Why Nations Go To War Short Summary

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Is a unique book and a product of reflection by author, Dr. John G. Stoessinger. First published in 1978, its Eleventh Edition with additions came out in 2010. It is built around ten case studies, culminating in the new wars that ushered in the twenty-first century: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the wars between Arabs and Israelis in Gaza and in Lebanon. In the book he analyses the most important military conflicts of the 20th century: First World War, operation Barbarossa, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the war in Yugoslavia, the India-Pakistan conflict etc.

The distinguishing feature of the book is the author’s emphasis on the pivotal role of the personalities of leaders who take their nations, or their following, across the threshold into war. Thus this book transmits an understanding of warfare from World War I to the present century. Dr. Stoessinger believes that the war is neither impersonal, nor inevitable, arguing that the responsibility for a war doesn’t lie solely with certain events, because everything is, in fact, about the decisions that people make.

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He argues that many conflicts could have been avoided without the use of force or without going to war. Dr. John G. Stoessinger attended college at Grinnell College in Iowa as an undergraduate and completed his Ph. D. in International Relations at Harvard. He has taught at several universities including Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Princeton, and the University of San Diego, where he is currently a Distinguished Professor of Global Diplomacy. In addition to his teaching career, Dr. Stoessinger has also led the International Seminar on International Relations at Harvard in 1969.

He was also the keynote speaker at the World Congress of Junior Chamber International during their fiftieth anniversary event in Kobe, Japan. Dr. Stoessinger has written ten books on international relations and was awarded the Bancroft Prize for The Might of Nations: World Politics in Our Time. He has served as the book review editor of Foreign Affairs, acting director of the Political Affairs Division of the United Nations, and is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations. He has been included in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in the World. Dr. Stoessinger is notable for his individual analyses of war, contrasted with the systemic views more commonly studied by political scientists after the Second World War.

Stoessinger was only a child when Adolf Hitler invaded his home of Austria in order to obtain Anschluss. As a Jewish family, they needed to escape from the Nazis. They received a visa to Shanghai, China from Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who helped thousands of Jews escape from the Nazis. These were the beginnings that shaped Dr. Stoessinger’s world view and interest.

In the book’s introduction, Dr. Stoessinger tells how, when he was a student, he was always dissatisfied with the explanations found in history books regarding wars: nationalism, militarism, alliance systems, economic factors and other “fundamental causes” that, according to him, couldn’t be directly linked to the precise moment of a war’s beginning. He argues that these “fundamental causes” of wars throughout history are those forces that people apparently don’t control, although it is people who lie at the base of a conflict.

In analyzing the 10 conflicts presented in the book, Dr. Stoessinger searches for the “moment of truth”, the one in which the leaders take the fatal step towards the war, and he wonders in which precise moment the decision to go to war becomes irreversible, who takes responsibility for it and if the disasters could have been avoided. Dr. Stoessinger has set up his book to look at the events that led to specific wars of the twentieth century and then drawing parallels between the different wars that might not have been apparent or obvious at the times of the various conflicts.

The book closely examines each war or group of wars in individual chapters arranged in a near chronological order with a conclusion chapter that pulls from all of the conflicts previously presented. This approach is very well organized and helps the reader to follow the evolution of war styles. The book’s first chapter is dedicated to World War I and is expressively entitled The Iron Dice, referring to the famous words spoken on August 1st by German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg: “If the iron dice must roll, may God help us”

In general, because of the history taught in schools or because of popular history books, most people consider that the so-called fundamental causes of World War I are: the deteriorating balance of power in Europe and the new competitive alliances, the arms race, Germany’s militarism and her claims regarding a larger colonial empire etc. Loyal to his theory, Stoessinger ignores these causes and chooses to analyze the leader’s actions in the war’s eve. According to the author, all of the political leaders involved were aware of the war’s inevitability and, in spite of this, they couldn’t stop it.

More than once, these leaders have denied their responsibility, placing it in the hands of God or destiny. But it wasn’t God who could control the evolution of events and stop the war, was he? Dr. Stoessinger’s main theory is that the events weren’t, in fact, incontrollable and that it was the people who made the crucial decisions. And these people weren’t some evil leaders with a thirst for blood and destruction (how the Kaiser is so often portrayed), but worried people stuck inside their own illusions.

Stoessinger believes that the crucial events that pushed the European countries to war were the following

  • The pledge that Germany made to Austria-Hungary regarding her policy towards Serbia
  • The ultimatum Vienna gave to Serbia and its rejection by the Serbs
  • The German efforts to mediate the conflict and tame Austria
  • At last, the declaration of war made by Germany against Russia and the invasion of Luxembourg and Belgium.

In the first section of his novel, The Iron Dice: The causes of WW1, Stoessinger offer an alternative explanation of the causes of World War I, one that includes human reactions and feelings.

He says: “The notion that WW1 is beyond men’s control is wrong: Mortals made these decisions. They made them in fear and in trembling but they made them nonetheless. In most cases, the decision makers were not evil people bent on destruction but were frightened and entrapped by self-delusion. They based their policies on fears, not facts, and were singularly devoid of empathy. Misperception, rather than conscious evil design, appears to have been the leading villain in the drama. ” Although Dr. Stoessinger’s essay is well thought out and well written, It is hard to agree to the thesis completely.

It seems that all the European countries had good reasons for wanting a war as well. “Serbia was right in wanting to expand, Austria in wanting to survive. Germany was right in fearing isolation, Great Britain in fearing German power. ” All these countries needed to wage war since the balance of power was no longer balanced. All of these countries had good motives for a war, therefore, it is illogical to place the blame just upon the leaders of those countries, rather than analyzing the circumstances that made the countries want to wage war.

As much as we would all like things to be simple, they are not. Finding a couple of unfortunate leaders in power guilty seems to be the easiest solution. However, the truth is just not that simple. The truth is that everyone was to blame, the circumstances that created the need for war, the short war illusion that everyone entertained, and the governments who felt the need for a war. The responsibility of preventing World War One rests not solely upon the shoulders of a few selected individuals. However that is the theory maintained by Dr. Stoessinger throughout the book.

The distinguishing feature of the text throughout the book remains the author’s emphasis on the pivotal role of the personalities of leaders who take their nations or their following across the threshold into war. Most statesmen who made the crucial decisions behaved like fatalists. The terrible denouement was foreseen, but couldn’t been prevented. Historians have been affected by this fatalistic attitude (events passing beyond men’s control). Stoessingers view is that this is wrong mortals made decisions basing their policies on fear, not facts. Stoessinger views the World War I as preventable.

The perception of statesmen and generals were absolutely crucial. Following dimensions of this phenomenon:


Most leaders saw themselves as stronger than they really were and their adversaries as weaker than they really were. These misperceptions led directly to distorted perceptions of adversarial intentions which then precipitated quickly into all out war.

If the leaders of the various nations involved would have viewed reality rather than their own distorted misperceptions, it may have been possible to avoid conflict on such a massive scale or even avoid war altogether. This seems to be a recurring theme throughout the book. One of the important theories attributed to Stoessinger is the theory of perceptions. Stoessinger believes that, in the eve of major conflicts, many of the political leaders involved have misjudged the situation and have thus led their countries to war.

These false perceptions manifest on 4 levels: firstly, a false perception regarding the leader’s own person, of their role in the world and of their loyalty towards the possible outcome of the conflict. The second level regards the opponent and often includes demonizing his image and the inability to objectively understand a situation. On the third level, we are dealing with the misperception of the opponent’s intentions and, on the fourth level, with misjudging the opponent’s abilities.

Stoessinger has emphasized the importance of the political leaders’ personalities and the fundamental part they play in the evolution of international relations. The second chapter discusses Hitler and his invasion of Russia in 1941. Again, misperceptions played a key role in the events that unfolded. This time, more emphasis was put on the character of the aggressor and his adversary. Hitler essentially had a one track mind. He decided to attack and eliminate the Russian people and paid no attention to the lessons learned by Napoleon when he had attempted to conquer Russia.

Hitler was convinced that it would be a quick and easy victory. Stalin, on the other hand, believed that since they had previously been allies, Hitler would not invade Russia. Stalin continuously ignored intelligence that came from British and American sources, including eighty-four warnings in the year preceding the attack, because he was suspicious of Anglo-American motives. He preferred to place his trust in Hitler, a fellow dictator. In the end, Hitler invaded Russia and had misjudged the Russian people.

They were fighting for their very existence which is probably the most powerful motivation ever. He had failed to plan for the Russian winter because he thought it would be a quick and easy victory, and ended up losing many men to cold and starvation, much as Napoleon had previously. Stalin had placed his trust in the wrong entity and was greatly disillusioned and was unprepared for the attack when it came. Again, the misperceptions of the leaders involved ended in a great loss of life. The third chapter deals with the Korean War and misperceptions of a different sort.

In the later stages of the war, after the North Koreans were driven back to the 38th parallel, General Douglas MacArthur went beyond the original scope of the police action by driving toward Chinese border along the Yalu River. This move provoked China and brought them into the conflict. MacArthur did not believe that the Chinese army would be strong and thought he could achieve an easy victory. He ignored intelligence that told him the size of the Chinese army and chose to believe that it was smaller than it really was.

His hubris added two years to the war and cost 34,000 additional American lives. Had he chosen to listen to reality instead of his own misperceptions, many lives could have been saved. The Vietnam War was full of misperceptions as well. One of the biggest misperceptions would be the type of war being fought. The United States was fighting against communism, while the Vietnamese were fighting against imperialism and colonialism and to protect their way of life. Had the United States never entered Vietnam, communism would have taken over earlier, and with fewer human lives wasted.

In 1978, the Vietnamese communists invaded Cambodia to put a stop to the communist regime of Pol Pot and the killing fields. Had the United States been open-minded enough to see that there were distinctions between types of communists, perhaps we would never have participated in the conflict. Dr. Stoessinger continues through several other wars including: Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, the battles between India and Pakistan, the Arab-Israeli conflicts, Saddam Hussein’s wars in Iran and Kuwait and the current American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after the tragedy of 9/11.

Dr. Stoessinger summarizes the book in the final chapter. Here he reiterates his thoughts that the “case material reveals that perhaps the most important single precipitating factor in the outbreak of war is misperception. ” He also restates the dimensions of misperception and gives each one special attention. In regards to the idea that there is a misperception in a leader’s self-view, Stoessinger notes that there is “remarkable consistency in the self-images of most national leaders on the brink of war.

Each confidently expects victory after a brief and triumphant campaign. ” He also states that “leaders on all sides typically harbor self-delusions on the eve of war. ” Stoessinger also discusses the idea that a leader’s misperception of his adversary’s power is perhaps “the quintessential cause of war. It is vital to remember, however that it is not the actual distribution of power that precipitates a war; it is the way in which a leader thinks that power is distributed.

” Dr. Stoessinger uses many primary sources for his information including newspapers, documents, reports, and first-hand accounts. He also uses many secondary sources including books by other authors well-versed in the conflicts being discussed. It is very apparent that a lot of thought and research has gone into the creation of this book. The index is very complete and the bibliographies at the end of each chapter make it easy to find more information on the conflict at hand.

I believe that this book has a lot of historical worth since it pulls from so many valid sources. It presents straightforward and factual information with knowledgeable interpretations of the information. I believe that Dr. Stoessinger has successfully accomplished what he has set out to do. I would recommend the book to others if they are looking for interpretations of war and how they begin. The book was interesting, though it could be a little dry at times to someone who is not well-versed in modern and contemporary history.

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