Courtesy Reuters

Rumors of War: The 1914 Analogy

"IT'S THE THIRD WORLD WAR" headlines an Italian satirical newspaper during the 1979 Chinese-Vietnamese conflict. From the Balkans, appropriately enough, a warning: in the summer following interventions in Ethiopia and Zaïre, Yugoslavian President Tito, the only remaining European leader who can claim to have fought in both world wars, decries "the renewed threat to peace from power politics and the persistence of the terrifying arms race. . . ." In London, a group of retired military officers publishes a best seller. Its topic: the fictional history of a global conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union that begins in August 1985.1

Perhaps these are simply the efforts of an old continent to shrug off its recurrent bad dream, a jittery unwillingness to believe that the longest span of European peace since the Great War could persist. Whatever credence is awarded such anxieties, the imagery is significant. In the United States the Munich analogy has pervaded our thinking about foreign affairs. Memories of the 1930s have shaped our perceptions of a ceaselessly expanding adversary and contributed to our distrust of diplomatic solutions.2 In Europe, even for the conservative authors of The Third World War, the 1914 analogy has a far more powerful hold. It is assumed that we could recognize another Hitler, but could we discern a second Sarajevo?

Toying with historical analogies is at best an imprecise exercise, at worst a polemical game. Nevertheless, the lingering strength of the "lessons" of the 1930s in the United States and our national distance from the events of July 1914 make a reexamination worth the risk.


The existence of two preeminent great powers has been a convention in the analysis of international politics since 1945. By the late 1970s, however, the historical bipolar configuration at the level of military power was modified. The apparent military strength of the Soviet Union had increased, while the potential for a greater element of multipolarity grew as China embarked upon a program of military modernization and the Sino-Soviet split showed no signs

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