I am currently preparing a course on the United States and the two World Wars, and reading primary documents from the First World War raises some interesting questions about our current foreign policy. Yesterday I also watched the 2000 movie Thirteen Days, which documents the Cuban missile crisis with unusual (if note complete) historical accuracy, and that provided a counterpoint.
Preventive war brought about the First World War in 1914. Austria-Hungary had been hit by a dramatic act of state-sponsored terrorism, the assassination of the heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand, by a Bosnian student in a conspiracy organized by Serbian intelligence. Serbia had recently doubled in size at the expense of the failing Ottoman Empire, and now had its eyes not only upon Bosnia-Herzegovina but on Croatia as well—the dream the Serbs managed to realize for 70 years when their side won the war they helped unleash. The debates at the highest levels of the Austro-Hungarian government on what to do had a familiar ring—advocates for war argued that Austria-Hungary had tolerated too many Serbian provocations already and settled too many disputes diplomatically, allowing the problem to fester and grow. They decided upon war to eliminate Serbia once and for all.
In retrospect, given what the Serbs did with Yugoslavia over the next 70 years and what they did to try to maintain their dominance in the 1990s, that does not necessarily seem to have been such a bad idea. And indeed, the international community, and even Serbia’s Russian patron, had no objection to a severe chastisement of Serbia, just as the international community agreed in 2002 that weapons inspectors should return to Iraq. But the Russians, British and French expected that Austria-Hungary would allow the international community to limit the extent of that punishment—and this Vienna was determined not to accept. Only all-out war, ending in a partition of Serbia among her neighbors, would, they thought, solve the problem. And in pursuit of that policy, the leadership ignored strategic realities that, as it turned out, made it impossible to accomplish their goal. Because Russia went to war in support of Serbia, most of the Austrian Army had to face northeast, and the forces left for the Serbian operation were halted in their tracks by determined resistance. Only a year later, with the assistance of some German divisions, did the Austro-Hungarians manage to occupy Serbia, by which time all Europe was at war—a war that led to the Austro-Hungarian empire’s complete collapse.
Meanwhile, the German government had also decided that the crisis presented an opportunity for war at a favorable moment. It backed the Austro-Hungarians against the Serbs, refused proposals to submit their dispute to an international conference, and unleashed the war as soon as Russia mobilized. The Germans believed that Russia was growing stronger (although as it turned out Tsarist Russia was no match at all for Germany and would not have been for decades, if ever), and that their relative position would continue to decline. The German Army was also frustrated that Germany had backed down in two previous confrontations with France and Britain over Morocco. They gambled either that the Triple Entente of France, Russia and Britain would back down, or that the Schleiffen Plan would win them a quick victory against France, or against Belgium. They were wrong. Although they occupied much of Belgium and northern France in the first month of the war, they could not continue their advance, and the front stabilized, leaving Germany to fight for four more years against a coalition with vastly superior resources. In retrospect their decision appears as the least justifiable and most consequential blunder in the last two centuries of European history.
What I had forgotten, however, was how the western allies fell victim to the same kind of logic—albeit with more justification—during the war. Their initial setbacks and the stabilization of the front gave way in 1915-17 to a long series of costly, failed offensives in the West, while Germany advanced steadily in the East and eventually, in late 1917, knocked Russia out of the war. Yet the allies for the most part remained committed to the idea that Germany’s perfidious conduct at the outbreak of the war meant that the conflict had to end with the complete defeat of Germany. That is what they told President Wilson and his envoy Colonel House during the first few years of the war, when Wilson offered privately and publicly to mediate peace. They resented his efforts and refused to offer any compromise peace terms. Their case at first glance looks strong. Germany had started the European war and deserved, in a sense, to pay a heavy price for it—and the Germans in 1915-16 were not ready to offer remotely acceptable terms either. But the real threat the war was posing was not to any one country but, as it turned out, to the whole fabric of European civilization, which crumbled first in Russia at the time of the Bolshevik revolution, and eventually in Germany after the allies had won the victory that they had sought. A compromise peace that returned French and Belgian occupied territory would have been a recognition by Germany of its exhorbitant goals, and could have restored European cooperation. No European statesman, however, had the courage to seek it, and after the American entry into the war Wilson accepted the idea of the need for a decisive defeat of Germany as well.
The Cuban missile crisis took place just a few months after the publication of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. Despite some glaring weaknesses in that book—which essentially ignored the roots of the crisis in the Austro-Serbian conflict—it showed how a combination of aggressive military planning and blindly optimistic statesmanship had plunged Europe into the catastrophe that was reaching its climax at the moment John F. Kennedy was born. Kennedy had read it, and remarked during the crisis that he did not want a future historian to write a similar book called “The Missiles of October.” As the movie shows, he was determined to do whatever he could to make sure the crisis did not lead to war, even against the opinion of both leading military and civilian advisers. (While the movie is generally accurate, it erred in not giving more credit to Dean Rusk, who was the first to argue at length, in one of the ExCom meetings, that any military action had to be preceded by diplomatic moves.) Such was the distrust of the Soviets in the United States that he could neither negotiate a deal through normal diplomatic channels or even acknowledge that he had promised to remove obsolete American missiles from Turkey if Khrushchev would remove missiles from Cuba. But he did so covertly, through Robert Kennedy, and scholarship has shown that he was also preparing to have either U Thant or the government of Brazil make the same proposal if his private contacts had failed.
Kennedy understood his responsibility to try to let the peoples of the world live in peace—especially in the nuclear age. The movie ends, appropriately, with an excerpt from his greatest speech, the American University commencement address that he delivered seven months later, and which led to the Test Ban treaty. Here are some longer excerpts.
“I have, therefore, chosen this time and place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth too rarely perceived. And that is the most important topic on earth: peace. What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children -- not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time. . . .
“First examine our attitude towards peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again. I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of universal peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream. I do not deny the value of hopes and dreams but we merely invite discouragement and incredulity by making that our only and immediate goal.”
“. . . .it is sad to read these Soviet statements, to realize the extent of the gulf between us. But it is also a warning, a warning to the American people not to fall into the same trap as the Soviets, not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.
“No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture, in acts of courage.
“So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal. . . .”
Both Kennedy and his great rival Richard Nixon could make statements like that about a foreign power that had posed a far greater military and political danger to the United States than any nation or movement does today. They understood that they had no choice. Their predecessors under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower had wisely rejected (although their Administrations had discussed) the option of preventive war against the Soviet Union when it acquired nuclear weapons, and Presidents Johnson and Nixon rejected that option when Communist China—which in 1964 was regarded as a hopelessly ideological and ambitious totalitarian state impervious to reason—acquired them as well. But today we speak once again of preventive war, this time against Iran—a country with which we have a long history that we are conveniently forgetting, The United States and Britain overthrew the democratic government of Iran in 1953 and installed the Shah, whose intelligence services received help from both the CIA and Mossad in securing his rule. Since a religious and popular movement overthrew the Shah in 1979 (in what looms as one of the pivotal events of our era), we have refused even to try to re-establish diplomatic relations. The Iranian government has supported terrorist movements and does oppose our interests, but the whole point of diplomacy, as the real statesmen of the Cold War understood, is to find ways to deal with states like that. Because our enemies no longer have vast nuclear arsenals, our current leadership seems to have decided that they are entirely at their mercy. They are not, as the Iraqi episode should have shown, and it demeans the American people, in my opinion, to speak of nations like North Korea or Iran as if they posed a greater danger to the United States that the Soviet Union or China did.
Thirteen Days was based upon The Kennedy Tapes, the transcripts of Excom meetings edited by Ernest R. May and Philip Zelikow. Philip Zelikow is today one of the top aides of Secretary of State Condolezza Rice. Based upon what little we have learned about the inner workings of the Bush Administration, it is very difficult to imagine its leadership in near-continuous session over a two-week period working out a peaceful solution to a complex international crisis. President Bush notoriously limits meetings to very brief time periods and he has shown no taste for subtlety in his public statements. Former Secretary Powell, according to published reports, never knew exactly when the decision to invade Iraq was taken. The movie, which younger Americans should continue to watch, is a chilling reminder of how far we have fallen, but also of the wisdom we might find within ourselves yet again.