Victor Nuovo: Elusive peace
Editor’s note: This is the 64th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
Historians have judged World War II to be the most destructive war in human history. Seventy-five million persons died, two-thirds of them civilians. One of the causes of so many civilian deaths was the aerial bombing of urban and industrial centers, another was the genocidal murder of 6 million Jews and innumerable others whom Hitler, in his diabolical delusions, judged unworthy of existence, Finally, the killing power of weapons was increased exponentially — weapons of mass destruction were invented capable of obliterating entire cities in a single blast. It has been reported that shortly after the war ended, Albert Einstein was asked what weapons might be used in World War III, if it should ever occur; he responded that he did not know what weapons would be used in a third world war, but he was certain that “World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” It was a sober warning.
And yet, from 1945 until the present, the United States has been continually at war or engaged in military interventions or standoffs: Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. To be sure, these were more or less local conflicts, not worldwide conflagrations, yet each was a test of the power and influence of the great powers. Reinhold Niebuhr summed up the situation as “a balance of terror.”
Peace of a sort was maintained between the United States and the Soviet Union until the latter’s downfall. Since then, China has emerged as this nation’s chief rival in the continuing international game of power politics. Meanwhile Russia waits in the wings, aspiring once again to become a major player, while most other nations stand ready on the sidelines, as if military preparedness were the only way to maintain the peace, a tribute to the motto, “Don’t tread on me.” But is this really peace, or is it just a pause or time out in a chronic state of war?
Why is peace so elusive? Thomas Hobbes had a ready answer to this question: Because human beings are by nature aggressive and combative animals, and in their natural state, they tend to be at war with one another. His remedy was the creation of civil societies endowed with power to keep the peace, by force if necessary. But is this sufficient? Or are civil states merely oases in a sea of war, a.k.a. the “state of nature”? As John Locke observed, the creation of civil societies or nation states merely relocates the “state of nature” beyond national borders, where it lurks in the wasteland between nations, ready to pounce. Hence, war or the rumor of war remains an ever-present threat, like a deadly virus. The volatile relations between European states during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries confirm this.
But this is too general an answer to the question, and hence it is inadequate, even if it is true, which I believe it is. Hobbes’ sole purpose in writing about these things was to create peace. For him, the supreme law of nature and of politics is, “Make peace and keep it!” So the question remains, “Why is peace so elusive?” Or more concretely: Why have human nations been unable to create a lasting peace among themselves in spite of the horror and lasting pain of war? A lasting peace was what Woodrow Wilson aimed for following the first World War, and it was Franklin Roosevelt’s hope to follow the second; it led to the founding of the United Nations and other international agencies devoted to peace and reconciliation. Why have these efforts not succeeded?
Walter Lippmann (1889–1974) had an answer that more closely fits the state of European public affairs in the 20th century. In a book he completed in 1937 but did not publish until 1943, he wrote that the Great world powers Germany, Japan and Russia — adopted total war as an international policy, as a deterrence rather than a practice, yet one that required constant military preparedness. The roots of total war were planted in antiquity. Rome waged total war against Carthage; its purpose was just not victory in battle in order to gain territory and tribute, but the total destruction of its enemy. Racial and ideological totalitarianisms found total war a practice well suited to its purposes; its most zealous practitioners were Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Winston Churchill promoted it.
In the 21st century, the likelihood of total war seems remote. Yet all the great powers, and many not so great, possess the means to wage it. And militarism is on the rise.
The wisdom of Hobbes resides in his recognition that warmakers must become peacemakers. He was a Realist, and he did not expect that peace would be accomplished by divine intervention. He regarded peacemaking as a matter of mere self interest. If you go to war against your neighbor, it is a toss-up who will win in the end. Only a vain and impulsive fool would be confident of the outcome. Not to mention that violence breeds violence, and once the killing begins, Armageddon is sure to follow. Hobbes’ wisdom is not pretty, but it is wise and unsentimental — vintage worldly wisdom.
Postscript: Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” is available in an Oxford paperback; Walter Lippmann’s writings are not easy to find. His two most important works — “The Good Society” and “The Public Philosophy”— are available only by print on demand. A Lippmann revival is overdue. In the meantime, visit your local library.
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