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Historical Reflections on the Dangers Ahead

ISSUE:  Spring 1984

The Reagan Administration as well as many of its critics have popularized the notion that we live in an unusually dangerous decade. The former focuses on the ominous shadow of the Soviet Union’s military power and Moscow’s expansionist policies. Critics among the “peace” movements have concentrated on the specter of nuclear war. A survey of diplomatic history leads to the conclusion that some of these fears are ill-founded. This is not to deny the horrible potential destructiveness of nuclear weapons. If we analyzed the danger we face simply by speculating on the potential damage of nuclear war, we would have to conclude that we face unprecedented peril. Yet, from other important perspectives, the current decade does not seem unusually hazardous. Indeed, a major war in our era is very unlikely. That is an important sense in which we are comparatively safe. Moreover, an adverse shift in the balance of power—one that would imperil our interests vis-a-vis the Soviet Union—is also unlikely. The United States is in a favorable position to hold its own in that contest. We may have more to fear from economic competition with certain allies. (Japan has recently done more damage to this country than has Russia—ask Detroit.) The Soviet threat is real, but it should not be exaggerated. The Reagan administration’s extravagant rhetoric obscures important aspects of the Soviet Union’s posture which actually suit the interests of the United States quite well.

Although Reagan probably reaped political benefits during the 1980 election campaign by sounding the alarm about a Soviet threat, he has been forced to realize that hard-line rhetoric can be counterproductive. The need to counter “peace” movements and the pressure to compromise with opponents in Congress have compelled the administration to modify its tough stance, although the basic anti-Soviet inclination remains. Unfortunately, the administration has been slow to develop an effective, coherent, overall policy toward the Soviet Union. The White House apparently also lacks the kind of historical insights that might influence such a policy. In any case, the lessons of history which President Reagan occasionally cites in his speeches do not reveal a well-considered analysis of the past.


The history of relations between leading states in the modern international system features several long periods of peace. The longest of these lasted from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870—71 until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.One of the principal factors that brought about the latter conflict was a potent source of trouble known as the German problem. This was, indeed, a major cause of both world wars, and even a cursory sketch of an historical frame of reference should highlight its significance.

When Otto von Bismarck substantially fulfilled his vision of a large German Empire after the Franco-Prussian War, most observers did not readily appreciate the dangerous implications of a potentially dominant power in Central Europe. The perils were camouflaged for a long time by Bismarck’s subsequent pursuit of a defensive, restrained, and cautious foreign policy.

Signs of danger became more ominous after Bismarck was dismissed from high office in 1890.A highly competitive alliance system subsequently emerged. The Franco-Russian alliance was negotiated to counter the well-established Austro-German alliance. Thereafter, arms races accelerated, spurred by a more adventurous, expansionist German foreign policy. Germany’s more aggressive tone and her decision to challenge Britain’s naval supremacy by building a high-seas fleet raised the level of international tension and exerted pressure on London to take countermeasures. A realignment occurred in which Britain gravitated closer to France and Russia in opposition to the central powers—the German and Austrian Empires.

Instability in the Balkans eventually drew the two sides into conflict. The Ottoman Empire continued to decay. This created a power vacuum in the Balkans which invited adventurers and fostered a struggle for power between Russia and Austria. The decline of Turkish power also fostered ambitions among increasingly self-conscious nationalities in the Balkans: Serbs, Greeks, Bulgarians, and others. This rising tide of nationalism seemed to threaten the very existence of the multinational Austrian Empire. Many Austrian leaders developed exaggerated fears of disintegration. Even little Serbia’s growing ambition to expand by liberating and uniting with other southern Slavs came to be regarded as a mortal danger in Vienna.

The Germans grew increasingly anxious about the health of their ramshackle ally but remained grimly determined to preserve Austria’s status as a great power. Germany’s attitudes developed a paradoxical character. On the one hand, the Germans were conscious of their growing economic strength, and the German population was increasing more rapidly than that of France. Germany had become the most powerful state on the European continent. On the other hand, various long-term trends were disturbing. The ruling elite felt increasingly threatened by Germany’s political divisions and domestic pressures for reform. Russia to the east had greater potential, as did the United States across the Atlantic to the west. Germany had been a late comer in the competition for colonies, and she felt that she might lack resources and access to markets in the future. Moreover, a coalition seemed to be forming against her. Indeed, the Germans felt that they were encircled. Making matters worse, the Germans adopted a risky military plan. There is not room in this brief survey to describe the infamous Schlieffen Plan, but its essential significance must be noted. The plan was so constructed that if Russia ever became involved in an international crisis and decided to mobilize her cumbersome military forces as a threatening gesture, Germany would feel compelled to attack France immediately. The adoption of this plan confirmed what had long been feared—mobilization meant war. Thus, in certain circumstances, there would be little time for diplomacy.

Those circumstances arose after southern Slav nationalists assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.The Austrians accused Serbian officials of aiding the terrorists and decided to bolster the Austrian Empire’s prestige as a great power by punishing Serbia- This involved grave risks because Russia (Austria’s rival in the Balkans) might try to protect Serbia. The Serbs would certainly appeal for that protection. In short, an Austrian adventure in the Balkans might precipitate a Russian intervention, which might, in turn, lead to a European-wide conflagration. Yet the Austrians felt that something dramatic must be done to stop their decline, and they calculated that their risk had a good chance of paying off. They were temporarily the beneficiaries of an outpouring of sympathy after the assassination. Even more important, they asked for and received a promise of support from Germany.

Austria’s declaration of war on Serbia was followed by Russia’s mobilization. The Germans demanded that the mobilization be cancelled, but the Russians were resolute. In the previous decade Russia had suffered an humiliating experience in the Balkans. Austria had annexed two southern Slav provinces—Bosnia and Herzegovina—under circumstances that had damaged Russian prestige. The prospect of another setback seemed intolerable. The Russian mobilization continued, and the Germans implemented the Schlieffen Plan with an attack on Russia’s ally, France. To invade France as easily as possible, the Germans marched through neutral Belgium, which provided an emotionally compelling pretext for Britain’s entry into the conflict.

This is a cursory explanation of the origins of the First World War. Many causes have not been mentioned. One crucial factor, however, must not be omitted. When suggesting that Austria and Germany were willing to risk a major war in order to shore up or even increase their prestige, it should be noted that they generally expected a short war. They focused on the wrong historical precedents—the brief Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the aforementioned Franco-Prussian War. A study of the American Civil War might have given them a more accurate warning.

The First World War, of course, developed into a prolonged, painful, and paralyzing struggle. Millions of young men were killed or maimed. Modern states in control of modern technology waged what came to be called “total war” for four long years. The strain precipitated the Russian Revolution, the breakup of the Ottoman and Austrian empires, and the fall of the German kaiser. Even in victorious countries, the trauma fostered cynicism and pessimism, despite all of the wartime idealism and propaganda promising a better world.

The peace settlement contributed to the widespread sense of disillusionment because it failed to establish the basis for a durable peace. The terms imposed on Germany were particularly unfortunate. The Treaty of Versailles did not deal adequately with the German problem. Indeed, it made matters worse. The treaty was sufficiently harsh to make the Germans very angry, and it left Germany substantially intact so that within a generation she was able to make another bid for mastery in Europe. The appearance of a belt of weak Eastern European states such as Poland and Czechoslovakia almost invited German expansion.

After Hitler came to power in 1933, Germany proceeded to overturn the Treaty of Versailles. Before the revolutionary nature of Hitler’s diplomacy became obvious, the British and French permitted (and in some instances helped bring about) a peaceful revision of the peace settlement. The policy became known as appeasement. Thus, in the hope of appeasing the Germans, they were allowed to rearm openly after 1935, to remilitarize the Rhineland in 1936, to form a union with Austria and to take the so-called Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in 1938, and finally to occupy Prague in the spring of 1939.Not until Hitler had overturned the balance of power by small steps did the British and French draw a firm line. Hitler was not deterred, of course, and the Second World War started with a German invasion of Poland.

This gigantic conflict lasted until 1945. To the millions of battlefield fatalities were added the victims of the Nazi Holocaust and civilian casualities of the horrendous aerial bombing. It was another staggering upheaval, but, unlike the First World War, it brought about some momentous changes which laid the basis for another relatively peaceful, stable period.


Since 1945, we have been spared any further major wars. To be sure, the superpowers have confronted each other in some scary crises. East-West tensions developed rapidly. During and after the Second World War, the dramatic expansion of Soviet territory and influence posed serious challenges which obstructed the negotiation of a peace settlement. The deterioration of relations between the victorious allies soon resulted in the so-called Cold War—the popular and peculiar name for the intense postwar rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States. Yet, in retrospect, the postwar decades clearly qualify as a relatively long period of peace between the leading powers, and there are grounds for believing that this stability will not break down soon.

The territorial rearrangements that emerged after the Second World War have proved to be remarkably durable. This should not be regarded as miraculous. Although there was no formal peace settlement regarding Germany, a long-lasting solution to the German problem was achieved. In effect, Germany was partitioned. Czechoslovakia took back the Sudetenland, Russia took part of East Prussia, Poland received two other slices of German territory, and the rest was divided into East and West Germany—the German Democratic Republic and Federal Republic of Germany. This is a tremendous advantage for the cause of peace. It dramatically diminshed one of the principal factors that caused the two world wars. The postwar crises we have faced in Germany are very different from and much easier to handle than the prewar German problem of an expansionist power in Central Europe. This does not imply that Germany is no longer the focus of crucial issues. West Germany is vital to NATO. German yearning for reunification requires careful and subtle statesmanship. The persistence of difficult questions should not, however, obscure the beneficial aspects of the situation.

An obvious question arises at this point. Does the postwar rise of the Russian problem more than offset the reduction of the German problem? History reminds us that Russian expansionism has aroused deep anxieties for a long time in the modern international states’ system. It threatened to disrupt the Congress of Vienna back in 1814 and 1815.The great powers had a very sharp dispute over Russian claims in Poland. Even during the relatively stable period (the heyday of the Concert of Europe) which followed, London and Paris worried about Russian involvement in several subsequent crises. Mutual restraint helped the great powers avoid an armed clash until 1854, but the outbreak of the Crimean War during that year reflected the dangers inherent in the Russian problem. It can, of course, also be plausibly argued that the emergence of a Communist dictatorship at Moscow and the growth of Soviet power since the Second World War have created a Russian threat of massive proportions in our era. Unfortunately, the warnings we hear are often strident and simplistic. Indeed, the anti-Soviet rhetoric with which we are so familiar tends to conceal those aspects of the situation that favor our interests and serve the cause of peace.

First of all, as long as we cannot prevent Russia from being a superpower, we should be thankful that she has a Marxist-Leninist government. This assertion may seem surprising, but any patriotic and realistic American who really believes in the superiority of capitalism should agree. Nineteenth-century statesmen and observers assumed that Russia would eventually realize the enormous potential implicit in her gigantic size. That seemed more or less inevitable. The fact that Russian expansionism was a problem long before the Bolshevik Revolution brought the Russian Communists to power should call into question the notion that a reformed regime in Moscow would be less threatening. The serious weaknesses in the overcentralized, ponderous, stultifying totalitarian system in Russia can be regarded as our good fortune. This is especially true of Soviet economics. How much more power could Russia generate if she had a dynamic capitalist economy? The potential could be truly alarming. However much we sympathize with Russian dissidents or the plight of non-Russian cultures within the Soviet Union (and the author does sympathize), it is not necessarily harmful to our national interest if the Russian Communists remain in power and resist reform.

No apologies for Soviet malevolence are implied in this perspective. Bolshevik communism, which became largely a vehicle for Russian imperialism, also has nasty ramifications beyond Soviet borders. We should readily sympathize with the struggle of Poles and other East Europeans who are yearning for liberalization. Soviet domination of Eastern Europe is ugly.

Yet the postwar distribution of territory and spheres of influence has some favorable aspects. In certain ways it promotes stability and suits the interests of the United States quite well. Before the First World War the Balkans were the “powder keg of Europe.” Some of that dangerous character persists. For instance, various commentators have perceived the serious danger of a clash between the superpowers in Yugoslavia. Elsewhere, especially in the satellite states, the danger seems much less. Neither the Balkan peninsula in particular nor Eastern Europe in general appear to be as dangerous as they once were. For more than 30 years, Russia has kept order in volatile parts of Europe. It maintains a kind of Pax Sovietica in areas where we do not have vital interests. Indeed, America’s main interest there is stability. Furthermore, the United States has by and large tacitly accepted Russia’s domination of Eastern Europe.

Paradoxically, Soviet power in Eastern Europe helps the United States maintain influence in Western Europe, an area of vital interest for America. In addition to important cultural links with the United States, the region has the greatest concentration of highly productive people in the world. It has crucial importance for American business as well as defense. The United States must not allow Europe’s military power to be neutralized or its economic capacity to be heavily exploited by its chief rival. But it should be noted that while the Soviet threat enhances Western Europe’s importance, it also encourages the Europeans to look to Washington for support and even leadership. Moreover, various unpleasant aspects of the Soviet system make the United States government more attractive to smaller powers than our leaders in Washington might otherwise appear.

The United States is so well placed in Western Europe and elsewhere in the world that it is essentially a satisfied power. Washington generally accepts the status quo and basically tries only to promote stability while preventing an expansion of Soviet influence. Admittedly this has involved us in crises not only in Europe but in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Central America, and those crises obviously reflect a significant possibility of Soviet-American conflict. There have been some serious confrontations—as in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962—and future crises are easy to envision—in the Persian Gulf or Sea of Japan, for example. Still, a present-minded preoccupation with our troubles should not prevent us from appreciating that there is no fundamental clash of territorial interests in Soviet-American relations. This helps explain the absence of hostilities between Russia and the United States throughout our history, (The participation of American troops in the Allied intervention in Russia during the First World War hardly constitutes a major exception to that peaceful record.)

This does not mean that the contrasting ideologies of the Soviet Union and the United States are insignificant, but there are more important considerations. Claims to territory as well as insatiable cravings for security, the desire to wield power, and the urge to dominate are more important sources of international competition. It is the two Communist giants, Russia and China, which have one of the most serious border disputes in our era. Moreover, just as quarrels between ideologically kindred powers are quite common in history, cooperation between states with contrasting value systems also occurs frequently. In international politics, ideology is used primarily in formulating rationalizations and justifications for the pursuit of self interests. Ideology influences but usually does not decisively determine the perception of those interests. Despite the Reagan administration’s reputation for ideological ardor, doctrinal differences are not insuperable obstacles to Soviet-American accommodation.


Competition for power is the most important general factor in the Soviet-American rivalry. This is reflected in the dominant theme of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy—concern about the Soviet Union’s apparent quest for hegemony and the aggressive purposes for which it might be used.

Citing impressive statistics about the expansion of the Soviet Union’s military forces, the president has argued that we fell behind in the arms race during the 1970’s. In calling for a massive American program of military spending, he has referred not only to disarray in our conventional forces but also to a strategic “window of vulnerability.”

The expansion of Soviet arms has appeared all the more alarming because of what has been described as Russia’s “risk-taking mode.” That phrase refers to the Soviet Union’s expansionist efforts in various places such as Angola, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua.(The Reagan administration tends to ignore the Soviet Union’s setback in Egypt.) The détente policies of the 1970’s continue to be denounced as a failed experiment, with the Reagan Administration apparently regarding them as the moral equivalent of Britain’s appeasement policies during the 1930’s. There is a widely held assumption that unless we firmly discourage Soviet risk-taking in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, we could be confronted (as in the Second World War) with a fundamental threat to our vital interests.

This conclusion stems in essence from an application of the famous Munich analogy. The Munich Conference of 1938 marked the high point of Britain’s appeasement of Hitler. That has undoubtedly been the most influential and popular historical analogy among our postwar leaders. On June 8, 1982, President Reagan told both houses of the British Parliament that if there had been firmer support for important principles “some 45 years ago, perhaps our generation wouldn’t have suffered the bloodletting of World War II.” In a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals on March 8, 1983, he suggested that “the refusal of many influential people to accept” the ruthless, threatening nature of Marxism-Leninism “illustrates an historical reluctance to see totalitarian powers for what they are.” Reagan went on: “We saw this phenomenon in the 1930’s. We see it too often today.” He also asserted, “If history teaches anything, it teaches that simpleminded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly.” Presumably Reagan regards some of his critics in Congress as simpleminded on national security questions. In a televised address to the nation on March 23, 1983, he referred to domestic criticism of his proposed defense budget as “the same kind of talk that led the democracies to neglect their defenses in the 1930’s and invited the tragedy of World War II.” He added: “We must not let that grim chapter of history repeat itself through apathy or neglect.” On August 23, he returned to this theme in a speech to an American Legion convention. No doubt we will hear the refrain again.

Although the Munich analogy is persuasive, the origins of the First World War have more important parallels to the present. The relevance of international relations in 1914 to our era has, of course, been pointed out many times in recent decades. The most widely publicized example is President John F. Kennedy’s conviction that the origins of the First World War exemplified the dangers of miscalculation. He even urged his staff to read Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, a popular study of the catastrophe. Two decades later the so-called July crisis of 1914 can still be cited as a chilling allegory. A local incident—a political assassination—precipitated an international crisis that got out of control and detonated a world war.

Many parallels make the 1914 analogy seem especially apt. Today, as in 1914, there are rival alliance systems and an arms race which is fostering tension and feelings of insecurity. The Soviet Union’s military buildup and expansionist tendencies have alienated some of her neighbors on a global scale much as Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany antagonized some of its neighbors in Europe. For example, the Soviet threat fostered the rapprochement between the United States and China. This has aggravated Russia’s feeling of being encircled. At the same time Soviet Russia presents what former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig called “Moscow’s unusual combination of weakness and strength.” While the Soviet Union has amassed enormous military power, it suffers from massive economic problems and spiritual malaise. Demographic trends also worry the Russian leadership. In the foreseeable future, non-Russian ethnic groups will probably constitute a numerical majority within the Soviet Union. Close to a third of the 18-year-old potential military draftees will probably be Central Asian Muslims by the end of this century. Along Soviet borders, profound trouble has developed. The embarrassing, costly war in Afghanistan drags on, and the problems in Eastern Europe seem virtually insolvable. President Reagan has suggested frankly on more than one occasion that “we are seeing the first, beginning cracks [in the Soviet Communist system], the beginning of the end.” In his aforementioned address to the British Parliament he asserted that a “crisis is happening . . .in the home of Marxism-Leninism, the Soviet Union.” He went on to call for a long-term crusade for freedom “which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history. . . .” Although he did not reveal any details, the policy he outlined implies a fundamental challenge to the Soviet empire. When he spoke to the evangelicals he described the Soviet Union as the “focus of evil.”

The Kremlin regards the supremacy of Communist parties in its East European satellites as an essential part of Russia’s security system. For instance, the Soviet Union clearly regards its domination of Poland as necessary for the maintenance of its military and political position in East Germany. Any dramatic loss of Soviet influence there would arouse profound fears in Moscow. It would seem to signal the decline of the Soviet empire and might revive the specter of a threatening German problem.

While the decay of the Soviet empire would present some exciting possibilities for liberation, such a situation would be fraught with danger. Anyone who relishes or wishes to promote the long-term decline of Soviet power should ponder these implications. It is almost a truism that a government in decline—especially one with a great military establishment—might be tempted to resort to adventures abroad in order to win patriotic support at home or to justify the repression of domestic dissent.

The Reagan administration certainly recognizes this dangerous possibility. Indeed, the Soviet Union’s combination of strength and weakness has been perceived as one of the dangerous aspects of the current decade. The president himself touched upon this possibility in his address to the British Parliament. In speculating on future Soviet reactions, he said:

It has happened in the past: a small ruling elite either mistakenly attempts to ease domestic unrest through greater repression and foreign adventure or it chooses a wiser course. . . . Even if this latter process is not realized soon, I believe the renewed strength of the democratic movement, complemented by a global campaign for freedom, will strengthen the prospects for arms control and a world at peace.(Italics added.)

His sanguine conclusion seems almost ironic in the context of a speech which appealed to an understanding of the past. If the president’s crusade were actually to accelerate the decay of the Soviet empire, it might reduce the chances of peace. In any case, the behavior of the Central Powers during 1914—an earlier combination of weakness and strength— should serve as a sobering warning. Austria and Germany knew that they were strong in the short term but feared decline in the long run. That feeling fostered a mood in which they were willing to risk a major war. That mood, in turn, promoted the miscalculation and loss of control which led to disaster.

This should alert us not only to the need for credible deterrents but also to the potential danger of pressing the Soviet Union too hard. President Reagan places far more emphasis on the former than the latter. If the administration is truly convinced that the Soviet Union will decline, it would be wise to concentrate on defending American interests without trying to shove the Soviet empire into the ash heap of history.


The Reagan administration’s professed policies have been at odds with that kind of prudence, but fortunately several factors reduce their threat to peace. First, the Soviet economy is stronger and less vulnerable to American pressure than the president and some of his advisers initially imagined. Second, the economic weapons readily available to the administration tend to be counterproductive. The notorious embargo on pipeline technology illustrated some of the reasons why the Reagan administration will probably not be able to implement effective restrictions on trade with the Soviet Union. The embargo hurt certain American businesses, angered our most important allies, and thus promoted the Kremlin’s goal of disrupting NATO. Moreover, the trade restrictions could, at most, only delay the completion of the Siberian natural gas pipeline to Western Europe. George P. Shultz, Haig’s successor as secretary of state and a master of tact, eventually arranged a cancellation of the pipeline sanctions, but even his deft maneuvers could not conceal that the administration was backing away from a conspicuous blunder. It remains to be seen whether an effective overall allied policy on East-West trade can be developed to replace the disastrous unilateral restrictions imposed by Washington. Skepticism abounds.

As far as promoting the liberation of Poland is concerned (an ostensible purpose of Reagan’s trade restrictions), it is doubtful that even stronger measures would produce substantial results. Some liberalization may be permitted (largely as a result of pressures within Poland), but a totalitarian Polish state under Soviet hegemony will probably remain for the forseeable future. One of the basic realities of Poland in particular and Eastern Europe in general is that the region is far more important to the Soviet Union than it is to the United States. Thus Moscow is willing to pay a much heavier price than Washington to have its way there.

The Reagan administration is not blind to these considerations, and it has learned from experience—sometimes the hard way. Despite his many strong and optimistic statements, the president apparently does not expect to bring about the rapid demise of Soviet-style repression. “The task I have set forth,” he told the British Parliament, “will long outlive our own generation.” Presumably his “crusade for freedom” will remain more rhetorical than real. Zealous “Reaganites” and other “neoconservatives” have expressed disappointment about the administration’s pragmatism, and the president is undoubtedly sensitive to this criticism. Yet, while he may resist sliding into the détente policy he has decried, the many complications and drawbacks inherent in strong anti-Soviet measures will continue to foster restraint and moderation. The Reagan administration’s “measured response” to the Soviet Union’s outrageous destruction on Sept.1, 1983 of a South Korean airliner confirmed this tendency. While using strong words, the president invoked mild sanctions.

It is, of course, also important that the Soviet Union exercise restraint. Fortunately, the Russians characteristically tend to act only when it seems reasonably safe to do so. Moscow’s caution during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 is not atypical. Furthermore, when meddling in hot spots beyond its long-established spheres of influence, the Kremlin usually avoids direct military involvement by making use of client states or exploiting insurgent groups. (The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan—for which it has paid a heavy price—is a significant exception, but even in that instance the risk of decisive or determined opposition by adversary powers was small.) Personnel changes in the post-Brezhnevera are unlikely to transform the cautious pattern of Soviet expansionism. Indeed, currently the Kremlin’s conduct of foreign policy seems to be in a retrenchment phase, and that may reflect the Soviet Union’s long-term interests.

When tempted to make bold moves, both superpowers should regard the history of modern Germany as a warning. It resembles a parable. Germany took great risks and suffered catastrophic defeat. Consider the hypothetical but likely results of a more prudent course. If a united Germany had conducted a cautious policy before 1914 and after, relying on her great weight and inertia as a great power instead of gambling for mastery in Europe, she might have enjoyed long-lasting success rather than catastrophe.

Historians freely admit that historical analogies only suggest possibilities or raise warning flags. Since all situations are unique, history does not repeat itself in detail. It so happens, however, that the most momentous new feature of our era—the development of nuclear weapons—makes caution a necessity as well as a virtue. Moreover, the new possibility of a nuclear holocaust does not invalidate the warnings inherent in the historical experiences of a pre-nuclear age; by raising the stakes, it makes them more serious.

The Reagan administration has tried to enhance Soviet restraint primarily by improving military deterrents and supplying effective support for friendly governments that are the targets of subversion. As mentioned above, this effort has been justified by the Munich analogy. Without denying the pitfalls of appeasement, our policymakers would be wise to heed the 1914 analogy. In addition to the aforementioned danger of pressing the Soviet Union too hard, a further and related consideration should be noted. The growing vulnerability of land-based missiles to a preemptive first strike has raised the specter of a superpower resorting to a dangerous “launch-on-warning” defense strategy in order to assure that its own missiles could be used before they could be destroyed. Of course, some talk of a “launch-on-warning” policy may merely be a bluff—part of Soviet propaganda designed to impede the deployment of the MX in America or the Pershing II missile in West Germany. It is tempting to assume that a major power would not be so irresponsible as actually to adopt such a dangerous policy. After all, a “launch-on-warning” plan would obviously increase the chances that a false alarm could touch off an accidental war. But history reminds us that Germany, in fact, developed the destabilizing Schlieffen Plan before 1914 (according to which a massive offensive would be launched as soon as an adversary mobilized.) The grim consequences should be pondered by both superpowers.

Reagan has a tendency—characteristic of hard-liners—to be obtuse about the probability that his arms buildup program and harsh rhetoric seem threatening in the Kremlin. This does not mean, however, that he is blind to the dangers of miscalculation. The possibility of a catastrophic mishap has aroused the president’s interest in “confidence-building measures.” Several times in 1982 and 1983 he suggested steps to reduce the risk of “surprise and miscalculation.” These proposals referred to advance notification of missile test launches, the exchange of data on nuclear forces, possible improvements in the “hotline,” and so on. Far more confidence would, of course, be fostered by significant arms limitation (or reduction) agreements.

Meanwhile the crucial “confidence gap” for the Reagan administration exists among an anxious public at home and in Western Europe. The rise of disarmament/antinuclear/ antiwar movements forced the president to pursue arms agreements beginning in the fall of 1981—sooner than he originally intended. To some extent he brought this on himself by exaggerating the dangers posed by the Soviet Union and the need for tough measures. Just as detente was oversold during the 1970’s, the Soviet threat to American interests has been overrated in the 1980’s. The relatively bellicose, hard-line image which Reagan projected during his first months in the White House has persisted despite his subsequent adoption of a distinctly more moderate tone. Critics, some of whom the administration regards as appeasers, are still effectively arguing that the president is not yet serious or sincere about arms control.

Fortunately, Western Europe is not yet, despite the Reagan administration’s mistakes and notwithstanding the impressive demonstrations staged by “peace” groups, favorably disposed toward appeasement policies. During the 1930’s, the key factor in the popular support for appeasement was the wishful notion that Nazi Germany was pursuing limited, legitimate goals, e.g., self-determination for neighboring pockets of German-speaking people.(Popular support for appeasement eroded quickly in 1939 when Adolf Hitler clearly went beyond legitimate principles.) Today there is hardly a popular notion in the West that Moscow has been pursuing legitimate policies in Poland, Southeast Asia, or Afghanistan—not to mention the Vatican. This is an advantage that critics of appeasement today have over their counterparts in 1938.Although Western Europe will not respond to the Soviets with the rigor that right-wingers seem to crave, Washington still has a good chance to win the long-term political battle to sustain a reasonably firm NATO policy— perhaps in a revised form involving continued deployment of ground-launched cruise missiles but curtailment (or better yet, cancellation) of the Pershing II program. So far the crucial NATO allies continue to express their resolve to proceed with the planned deployment of American intermediate-range missiles unless the Kremlin agrees to a substantial reduction in Soviet forces. Although protests and demonstrations by “peace” movements will undoubtedly continue to attract media attention, Soviet propaganda will have little chance of deeply dividing NATO on the arms-control issue as long as American policy makers appear flexible, reasonable, and earnest.

Fear of war was another factor in the popular support for appeasement during the 1930’s. This may have important implications for our era given the awesome power of nuclear weapons. Although the will of the West to maintain effective deterrents currently seems adequate, our leaders should moderate any panicky popular fears which might undermine our defenses. Thus it might be helpful if (instead of spreading the notion that we are living in an unusually dangerous time) our statesmen encouraged the public to appreciate the basic stability of our era. Despite continued tensions between leading powers, we live in the most stable period of modern history.

To be sure, this does not mean that the possibility of catastrophe has been eliminated. Moreover, crises as well as “minor wars,” which have disrupted international relations in every decade of modern history, will continue to arouse anxieties. The persistent hazards might, however, be more easily tolerated if we remember that dread of major war has usually promoted peace. As long as deterrents are cautiously maintained, the nightmare which scares us will be a principal factor which prevents it from becoming a catastrophic reality. The dread of major war in our era exceeds the fear that helped sustain the heyday of the Concert of Europe. Even professional hawks who suggest that victory could in some desolate sense be possible generally have a visceral fear of another major war. That dread is, indeed, a great advantage we have in contrast to our counterparts either in 1854 or 1914. It is one of the factors that will help ensure that our era becomes by far the longest period of peace between leading powers.


Such confidence may, alas, not be warranted for future generations. They may find themselves—possibly in the next century—in a far more dangerous era—a period disrupted perhaps by breakthroughs in military technology, an intensified arms race, a revival of the German problem, desperate attempts by the Soviets to save their empire, or massive shifts in the balance of power. We should use our period of relative stability to resolve as many troublesome issues as possible and to foster habits, principles, and ways of avoiding conflict which might help the international states’ system cope with future challenges. Unfortunately, since most political calculations are short-term, it is doubtful that much will be accomplished for this purpose. Long-term success in promoting stability will, if it is achieved, probably be largely fortuitous.

Even long-term success, moreover, poses a danger. If peace between major powers is eventually taken for granted, deterrents may weaken, and the likelihood of war might imperceptibly increase. Many historians have suggested that the long period of peace before August 1914 probably lowered Europe’s resistance to war. History is studded with paradox and irony. Success, it seems, can foster failure; safety can promote danger.

Future historians could, if they are heeded, have an important role in prolonging the collective memory that peace between major powers can break down, risk-taking can bring disaster, threats might evoke rash responses, statesmen can miscalculate, great states can be ruined, wars—even of the conventional variety—can be terribly painful and expensive. In the meantime, a sound historical perspective of our own era can enhance our chances of avoiding a major war. Perhaps it should also make us grateful that we are living in a relatively halcyon and golden age.


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