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Can History Save the World?

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Nick Danforth is a doctoral candidate in Turkish history at Georgetown University. He writes about Middle Eastern history, politics, and maps at midafternoonmap.com.

Perhaps the greatest contribution historians have made to humanity, at least as historians sometimes tell it, came during the Cuban Missile Crisis when Barbara Tuchman’s book, The Guns of Augustsaved the world from nuclear war. The book is Tuchman’s account of the origins of the First World War, an account that, in President John F. Kennedy’s reading, showed how miscalculation and inflexible military planning could force great powers into catastrophic conflicts against their leaders’ wishes. In trying to avoid a similar outcome in 1962, Kennedy told his brother, Robert Kennedy, “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [and call it] The Missiles of October.”

For a long time, it seemed that Munich and Vietnam were the only historical reference points required for discussing U.S. foreign policy. As has often been noted, avoiding “another Munich” or “another Vietnam,” continue to serve as reliable stand-ins for the opposing dangers of cowardice and rash action.

Recently, though, the Great War has reemerged as another historical reference point in our foreign policy discussions. As Kennedy discovered, it’s an excellent cautionary tale about the dangers of carelessly blundering into a pointless and catastrophic conflagration. More Vietnam than Munich, perhaps, but better suited for a multi-polar, post-Cold War world. And, what’s more, the Great War just celebrated its centenary.

But anyone who tries to sort through all the recent First World War references quickly discovers how convoluted this seemingly straightforward and potentially world-saving metaphor can become. Unfortunately, only by wading through this confusion can we gain a true appreciation for the real role of history in contemporary political decision-making.

Consider this comparison, between present-day Russia and imperial Germany, that appeared in a recent article on the renewed risk of a U.S.–Russian nuclear confrontation:

Today’s Russia, once more the strongest nation in Europe and yet weaker than its collective enemies, calls to mind the turn-of-the-century German Empire. … Now, as then, a rising power, propelled by nationalism, is seeking to revise the European order. Now, as then, it believes that through superior cunning, and perhaps even by proving its might, it can force a larger role for itself. ...

Read entire article at War on the Rocks


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