BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Donald Kagan, author of On the Origins of War, you say in the introduction that you started this first by teaching it to high school kids.
DAVID KAGAN: Yes. It was a very strange and interesting, wonderful experience. At Cornell University they have a scholarship house, and as one of the recruiting devices, they go all around the country, pick out some of the brightest high school juniors just finished their junior year bring them to Cornell, expose them to a couple of Cornell professors or a couple of professors in a seminar of some kind. So a colleague of mine and I dreamed up this idea of doing one, a comparative study of the origins of war, and it was wonderful just because the subject was so exciting for us, but, of course, these are terribly smart kids, and something about a 16-year-old kid that sparks you in a way that very little else does.
LAMB: What year was that?
KAGAN: I guess it was '67. Yes, it was '67, 1967.
LAMB: What do high school kids care about at that age?
KAGAN: Well, of course, the Vietnam War was just coming into people's consciousness in a serious way at that point, and, of course, we had to treat that one as one of the examples. So that was very much on their minds, and in a way it was a wonderful learning device because every war we looked at, even ancient ones, they saw with a special vividness because they were thinking about the Vietnamese thing. So when we got to Vietnam, it had, of course, a very special and powerful meaning for them having looked at the other ones by comparison.
LAMB: For your book you picked, I believe, five different wars or the . . .
LAMB: Tell us what those five were and why you picked them.
KAGAN: Yes. There were two ancient wars, two modern wars and then the missile crisis, where there's a happy ending. The first one is the Peloponnesian War, in which the Athenians and the Spartans were the major opponents, the First World War, the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage, Second World War and the missile crisis itself. I don't move chronologically; I do it by those two pairs before we get to the missile crisis because I find that there are very interesting analogies between the Peloponnesian War and the First World War, and the Punic War and the Second World War. One of my inquiries, really, when I got started was to see, can you learn anything useful about things we're interested in today by examining experiences of human beings at different periods of time, different places, different kinds of societies? Is there anything common? And so when I thought I saw some interesting analogies, I put them together to help to be instructive in that way.
LAMB: Is war inevitable?
KAGAN: I hate to say anything is inevitable in the human realm. What I can say is that there's hardly been a time in human history when there hasn't been war, and I must say regretfully that I don't see that anything has changed so much as to make it unlikely in the future. There are some bright spots to go with the dark spots. I think that the presence of nuclear weapons actually does help to deter war but, of course, at a high price, because if you miss with one of those situations, the price for going to war is that much greater. Even so, since nuclear weapons there have been wars. There haven't been the great big ones that we're accustomed to in the 20th century, but there have been very serious wars and continue to be.
LAMB: You quoted from the 1968 Will and Ariel Durant book [The Lessons of History] that in 3,421 years there have only been 268 years without war. What do you call war, though?
KAGAN: I call war the organized use of violence and force to achieve the end of a political entity, something along those lines, against another political entity states, let's use the word "state," because that's really what we're really talking about.
LAMB: Are there wars going on around the world now?
KAGAN: Let me think. Yes, because by definition the war in the former Yugoslavia is now between states. I mean, the Bosnians are fighting among themselves, that's true, but Serbia is a separate country, and Serbia is clearly engaged in what I think is aggression against Bosnia, and Croatia is a state, and the Croatians are engaged. So, yes, I guess that's certainly one example.
LAMB: How does right now in this world compare to all the years that have gone before us?
KAGAN: You mean in terms of how much fighting is and how serious the fighting is?
KAGAN: This is a pretty good time compared to many. There isn't a major war going on anywhere in the world involving very large populations and so on, and the number of real wars going on is probably fewer than has been true for much of the time, so I think we're in a relatively peaceful time just now.
LAMB: When did you first get interested in war yourself?
KAGAN: I was always interested in history and, of course, the study of history is inevitably very much involved in the study of war for the reasons that the Durants make clear, so from a fairly early time, but I only became seriously interested in it and professionally interested in it when I began to study Thucydides, the great historian of the Peloponnesian War, and it was only then really that my mind focused on war and, most particularly, it still focuses more on the question of how they get started than on the question of how they proceed after they get started, though I'm interested in that, too.
LAMB: Have you ever fought in a war?
KAGAN: I never have, and that's been a piece of good fortune but, of course, I've had a personal experience of observing and living through some of the most serious wars that the world has ever seen. The Second World War had a particularly powerful influence upon my thinking and imagination.
LAMB: How old were you in 1941?
KAGAN: In '41 I would have only been 9 years old, but it's amazing how tuned in I was to it.
LAMB: Where were you then?
KAGAN: I was in Brooklyn. I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, and New York City and Brooklyn were places where this was much more alive and real than it might have been in Peoria. We were very tuned in. I remember, as a kid, the old folks used to listen to Hitler's radio broadcasts. I have heard some of those, and Roosevelt, of course, was a mythical figure for me, a gigantic figure, the only president I could ever imagine, and when I was at that age he was mostly talking about foreign affairs. And so these were the first powerful impressions on me.
LAMB: What were your parents doing then?
KAGAN: My father died when I was an infant, but my mother was a worker, and she was working in a factory when I was a kid but nonetheless very tuned in. She was born in Europe, you see. So was I. I came over when I was less than 2 years old, so for us all of that, what was happening in Europe, was not distant and strange but it was a continuation of what we had been accustomed to.
LAMB: What country in Europe?
LAMB: Did you ever go back?
KAGAN: I never have been back to Lithuania, no.
LAMB: Brothers and sisters?
KAGAN: I had an older sister, who's dead now.
KAGAN: I went to Brooklyn College, and then I went to do graduate work later on briefly at Brown and then finally at Ohio State.
LAMB: And where are you now?
KAGAN: I'm at Yale.
LAMB: Doing what?
KAGAN: I'm a professor. I have a fancy title. I'm a Bass Professor of History, Classics and Western Civilization. That's a very fancy title.
LAMB: Who is Bass?
KAGAN: Lee Bass is a Texan, a businessman who made a major contribution to Yale to establish a number of professorships for the purpose of fostering, supporting and perpetuating the study of Western civilization at Yale.
LAMB: You mentioned Thucydides.
LAMB: For those people who don't follow the ancient historians, how do you make that interesting?
KAGAN: It's real easy. All you have to do is read them. You know, it's amazing how powerful the influence of Thucydides is just now. Last time I looked, if you went to take the fundamental course in history now, what do they call it? Something about history and politics or whatever it is, at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, where officers of middling rank come and spend a year away from their duty on their way to higher positions, and not only the Navy by the way, while they're at sea on their ship, they get a book. It's Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, because it's the first thing that they study in their study of the history of warfare and strategy. "Strategy and Policy" is the name of the course, and it goes through the centuries. If you take a course in international relations anywhere, at the Kennedy School at Harvard, you will start very likely with Thucydides, and so it is around the country, and that's because it's not just some kind of a relic. The impression of the people who teach those courses is that we have something to learn about war and politics and diplomacy from this guy who lived 2,500 years ago. So it's not a hard sell, because just start reading it and it speaks to you.
LAMB: Who was he?
KAGAN: He was an Athenian nobleman who grew up in the middle of the fifth century BC. He became a great admirer of the democratic leader Pericles, who was the great figure in fifth century Athens. He became a general, he fought in this great war that he described, and then he had some bad luck. He was in command of a naval force up in northern Greece at the time that a key Athenian city was lost to the other side, and he was held responsible. The Athenian people condemned him, and he went off into exile where he spent the rest of the war, for which he suffered a lot but we're very grateful, because that gave him the time to continue to write the history that he was writing, and it gave him access to both sides in the war. So he was able to speak to Spartans as well as Athenians, and that helped to produce this amazing work that he wrote.
LAMB: What's so special about it?
KAGAN: I would say the thing that's amazing about him is his capacity to hold a number of very important but very different, you would almost say contradictory, ideas in his head at the same time. To give you an example of one pair that impresses me, on the one hand, he had a very pessimistic view of what it was possible for human beings to achieve. He felt that there were forces in human society that just had their way, and there was nothing that you could do about many of them.
On the other hand, and apparently contradictorily, his whole work is a denial of that. It's meant to be, as he put it himself very immodestly but accurately, "a possession forever." That is, he assumed that things that happened in the past provided patterns that would allow rare individuals, not everybody, who were smart enough to see what it all meant, ways of understanding human behavior that would repeat itself in time, and then you could do something about it.
So at the same time, there were these vast forces that were so hard to manage, but some people, smart enough and in the right place, could make a difference so that his great hero Pericles, he felt, made a difference and yet if you look at it, things didn't work out well for Pericles, and if Thucydides were asked how come, he'd have said there are some things that are just out of the control of even the wisest and best educated person. So that's one example.
LAMB: The five wars or the one crisis that you write about in here, if you could have any number of these people in front of you to talk to and interview, who would you pick and why?
KAGAN: I guess it would actually be Pericles just because we have so little from him or that is reliable about him that we need to speculate so much, whereas if you're talking at the other extreme, it's been so exciting for me as an ancient historian to be permitted to roam around in the recent history. Materials have come up about the missile crisis in the last two, three, four years that have totally changed my impression of what happened. I'll give you an example.
There are now tapes that are now publicly available, transcripts of them, of what Kennedy and his advisors said to each other, of course, you know this during the missile crisis in the White House making those decisions. We have it with the bad grammar and the "er"s and the "uh"s and I know exactly what they said to each other. It's the most amazing thing in the world for an ancient historian.
LAMB: You say in a section that people were lying to us.
KAGAN: There were some lies told. There's no question about that.
LAMB: Who told the biggest?
KAGAN: I suppose the single, well, the single biggest lie, I guess was at the end of the story when Secretary McNamara was asked in a Senate hearing specifically, "Had there been a deal to trade the Turkish missiles for the Cuban missiles?" He said, "No, absolutely not," and it's now absolutely clear that there was a very specific, clear-cut deal in which that trade was made, only the promise was that the Cuban missiles would come first and the Turkish missiles would come later.
LAMB: For someone that wasn't around during the Cuban Missile Crisis or too young to remember, when did it happen?
KAGAN: It was in October of 1962 that the crisis took place. President Kennedy announced the fact on the 22nd of October of 1962.
LAMB: What was it?
KAGAN: What was the crisis? The Russians were in the process on October 22 of placing missiles in Cuba with nuclear warheads that were capable of striking the largest part of the United States, and they were doing this, in Kennedy's word, "clandestinely," and they were doing it after having lied about it repeatedly over a stretch of time. That combination of circumstances made it seem alarming to a variety of people, even including Kennedy because he ended up taking the mildest line towards it, but, of course, he understood how serious it was.
LAMB: You talk about something called the ExCom. What was that?
KAGAN: That's the executive committee of the Security Council. It was the group that Kennedy gathered around him to give him advice and to consult with in managing the crisis, and it was his selection. It wasn't an automatic group that already existed. Most of the important officials of the government who were relevant to this were involved but also there were people of considerable experience at different times who were not part of the government. An example would be Dean Acheson, a former secretary of state, was one of the people he called upon. But the rest were active participants in the government at the time.
LAMB: You say he taped those sessions.
KAGAN: Secretly, and that's another interesting and wonderful part about it. He was the only one who knew that the tape was going. Probably Bobby Kennedy knew; he generally knew everything that Jack did.
LAMB: How did you find out about the taping?
KAGAN: It's been published. I guess they're in the Kennedy Library, the tapes themselves, and through the Freedom of Information Act people have been able to get hold of that before they would have otherwise been released. And now there have been people who've simply published the transcripts of those tapes.
LAMB: Have you listened to any of the tapes?
KAGAN: I haven't listened to them, no. I read them.
LAMB: You read all the transcripts?
KAGAN: Everything I get my hands on.
LAMB: How does someone like you get to those transcripts?
KAGAN: Well, it's now very simple because, as I say, they've now been published. The book that was actually the most helpful to me, a couple of scholars simply published everything that was relevant to this situation in a fairly large-size book using photocopies of the material whenever that was relevant and photocopies of the transcript when that was the issue.
LAMB: If we didn't have the Freedom of Information Act, would we know this?
KAGAN: No, no.
LAMB: Before we go on with more of the Cuban Missile Crisis, what does that say about history then? Are there a lot of things back there in your coverage of the First World War or Second World War, the Peloponnesian War that we don't know because of secrecy?
KAGAN: In the case of the ancient world, it's more a question of stuff that was never written down at all and stuff that we just don't have that's been lost in the course of time. But if you get to the First World War, there's a very interesting situation, because for political reasons really having to do with what happened after the First World War, astonishing numbers of documents were published that never would have been except for that. People were trying to argue a case. The Germans were trying to say, "The War Guilt Clause' blaming us for the First World War is wrong," so they published a lot of documents to prove their case, carefully arranged, carefully selected and a little bit doctored.
So that made the British and the French start publishing documents to prove their case, and it went back and forth and back and forth, and then scholars got into the game because it was a live argument that had to do with policy at the time so that the documentation of the First World War origins is almost unbelievably strong for that period of time, but other periods are not so well documented because those reasons were lacking.
LAMB: You said that Thucydides could predict somewhat where things were going to go or he said that if you're smart enough . . .
KAGAN: And you know what happened.
LAMB: Now, let's go to the Cuban Missile Crisis. What would he say, before that even started, would happen based on history?
KAGAN: Well, before it started nobody could have said anything. The first sort of critical thing that happened, I think, that was unpredictable and Thucydides would have said immediately, "Most things are unpredictable" is that Khrushchev made a judgment. He said, "I can solve a lot of my problems domestic, foreign policy, military if I can plant these missiles in Cuba." And the question that next must have occurred to him was, "Can I get away with it?" And the critical answer, in my judgment, was that he thought, I can get away with it because my judgment of President Kennedy is that he will let me.
Then comes the interesting stuff that Thucydides would have had comments about, I think. How did he come to that conclusion? And the answer lies in the track record that Kennedy had accomplished in the rather short time that he had been president, beginning in January of 1961 down to the time that Khrushchev made that decision in the spring of 1962. The Bay of Pigs disaster was the first step, and I guess I shouldn't assume anybody remembers what happened there, but Kennedy inherited a plan to get rid of Castro in Cuba by having Cuban exiles land there supported by American forces. And he inherited that from the Eisenhower administration, changed it, watered it down, and then let it happen.
But when the critical moment came, he backed off and allowed the invaders to be either killed or captured. The lesson that everybody got from that, pretty much certainly we know Khrushchev did was that Kennedy was seen to be weak, indecisive, the kind of guy you could push around. Kennedy himself feared that that was the impression that had been given. We have plenty of documentation to that effect. So that was one thing.
A second thing was, Kennedy and Khrushchev had a summit conference one-on-one in Vienna in the spring of '61, and we now have what is obviously a very reliable record of what was said there too, and it's an astonishing conversation in which Khrushchev really treats Kennedy very roughly. For instance, Rusk made a comment Dean Rusk, the secretary of state at the time made a comment that one thing you never do in diplomacy, he said, is use the word "war," but Khrushchev used that word many times in the course of that conversation. Well, you know, until we had the document itself before us, the record of what had gone on, we were pretty much left for knowledge of it to two books that had been written by Kennedy administration intellectuals, Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorensen, who had written biographies, in a way, of Kennedy or accounts of his presidency.
Their accounts basically said, "Kennedy gave as good as he got, and pretty much that was the result of the Vienna conference." Well, we now know that Kennedy said to the New York Times columnist James Reston right after he came away from the last session with Khrushchev saying, "He beat the hell out of me." His own reading of it was that he was very worried that Khrushchev had come away with the sense that this was a guy who could be pushed around. He was right.
LAMB: Where did you get that?
KAGAN: I think I got it secondhand from Michael Beschloss's very fine book on this subject, but I think he may have gotten it from something that Reston wrote. I'm sorry, I don't recollect the source on that.
LAMB: Both Michael Beschloss and James Reston have been here with their books relative to all this on "Booknotes," and Mr. Reston wrote a biography or an autobiography of himself a couple of years ago.
KAGAN: Right. I haven't read the autobiography. As I say, I got this second-hand from Beschloss.
LAMB: Let's just stay with the Cuban Missile Crisis for a moment. Did you go into that with a certain attitude?
KAGAN: Oh, yes.
LAMB: And did you change your attitude the more you learned?
KAGAN: Yes. For years I had been teaching it pretty much in accordance with what I now would call the official Kennedy administration line. Basically I believed the accounts of Schlesinger and Sorensen and Bobby Kennedy's very influential memoir of that called Thirteen Days. It was a very important book.
Now I know not merely that there were the biases and the prejudices that are inherent of any participant in a historical event, but this is very interesting actually on the 25th anniversary of the missile crisis, there were conferences held at different places of the participants in the events and a number of other people who knew about it, and these have been wonderful sources for what went on.
People sort of reminisced as to what had gone on Russians, Americans, Cubans and so on and exchanged with each other, asked each other questions, answered the questions, and they're marvelous. In one of those discussions, think it was 1989 Sorensen admitted, for instance, to give you one example, that in an exchange between Robert Kennedy and Dobrynin, the Russian ambassador to the United States, at a critical moment in the crisis that Bob Kennedy, had formally included the trade of the Cuban missiles for the Turkish missiles, and Sorensen admitted that he as editor of that manuscript edited it out. He said he did so because it was a secret not only from the country, but it was a secret from most of the players.
There were only a few people who knew about it. But that shows you what the problem is with the documents before you get behind the first range. I used to believe that story as told by them, which more or less was a picture of this brave, tough president who managed to work his way out of the crisis by a combination of toughness and moderation and care in controlling the level of escalation.
I came away after reading all the new material that I've gotten thinking that they got into the crisis because there was a lack of toughness and it was perceived even more strongly by Khrushchev than the reality was, and that, in fact, during the crisis the president was actually prepared to make just about any concession rather than to use military force at any point and that what forced him to take as hard a line even as he did was the fact that there was dissension within the ExCom. There were important players who just wouldn't have it, who were insisting upon military action someplace down the road.
LAMB: If you were advising a president today based on that experience, would you say, "You better get your people out writing your books first"?
KAGAN: It certainly will help. There is no question about it. Who gets the story out there really makes a difference.
LAMB: In your book, again, you do the five different sections, and I went through and, just for the fun of it, counted the pages devoted to each section, and I just wanted to ask you whether that had anything to do with the importance you put on it. The Peloponnesian War got 60 pages; World War I, 133; Hannibal's war, 41; World War II, 136; and the Cuban Missile Crisis, 111.
KAGAN: No, the main reason for the length had to do with the documentation. We know much less about the ancient wars than we do about the modern wars, and to go on and have some more speculation for about twice the length of the evidence I didn't think was a useful activity. As between the modern wars, it's largely a question of documentation but not entirely. Sometimes it was just a question of what were the points I was trying to make and how much time or space did it take to get it. But, no, it's not a reflection of importance.
LAMB: When did you actually start working on this book with a contract?
KAGAN: I sat down to start writing that in the fall of '92. I think that's right, in September of '92.
LAMB: Other than teaching the seminar for high school students, when did you really have the idea to do this book?
KAGAN: I can't tell you that with precision, but some time 15 years or so after I'd been teaching the course, students kept saying to me, "This is all great, but you really have an obligation to try to put down somewhere in one place what you make of all of this." In answering them I said, "After I know what I think I make of all of it, then maybe I'll write a book about it, but I don't know yet." But at a certain point I came to the conclusion that I did have some general views, that I had learned something that had more than specific significance and that probably someday I really ought to put it down and see how it worked. When I finished my last book, I had asked myself, What shall I do next? I thought, Well, maybe now's the time.
LAMB: How long have you been at Yale?
KAGAN: This is my 26th year.
LAMB: In the introduction you have a dedication for Bob and Fred, and then you write a little bit about them. Who are they?
KAGAN: Bob and Fred are my two sons. Bob is the older and he is a very interesting fellow who went to Yale and then he went to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and then he went into the government and he put in a batch of years working mostly in the State Department.
LAMB: Was it a political job?
KAGAN: A political job, yes.
LAMB: For which president?
KAGAN: For President Reagan. He has taught me so very much that I would never have known otherwise, because as a practitioner in the world of inter-national relations, foreign affairs, he has brought the real world home to me and taught me an amazing amount, and I wanted to express my gratitude for that. Now he's decided that he, of all things, he wants to be a historian. He's written a book on the subject that he was working on in the government; he's written a book on America's involvement in Nicaragua from 1979 until the elections that put out the Sandinistas which will be coming out next fall, so he got the taste of what it is to be a historian. So he's now a graduate student at the American University doing American history to try to get to be a professional historian.
LAMB: American here in town.
KAGAN: Here in town.
LAMB: Give us an example of something he taught you.
KAGAN: One of the things that he explained to me about modern events is that there is the closest possible interrelationship between foreign policy, domestic politics mind you, I had always known this in a general way, but not in the detail that he was able to show it to me and finally in the functioning of the media, that there's a three-way interrelationship. They affect each other enormously every single day and that if you don't always ask the question "How does one affect the other? How is one derived from the other?" you're missing a very critical element of what's happening. That's been a great blessing to me especially as I was doing the missile crisis chapter.
LAMB: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe you wrote several times, or at least you quoted people that were members of the ExCom, President Kennedy's committee, as saying, "This is a national problem, not an international problem."
KAGAN: Yes, or to put it another way, this is a domestic-political problem. This was the line taken very much by McNamara and by Kennedy, and supporting that view very strongly is Sorensen. And that, to my mind, was one of the problems with their perception of what was happening. They didn't really think this was serious. Both Kennedy and McNamara have been quoted right, accurately I'm sure, to say, "It doesn't matter whether you're hit by a missile that comes from Moscow or one that comes from Cuba," and if you believe that, then there's no reason to get excited if Khrushchev puts missiles into Cuba. The only reason they saw a problem was that they would be beaten to death by their political opponents if they didn't do something about it. To me that's a stunning failure of understanding international relations and power politics, which are the realities out there. Thucydides would have held his head in pain at that statement because they were wrong. Would you like me to say a little bit more about that?
KAGAN: I mean, they were wrong because everybody else in the game perceived that it did make a great deal of difference. For one thing, there were some very practical matters. At that time, as best we can figure out, the Russians seemed to have had about 20 operational missiles that could have hit the United States that would have been launched from Russia at that time. We had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds. But not only that, it's hard to know what they would have hit. They were very poorly aimed and so on.
The goal was to put 40 missiles in Cuba which would have doubled their actual payload capacity, but they couldn't miss from Cuba. So the issue, as some Russians have pointed out, was, it doesn't matter how many missiles you have; it's how many missiles can you deliver. Suddenly the balance of power was changed really very significantly by what the Russians actually could do.
But, secondly, whatever we might say about it, everybody in the world would have said, "The Russians have just changed the situation. They're stronger now; the Americans are weaker now." And so everybody's reaction to power would have changed. But, finally, Kennedy's own credibility would have been so severely damaged. He let that happen, and most people would have said, "Why did you let that happen?" rightly or wrongly. The perception would have been deadly. He didn't seem to grasp that. It was the politics in America that seemed to have been decisive.
LAMB: Was there anything unusual about the way the Kennedy administration handled that particular event compared to either past administrations? Was it any kind of a turning point in history?
KAGAN: Well, in a funny way it didn't turn out to be a turning point in a way that you would have anticipated it. Everybody sort of pulled back from the terrible brink and said, "Now, let's not do dangerous things and stop being rivals and be friends," which was what a lot of people hoped would be the result immediately. Nor, on the other hand, did it create a sort of a tremendous, immediate crisis.
What happened was that the Russians kept on going, doing what they were doing, namely relying upon force, attempting to increase their missile capacity, and doing so with great success over the next decade or so, but the McNamara doctrine that emerged from it, based upon what they called "minimal deterrence," was that we didn't need to worry about that, that it didn't matter if the Soviet Union came to have as much nuclear missile power as we did or even more so long as we had enough to do a lot of harm for them. The trouble was, in my judgment, that we accepted the concept of minimal deterrence but the Russians didn't, that they thought they could gain politically around the world by increasing their actual power, and they did.
LAMB: You had earlier talked about your son Bob, also your son Fred.
KAGAN: Yes, I don't want to slight Fred.
LAMB: He had a different impact on you. For what reason?
KAGAN: Fred is also a graduate student who's working on a Ph.D. in history.
LAMB: By the way, how old is Bob and how old is Fred?
KAGAN: Bob's 36 and Fred's 25. But Fred's a Russian historian, and one of his assistance's to me was, first of all, that he can read Russian and I can't, so he was able to translate documents for me and get me at stuff I couldn't have gotten at otherwise. But he also has a very wonderful understanding of the history of Russia and of the Soviet Union and how it works, and he particularly was able to instruct me in military doctrine and the way in which politics and the military worked in Soviet Russia, something I didn't understand adequately and, I think, many people who write about the subject don't understand adequately. So it's in those areas that Fred educated me. I strongly advise people to have children because you can learn a lot from them.
LAMB: What's your connection to the Hoover Institution?
KAGAN: None at all. I was out at the Center for Behavioral Studies, for the Advanced Study of the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford for a year. That's where I wrote the bulk of the book, and while I was there the Hoover Institution was kind enough to be hospitable to me in a social way, and so I spent some time over there just talking to people and enjoying their company, but that's all.
LAMB: How did you go about deciding how to do the book?
KAGAN: It's amazing how closely the book reflects the organization of the course, so I suppose the question is how did I go about doing that, and some of it was accidental and some of it, I think, just reflects the way I see things. I started with the Peloponnesian War. My trade is I'm a historian of ancient Greece, and so I wrote a book on the origins of the it's called The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. But I had always been fascinated by the origins of the First World War. That had been a subject of great interest to me, and as soon as I learned about the Peloponnesian War, I saw these very interesting similarities, it seemed to me, that seemed to me to enlighten things both ways from time to time.
LAMB: Give us a couple.
KAGAN: Let's see if I can think of some off the top of my head that continue to work for me. Well, for one thing you have the situation of a world in which there has been one power that was largely the dominant power not too strongly questioned by other powers and along comes a new power that very swiftly emerges as a potential competitor. And how do you deal with resolving that situation? In the case of the ancient world, it was Sparta that was the dominant power for a very long time, and then over a rather short space of time Athens just shot to the fore and became a great power overnight and the leader of a great coalition which could be opposed to the great Spartan coalition, and their rivalry then proceeded apace. Well, Britain was the dominant power in Europe over the course of the 19th century, but when Germany was invented by a series of swift wars, suddenly in 1871 the German empire was there, and nothing like it had existed before.
The problem was, how do you cope? Well, again, in the first part of the period in the ancient world that I study, the Athenians under Pericles, they have a shot at competition, and then they make the decision, let's see if we can't work this out. Let's see if we can establish an equilibrium. There was an attempt made to do that, and I think it had a chance of succeeding, but it broke down for a number of reasons. In the European case, I think Germany under Bismarck made the decision Bismarck certainly did Germany has achieved what it needs to achieve. Any further risk taking will put at risk everything we've done up to now.
Our interests are in preserving what we have rather than expanding further, and so Bismarck worked very hard, just as I think Pericles was working very hard at preserving the peace in the interests of his own nation, and that's, by the way, one of the messages that I think the book has is that for peace to exist somebody has to work hard at it. Peace doesn't keep itself, as I say in the book. I think it's very important for us to understand. The state that has to do it is the state that has the greatest interest in preserving the peace, has the power to do it, has to work at it.
LAMB: That leads us right to today. Where is the United States in your theory today?
KAGAN: The United States finds itself in a very unusual situation with, I think, spectacularly unusual opportunities. I think, in a way, the prospects for future peace are probably as great as they have ever been in modern history. Why? Because we do have a state that is the predominant power in the world, and it is true, in my opinion, that it has no aggressive intentions, no expansive desires or needs, but everybody also knows that that was true of Bismarck after he had made that clear so that you have a situation where such a state now has an interest in keeping the peace, has the capacity to keep the peace, and can do so in a way that will not irritate people more than is necessary.
What's left is this: Such a state must, first of all, understand that it has an obligation, as I think it does, to work at keeping the peace, an obligation to itself no less than to the other countries. What does that mean? It needs to make sacrifices now in peacetime so that it will not have to make much greater sacrifices in a war should it come later on. Those sacrifices mean spending the money necessary to have an adequate military force and other forms of peace keeping and the will to take the trouble, run the risks and occasionally fight the fights and suffer the casualties that are part of that job.
The presence of atomic weapons, I think, likewise can be a plus, a plus in deterring recklessness, but there's nothing automatic about it. You have to work at it. You have to constantly reevaluate what needs to be done to make the world safe in an atomic world. So, on the one hand, the opportunity strikes me as being very, very great. If the United States were willing to take the lead, were skillful in doing it, I think it could have others helping to do that. There are other states that are every bit as much reason to preserve the peace as we do, but they are always reluctant to pay the price. There has to be some leadership out there, or nobody will follow.
LAMB: You mentioned power in two categories: realists and neorealists?
KAGAN: Yes, I think those are the terms the political scientists use.
LAMB: What's the difference? Who's a realist?
KAGAN: Morgenthau, Hans Morgenthau was the king of the realists.
LAMB: Who was he?
KAGAN: He was a political scientist. I guess he was German originally, came to the United States, and sort of dominated the scene in international relations for a very long time, and he's had many, many followers, and it's a very powerful school, but as best I can tell the difference, and I'm just a poor historian, I can't understand these high philosophical distinctions, but the realists seem to think, they both agree that power is what it's about, and I think they're right, but the realists seem to say, "Everybody wants all the power he can get, all the power there is. It is a Hobbesian world of all against all that never stops."
As I understand the neorealists, they take a slightly less grim view of things. They think everybody wants security, and they want the power that will bring them the security, but presumably if you could create a system in which there was enough security to go around, everybody would have enough power to feel secure. They wouldn't have to keep going at each other. As far as I can tell, that's the main difference between the two.
LAMB: You write about Germany both in World War I and World War II. What do you see with Germany today?
KAGAN: Right now I see no great reason for alarm. On the one hand, Germany is again all of Germany, and it's a large, potentially powerful state, but it is not a highly armed state, and it is not the same Germany that the Kaiser's Germany or Hitler's Germany was. It's a country that's had a long stretch now both of peace and of a democratic regime and of a free market and prosperity, and those things matter and they change things.
But I think we shouldn't be too complacent, because ever since the invention of Germany, I mean it didn't exist before 1871, Europe has not found a way to deal with a united Germany. Its existence in the hands of irresponsible leaders like the Kaiser led to the First World War. Its attempt to restore itself to what seemed like its natural power position is what brought Hitler to power and brought the Second World War. The unnatural situation of a divided Germany has helped conceal the continuing problem.
But what happens when Germany gets back into power? This plays back into the question of why it's important for the United States to exercise leadership. If we don't, one of these days, who can tell when? The Germans will do what any powerful, independent nation will do. They will seek their own security. They will look to military strength like everybody else does to try to keep their safety. If they perceive dangers, they might get themselves into a war, or if at a certain point they're annoyed or irritated for reasons people are from time to time, they might once again be a problem. We can't predict how that's going to happen, but I think it's predictable that one day they will return to the status of great power.
LAMB: Again, because you write about this a lot, the French and the Germans sitting side by side, over the years the Alsace-Lorraine area has been both German and French, back and forth. Now it's in France.
LAMB: What comes first, the kind of people they are that lead themselves into war or is it a leader that leads a group of people into war?
KAGAN: They all play a part, but I think you start with a people and their historical experience, which is, I think, the thing that's most important. It shapes certain expectations they have and certain values and so on. Then something happens, and in some cases it produces a sense of grievance, a sense of unhappiness, a sense of deprivation, whatever it is that gets them in the mood that they might be willing to go to war in certain circumstances.
Then the circumstances either lead to that or not, but I think the leadership is absolutely critical. I think, in other words, there was nothing inevitable about the Germans acting in such a way as to provoke the two world wars. I think that if there had been Bismarck-like leaders, I don't mean precisely like him but people who saw the world in the way that he did and saw Germany's interests in the way that he did more or less, there was no need for the First World War. Kaiser William II came along, and he had a series of goals and desires and attitudes that indeed made Germany dangerous, but I don't believe this was necessary. Germany didn't have to go that way.
There were elements in Germany that he could play upon, but the leadership in my view was critical. Likewise, sure, all the Germans were unhappy about the Versailles Treaty and about what happened to them after the First World War. Sure, just about every German wanted to revise that in some way, but not every German was prepared to go to war to do it, and certainly not every German had the demonic desires and goals that Adolf Hitler had which went way beyond simply restoring Germany to a position of strength in Europe.
LAMB: Let me ask it a little differently. If Hitler lived in France . . .
KAGAN: Could he have had any success?
LAMB: . . . could he have the same success in France motivating the people the same way he did in Germany?
KAGAN: No, because the French didn't have the same kinds of sense of grievance. A Hitler is possible mostly, if at all, in a country that feels defeated and humiliated, but the French, of course, had won.
LAMB: Let me keep asking on this point. There are 60 million Frenchmen, and there are 81 million Germans right now that live side by side, have forever and ever. Why are those two countries so different?
KAGAN: I think it's because of the historical experiences is the main reason and, of course, certain realities.
LAMB: It's not the people then.
KAGAN: By the people what do you mean? Race or something?
LAMB: There's a strain through the people or something like that?
KAGAN: No, I don't really think so. I think it's their history and the way they look at themselves and their country. By the way, those differences seem to be much less today than they were 50 years ago. That's another point that's worth making and that looks towards a more optimistic idea about peace in Europe.
LAMB: What was it about the British people that had them stretch out across the world and, as you say here, have the largest empire in the history of the world?
KAGAN: I don't have a very good answer to that. I mean, that shouldn't have happened so far as I can tell. Here was this little island with a rather small population that struggled for centuries not to be conquered by nasty guys from the other side of the channel and yet suddenly emerges in the 19th century particularly but already beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries, to grow to extraordinary degrees of power. Part of it is in a way chance, geographical.
Given the way things developed in Europe and the focus of European economic strength moved westward away from the Mediterranean and northward to the Atlantic, Britain is superbly located to take advantage of the growing importance of trade and technological developments that favored a country like that, but it's not good enough. I mean, that's part of the story.
You'd have to go through a very complex story about what makes for success in these things. I think personally that the degree of freedom that England enjoyed, which was much greater than that of the continental states, joined with the relatively open society that allowed people from the lower classes to make their way gradually into the upper classes, joined with the amazing technological revolution that really got rolling in England in the 18th century produced a peculiar situation that gave the British what they needed to be as powerful as they were in the 19th century.
LAMB: In your conclusions you say that statistically war has been more common than peace, and we talked about the Durant figures. Then you write this: "The cases we have examined indicate that goodwill, unilateral disarmament, the avoidance of alliances, teaching and preaching of the evils of wars by those states who are generally satisfied with the state of the world seek to preserve peace are of no avail."
KAGAN: That's right. And my main laboratory for that is between the two world wars when those were the attitudes that dominated the West, and it was widely thought in France and England and in the United States that if you followed that course of action, that was your best chance of avoiding war, but I think it's pretty clear they helped to bring on the war, because if not everybody thinks that way, it's a very dangerous way to think.
LAMB: You say also, "The United States and its allies, the states with the greatest interest in peace and the greatest power to preserve it, appear to be faltering in their willingness to pay the price in money and the risk of lives."
KAGAN: Yes. I allow myself from time to time to be a bit fearful about what's happening now. It sounds silly. We are so strong; there aren't any evident dangerous enemies out there waiting for us. But you know what? In 1919 and '20 and '21, it looked exactly the same, and all sorts of people, even very wise ones, were making predictions along the lines that we're just not going to have this kind of war anymore, there isn't any need for arms.
America and Britain just about totally disarmed. The British adopted a policy that said act as though there will be no war for 10 years, and then they kept bumping it up year after year after year. When Churchill, of all people, was chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1920s, he made a statement about there's no danger of a war, and there's no chance of a war with Japan, and there was only going to be a very few years before Japan was going to invade Manchuria. What I'm getting at is, you cannot take comfort in a momentary situation. Things change fast, and the history of the human race is there's trouble ahead and you'd better act as though there were and try to do something about it.
LAMB: What's the main motive, in your opinion, for going to war?
KAGAN: The thing that astonished me as I looked at this was I'd always felt that it was too simple to think as people did between the wars that there were really basically rational reasons that motivated people, that they wanted more land, that they wanted to have a better economic situation, that this was widely thought to be the important thing.
And what I find in every case is that something that Thucydides called "honor" is the decisive element, and that sounds a little surprising to us, but if you think by honor, if we were to translate it into a current idiom, very often that means a sense of being valued, a sense of being respected, a sense of prestige, that these are things that matter. I find that that's present in just about every case.
LAMB: Based on that, then, where, as you look around the world, do you a see a country that's going to want that honor, that prestige?
KAGAN: I'll tell you a country that worries me quite a lot is the former Soviet Union, because their position now is well below what is normal for Russia and what they have come to expect and that they will suffer, I think, a number of humiliations, even more before they're finished. It's going to be hard to take, so that's a delicate problem that I worry about over the long range.
Another place I would worry about is China. China has this great, magnificent civilization, the longest continuous one in the history of the world. They've never lost their sense of their "specialness," and their greatness, but for quite a long time their position in the world hasn't matched that. Now their economy is growing at such a tremendous clip and their numbers are so great that they may feel that they're not being respected adequately, and I see some potentiality of trouble there.
LAMB: Your book is endorsed on the back by George Schultz, former secretary of state under a Republican administration; David Boren, former senator and Democrat, now head of the University of Oklahoma; Gen. Edward Meyer, retired U.S. Army; and Joseph Lieberman, current Democrat and senator from the state of Connecticut. What message does that give somebody when they pick it up?
KAGAN: Of course, I'm tremendously grateful that they liked what I had to say, but I look upon these people as both a very experienced and very well-educated people who have been grappling with the problems of American security and world peace for a long time in all sorts of practical ways. So it's a source of great comfort to me that they think that what I have to say in this book might be helpful in the minds of decision makers.
LAMB: How about the cover of this book? What are we looking at?
KAGAN: You know, I didn't pick that, but that looks to me like it's a scene from the First World War. It looks like sort of one of those terrible scenes of slaughter in the trenches on the western front. That would be my guess.
LAMB: Did you have anything to say about the title of the book?
KAGAN: Yes. I should point out that just because there was not enough room on the front, the title of the whole book is On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, and that occurred to me in the middle of the writing of the book. I thought I was writing a book on the origins of war. At a certain point I realized that's not what I'm writing about. I'm writing about the dual topic because I think there's such a close relationship.
LAMB: Why didn't they put the whole title on the front cover?
KAGAN: I think it was aesthetics. I think they felt it would be too busy.
LAMB: Earlier we were talking about the kind of people you'd like to meet and talk with, and you mentioned Thucydides and Pericles. Who else of all these people you write about?
KAGAN: Let's see. I guess I would have liked to talk to Bismarck. He strikes me as such an interesting, complex guy. I don't think I would have liked him much personally, and he probably wouldn't have thought much of me either.
LAMB: Why is that?
KAGAN: I think he was an upper-class Junker German who wouldn't have approved of my origins, and he didn't think much of college professors anyway, and he was an enemy of democracy.
LAMB: Was he the guy that made the quote about not seeing how sausages and laws are made?
KAGAN: I can't remember, but he was very funny. He has lots and lots of wonderful quips that were terrific. This is one of my stories, I love this, that he was negotiating a treaty with the Austrian foreign minister who is a very little guy. Bismarck was a huge guy, big and tall, and by this time sort of very corpulent, and he said to this other fellow, "So you will have to do it my way or else." Actually the little guy was a bantam rooster of a chap, and he said, "Or else what?"
And Bismarck said, "Or else I shall have to do it your way." And he was a charming kind of a guy, but I think he was not my kind of fellow. My point, though, is that he was hostile to democracy; he was a royalist. There are all sorts of things I wouldn't have enjoyed about his domestic politics, but when it came to the realm of foreign policy, he was as rational a man in his operation as I've ever seen, with a very subtle and profound understanding of what counts in the world and a capacity to use, it's an amazing thing to use power in such a way not as to force your will on people but as a negotiating tool, as a way of achieving your goal but without having to use force if you didn't have to.
LAMB: What's your next book about?
KAGAN: I think it's back to the ancient world next time. There's a wonderful Athenian citizen, politician and general who I feel has gotten too little credit and interest in the works even of professionals, and I want to write a book about him.
LAMB: His name?
LAMB: Donald Kagan is his name. He's a professor at Yale University, and here's what the book looks like, On the Origins of War. Thank you very much for being here.
KAGAN: Thank you.
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