Strategists say World War I has lessons for nuclear age

World War I is a historian's growth industry these days. Or, more accurately, it's a strategist's battlefield. Polymath historian and diplomat George Kennan is only the latest to enter the debate with his just-published book, The Fateful Alliance.

International Security, the journal of the Harvard Center for Science and International Affairs, devoted its summer issue to the exploration of World War I offensive military doctrines. And former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt used to ask quite often if we weren't running the risk of drifting into a confrontation on the pattern of World War I.

Reexamination of a war that shattered previous assumptions of linear progress - while loosing the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, toppling the Kaiser, and overturning Britain's class structure - is not surprising. What is surprising is the relevance analysts are finding for our nuclear age in an era that barely knew what airplanes and tanks were.

Mr. Kennan's thesis is that France and Russia, in facing Germany in 1914, were dealing with a power that was ''satisfied'' and not bent on aggression, at least not in Europe. French and Russian failure to realize this - and inflexible military planning that escalated mobilization to war - led to ''the great seminal catastrophe of this century.'' Kennan draws very explicit comparisons with what he regards as the West's mistaken view of today's Soviet Union.

The complementary thesis of the International Security editors is that ''the wellspring of disaster in 1914 resided in the unwavering and wholehearted commitment of all the major European militaries to offensive doctrines - despite the overwhelming defensive advantages afforded by prevailing technologies.''

This misjudgment of the contemporary state of technology put a premium on speed and preemption and moved policy decisions inexorably away from slow-moving diplomats to fast-moving generals, ''while creating an irresistible dynamic of escalation.''

Basically, the questions that Kennan and others then pose for 1984 are these:

1. Why did deterrence (i. e., war prevention) break down in 1914?

2. How did technological and political assumptions accelerate that breakdown in time of crisis?

3. How can we, poised in an age of nuclear deadlock, avoid making the same mistakes?

These are conspicuously not the topics that engaged previous researchers of World War I. The victorious allies initially viewed the war as a lesson for a Germany that had thrown its weight around and was rightly punished by the Versailles Treaty.

The majority of Germans viewed it for decades as the German civilians' ''stab in the back'' to German generals who would otherwise have won the war. The German view did not change until Hitler lost World War II and revisionist historian Fritz Fischer wrought one of historiography's great upsets by arguing that various German leaders welcomed a war as a means of catching up with other European powers and proving Germany's superiority.

For their part, pacifists took the trench warfare as Exhibit A of the folly of war - and certainly the bloodletting turned Western Europe against what British historian Michael Howard has termed ''bellicism'' (from the Latin word for war, bellum ) - the notion that war is enobling.

Few of these previous fixations on World War I addressed the question of deterrence as such. It took an era of the nuclear balance of terror to focus attention on this question.

In the new scholarship the ''1914 model'' has now become shorthand for falling into a war that no one wants. (Mr. Fischer's findings are accepted as regards Germans' ''bellicistic'' outlook. But it is widely assumed that equivalent research into the more neglected question of other actors' decisionmaking in 1914 would show that the war was not just Germany's fault and would reveal at least a corresponding lack of determination to avoid war on the part of other governments.) The dynamics that followed the assassination of the Austrian archduke in an obscure corner of the empire are today seen as driven not by Germany alone but by a fatal automaticity of reactions to the murder.

In particular, the rival mobilizations of 1914 are seen as overwhelming the diplomatic attempts to stave off war and plunging the nations into combat. If we want to prevent a disastrous repetition of military contingency planning running away with foreign policy in our much more dangerous nuclear age, the reasoning runs, then we must solve the dilemma of ''preparing for war without undermining deterrence through provocative activity,'' as Douglas M. Hart, defense analyst at Pacific-Sierra Research Corp., phrases it.

As Mr. Hart further defines the issue in the September/October issue of Survival, the periodical of the International Institute for Strategic Studies:

''The danger arises when prudent military steps must be taken to enhance the survivability of forces should hostilities erupt, but such actions also hold the potential to trigger the war they are designed to avoid. This dilemma is usually compounded by countermoves which . . . reinforce perceptions of hostile intent . . . and now demand counter-countermeasures. Breaking this vicious circle . . . lies at the heart of successfully resolving a 1914-type crisis.''

The conclusion? As Hart phrases it, ''It is very important that NATO leaders know during a crisis whether they are in a 1914 or a 1940 situation, since the remedies for one may prove disastrous for the other.''

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