On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace Essay - Critical Essays

Donald Kagan

On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace

It is the theory of ancient Greek military historian Thucydides that nations go to war over issues of “honor, fear, and interest” which Donald Kagan has selected as the unifying principle for his analysis of two wars from classical antiquity, the two World Wars of the twentieth century, and finally the near-occurrence of nuclear war involving Cuba in 1963. Overall, ON THE ORIGINS OF WAR AND THE PRESERVATION OF PEACE shows well how Thucydides’ ideas still hold true.

Stretching his arguments over two millennia of Western history, Kagan holds to task nations, or leaders, who fail to send strong, unambiguous messages of their true intentions. He blames the Athenians in the fifth century B.C. for a subtle policy of risky half-measures that only angered their Spartan enemies without deterring them. Similarly, in Kagan’s judgment, John F. Kennedy’s decision not to support the anti-Castro rebels during the Bay of Pigs invasion attempt encouraged the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to underestimate American resolve and send nuclear missiles to Cuba.

For Kagan, once a nation seeks “honor” by trampling on other nations’ interests, war is almost unavoidable. In 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm’s policy to build a fleet that threatened British interests made English mediation an impossibility. During World War II, Hitler’s will to war made appeasement the wrong policy; the Western allies’ “fear” of a new war meant that they had to fight from a much worse position after handing Czechoslovakia to the Nazis.

A well-written work that incorporates much cutting-edge historical research on each conflict discussed, ON THE ORIGINS OF WAR AND THE PRESERVATION OF PEACE offers its readers fresh ideas and sound arguments. The makes its perusal an intellectual pleasure.

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Science Monitor. January 26, 1995, p. B1.

Foreign Affairs. LXXIV, March, 1995, p. 148.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 22, 1995, p. 1.

National Review. XLVII, March 6, 1995, p. 65.

The New Republic. CCXII, June 19, 1995, p. 43.

The New York Review of Books. XLII, April 20, 1995, p. 6.

The New York Times Book Review. C, January 22, 1995, p. 8.

The Wall Street Journal. February 13, 1995, p. A12.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, January 29, 1995, p. 1.