This is chapter 7 of Slouching Towards Utopia?. I am of several minds with respect to it. I think it says what really needs to be said. I think it says it all in a remarkably short space—or it says it all to me. But it seems, to me, very different in tone from both the rest of the book I have written and from how this stuff is usually presented...
So tell me what you think of it:
VII. The Knot of War, 1914-1920
Nikita Sergeyevitch Khrushchev to John F. Kennedy (1962):
We and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly of what terrible forces our countries dispose…
Two chapters ago we shifted our focus from economics to political economy: we needed to look not just at technology, production, organization, and exchange, but also at how people governing themselves and others tried to regulate the economy to preserve or produce a good society, or a society good for them. One chapter ago we shifted our focus to imperial politics: we needed to look not just at how peoples and their elites governed themselves, but how they governed others. Each of these two shifts brought us away from processes and factors that seem almost inevitable—in which the actions of individuals mostly cancel out, and if an opportunity was not seized by one person at one date it would have been seized by another soon after. Each of these two moved us closer to that part of history where individual actions matter: where individuals and their luck can divert history for good, either because of their place in the society or because of the waves of belief and expectations that they set in motion. And so the history became less a flowering of long-planted seeds and more choice and chance.
This chapter takes a further step in that direction: into politico-military affairs, where choice and chance is dominant. This fits awkwardly into an economic history. But it is necessary. For we cannot understand what the world was like in 1918 without looking at World War I. The world in 1914 had been a growing, substantially peaceful, prosperous—with problems, but prosperous—world, in which it was not irrational to be optimistic about human civilization. The world, especially Europe, in the ashes after World War I was different.