Donald Kagan Transcript

 Taped on April 17, 2015

Table of Contents

I: The Origins of War 0:15 – 23:20
II: Lessons of World War II 23:20 – 38:50
III: Studying and Teaching History 38:50 – 1:04:14
IV: Higher Education Today 1:04:14 – 1:20:24

I: The Origins of War (0:15 – 23:20)

KRISTOL: Welcome back to CONVERSATIONS. I’m Bill Kristol, and I’m very pleased to have with me today Donald Kagan, distinguished longtime professor – I guess now, Professor Emeritus – at Yale University. Thanks for being here.

KAGAN: Pleasure to be here.

KRISTOL: It’s great to have you. So I told someone in Washington I was coming up to New Haven to do a conversation with you, Donald Kagan, and he said, “Oh, I love Don Kagan; he’s the war guy.”

So you’re a great professor, distinguished ancient historian, and yet in Washington, you’re known as “the war guy.” I think that’s mostly because of your book, terrific book, The Origins of War, but talk about the book and about war.

KAGAN: Well, the book is called On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace.

KRISTOL: Yeah, people drop the second part.

KAGAN: They do tend to drop the second part but I think the connection is very crucial and too infrequently attended to, and the other rest of the title, a little bit of it is owed to Clausewitz who wrote his famous essay, On War.

Well, I’m concerned particularly with the origins, how wars come about, not how you fight them. But the other thing is, I think, there’s an inherently important linkage between thinking about how wars come and then since most of us find it unfortunate when wars come most of the time, how in fact wars don’t come about.

And how in one sense how wars can be prevented, that sounds like a bit of a more active and hopeful way of looking at things, or how you can avoid going to war, which is a different thing but has the same outcome.

KRISTOL: So talk about the On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace. Why’d you write it, what prompted you to do it?

KAGAN: I have always been interested in the general subject, and my own life’s work about Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War naturally leads me to think about war in general, and, of course, Thucydides certainly was the first person ever to make a very serious, careful analysis of why a war came about, with a kind of a modern degree of sophistication, beyond a modern degree of sophistication, I think, which made it both historically serious, and worthy of your attention. With philosophical implications having to do with its place in human events in general so that the question of why the war came about always sees me and I taught about it many times and, of course, before I undertook the book On the Origins of War I had written a four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War so you can see why those thoughts would come together.

But the rest of the story is that I didn’t begin my interest in history in the ancient world. I didn’t really know there was an ancient world in any serious way until I was a sophomore in college. It really came quite late to me. But I had always been interested in modern European history, and modern European history, of course, is full of war.

And it’s always an incredibly dramatic thing but it also appeals to my feeling that history is most interesting when you try to figure out what any sensible person gets interested in when he studies history, which is, why do things happen as they do?

And did they have to happen that way? And very few things are as helpful for that kind of thinking as the outbreak of a war or on rare occasions the avoidance of a war that seemed to be highly likely. So I was very interested already, I had a hobby almost in reading about the First World War and particularly the origins. And of course, that’s a good one because no war has ever been argued about as much as that one.

And it is one of the more interesting and difficult and complicated questions compared to many other wars. Anybody who has trouble understanding why the Second World War came about needs a little help. But the First World War, it’s really worth all the argument that there’s been about it. So, that had interested me quite a lot. But then again having lived through the Second World War, I was enormously interested in that.

And as I read about the ancient world and continued to read about the modern world, I was constantly struck with my dissatisfaction about the way these were treated typically by other historians and my feeling that, although each was different, there were important similarities but even the differences were very instructive. And so I thought about the idea of making a comparative study. Another thing that attracted me was that people have done some kinds of that sort of stuff before but they usually have a social science deformation.

KRISTOL: Spoken like a historian.

KAGAN: Which produces whatever it produces but not what I was looking for.

KRISTOL: What does it produce though, because it seems to be that’s one of the distinctive things for me as a political scientist, sort of trained as a political science?

KAGAN: Well, you’ve been trained in anti-political science.

KRISTOL: Well, that’s true, anti-political-science political science, that’s the best kind. But I’m very struck by your historical, explain that –

KAGAN: Yeah, I mean. Maybe this will help. I think in the introduction to that book I speak about what I think I’m doing. I describe it as comparative narrative history.

And I think my own opinion is the best way to grasp the past – at least for a very long time before we reach a high degree of sophistication – is by telling the story.


KAGAN: The discipline that comes from having to tell a story and essentially defend your understanding of what really happened, I think, is necessarily prior to any attempt to explain why anything. So I thought I would write a number of narratives whose purpose would be, first of all, to establish what I think happened and then to go at the question of why did they happen, did they need to happen, if they didn’t whose fault was it that they did? – all the questions that your average person who has a general interest in these questions is interested in.

KRISTOL: From a political science point of view, I would say what struck me reading the book is the – you don’t dot this “i” or cross this “t” or hit the reader over the head with it – but the contingency when you look at it in this narrative way without a presumption or prejudice ahead of time as to “this must be the cause” or that must be the way that wars happen because some social scientist decided it. It’s the contingency of events, it seems to me, that leaps out from your pages.

KAGAN: It’s absolutely true. Even Thucydides who was the first and was really very sophisticated in his attempt to grasp how these things are connected and who tends much more than I do to think that there are broad general rules of human behavior, which help explain or maybe thoroughly explain why people do what they do.

Even he – and what made him so great was he understood perfectly well – but these are not hard and fast scientific rules. And the events and the individuals involved in the events can be critical in what happens. So –

KRISTOL: So you did what five or six wars or not-wars, I guess?

KAGAN: I did five. I should say, this idea came to me before I ever thought about writing the book. I taught a course for, I don’t know, a couple of decades called “Historical Studies in the Origins of War,” and I studied the five cases that ultimately –

KRISTOL: Your colleagues let you teach outside of your own little part of the department there? They let you teach modern history even though you’re an ancient historian, that was broadminded of them. Or maybe you just had so much clout, you just –

KAGAN: None of those things. Because I started doing that in the second semester that I was at Yale.

KRISTOL: Is that right?

KAGAN: None of that. No, Yale’s History Department, at least, is absolutely splendid, if to a fault. I mean, as most history departments are in a way, what I mean by that is that they essentially let you teach what you want if you don’t have a crazy –

KRISTOL: That’s good and bad, I guess. Yeah, right? Good in your case, though.

KAGAN: The bad thing is that too often people teach what they know.


KAGAN: Which turns out to be the material of a very recondite – what do you call the little classes that we teach?

KRISTOL: Seminars.

KAGAN: Seminars. But rarely leads to anything broader than that, but nonetheless. So that accounts why nobody cared.

They wouldn’t have cared much if very few people showed up, but it turned out if you order a course that says historical origins or who started the war the whole universe turns out. I might just say a word about that, how you can be wrong about these things. It was 1970, Vietnam War, everybody knows war is evil. Everybody knows you mustn’t pay any attention to it; you must just stop it. And anytime anybody ever gave a course on war or military history in all my time at Yale, filled with students who wanted to know about it.

KRISTOL: Is that right?

KAGAN: You could be a sure thing, anybody.

KRISTOL: Well, it’s important history, you know.

KAGAN: I think so.

KRISTOL: The outcome does matter. Yeah. So you did World War I, World War II, as I recall.

KAGAN: And then I did the Second Punic War because I thought it was again a very interesting example, but I had a couple of pairs in my mind. It seemed to me, that the Second Punic war had some interesting elements in common with World War II. And I had always been struck by what seemed to me to be enormously great similarities between events of the Peloponnesian War and World War I.

And then of course, I was enormously interested in a war that didn’t happen. There’s not too many of these things where you can say there was gonna be a war but it didn’t happen, but I had lived through it and so I was much taken with it and that was the Cuban missile crisis. And that was attractive because also it was a live subject; documents were still being turned out. Or made available, I should say. That weren’t available so that rarely happens to a guy that does ancient history so I thought that was attractive but it turned out that that also was very illuminating and so I did them for different reasons but they turned out to be the five I would have chosen if I had to choose.

KRISTOL: What about the similarities between the Peloponnesian War and World War I, on the one hand, and the Punic War and World War II, on the other?

KAGAN: Well, in the case of the Peloponnesian War, you have a situation in which there is a great power which is has been the dominant power about, and that is Sparta.

And then you have a newly emergent power, which is, in fact, practically passing the first one and is a great threat to its standing, in its position in the Peloponnesian War. In the First World War, you have a great power that has been the force for peace and order in the world, in the case of Great Britain, and then you have this newly emerging, bumptious power threatening those kinds of things so that, on a very large level, seemed to me to be an interesting similarity and the other thing about it was that it seemed to me that in the case of the Peloponnesian War it was a war that came about without either side wanting it to come about.

And my feeling was so was World War I. That nobody really wanted that war when the whole gang got rolling but that various kinds of errors of judgement and conflicts of values produced the war, and I felt like that was a nice match for them.

In the case of the Romans and the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War, you have – what struck me there was, okay, one side beats the other side and beats them quite nicely in the First Punic War. And then they are sufficiently comfortable and sufficiently distracted that they really don’t pay attention any longer adequately to what’s happening to their former opponent, Carthage, in Africa. And they tend to think, “Oh, we can handle those guys, and they’re not so stupid as to tackle us again, and that’s that.”

That reminded me of the stretch leading up to World War II where the victors did everything they could to make believe there was no problem, and the defeated country came on with a tremendously potent political figure as their leader and tremendous ambitions and so on, and again that seemed to me to be in a fairly gross way but in a way that I thought was helpful. How does the war come about in those circumstances where somebody surely wasn’t averse to war at all, which was Hannibal who was certainly nothing would have pleased him more than, “by the way, what we ought to do is invade Europe, Italy, and destroy those Romans.” Nothing was more appealing than that on every ground. And the Romans were not keen to have it, and they were unduly confident too. I think they just felt they’re not going to be so crazy as to come at us again, and we all learned something about how crazy people can be.

KRISTOL: Any individuals you came away admiring especially or more than when you started or surprises on the upside or downside in terms of statesmen, especially, I guess, in the modern cases

KAGAN: Yes, I didn’t get much of a change in the ancient thing, there’s not enough. But I came away with a greater appreciation of the positive sides of Bismarck. Plenty of negatives with Bismarck but he did have a really good capacity to evaluate what were the pros and cons from a practical point of view in international relations and war and so on and so forth.

And so this really did work to prevent war and in my opinion with extraordinary success. It’s very interesting he knew that the trouble, if it arose, was going to happen in the Balkans, and he knew that it was going to be a war between Austria and Russia, and it would be very hard for Germany to stay out one way or another if that happened.

And so he conducted a very complicated foreign policy that few people understood and really could grasp what he was up to in which his determination was to see that those two states did not come into conflict and one of the ways he did that was by throwing Germany’s weight around but not in order to increase Germany’s power or whatever but to see to it that nobody got to be too ambitious in that territory.

And he succeeded until he was fired in 1890, and Germany was the force not formally allied to Britain but informally working with Britain because the British wanted the same thing.

KRISTOL: Was it mistakes that didn’t continue that policy or was it somehow just couldn’t have been continued once Bismarck left?

KAGAN: I’m among a minority who think the war was not inevitable when the trouble started. The trouble starts when he gets fired. Maybe another way to put it is the trouble starts when William the Second gets rid of the guy who been restraining him and really starts running German policy and it becomes really hard to defend policy from any rational perspective because he wasn’t rational about what he wanted and Thucydides would have understood that better than most.

You know, Thucydides has this great insight I wish I could get people to pay attention – he has one of his speakers at the beginning of the war say, “Why do people go to war? Out of fear, honor, and interest.” Well, everybody knows interest, and fear is very credible. Nobody takes honor seriously.

And one of the things, the thing I suppose that was the biggest surprise to me in writing that book was how potent honor was and is in the conduct of foreign affairs, which often leads to war. That, and if people say, “Who cares about honor?” that’s something that’s – translate honor in ways that we would understand it today, use a word like prestige.

Use a word like shame. It’s the negative that’s most important in the honor issue. It’s not so much that you want to acquire honor by victory. It’s that you want to avoid the disgrace and the shame that comes if you feel like you lost and you can lose in negotiating and you can lose in war. And so people and – I quote the passages that demonstrate this, right down to the last minute, people are infinitely more concerned in what they’re talking about inside their private circles with the disgrace, with the honor, with the besmirching of honor for their country. Nobody is talking about economics.

KRISTOL: Yeah, that’s interesting.

KAGAN: It’s and – they don’t even talk about power. More than anything you would imagine they are concerned with this other thing.

KRISTOL: I guess national pride is one way we try to capture it a little bit but –d

KAGAN: Sure. But it doesn’t quite get it.


KAGAN: It doesn’t quite get it, that sounds like you who needs that kind of pride but shame, disgrace, “they will think we are weak, they will think we are cowardly,” and not only is that inherently bad but all the people we rule will think they can push us around and that, so they always are thinking about practical consequences of these impressions that are made.

KRISTOL: So that’s good about Bismarck, and World War I, I do think the majority – I don’t follow this closely – but my sense is majority of historians, probably influenced by social science perhaps or by, I don’t know, certain trends in historiography, do want to say that that was a war in which individual decisions didn’t somehow make much of a difference. It was, once Germany was rising and Britain was there and –

KAGAN: Totally the evidence is totally against it. As I say, Bismarck decided no, and he was successful in preventing it. William, on the other hand, was as concerned with those kinds of things as anything in the world. All he cared about was prestige. All he cared about. And he particularly felt shamed and disgraced personally by Britain’s role in the world because they were all related, the kings were all related.


KAGAN: The British with Germans, and the Germans had British – William’s mother was British, she was a princess, a British princess. So he was personally irked, to put it very mildly, by the way the British treated him. They did not treat him with the respect he thought he personally should have, and he certainly identified himself with Germany and Germany with himself, and certainly, he felt did not treat Germany with the respect that it deserved, and it focused very interestingly, why could the British do that? There were so few compared to the Germans and the Austrians, and the German Army was infinitely more potent they thought than the British Army.

It was the fleet. It was the British fleet, and indeed at that moment in history when the western European countries were spreading all over the world, and most particularly Great Britain, and their power was naval. And their prestige was naval, and so William decided Germany had to have the fleet, at the very least, able to challenge the British and he hoped one that would be even greater than Britain and that was the single activity that I would argue of the many that drove the British into the position where they became the people not cooperating with Germany as they had done so much in the past and with Bismarck but rather the number-one stumbling block of the Germans.

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