US President Woodrow Wilson, WW1
When WWI started in 1914, young men across Europe flocked to their national colors. Plenty of people were worried, but the enthusiasm just swept aside doubts (and served to unify countries). But far from being a short and glorious affair, the war became an apocalyptic bloodbath. Very quickly, stalemate in the West and seesaw battles in the east ground up an entire generation. Enter Woodrow Wilson. He believed that US could serve as an “honest broker” in the war because a) it wasn’t involved in the war, b) hadn’t openly taken sides in the war, and c) had no interest in gaining territory in the war. He reached out to all the warring powers, offering a face-saving solution to the fighting: what he called “peace without victory” that would return things to where they were before the war, with the addition of an international organization dedicated to preventing war. Unfortunately the warring powers, while responding positively, could not actually stop the fighting. Too many millions had died for them to simply cease fire without gaining something, anything. And so the fighting raged on. Millions more died pointlessly. Eventually the US was dragged in, and by the fall of 1918 the fighting stopped — less through victory or defeat than collapse. History records that the Allies won, but considering the staggering cost, it’s pretty hard to think of anything they “won” that was anywhere close to worth the price paid for it.
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, WWII
In the 1930s, as the threat of Hitler’s Germany grew, Stalin tried hard to team up with the Western Allies (the UK and France). The French seemed mildly interested, but the Brits were absolutely against the idea of allying with the Soviets. To most of the country’s conservatives, the USSR was a far bigger threat than Hitler’s Germany. This was the era of appeasement, when most leading politicians believed that Hitler had legitimate demands and would avoid war if he was given what he wanted. They believed that a strong Germany would serve as a shield against the Soviet Union. If anything, they fantasized about a war between Germany and the Soviet Union that would destroy both and leave the West alone. Stalin, therefore, was given the runaround. By 1939, Stalin, fed up, turned to Hitler instead, signing the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Suddenly the dread enemies became friends and Hitler turned against the west. Within the space of a few months, France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Norway had been conquered, Britain’s army was intact but stripped of most of its equipment, and the German air force was bombing London. Stalin knew that Hitler would eventually attack him, but used the time to build up his military as much as possible to meet the threat. Chances are Hitler would never have started WWII if the West had come to terms with Stalin — and if he had, he would have faced probable overthrow before the fighting even started (and if the war had started under those circumstances, the Germans would have been surrounded and massively outnumbered).
Adolf Hitler, WWII
When the Soviets finally wiped out the German troops in Stalingrad in 1943, a turning point in the war had been reached. Hitler had suffered a severe defeat and his forces began retreating. However the Soviets had suffered catastrophic losses, and it was obvious that the road to total victory was going to carry gargantuan costs in economic and human terms. So in a little-remembered move, Stalin, who always put practical matters above politics or ideology, secretly offered Hitler a peace deal. The details are a little fuzzy, but it seems that Stalin offered Hitler a return to the borders of 1939, which in theory might have meant Stalin giving up the territories he grabbed as part of the Nazi-Soviet pact. It seems that Hitler seriously considered the offer, but in the end he dicked around too long — the Allies got wind of it and the Soviets quietly withdrew the offer (all the Allied powers had promised not to seek a separate peace with Germany). It’s possible that the whole thing was a clever Soviet gambit to pressure the US and UK to land in Europe, but it’s clear the Germans took it very seriously. Hitler himself said, however, that even if he agreed to a peace deal he’d end up violating it and starting the war again: “I wouldn’t be able to help myself,” he said.
US President Dwight D Eisenhower, Cold War
By the time Joseph Stalin died in 1953, the Soviet Union was in rough shape. Still recovering from the devastation of the Second World War, it was also in the grips of a catastrophically oppressive government, severe shortages (especially of consumer goods, food and housing) and oh yeah the small matter of the Cold War, which was gobbling up far more than the country could afford. So after Stalin died, an alternative was offered by his replacements (at first they practiced a kind of collective government to prevent a new dictatorship). They called for a greater emphasis to be placed on raising the standard of living, they called off Stalin’s last purge (called the Doctor’s Plot, it was an anti-Semitic assault that some feared would result in a new holocaust), and they released vast numbers of people from the gulag. They also openly began to talk of coexistence with the West. Even Winston Churchill, the most anti-communist dude on the planet, began to talk of calling off the conflict. But the US was in the grips of McCarthyism. Anti-Communism had become the state religion, and the Cold War had become deeply politicized. There was just no chance that Eisenhower’s administration could sit down with the commies, particularly with Allen Dulles running the State Department. Eventually the Soviets realized the Cold War was still on, and despite occasional talk of throttling back (they loved JFK’s proposal of a joint mission to the moon, which he mentioned shortly before he died), it lasted another 35 years, when the USSR finally collapsed. In the meantime staggering amounts of money had been spent, thousands of nuclear weapons had been built, and millions of lives lost in shi*ty proxy wars like Vietnam and Afghanistan. The legacy of the Cold War continues to trouble our world and will continue to do so for generations.
President Nguyen Van Thieu, Vietnam War
By 1968, Vietnam had been at war, depending on how you count, for almost 30 years: from Japanese occupation to the war against the French to the American-led war. Of course 1968 was an election year in the US, and there was increasing pressure to get the hell out of Vietnam. There were half a million American soldiers there already, with the Pentagon demanding more all the time. It was a stalemate, with no real hope for an American victory — to defeat guerrillas you have to outnumber the rebels, but the communists could easily match every American escalation. The cataclysmic loss of life, especially among civilians, was also doing terrible damage to America’s image. So US President Lyndon Johnson pushed for peace talks, hoping for a negotiated peace deal (and American withdrawal) before the November election. The talks were actually going very well, with a deal in sight. But left as an afterthought was the government of South Vietnam, who America was supposedly fighting for. Its president, Thieu, was not happy about the deal, especially because it would leave the communists alone in the lands they had occupied and administered in the south. He felt he had no choice but to go along and sign the deal. But wait! He received a secret message from Richard Nixon telling Thieu to refuse to sign the treaty. “You’ll get a much better deal from me,” Nixon insisted. So Thieu refused to sign the peace deal, it collapsed in failure, and Nixon won the White House. It took another five years, but by 1973 Nixon handed Thieu a new peace deal — one that was almost exactly the same as the one from 1968. Hundreds of thousands of people died for nothing. And this time Thieu had no choice but to sign it.
Yasir Arafat, Israel-Palestinian Conflict
Yeah, this one is 100% guaranteed to be controversial no matter what. Anyway, it was the year 2000 and Bill Clinton was in the last year of his presidency. At the start of his administration, in 1993, he’d helped make the Oslo Accords happen, a huge breakthrough in relations between the Israelis and Palestinians. But that agreement was really only a first step — what was needed was a big final agreement that would result in fixed borders, a Palestinian state and a long-desired end to the conflict that had started with Israel’s founding in the 1940s. It was hard as hell to agree on things, but two of the three big issues were getting close to being worked out: the Israelis agreed to evacuate most of their settlements hand over something like 93% of the Occupied Territories, and while the details were still being tossed around, it seemed possible that two sides might share Jerusalem. But the third big issue was a problem: Arafat insisted on what’s called the “right of return.” See, when Israel was founded, something like 700,000 Arabs turned into refugees outside of Israel. They stayed refugees, living in “camps” that looked more like cities, and now number over 4 million. Arafat insisted that all 4 million should have the right to go live in Israel and be given homes. Given that Israel’s entire population in 2000 was around 6 million, there was absolutely zero chance of that happening. Arafat however wouldn’t budge on the issue, and the talks failed. To this day the right of return remains the key roadblock preventing peace between the two sides. Meanwhile the killings continue, the settlements keep expanding, the Israelis get more hardline and the Palestinians lose all hope.
George W. Bush, Iraq War
It seems pretty clear that George W. Bush, or at least many of his inner circle, really wanted to kick Saddam Hussein out of Iraq. There were longstanding fantasies of turning Iraq into a happy pro-American wonderland of oil-funded fun times, and all that was needed, so the belief went, was to remove Saddam from the government. And so, within a few hours of 9/11, the planning began, and by 2003 the troops were in position, the plans had been finalized, and the war was ready to be triggered. Oh sure, there was still the ridiculous game involving UN weapons inspectors, but no one really thought that would amount to anything. But then a US diplomat heard from someone in the Iraqi intelligence community, with a peace offer from Saddam. It pretty much amounted to a total surrender, promising total access with certain proof that no WMDs existed, guaranteed access to US companies wanting to buy into Iraq’s oil industry, a handing over of a known terrorist, a promise to fully support Israel and abandon the Palestinians, and even allow free elections within a couple of years. Basically it was handing the White House everything it wanted without violence. Well everything except the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In the end nothing came of the offer and the war went ahead. Debate still rages over just how serious that offer was (hey, maybe it was just a gambit to avert the war), but it’s hard not to wonder how different the Mideast might be today if the offer had been serious and if it had been accepted.
Allan Dulles did not run the State Department during the Eisenhower administration. John Foster Dulles was the Sec. of State at that time. Allan Dulles was his brother and was the head of the CIA at that time.
Excellent post, instances of how history could have been very different.
“when war overcame peace” is a more dramatic way of saying “when wars started”