On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace presents readers with a wide-ranging analysis of the question of how a major political crisis can lead to war. To find his answers, historian Donald Kagan discusses five such crises, which range from the ancient Peloponnesian War to the Cuban Missile Crisis. All together, Kagan’s conflicts span the course of nearly 2,500 years of human history.
Throughout his detailed narrative of each conflict, Donald Kagan presents the latest scholarship on the issues and visits rich primary source material. Especially interesting is Kagan’s method of exploring possible alternatives to the historical actions taken. His book often interrupts the description of actual events by posing the question of what historical leaders may have done in order to preserve a peace which eluded them in all but the last example. Kagan’s concluding thoughts on each conflict similarly stimulate the thoughts of the reader. For example, was there a possibility of stopping Hitler’s quest for Nazi domination of Europe, or was the world condemned to suffer World War II?
Kagan’s choice of the five crises reflects, to some degree, his own research interests in the classical antiquity and the twentieth century. Thus, all examples come from these two epochs; he discusses the Peloponnesian War between ancient Athens and Sparta, the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage, the two world wars, and finally the Cuban Missile Crisis.
While this selection leaves out much, it nevertheless constitutes a productive choice. Most noticeably, Kagan’s selection enables him to compare two different kinds of conflict in both the ancient and the contemporary world. Thus, while both the Pelo- ponnesian War and World War I were started by complex situations that suddenly got out of hand, both the Second Punic War and World War II were triggered by one leader’s unbending will to war. The Cuban Missile Crisis, finally, offers a ray of hope. This is true even though, as Kagan shows convincingly by backing up his claims with documentary sources newly made available, the Kennedy Administration emerges less than spotless and is made to share blame for the onset of the crisis.
Kagan’s work is thankfully free of much abstract scholarly jargon and complicated, scientific-looking mathematical academic models of the kind which never last for very long before becoming outdated and rejected. Instead, Donald Kagan has looked for his theoretical ideas to the ancient Greek military historian Thucydides, an eyewitness of the Peloponnesian War from 431 to 404 b.c.e. Kagan argues well for the timeless wisdom of Thucydides’ observations on the origins for war, which Kagan presents to readers in the introduction of his book.
Thucydides held that nations go to war over issues of “honor, fear, and interest,” and Kagan believes this to be one of the first, and most profound, analyses of the causes of war. National prestige may lead a nation such as the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm II to pursue a disastrous foreign policy guaranteed to alienate almost all of its European neighbors. Fear that Sparta may gain too powerful an ally motivated Athenian intervention in a crisis among Greek city-states, just as the specter of a new world war led Great Britain to try to appease Hitler.
Embracing what his fellow historians would call a moderate neorealist position, Kagan plausibly argues that states will continue to act to protect their national interests. Just as the Western Allies could not allow Hitler to have Poland, the United States could not tolerate the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba. In both cases, preparing for war became the only solution to prevent the creation of unacceptable alternatives.
Perhaps most strongly, Kagan identifies ambiguous, mixed political messages as one of the prime factors contributing to the outbreak of war. Kagan often faults leaders for a failure to pursue a straightforward policy; he argues in favor of unambiguous messages that take into account military realities and are strong on deterrence. A warning that is backed up by military readiness and prowess, Kagan argues, might have prevented many a war from occurring.
To prove his ideas, Kagan begins by dissecting the origins of the Peloponnesian War. Kagan’s own previous studies of this conflict make it an ideal starting point for his ambitious project, and turn his discussion into a fascinating account of political brinkmanship. As Kagan shows, the political situation in Greece in the second half of the fifth century b.c.e. somewhat uncannily...
(The entire section is 1886 words.)