Recollections From the Cold War

This past week I returned to the writings of French philosopher Raymond Aron, perusing the opening chapters of his book On War (1957). It was a current events piece written at a time when America and Russia were stalemated by the threat of nuclear holocaust. By its nature the scope is somewhat narrow and dated. That said, the author’s analysis is far more enduring than many contemporary works on Communism and superpower rivalry.

Aron was perceptive enough to realize that the atom bomb had not eliminated war. Conflict was merely adapted to new circumstances. It is true that all-out war between Russia and the West was rendered potentially suicidal and thus unlikely. But localized conflicts were bloody and frequent. Aron’s book predated the debacle of Vietnam; nevertheless, his observations on the Korean War could have served a valuable lesson, had those in power paid attention to it. Aron never subscribed to the notion of total war. He rejected MacArthur’s strategy of widening the conflict against China. That said, he notes that MacArthur’s liberal opponents “were inclined to err in the opposite direction by confusing the renunciation of total victory with the renunciation of any victory at all…. The return to the status quo ante was the inevitable consequence not of the limitation of the conflict but of the refusal to engage the forces necessary to a partial and local victory.”

Aron repudiated not only the “optimists,” who hoped that the potential horrors of atomic mass destruction would be enough to prevent all future war, but the pessimists as well. Writings as a “realist” he argued: “[I]f you consider humanity insane enough to launch an atomic war, how can you expect it to have the wisdom to come to an agreement on the terms of a total disarmament?” It is a lesson worth retaining even twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Pacifism and appeasement are always bad options.

For more about this independent-minded twentieth century thinker, see Existentialism and Marxism and Raymond Aron’s Plea for the Living.

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