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100 years after World War I, what have we learned?

What lessons can President Obama glean from World War I?

In October 1962, in the midst of the nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union that would eventually become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously recommended to President Kennedy that he order an attack on the island presided over by Moscow’s proxy, Fidel Castro. U.S. intelligence had discovered that Russian military officers were leading the installation of a nuclear weapons site there, which Kennedy considered an intolerable security threat. But, despite the gravity of the threat and the humiliation of the Bay of Pigs incident the previous year, Kennedy was wary of such a strike. One reason was that he had just read “The Guns of August,” Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the beginning of World War I. Kennedy found himself disturbed by the book’s analysis of how the so-called “war to end all wars” actually began. According to Tuchman, a series of heedless errors and miscalculations by European leaders in the early stages of the continental conflict – an inexorable “march of folly” – helped to bring about immense carnage. She ended her book with this sentence: “The nations were caught in a trap, a trap made during the first thirty days out of battles that failed to be decisive, a trap from which there was, and has been, no exit.”

Kennedy was deeply influenced by Tuchman’s work, referring to it often in meetings of his inner circle of advisors, He even had copies distributed to American military bases around the world. As the crisis intensified, he told his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [and call it] The Missiles of October.”

Tuchman’s theory has since been supplemented, and many say overtaken, by historians who have been able to gain access to archives that reveal the extent to which Germany plotted and goaded Europe and the United States into war. But Kennedy’s obsession with Tuchman’s take on the messy reality of war, the one-mistake-after-another stumble toward catastrophe, helped to shape the nation’s attitude toward that seminal confrontation, and all the military encounters we have entered – and been drawn into – since. From that event on, we have realized that every hostility – whether by mishap, as Tuchman suggested, or by design, as some later historians observed – could escalate, could be the next “war to end all wars,” leaving behind a shattered globe.

Now, exactly 100 years to the day since the beginning of that global conflagration that ended with 16 million dead and 20 million wounded, the world seems at a boiling point once more, from Europe to the Middle East. The conflict in eastern Ukraine, especially, is the potential flashpoint for what the cover story in this week’s Time magazine trumpets, perhaps too glibly, as “Cold War 2.” Vladimir Putin, who has turned to a distinctly more nationalist, anti-Western policy, has captured Crimea entirely and has used proxy forces to destabilize eastern Ukraine. These actions have set off a powerful reaction. President Obama has instituted two rounds of economic sanctions. There are even voices calling for greater American involvement, particularly military involvement, coming from GOP stalwarts such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

We have already visited Iraq with our armed forces, most recently, with dire results, during the Bush administration. And still, in certain quarters, the appetite to engage aggressively in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict builds.

Some analysts compare Putin’s sense of resentment toward the West, and the actions he has taken, to Germany’s post-World War I humiliation and response in the face of the “Carthaginian peace.” Analogies are drawn between Putin’s Russia and Weimar Germany, the implication being that he must be stopped using all means necessary.

Obama has hardly endorsed Putin’s actions, answering them with firm denunciation and economic sanctions. But, even at the cost of constant criticism that he is weak and disengaged, the president seems determined, like Kennedy, to avoid a kind of perilous march of folly. Without for a moment overlooking the gravity of Putin’s aggression, those calls for confrontation are a mistake reminiscent of Tuchman’s narrative. The real Cold War – with its catastrophic proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, Angola and Central America, to say nothing of the constant state of nuclear alarm – should remind us of the need for caution and the cost of bluster.

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