Book Review: Why Nations go to War by Dr. John G. Stoessinger

Filed in Gather Books Essential by on July 2, 2007 0 Comments

This one is a little more formal than my previous reviews. I had written this for my World Civ. II class and thought I might as well share it here as well.



John G. Stoessinger. Why Nations Go to War, Ninth Edition. Toronto:Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, Inc. 2005. 370 pp.

             Dr. John G. Stoessinger attended college at Grinnell College in Iowa as an undergraduate and completed hid Ph.D. in International Relations at Harvard. He has taught at several universities including Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Princeton, and the University of San Diego, where he is currently a Distinguished Professor of Global Diplomacy. In addition to his teaching career, Dr. Stoessinger has also led the International Seminar on International Relations at Harvard in 1969. He was also the keynote speaker at the World Congress of Junior Chamber International during their fiftieth anniversary event in Kobe, Japan. Dr. Stoessinger has written ten books on international relations and was awarded the Bancroft Prize for The Might of Nations: World Politics in Our Time. He has served as the book review editor of Foreign Affairs, acting director of the Political Affairs Division of the United Nations, and is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations. He has been included in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in the World.

            Dr. Stoessinger has set up his book to look at the events that led to specific wars of the twentieth century and then drawing parallels between the different wars that might not have been apparent or obvious at the times of the various conflicts. The book closely examines each war or group of wars in individual chapters arranged in a near chronological order with a conclusion chapter that pulls from all of the conflicts previously presented. This approach is very well organized and helps the reader to follow the evolution of war styles. 

           The book begins with a discussion of the start of World War I and how the mistakes and misperceptions of Kaiser Wilhelm and other leaders helped lead Europe into a major war in 1914. It is in this first chapter that Stoessinger lists the dimensions of perception that appear throughout the book. The dimensions include: a leader’s perception of himself, the leader’s perception of his adversary in character, intention, and perceived power and capabilities for war, and the leader’s own empathy toward his adversary. Most leaders saw themselves as stronger than they really were and their adversaries as weaker than they really were. These misperceptions led directly to distorted perceptions of adversarial intentions which then precipitated quickly into all out war. If the leaders of the various nations involved would have viewed reality rather than their own distorted misperceptions, it may have been possible to avoid conflict on such a massive scale or even avoid war altogether. This seems to be a recurring theme throughout the book. 

           The second chapter discusses Hitler and his invasion of Russia in 1941. Again, misperceptions played a key role in the events that unfolded. This time, more emphasis was put on the character of the aggressor and his adversary. Hitler essentially had a one track mind. He decided to attack and eliminate the Russian people and paid no attention to the lessons learned by Napoleon when he had attempted to conquer Russia. Hitler was convinced that it would be a quick and easy victory. Stalin, on the other hand, believed that since they had previously been allies, Hitler would not invade Russia. Stalin continuously ignored intelligence that came from British and American sources, including eighty-four warnings in the year preceding the attack, because he was suspicious of Anglo-American motives. He preferred to place his trust in Hitler, a fellow dictator. In the end, Hitler invaded Russia and had misjudged the Russian people. They were fighting for their very existence which is probably the most powerful motivation ever. He had failed to plan for the Russian winter because he thought it would be a quick and easy victory, and ended up losing many men to cold and starvation, much as Napoleon had previously. Stalin had placed his trust in the wrong entity and was greatly disillusioned and was unprepared for the attack when it came. Again, the misperceptions of the leaders involved ended in a great loss of life.

             The third chapter deals with the Korean War and misperceptions of a different sort. In the later stages of the war, after the North Koreans were driven back to the 38th parallel, General Douglas MacArthur went beyond the original scope of the police action by driving toward Chinese border along the Yalu River. This move provoked China and brought them into the conflict. MacArthur did not believe that the Chinese army would be strong and thought he could achieve an easy victory. He ignored intelligence that told him the size of the Chinese army and chose to believe that it was smaller than it really was. His hubris added two years to the war and cost 34,000 additional American lives. Had he chosen to listen to reality instead of his own misperceptions, many lives could have been saved. 

           The Vietnam War was full of misperceptions as well. One of the biggest misperceptions would be the type of war being fought. The United States was fighting against communism, while the Vietnamese were fighting against imperialism and colonialism and to protect their way of life. Had the United States never entered Vietnam, communism would have taken over earlier, and with fewer human lives wasted. In 1978, the Vietnamese communists invaded Cambodia to put a stop to the communist regime of Pol Pot and the killing fields. Had the United States been open-minded enough to see that there were distinctions between types of communists, perhaps we would never have participated in the conflict. 

           Dr. Stoessinger continues through several other wars including: Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, the battles between India and Pakistan, the Arab-Israeli conflicts, Saddam Hussein’s wars in Iran and Kuwait and the current American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after the tragedy of 9/11. 

           Dr. Stoessinger summarizes the book in the final chapter. Here he reiterates his thoughts that the “case material reveals that perhaps the most important single precipitating factor in the outbreak of war is misperception.” He also restates the dimensions of misperception and gives each one special attention. In regards to the idea that there is a misperception in a leader’s self-view, Stoessinger notes that there is “remarkable consistency in the self-images of most national leaders on the brink of war. Each confidently expects victory after a brief and triumphant campaign.” He also states that “leaders on all sides typically harbor self-delusions on the eve of war.” Stoessinger also discusses the idea that a leader’s misperception of his adversary’s power is perhaps “the quintessential cause of war. It is vital to remember, however that it is not the actual distribution of power that precipitates a war; it is the way in which a leader thinks that power is distributed.” 

           Dr. Stoessinger uses many primary sources for his information including newspapers, documents, reports, and first-hand accounts. He also uses many secondary sources including books by other authors well-versed in the conflicts being discussed. It is very apparent that a lot of thought and research has gone into the creation of this book. The index is very complete and the bibliographies at the end of each chapter make it easy to find more information on the conflict at hand. 

           I believe that this book has a lot of historical worth since it pulls from so many valid sources. It presents straightforward and factual information with knowledgeable interpretations of the information. I believe that Dr. Stoessinger has successfully accomplished what he has set out to do. I would recommend the book to others if they are looking for interpretations of war and how they begin. The book was interesting, though it could be a little dry at times to someone who is not well-versed in modern and contemporary history.

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