Britain in the great strategic upheaval threatened by the fall of Czechoslovakia. Quite the contrary, his speech made it clear that the British government was not willing to fight:
How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between peoples of whom we know nothing. . . .
However much we may sympathize with a small nation confronted by a big and powerful neighbor, we cannot in all circumstances undertake to involve the whole British empire in war simply on her account. If we have to fight it must be on larger issues than that. I am myself a man of peace to the depths of my soul. Armed conflict between nations is a nightmare to me; but if I were convinced that any nation had made up its mind to dominate the world by fear of its force, I should feel that it must be resisted.
Under such a domination life for people who believe in liberty would not be worth living; but war is a fearful thing, and we must be very clear, before we embark on it, that it is really the great issues that are at stake, and that the call to risk everything in their defense, when all the consequences are weighed, is irresistible.
Chamberlain, of course, was not convinced that the great issues were at stake. At the last minute Hitler was persuaded to attend the conference at Munich where he agreed on September 30, 1938 to accept what he wanted as a gift instead of seizing it by force, announcing, “I have no more territorial demands to make in Europe.” He also signed an agreement pressed upon him by Chamberlain in which both sides recognized the importance of Anglo-German relations, expressed the desire not to go to war with each other again, and resolved to consult each other in efforts to preserve peace in Europe.
Hitler had no difficulty in signing this vacuous piece of piety, but for Chamberlain it was the really important result of the Munich conference. When Chamberlain returned to London he was greeted by crowds cheering him for averting war. He waved at them showing the precious document to which he and Hitler had signed their names and said: “This is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time.” Chamberlain was referring to the return of Disraeli from the Congress of Berlin in 1878, but the analogy could hardly have been less appropriate. At Berlin a great power had been forced to disgorge part of the gains it had won by military aggression because of the firm resistance of the concerted powers of Europe and the dispatch of the British navy to the Dardanelles. At Munich the aggressor was handed what he wanted without the need to move a soldier in return for the promise of polite conversation in the future.
The settlement at Munich, wrote A.J.P. Taylor, apparently without irony, “was a triumph for all that was best and most enlightened in British life; a triumph for those who had preached equal justice between peoples; a triumph for those who had courageously denounced the harshness and short-sightedness of Versailles.” Even if the motives alleged were the only ones at work we should nonetheless need to point out that Munich was also the triumph of an unrealistic muddle-headedness that based its idea of justice on a gross misreading of history and its notion of safety on the promises of a demonic and ruthless leader of a brutal totalitarian regime whose writings, speeches, and actions over a decade and a half showed that he had no intention of keeping them.
Less than six months after Munich, in March 1939, Hitler shattered whatever hopes of conciliation remained by marching into Czechoslovakia and occupying the entire country. This action destroyed the pretext on which the appeasers rested so many of their hopes: that Hitler wanted only to restore regions inhabited mainly by Germans to the Reich, a limited aim in accord with the principle of national self-determination and no threat to the general stability of Europe. It also made a mockery of his promise that he had no more European territorial demands and, more important, of his formal guarantee of Czechoslovakia’s territorial integrity. His apologists could no longer claim that he had only legitimate and limited goals or, as Chamberlain had claimed, that he was a man of his word. For most Britons Hitler’s occupation of Prague was a turning point, the end of their hope for and belief in appeasement.
Chamberlain himself was shaken. In the days after the occupation of Prague, still dominated by the analogy of 1914, he invoked the name of Lord Grey over and over again, this time, however, musing that Grey had not been wrong about Germany, after all. But he and his supporters clung to their hopes. In the Munich agreement Britain, no less than Germany, had guaranteed the independence of Czechoslovakia. To honor its word, Britain would need to take up arms at once in defense of the victims of German aggression. Hitler, however, had arranged things so that it might appear to those who desperately wanted to believe it that Czechoslovakia had suffered a collapse which was largely internal and that Germany was only picking up the pieces. This was the view seized on by Chamberlain, who told Parliament that Britain could not be bound to guarantee a state that no longer existed. He went on to say that he meant to stay with his policy of substituting “the method of discussion for the method of force in the settlement of differences.”
Such an approach, however, was no longer possible. A free country with a free press and any pride and sense of honor, one that permits some degree of independence within the governing party and criticism by the opposition, will not easily bear the kind of humiliation caused by the Nazi occupation of Prague. Many Englishmen came to agree with Churchill’s assessment of Munich: “The government had to choose between shame and war. They have chosen shame and they will get war.” An angry rumbling in the country, and especially within his own Conservative party, forced Chamberlain to take a very different line in public. Only two days after his refusal to act in defense of Czechoslovakia he made a speech in which he declared that “Any attempt to dominate the world by force was one which the democracies must resist.” Such talk was greeted with enthusiasm, and it soon became clear that the British people would no longer put up with appeasement and weakness but demanded a new policy of resistance and strength.
In this atmosphere, fearing the charge of inaction Chamberlain gave way to overreaction. Rumors of a German plan to attack Rumania, almost certainly false, but in any case unproven, as well as ill-founded fears that Hitler was about to attack Poland, led the British to guarantee Poland against aggression and then to extend the same guarantee to Rumania and Greece. It is still valuable to read Churchill’s judgment on this belated change of course:
There was sense in fighting for Czechoslovakia in 1938 when the German army could scarcely put half-a-dozen trained divisions on the western front, when the French with nearly sixty or seventy divisions could most certainly have rolled forward across the Rhine or into the Ruhr. But this had been judged unreasonable, rash, below the level of modern intellectual thought and morality. Yet now at last the two Western democracies declared themselves ready to stake their lives upon the territorial integrity of Poland. History, which we are told is mainly the record of the crimes and follies and miseries of mankind, may be scoured and ransacked to find a parallel to this sudden and complete reversal of five or six years’ policy of easy-going placatory appeasement, and its transformation almost overnight into a readiness to accept an obviously imminent war on far worse conditions and on the greatest scale.
The British, in fact, lacked the military resources needed to defend the guaranteed states or any plan for doing so. They sent neither money nor arms to the Poles, nor, of course, did they even consider the possibility of attacking Germany from the West should Hitler move East. In spite of Britain’s very real economic and financial difficulties, the British government vastly increased its planned expenditures for rearmament. In spite of its powerful aversion to a continental commitment, it instituted conscription in peacetime. Chamberlain did not take these steps because he expected war, which he still hoped to avoid by diplomacy. Events had made a policy of full and open appeasement impossible; now he hoped to bring Hitler to his senses by the threat of confrontation backed by the commitments in Eastern Europe, the rearmament program, and conscription. Then he could negotiate a peaceful settlement.
As steps to deter war these came far too late, for their results would not be felt for years. Perhaps the most important reason for the failure of this belated attempt at deterrence was that it lacked credibility. Whatever its military capabilities, would Britain have the will to use them? Whatever its commitments, would the British have the courage to honor them? Even after Prague and the shift to a policy of deterrence in the political and military spheres, Chamberlain continued to employ appeasement by offering economic and colonial concessions. Small wonder that Hitler never seems to have taken his opponents’ warnings seriously. As he laid plans for the attack on Poland he discounted the danger from the leaders of Britain and France. “I saw them at Munich,” he said, “they are little worms.”
The exposure of the self-deception, weakness, and fear that lay behind the appeasement policy created an enormous political pressure that forced the government to reverse itself sharply and dramatically; in its embarrassment and in its eagerness to be rid of the charge of weakness and dishonor the Chamberlain government was driven to actions that were both vain and foolish. Chamberlain never really gave up all hope of finding a way to conciliate Hitler. Even when Hitler invaded Poland the British Prime Minister delayed keeping his commitment until the fury of his Conservative colleagues forced his hand. Finally, however, Hitler’s attack on Poland forced Britain to enter a war for which it was still ill-prepared, for which it had no realistic strategic plan, and one, we should not forget, that it came within a hair’s breadth of losing.
The lessons of “Munich,” in spite of attempts at a defense of appeasement and at a revision in our understanding of the origins of World War II, seem much the same today as they did to most people in the West in the 1940’s and 1950’s. They indicate that an excessive fear of war, an unwillingness to think clearly about strategy and to take the steps necessary to deter aggression and defend vital interests wherever they may be, most of all, perhaps, a refusal honestly to examine the actions and intentions of potential aggressors and to act accordingly, are not a satisfactory way to avoid war when a powerful nation is dissatisfied with the status quo. It may never have been possible to deter the fanatical Hitler from war, but Germany could have been prevented from launching any serious adventure down to the occupation of the Rhineland. Had the democracies responded then, as they could have with no danger, it seems more than likely that Hitler would soon have been deposed. Failing that, neither he nor any other German leader could have posed a danger so long as France and Britain chose to prevent it. The means were not lacking, only the understanding and the will. The failure of will, to be sure, helped undermine the understanding, but so did the intellectual error of relying entirely on a single major experience, the most recent, as a guide to the understanding of history.
Perhaps the immediacy of such a powerful analogy, which was lacking to the men of 1914, helps explain the much greater foolishness of the men of 1939, but both examples seem relevant to and necessary for us today. Both, moreover, seem to point in the same general direction. The failure of both sets of revisionists to understand the causes of the two world wars stems in large part from their habit of treating nations as interchangeable counters in the game of international relations, who might as well be called A, B, and C as Germany, France, and Britain. But nations are different from one another in significant ways. There is no need to focus on moral differences, though the distinction between a nation led by Hitler and one led by Chamberlain is not trivial in understanding their actions on the international scene. It is enough to focus on the positions of the nations in the hierarchy of power, on their own view of their proper place in it, and on their intentions.
From such a perspective nations easily sort themselves into those who are generally content and those who are dissatisfied. The Britains of both Grey and Chamberlain were content; and the Germanys of both the Kaiser and Hitler were dissatisfied. Though different in many important respects, they shared an unswerving determination to change the balance of power in their favor, so oder so, as Hitler used to say, by bluff, by threats, and, if necessary, by war. Neither had goals compatible with British safety; both had to be stopped. The only thing that might have prevented each war was a clear and sufficient commitment on the part of the satisfied powers to defend themselves through firm alliances, clear and versatile strategies, and the military power to make them effective. That done, the satisfied nations could have tried some of the conciliatory approaches favored by the revisionists, but then theirs would have been a policy of appeasement from strength. If that failed, they could have relied upon their strength to deter their discontented neighbors. Had that failed, their strength might, at least, have made the war shorter and less costly.
The lessons of the two world wars provide useful analogies for the world today. Once again we see two great antagonistic powers, one largely content, the other plainly dissatisfied. Like Great Britain before the two wars, the United States is a contented power, concerned lest a newly risen rival destroy a satisfactory equilibrium and threaten its safety. It is more similar to the earlier Britain which, though it had lost ground relatively since its peak in the 19th century, remained the richest and most powerful nation in the world, and was still capable, materially and morally, of resisting German ambitions and the burgeoning German navy.
To be sure, the United States disarmed drastically after World War II, but since the Korean war, unlike Britain between the wars, it has never allowed its defenses to reach the level of inadequacy to which the British forces sank in the 1930’s. Distracted by the war in Vietnam, however, the United States did allow its naval and nuclear forces to decline sharply relative to the Soviets by the late 1970’s. The Soviet Union had not previously had a considerable navy, so its construction of a large fleet represented a significant gain in relative strength. Its achievement of parity (some would say superiority) in nuclear weapons changed the balance of power to a degree that Tirpitz would have welcomed with delight.
The American response took longer and was less effective than Britain’s before 1914. Britain won the naval race, retained naval supremacy, and remained invulnerable to political blackmail resting on naval power. The Americans did not respond to the Soviet challenge for more than a decade. The change in policy began in the Carter administration, in reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, though Carter had run on a platform calling for a reduction in defense spending. The Reagan administration has intensified the effort, apparently with some effect, for the Soviets seem fearful of continuing the competition for military advantage with an America that is willing to compete and are clamoring for arms agreements that will allow them to keep the advantages they have gained in the one-sided arms race of the 1960’s and 70’s.
Like the British of the earlier period, however, the Americans up to now have been unwilling to pay the full price needed to prepare for possible threats. As Britain had no conscription then, the United States has none now, though a volunteer army is expensive and the quality of its personnel and its potential effectiveness very much in doubt. This is true in spite of the fact that the European forces of the Soviet Union and its satellites vastly outnumber those of the NATO nations and in spite of the fact that the oil fields of the Middle East, vital to America’s European and Japanese allies and important even to the United States, are vulnerable to many kinds of attack.
To prevent attacks on these two areas of important American interest the United States is compelled, de facto, to rely on the deterrent effect of the threat posed by its nuclear weapons. The need to rely on the threat of nuclear war to protect crucial interests would be bad enough if such a threat could be believed, but the fact is that in recent years it has become very much less credible. The growth of Soviet nuclear forces and the absence of any American attempt to create a defense against attacking missiles has made it hard to believe that the United States would ever launch a nuclear attack to defend its allies and interests abroad that would bring nuclear retaliation against its own land. The credibility of any American resistance is further reduced by demands from such former cold warriors as Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy for a pledge that the United States would not be the first to resort to nuclear weapons. Were such a pledge given and believed, there would be even less to deter an aggressor vastly superior in conventional forces, able to reach and supply the crucial areas by land, and with a navy on and below the sea that could do much to prevent American forces from reaching the battlefield. Like the British of an earlier time, the Americans have been willing to pay the price for considerably less deterrent power than may be called for.
To understand why this should be so requires us to examine both the analogies we have considered, the ways in which they reveal the similarities between the British and American societies, and the difficulty both have in meeting serious military challenges over an extended period of time. Both are constitutional, democratic, commercial states with a powerful belief in the right of the individual to the pursuit of his private interests and in limits on the right of the state to interfere with it. Their history of isolation, combined with their commitment to individual liberty and a long tradition of distrust of the military, especially the army, have led them to reject compulsory military service except briefly in extraordinary circumstances. The advent of a welfare state in democratic nations directly subject to the power of public opinion has placed increased pressure on governments to spend public money to satisfy domestic demands at the expense of the requirements of defense. Expenditures for weapons and armies to deter war are especially difficult to justify; by their nature they will never be used if they are successful, so critics can always claim they are wasteful and unnecessary.
The moral beliefs of both nations have rested on the Judeo-Christian tradition, in which the Sermon on the Mount and the pacifist strain in Christianity have played a greater role in this than in earlier centuries. Both have been free societies in which criticism of one’s own country’s policies, institutions, traditions, and values is permitted and protected. In the course of the century, alienation from the alleged capitalistic exploitation, imperialism, and militarism of Great Britain and the United States on the part of some intellectuals and politicians has grown to the point where they are far more likely to find fault with their own government’s actions than with those of rival nations.
In such nations, military expenditures, not to mention military actions, quickly encounter internal opposition. Such societies are always in danger of slipping from the realistic, if not entirely adequate, response to danger made by the Britain that confronted the Kaiser into the self-deluding inaction with which interwar Britain tried to appease Hitler. The dominant elements in such societies and their lack of expansive ambitions make them long for the closest approximation to their traditional comfortable policies of isolation that conditions will permit and sometimes beyond.
Whatever their intentions, however, their power and their desire for international stability unavoidably place them in the path of dissatisfied, revisionist states. They are not free to stand clear. They may insist “To Hell With Serbia,” as a London newspaper headline proclaimed after the Archduke’s assassination in 1914; they may ask “Where is Prague?” as did a different London newspaper in 1938, and answer “If the ‘collective-security’ madmen get their way you might find yourself there in a trench one day. If the policy of isolation triumphs, you will . . . not fight anybody unless they come here looking for trouble”; some of them may even think it better to be Red than dead. But to no avail. The free and spirited people of a still-powerful nation will not allow the world order to be torn up to its disadvantage and their security endangered, and they will reject any leadership prepared to do so. The only choice available to leaders of such nations is whether to act with realism while there is time or avoid the hard decisions and wait for a crisis.
If the United States is to be compared with Great Britain, particularly before World War I, what of the Soviet Union? The obvious analogy is with Germany, but which one? The answer is not perfectly simple, for there are resemblances with both the Wilhelmine and Hitlerian phases. With the coming of the cold war, many Westerners were struck by the resemblance of Stalin’s Russia to Hitler’s Germany. Both were illiberal, highly centralized regimes that seemed to fit into the general designation of totalitarian states. Both were police states that treated their own people with systematic brutality. Both swallowed up smaller states on their borders, ruled them with an iron hand, despoiled and exploited them for the benefit of the master country. Both were publicly and proudly champions of utopian doctrines alien to Western values, made clear their hostility to the Western nations, and expressed a desire to overturn the current international system and establish one more to their liking.
For these and other reasons we should not brush the analogy aside too carelessly, but when viewed from the perspective of the realities of international relations it is significantly flawed. The most important difficulties come from the nature of National Socialist Germany, from Hitler’s character, and from his aims. The Nazi regime aimed at a profound revolution in the society of Europe and in the international order. Hitler was the crucial figure in the Nazi revolution and the controller of its future in a way and to a degree that not even Lenin was for the Soviet revolution. He was the charismatic and dynamic figure without whom the system could not exist, and he knew it. He meant to dominate the entire European continent by conquest and to introduce his racialist policies, and he rightly believed that his own leadership was necessary for any hope of success. The Nazi economy was a conjurer’s trick that required the riches of Eastern Europe to avoid imminent collapse. For this reason, too, Hitler could not afford to wait. He had, moreover, a specific plan of conquest, opportunistically flexible in tactics, but clear and inexorable in its goals and strategy. Hitler, moreover, was a man in a hurry. Since he needed to accomplish so much in his own lifetime he could not wait for a favorable moment, or be patient, he must force the pace.
The goals and strategy of the Soviet Union, on the other hand, though often stated in a general way, have not been spelled out in the detail Hitler employed in Mein Kampf. The more utopian hopes of an immediate Communist revolution throughout the world were soon dashed and put into storage when Stalin defeated Trotsky and chose to pursue the policy of establishing Communism solidly in Russia and seeking its interests at considerable expense to the world revolution. Supported by the huge body of Marxist-Leninist doctrine that places its hopes on the forces of history and by an increasingly powerful bureaucracy, not on an individual, Soviet Communism could survive Stalin’s tyranny and the disasters of World War II, emerge with the regime intact, and ultimately see the peaceful change of leadership between generations. The Soviet Union’s leaders today, lacking specific plans and ruling a state that they have been able to manage and control, one whose relative military power has grown remarkably, need not be in a hurry. The problem and danger they present to the West lacks the emergency character that clear-eyed Westerners in the 1930’s recognized in the threat posed by Nazi Germany.
Wilhelmine Germany presents a far closer and more useful analogy, as the observations of the new revisionists tacitly suggest (though, as we have already seen, their understanding of the German half of the analogy is badly in error).
Like imperial Germany, the Soviet Union is a relatively new creation, not yet seventy years old. To be sure, there was a Russian state for centuries before that, and there are important continuities that still shape the course of Soviet policy to some degree. But there had also been a Prussian state for centuries when the king of Prussia became the German emperor in 1871, and the new order continued to reflect the Prussian tradition in many ways. Both 1871 and 1917, however, were recognized as new departures both within and outside the nations involved, and history has confirmed that judgment. The new Germany, to be sure, pursued a conservative policy under its founder, Otto von Bismarck, but the arrival of Wilhelm II in 1888 unleashed a new dynamism that produced the expansionist policy, the naval program, international tension, and ultimately the Great War.
The Soviet Union was committed from the first to a program of world revolution and the destruction of the current world order, but its internal weakness forced it to put such hopes and a forward policy aside while it struggled with civil war, foreign hostility, and serious economic problems. It was not until the coming of World War II that it was able to turn to expansion, but then it moved with increasing activity and extraordinary success, acquiring control of all of Eastern Europe up to the center of Germany, an achievement beyond the dreams of any czar. Since the end of the war, the Soviets have moved from a position of pitiful military inferiority to their chief rival to one that is at least equal and, in the opinion of many expert observers, superior.
This gain in relative military power has allowed them to move from cautious challenges to the status quo in their own vicinity, like the Berlin blockade in 1948, to bolder actions, like the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the attempt secretly to place nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962, the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the increased support of insurrectionary and terrorist movements throughout the world, the use of Cuban troops in Africa as surrogate forces to aid such movements, the use of Cubans to instigate, support, and guide Communist movements and regimes in the Western hemisphere, and, at last, the use of Soviet military forces outside the borders of the Soviet Union and its East European satellites in the invasion of Afghanistan.
That is a record of dynamic turbulence, expansion of power, threat to a peaceful world order whose scope and success put the performance of Wilhelm’s imperial Germany in the shade. The Soviets have explained and defended their actions in terms that are often similar to those used by the Germans. On the one hand, they have argued that they acted simply to defend themselves. From the first they have complained that the Soviet Union is surrounded by enemies, “encircled” by the forces of capitalism and imperialism, and that all its expansion and growing military power can be explained on those grounds. That claim clearly had some merit before the end of World War II, but is not credible thereafter.
Indeed what is remarkable is the complaisance and relative inertia of the United States and the West toward the Soviet Union’s turbulent and threatening behavior from the mid-1940’s to the mid-1960’s, a period when the democracies had a monopoly or an overwhelming superiority in atomic and nuclear weapons. When the Soviets blockaded Berlin, the Americans undertook to supply the city by air rather than send a regiment “to clear all obstacles,” as General Clay recommended. In the face of an American monopoly of atomic bombs, Stalin was only “prodding the capitalist world with the tip of a bayonet,” as Khrushchev later said.
In the 1950’s, rebellions in Poland, East Germany, and Hungary received no support from the West, and the Soviets were permitted to crush them without interference. When the Soviets put up the Berlin Wall, President Kennedy did not knock it down, as former President Truman recommended, but allowed it to stand and then declared himself a Berliner. When the Soviets were caught sneaking nuclear missiles into Cuba and lying about doing so, Kennedy did not attack the missile sites or invade Cuba, as urged by so unaggressive a Senator as J. William Fulbright, nor, having faced the Soviets down, did he demand an end to their support of Castro. Instead he publicly gave a pledge not to attack Cuba and privately promised to withdraw American Jupiter missiles from Turkey in return for the removal of those in Cuba. In 1968 the West took no action when a Soviet army overthrew a Czech government that was insufficiently subservient. In the 1960’s and 70’s the United States negotiated treaties that allowed the Soviet Union to reach parity in nuclear weapons and, perhaps, to attain superiority.
All these are hardly the actions of menacing enemies whose threat to the security of the Soviet Union explains and justifies the dynamic expansion of Soviet power. Still, for years, “encirclement” was the cry of the Soviet Union, and there has never been a shortage of apologists in the West who have taken up the same cry. As the absurdity of the claim became ever more clear, it was heard much less, but the rapprochement of the United States with China has raised it again. Seweryn Bialer, writing in 1980, observed that “while the Soviets buried some fifteen years ago the idea of ‘capitalist encirclement,’ the mentality of a besieged fortress, a new specter is raising its head—that of a new encirclement by a coalition of China and industrialized Western nations—a specter which revives the old mentality.”7
In that same year, in fact, Marshal N.V. Ogarkov, Soviet Chief of Staff, complained of the “creation of a military alliance between the USA, China, and Japan similar to the 1930’s Rome-Berlin-Tokyo ‘axis’ of sad memory.” He asserted that in improving relations with China “the Western powers are calculating on pushing Beijing into open aggressive actions against our country and the states of South East Asia.” The suggestion, of course, is absurd: Japan is almost entirely unarmed and apparently eager to stay that way; American relations with China in no way resemble a military alliance. Yet the new version is no more ridiculous than the clamor raised by the Soviets and their apologists over the last four decades that they are under deadly threat from the West.
It would be easy to dismiss this kind of talk as insincere, “disinformation,” simply propaganda intended to justify hostile actions, but scholars who know the Soviet Union take it more seriously. Bialer again:
The Soviet concept of national security as shaped by experience, history, and world view tends to exaggerate dramatically the dangers to the homeland and to subscribe to a defensive overkill, to an enormous defensive overcommitment. It leads Soviet decision makers to magnify the requirements of security to a degree unprecedented and unheard of in other modern societies. To describe their concept of national security as oversecurity or total security is to underestimate their position.
That is a very generous interpretation of the development of the greatest war machine ever assembled in human history. It is a machine that consists chiefly of units and weapons appropriate for aggressive war. Its doctrine has never accepted the American idea of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) and its deterrent effect on aggression. Instead its leaders, “political as well as military, have sought to develop a strategic military posture that would allow the USSR to prevail over the United States in the event of a general nuclear war.”8 It has since the 1950’s “placed considerable emphasis on preemption.”9 It now includes the greatest navy Russia has ever had, one that, in the words of Coit Blacker, has grown from “a glorified coastal patrol force . . . [to] an important vehicle for the worldwide display of Soviet military power and political purpose.” It is, moreover, a military organization that has not confined its activities to defending its borders or even to controlling its satellites. As David Holloway notes:
Representatives of the Soviet military, both combat forces and advisers, are currently [in 1982] deployed in fourteen Asian and African countries. Small contingents of Soviet military advisers serve in Angola, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, the Seychelles, and Kampuchea; more substantial forces are present in Ethiopia, North and South Yemen, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Vietnam. The number of Soviet troops stationed outside Warsaw Pact countries totaled 17,000 in 1982, excluding Afghanistan. Military and paramilitary personnel from Cuba, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia have also been deployed abroad. The provision of Soviet and East European military equipment, from small arms and artillery to armored infantry vehicles and tanks, made possible the victory of pro-Communist forces in Angola (1975) and the Ethiopian defeat of the Somalis (1978).
In the light of all this contrary evidence, it is hard to credit the sincerity of Soviet fear of an attack from the United States and its allies, just as it was hard to take seriously Germany’s fear of an attack by the Entente powers or a preemptive attack by the British on its fleet. But Bialer tells us that Soviet alarm is not spurious: “[F]ear of . . . a holocaust among Soviet leaders, elites, and peoples is much more real, much more tangible than in the United States.”
Perhaps, then, the Soviets’ fear is real. In the same way that British power stood in the path of German ambitions before 1914, the Soviet leaders since World War II have seen the United States as, to cite Bialer again, “the only major obstacle to [their] domination of the Eurasian theater and to the consummation in terms of political and economic influence of the fruits of victory in World War II.” It may well be that for the Soviets (as for the Germans in relation to Britain before 1914), their anxiety comes from a fear of what the Americans might do if they once found out what the Soviets wanted to do.
Such an analysis accords well with the rest of a psychological profile that fits both countries. Like imperial Germany, the Soviet Union shows the combination of clamoring aggressiveness, great sensitivity to any slight to its pride along with a remarkable insensitivity to the concerns of others characteristic of “arriviste” powers. In 1971, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko said, in words not too different from those used by the Kaiser: “Today there is no question of significance which can be decided without the Soviet Union or in opposition to it.” When early in the Carter administration Zbigniew Brzezinski, as National Security Adviser, challenged the Soviets to cooperate with the United States if they did not want to become “historically irrelevant to the great issues of our time,” he greatly provoked “Soviet sensitivities and status consciousness.” Yet, as one shrewd observer, Arnold Horelick, has pointed out, “one looks in vain for evidence in Soviet pronouncements of sensitivity to the insecurities of others that the Soviet Union’s own security programs may promote.”
The most striking and important resemblances between imperial Germany and the Soviet Union, however, are in the way each state, dissatisfied with the distribution of power in the world, restlessly has sought to undo the status quo and to bring about desired changes by building great military forces and trying to use them for political purposes. Between the 1890’s and 1914 Germany involved itself in quarrels in Venezuela, the Philippines, Samoa, Morocco, Africa south of the Sahara, as well as in Europe. Almost everywhere the Germans sought to take advantage of turbulence and disturbed conditions and often tried to create such conditions where they did not exist. Bismarck had declared that Germany was a satiated power after 1871, and his policy showed that he meant it. Under Wilhelm II, however, the opposite was true, as the Germans fished in troubled waters and churned up many that were still. German goals, policies, and actions around the world were the opposite of the conservative ones pursued and carried out by Great Britain, for the latter wanted to preserve the world order in its essentials while the former insisted on drastic changes.
Well-informed scholars paint a similar picture of the Soviet Union today:
To say it simply, the Soviet Union is interested in fomenting conflicts, escalating conflicts, maintaining them at a high level of intensity, and exploiting them, but not in their peaceful solution, especially in their early stages, when they are most susceptible of solution. . . .
The Soviet Union is obviously not a “sated power.” Even when measured only from the viewpoint of great-power competition, it is a new, dynamic great power. . . . This situation in itself would render difficult, highly competitive, complex, and unstable any relations with the Soviet Union now and for the foreseeable future. It would certainly preclude realization of those exaggerated hopes of the early Kissinger détente construed as a long-range balance of power and agreement of spheres of interest. . . .10
Even more than in the case of imperial Germany, these restless and disruptive tendencies do not result chiefly from the quirks of individual leaders or even from the psychology of the latecomer but are connected with a general outlook on the world, a “philosophy,” as the scholars of the Great War like to say, that rests on the “unspoken assumptions” that are part of their education and experience. In the Soviet Union these are a developed version of Marxist-Leninist ideas that present a picture of a Manichean struggle for dominance between the forces of light—Socialism-Communism—and the forces of darkness—capitalism. Communist victory in the long run is assured; a lasting negotiated peace is both impossible and undesirable.
Though these ideas are dismissed by many Western observers as no longer influential with Soviet leaders, there is much evidence to suggest that they are. The leaders of the Soviet Union have been raised in a closed society in which these assumptions are the only ones heard, and these have been ceaselessly drummed into the heads of all Soviet citizens. In a much more open society, the minds of most of Germany’s leaders from the 1890’s to 1914 were dominated by the Social Darwinism that was the current Zeitgeist. Even in our own society, full of intellectual crosscurrents, as open as any has ever been to a variety of ideas, most American leaders of both parties remain under the spell of the ideas of the Declaration of Independence and other liberal doctrines in which they have been raised, and give democracy and human rights a place in our policies far beyond any pragmatic justification. It would be strange indeed if Soviet leaders were capable of escaping their education and upbringing, viewing the central values inculcated in them with detached, cynical hypocrisy, and acting on the basis of pragmatic considerations alone.
Nor has the small group of men privy to full discussions of Soviet foreign policy had reason to be disillusioned with the philosophy of foreign relations they have inherited. They have seen or heard of the development of their nation from a state weak in industrial and military power to one of the two most powerful nations in the world, and the commitment to the Communist ideology in international relations has played no small part in its success. “In brief,” as Adam Ulam puts it, “very little in their experience or in the international picture as it has evolved during the past twenty years or so could have persuaded the Kremlin that its basic guidelines for dealing with the outside world need drastic revision.” In fact, the mind set of Soviet leaders is far more controlling than it is with their counterparts in other countries, because their underlying assumptions are integral to the stability of their regime:
Communism may not be a guide to Soviet behavior, but it is a creed that continues to infuse Soviet policy with dynamism. It identifies a cause, defines the enemy, and inspires the faith. Without an enemy and a cause, there would be no justification for a Soviet claim to world leadership. Without the doctrine there would be no basis for the dictatorship of the Communist party internally. Indeed, the whole logic of domestic repression is based upon a foreign threat. Thus, the very nature of the Soviet system sets limits on how far détente can go.11
Georgi Arbatov, though speaking in the most hopeful period of “détente,” said, “There can be no question as to whether the struggle between the two systems would or would not continue. That struggle is unavoidable.” When a high Soviet official speaks in that way we have even less reason to doubt his sincerity than we would to doubt that of the Germans when they argued for Weltpolitik (world policy) as the only alternative to Niedergang (decline).
As with imperial Germany, the Soviet Union’s restless, disruptive, and turbulent world view takes its most tangible, serious, and dangerous form in the military sphere. Like the Germans before 1914, the Soviets today have the most powerful army in the world, as they have had since the Americans swiftly demobilized after World War II. This alone would not cause undue alarm because it has been balanced by the formation of NATO, whose numerical inferiority has been compensated for by American superiority in the air and in nuclear weapons, until recent years, just as the formation of the Triple Entente and British superiority at sea held Germany’s great army in check. But just as the construction of a German battle fleet aimed at parity with or superiority over the British navy threatened to upset the balance of power and the peace of the world, the Soviet Union’s unprecedented progress in nuclear weapons has done the same in the world today, and for the same reasons.
The missile race of the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s is the analogue to the naval race of the years 1897-1914. Both competitions were undertaken in the hope of using military power to achieve otherwise unattainable political ends. So long as its navy controlled the seas, Great Britain was free to support continental coalitions and otherwise stand in the path of German expansion without danger to the safety of its own people and homeland. The purpose of Tirpitz and the Kaiser in building their fleet was to neutralize the force that stood in Germany’s way. Had they succeeded, they might have been able to force the nations of Europe into a subservient condition, to be exploited by the Germans to their own advantage, even without war. In any case, without British participation, they would surely have won a continental war and imposed their domination. The resulting position of power would have been too great to permit Britain’s effective resistance around the world, perhaps too great to resist subservience to Germany.
In the same way, so long as the United States enjoyed clear nuclear superiority it could provide credible support to its allies in Western Europe and prevent Soviet expansion in the rest of the world. The purpose of the vast and rapid development of the USSR’s nuclear arsenal is likewise to neutralize and render incredible America’s support of its allies and others wishing to resist Soviet domination. In an optimistic form, the Soviets’ goals would include the neutralization or, as it has been called, the “Finlandization” of Western Europe, its conversion into a territory subservient to and exploited by the Soviet Union. This has been the purpose behind the emplacement of intermediate-range nuclear missiles aimed at Western Europe and the great campaign of intimidation that tried to thwart an answering emplacement of similar weapons in Western European countries. But the growth of the Soviet arsenal of intercontinental missiles continues to be the chief weapon of intimidation, the most significant example of the attempt to convert military power into political influence.
For all these similarities there are, of course, important differences between the two situations. In one respect the modern United States has done better than Edwardian Britain in meeting the challenge of its turbulent, ambitious rival. By establishing a formal military alliance with the nations of Western Europe and placing a force of its own troops, however small and inferior to the Soviets’, in Europe the United States has reduced temptation and created a clear, visible, and unmistakable deterrent to adventures in that area. Since neither the Americans nor their allies, however, have supplied conventional forces even equal to those opposing them, the real deterrent has been America’s nuclear superiority and the credibility of its willingness to use it. Here is a difference that goes in the opposite direction, for unlike the British, the Americans have allowed their rival to achieve not less than parity in the military arm on which rests not only the credibility of the American commitment to its allies but its own safety.
Even as they have reached at least parity in nuclear weapons, the Soviets have maintained their superiority in conventional forces in Europe, vastly expanded their navy, and greatly increased their ability to foment and support friendly movements in the Third World. As Coit Blacker puts it:
For the first time in Soviet history, Kremlin leaders have at their disposal a modern and balanced military force for possible use across a large spectrum of conflict, from intercontinental nuclear war with the United States to limited interventions in the Third World. Moreover, the current leadership regards further development of Soviet military power as a necessary precondition for the attainment of future foreign policy objectives. Military power has become the main Soviet instrument in the long-term political struggle they foresee with the West and China.
Some students of the Soviet Union and its policy emphasize pessimistic aspects of its situation: its economic inadequacies, the discontent of its citizens who want more consumer goods and more freedom, the discontent and restlessness of its satellites in Eastern Europe, the demographic evidence that projects a decline of the Great Russian population relative to the Asiatic population, and the threat of internal troubles any or all of these problems might cause. If they are right, the danger of war might arise, as it did for Europe in 1914, from an internal crisis, combined with some perceived opportunity created by Western weakness, which might lead the Soviets, as it led the Germans in 1914, to take a “leap in the dark” in the hope that some great success in foreign policy might solve whatever problem caused the crisis. Soviet leaders might hope that the West would remain quiet; failing that, they might hope to localize the conflict in the expectation that their conventional superiority might bring a quick and easy success before the United States intervened. If the Western democracies refused to give way, as they have in the past, the result might be the nuclear war that has haunted the imagination of mankind since 1945.
Others see the Soviet situation differently. They take note of the many difficulties confronting the Soviet Union but regard them as chronic, long-term problems that will not go away but are manageable. From such a perspective it is tempting to apply to the Soviet Union the waggish analysis made of the late Hapsburg empire: the situation is hopeless but not serious. Certainly, the Soviet leaders do not seem to take the gloomy view. They know they have problems but “tend to downplay them, instead emphasizing their accomplishments, and thus retain a genuine faith in the transcendent significance of that experience.”12
Whatever their difficulties in the long run, from the more influential perspective of a single human lifespan their extraordinary gains in military might and the political force that inevitably goes with them are bound to impress the Soviet leaders more. No one will doubt that what we call the balance of power and the Soviets call the correlation of forces has shifted greatly in their favor in the last two decades, and if they look to the future with more confidence than fear they have some grounds for doing so. The greater danger, therefore, seems that a crisis will result from an overconfident Soviet action encouraged by a perception of Western weakness and reluctance to resist.
Here again the “Munich”-analogy is most helpful. The Western democracies find it natural and easy to turn away from unpleasant facts, to seek escape in their traditional isolationism. They tend to justify their behavior by applying a selective, partial, and inappropriate understanding of Judeo-Christian morality to international relations and to place ill-founded hopes in the essential similarity of opponents who, in fact, have been trained in an entirely different culture, have very different values, and look at the world in a very different way. They are badly handicapped by a prejudice against military preparation and action developed in the centuries when their geographic location gave them considerable safety without the need to pay for or use military forces. They tend to see the use of military power to achieve their legitimate ends as both inadequate and inappropriate.
Thus with an overwhelming advantage in nuclear weapons, the United States made no effort to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining ground and ultimately reaching its present position of parity or superiority. This remarkable decision would have been the equivalent of the British allowing Tirpitz’s fleet of battleships to become at least the equal of its own, with predictable political results. The Americans justified their inaction by asserting their confidence in MAD. When the Soviets seemed to be operating from a different set of assumptions, the Americans spoke of the need to educate them. Unilateral restraint, however, did not seem to work. As Carter’s Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, said: “We build, they build. We don’t build, they build.”
In answer to criticism, the American authors of what they called détente insisted that the closing of the gap was a good thing, for it granted the Soviets the equality they craved, calmed their paranoid fears of attack, thereby making disarmament agreements and peaceful coexistence easier. This was much like the view of the Times of London in 1933. The Nazi government of Germany, which had withdrawn from a disarmament conference, could not be expected to disarm when Germany had no arms. Only after the Germans had rearmed could they be asked to disarm. The resulting equality would allow them to sit comfortably with the other powers around the table of a disarmament conference.
When fears of Soviet nuclear superiority challenged the wisdom of the American policy, the men who had carried it forward found new reasons not to be alarmed. “What in the name of God is strategic superiority?” was the rhetorical question asked by Henry Kissinger. Years later, sobered by consideration of Soviet behavior in the interim, he found an answer: “For one side to have counterforce capability and the other side not to have it (especially if that side is also inferior in forces for local intervention) must tempt a political disaster.” In its usual way, however, the United States continues to take the military threat to its safety and interests less seriously than is warranted. Yet both analogies we have examined show that the growth in military power of a dissatisfied Germany and the failure of the British and French to make an adequate military response played a central role in bringing on two world wars.
It is sometimes argued that analogies drawn from events that took place before the invention of nuclear weapons have no bearing in the nuclear era, that the very existence of nuclear weapons with their unprecedented capacity for destruction create a “minimal deterrence” that is adequate to guarantee a degree of prudence that would prevent a major war. Consideration of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 badly undermines that comforting suggestion. On that occasion the Soviet Union tried to place a force of nuclear missiles secretly in Cuba. It is generally agreed that the main purpose was to change the balance of nuclear forces, then overwhelmingly in America’s favor, and to use the result to solve a number of serious political problems, both domestic and foreign. At that time, the United States had deployed hundreds of intercontinental nuclear missiles capable of striking the Soviet Union and hundreds of additional nuclear weapons on bombing planes that could easily reach it from European bases. There can be no doubt that together they were capable of destroying the Soviet Union. At the same time the Soviets’ nuclear arsenal of weapons capable of hitting the United States consisted of fewer than 50 ICBM’s, perhaps as few as four. Yet the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev took the chance of installing the missiles. In effect, he adopted Tirpitz’s risky program of trying to catch up with the force that guaranteed the rival’s safety, and that allowed it freely to conduct foreign policy, and tried to accomplish that with a single stroke.
He was led to this bold attempt by a belief in the American President’s lack of resolution. John F. Kennedy had been elected by a very slender margin that seemed to undermine his confidence and effectiveness. He met Khrushchev at Vienna, and published reports portrayed him as responding weakly to the bullying of his Soviet counterpart. When the Bay of Pigs invasion floundered, Kennedy failed to support it, incurring an ignominious defeat. When the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall he took no significant action, and his passivity was condemned by Berlin’s Mayor Willy Brandt, among many others. The poet Robert Frost came back from a meeting with Khrushchev and reported the Soviet leader’s opinion that the American people were “too liberal to fight.” During the summer of 1962 Kennedy was under heavy attack from political opponents for what they saw as his softness and unwillingness to stand up to the Soviets. In these circumstances, Khrushchev tried his ploy but was discovered before the missiles were installed. Kennedy and his advisers saw this move as “the supreme Soviet probe of American intentions.”
This time Kennedy took action. He imposed a blockade on Cuba, readied an army in Florida capable of invading the island, and placed American military forces, including those employing nuclear weapons, on alert. He explained his reaction in these terms:
This sudden clandestine decision to station strategic weapons for the first time outside of Soviet soil is a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo, which cannot be accepted by this country if our courage and our commitment are ever to be trusted again by either friend or foe. The 1930’s taught us a clear lesson: aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war.
After tense negotiations, the Soviets finally removed the missiles and promised not to install them in Cuba again.
We are not informed of what motivated the Soviet withdrawal, but the fact is that the Americans enjoyed military superiority at every relevant level in the Caribbean in October of 1962; they controlled the sea and the air, they could put a large army onto Cuba when the Soviets could not, and they had a vast and decisive advantage in nuclear weapons. It would have required complete madness in the Soviet leadership not to give way. Khrushchev was neither mad nor stupid, yet he ran the terrible risk of nuclear war in an attempt to achieve his goals.
There is no reason to be confident that a man like him will never again reach the position of supreme power in the USSR and no reason to be certain of another acceptable result. If the Soviets merely choose a more convenient place for their adventure their nuclear parity or superiority will nullify the deterrent effect of American nuclear weapons and their conventional superiority will discourage American resistance. Then the American President will be faced with the choice of yielding what may be a strategically important concession and destroying all confidence in what John Kennedy called our “courage and commitment” or launching a nuclear war we surely could not win and probably could not survive. Whatever the value of the earlier analogies, the experience of the missile crisis demonstrates the centrality in a nuclear age of military power and the danger created when a dissatisfied nation acquires enough of it to undermine the deterrent ability of those nations desiring stability.
The study of our two analogies suggests that today’s discontented power is in some respects more like the Kaiser’s Germany than Hitler’s, but that is no cause for rejoicing. Hitler, to be sure, rode a revolution that was still young and a nation so dynamic that it presented an immediate threat to the stability of Europe and the peace of the world. Once he achieved military power comparable to his opponents’ he could not be deterred, only resisted and defeated at extraordinary cost. Imperial Germany lacked the internal revolutionary character of Nazi Germany, but the racialist, Darwinian, expansionist ideology that shaped its goals and foreign policy were no less incompatible with stability and peace. Neither Germany was a “normal” power struggling for advantage in the competition with other nations in the usual way. Neither could be appeased by reasonable concessions. Both could be stopped only by effective deterrence or by war. The difference, if our analysis is correct, is that the Kaiser’s Germany was not so volatile as Hitler’s. Its foundations were secure enough to permit a halt in its expansion and a gradual acceptance of more limited goals when faced by reality in the form of an effective political and military deterrent.
The Soviet Union, like the Kaiser’s Germany, is a dangerous power, not a “normal” one playing by the ordinary rules of international competition. From the beginning of its regime to the present day it has continued openly to announce as its goal the ultimate elimination of all foreign governments not compatible with its Communist doctrine. Neither the Kaiser nor even Hitler ever went so far. In some ways the Soviet Union is more dangerous than either Germany, because the totality of its military and naval power is far greater, both absolutely and relatively. It also enjoys the benefits of calling on a “revolutionary” ideology around the world as a weapon for undermining regimes not under its control. Even those who regard the goal and the revolutionary doctrine as mere words of continually decreasing reality and appeal must recognize that Communist ideology continues to be of considerable value today, especially when supported by shipments of arms, Soviet military instructors and advisers, and substantial numbers of Communist soldiers from satellite countries. They should also remember that aggressive statements and actions, both by the Kaiser and by Hitler, were likewise dismissed as mere rhetoric by those who lived to regret it.
Even so, the analogy with Wilhelmine Germany leaves some room for hope. The Soviet Union, too, need not rush forward into immediate and inevitable conflict regardless of cost. The Soviet leaders have much to lose and time to consider alternatives. We have seen that imperial Germany might have been deterred by a major military effort by the British. Similarly, there is reason to hope that the Soviet Union can be deterred from dangerous adventures if the United States and its allies are willing to pay the price. Sound policy will require strength, determination, and patience. It will aim at deterrence of war, containment of the power of the Soviet Union and its satellites, and its diminution when reasonable opportunities present themselves. Containment is necessary because unchecked Soviet expansion is dangerous both strategically and psychologically. The USSR’s gains in allies, resources, and locations having strategic value increase its capacity to challenge the West at the same time as it weakens the West’s capacity to resist. The psychological effects of further changes in the balance of power in the Soviets’ favor are too obvious to need description. At some point concessions made from good will and hopeful expectations become retreats made from fear. The outcome is less likely to be surrender than a sudden reversal, confrontation, and disaster.
Containment sheltered by deterrence, however, can work. The definition of success should not be utopian. The lion will not lie down with the lamb. The Soviet Union will not soon collapse from its internal problems, change its view of the world, or abandon its ambitions, although there is much to be said for trying to assist the disintegration of the Soviet empire when good opportunities arise. It is not impossible that unforeseen events may some day bring changes that would make the world a better and safer place. If not, we may hope, at least, that the Soviets after some period of time will realize they cannot have their way. As George Kennan once said, “no mystical messianic movement, and particularly not that of the Kremlin, can face frustration indefinitely without adjusting itself in one way or another to the logic of that state of affairs.” In the 16th and 17th centuries European Catholics and Protestants tried with all their might to exterminate their opponents and their beliefs. They reluctantly abandoned the attempt not because they had seen the light of restraint and toleration but because they were exhausted and convinced they could not succeed. We may hope that a firm, constant policy of containment and deterrence will produce a similar result without bloodshed and perhaps even that some future Peace of Westphalia will make peace official.
But this is a prescription difficult for the Western democracies to take. It requires them to understand that serious problems of foreign policy are with them for the foreseeable future and that military preparations at a high cost will be required for success. They must achieve and maintain a credible array of nuclear weapons and defensive systems to deter Soviet adventurism, even though technological change will continue to make those weapons obsolete and require new ones. They must support armies, navies, and air forces adequate to make conventional adventures unattractive. On occasion they must resist Soviet-supported rebellions that threaten important interests and be willing to use their own armies when needed for the purpose.
All of that runs against the grain and is terribly difficult in free societies that enjoy the luxuries of economies designed for the pleasure and happiness of their people and systems of political competition in which the material advancement of the citizens has very high priority and in which the illusion persists that isolation is still possible. But the 20th has been a hard century, and the 21st will be no less hard. The study of our two analogies suggests that nothing short of an honest look at reality and a responding change in behavior will be needed for survival.
1 See, for example, Miles Kahler, “Rumors of War: The 1914 Analogy,” Foreign Affairs, December 1979, and an entire issue of the journal International Security devoted to deriving contemporary lessons from the war of 1914, published separately as Military Strategy and the Origins of the First World War, Steven E. Miller, ed. (Princeton University Press, 1985). See also Geoffrey Barraclough, From Agadir to Armageddon (Holmes & Meier, 1982); Michael Howard, The Causes of Wars (Harvard University Press, 1983); George F. Kennan, The Decline of Bismarck's European Order (Princeton University Press, 1979) and The Fateful Alliance (Princeton University Press, 1984).
2 David Calleo, The German Problem Reconsidered (Harvard University Press, 1978). The words I have emphasized are quoted by Kahler.
3 See Paul M. Kennedy, “Strategic Aspects of the Anglo-German Naval Race,” in Paul M. Kennedy, Strategy and Diplomacy 1870-1945 (London, Allen & Unwin, 1983), and the judgment of that article and other recent studies coming to a similar conclusion by Zara S. Steiner: “We now know that Tirpitz did indeed think of challenging the supremacy of the British navy,” in Britain and the Origins of the First World War (London, Macmillan, 1977).
4 See S.M. Lynn-Jones, “Détente and Deterrence, Anglo-German Relations, 1911-1914,” International Relations, Fall 1986: “One of the most striking features of the general image of World War I as an inadvertent conflict is the extent to which it ignores the arguments of Fritz Fischer and other historians who contend that Germany adopted an aggressive policy.”
5 L.W. Fuchser, Neville Chamberlain and Appeasement (Norton, 1982). It is worth noting that the author is by no means hostile to his protagonist. He describes his work as a “not unsympathetic reexamination” of the “popular image of Chamberlain as a weak and ineffectual old man feebly waving his umbrella, promising ‘peace in our time’ while the Wehrmacht marched into the Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.”
6 Williamson Murray, The Change in the European Balance of Power, 1938-1939 (Princeton University Press, 1984).
7 Stalin's Successors (Cambridge University Press, 1980).
8 Coit D. Blacker, “Military Forces,” in After Brezhnev, Robert F. Byrnes, ed. (University of Indiana Press, 1983). For a fine discussion of Soviet military doctrine, see pp. 151-165.
9 David Holloway, The Soviet Union and the Arms Race (Yale University Press, 1983). Holloway says that less emphasis has been placed on preemption since the late 60's. He offers as possible reasons for the change he perceives increased Soviet confidence caused by the achievement of nuclear parity, and a changed attitude toward Stalin's behavior at the time of Hitler's attack. Another explanation might be that the acquisition of means that make preemption more possible has led to greater Soviet discretion in public statements.
10 The quotations are from Bialer, Stalin's Successors, passim.
11 Joseph L. Nogee and Robert H. Donaldson, Soviet Foreign Policy since World War 11 (Pergamon, 1981).
12 Robert Legvold, “The Nature of Soviet Power,” Foreign Affairs, October 1977.