Their cruel choice was that of cataclysm, humiliation, or surrender

Friday, August 14th, 2020

It was the boast of the great Frederick, T. R. Fehrenbach reminds us (in This Kind of War), that when he went to war neither the peasants of the fields nor the tradesmen of his towns should know or care:

Because Frederick involved his small state of Prussia in wars too big for even his iron grenadiers, he was not quite able to live up to his boast — but it is an accurate statement of the conditions of warfare in the Age of Reason.

In the eighteenth century, men and rulers were sick to death of unlimited war. For almost two centuries jihad had been preached; armies had crossed Europe like ravening locusts; millions had died; and at the end of the savagery nothing had been accomplished. The survivors still insisted on being Calvinists, Catholics, or Lutherans, short of extermination.

In Frederick’s time men were still men, and they must compete — but they no longer trusted the angel’s trumpet, or would have heeded had it blown. Wars there still were, but they developed in a new, a limited, fashion: to snatch a province here, to defend one there, to place a friendly head upon some throne, or to remove an unfriendly one from it.

The statesmen of Europe, even though they fought, wanted a certain order to the world. They called it the balance of power. It was a desperately fragile system, but it was the best they could design.

After two hundred years, and after a new resort to savagery in the period of the “nations in arms,” men had still evolved nothing with any more promise. There was a new hope of an eventual world order through the uniting of all nations in peace, but the hope was still only that, and no more. Power remained the fulcrum of world action. And unless some sort of balance could be maintained, the world would once again erupt in perhaps the last of all “holy” wars.

When the Soviet bloc pushed at the balance of world order in 1950, the men in the United States Government reacted the best way they knew how. So far as they would be able, they would reject resort to cataclysmic war. They felt, in their hearts, that a final test of strength between Communist and non-Communist would in the end decide nothing, except who remained alive in a shattered world. They would accept such a test only as a last resort.

They accepted, tacitly, to play the Communist game of limited war, for limited ends. It must never be forgotten that the game was pushed upon them — they did not precipitate it. Their cruel choice was that of cataclysm, humiliation, or surrender.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    So… first they decide they don’t need to prepare for conventional war because they have nukes, and then they decide no nukes?

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