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Is Third World War Talk Just Hyperbole?

Talk of the Nation: July 25, 2006

Is Third World War Talk Just Hyperbole?


Israeli warplanes continue to drop bombs on Beirut as Hezbollah militants fire rockets at targets in northern Israel. Of course, there is also violence in Iraq, U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, terrorist attacks in Mumbai and elsewhere. Iran and North Korea continue to work on their nuclear programs, events that lead some, including most recently Newt Gingrich, to publicly wonder if we're on the brink of World War III.

Joining us to talk about that assessment and the events that led to World Wars I and II is Jay Winter, professor of History at Yale University. He joins us from a studio on the Yale campus in New Haven, Connecticut. Professor Winter, thanks very much for being with us.

Professor JAY WINTER (Professor of History, Yale University): Thank you for inviting me

CONAN: When people say - some columnists have written they fear we're at a Sarajevo Moment in history. What are they referring to?

Prof. WINTER: They're referring to the way in which an assassination by terrorists of the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne led to the outbreak of the First World War.

CONAN: And that, in effect, caused violence in the Balkans. One alliance called on alliance partners until, eventually, there was the world at war.

Prof. WINTER: There was a client state, Serbia of Russia; another client state, Austria of Germany. And everything got out of hand.

CONAN: Others have drawn analogies not so much to the First World War but the run-up to the Second World War and drawn comparisons, to some degree, in what we're seeing in appeasement of dictators in the Sudetenland, Germany's request for a slice of Czechoslovakia.

Prof. WINTER: Germany wanted to identify the part of the Czech population that felt German and, therefore, through Wilson's idea of self-determination, had every right to join the German Reich. Hence, he challenged the territorial coherence - existence of Czechoslovakia, sliced it in half, gobbled up the western part and then, in 1939, gobbled up the eastern part, leading almost inevitably to the outbreak of the Second World War.

CONAN: And in these comparisons, people are saying is this what it felt like in the summer of 1914? Is this what it felt like in 1938? Do you listen to these analogies with any - do the historical analogies, do they speak to you?

Prof. WINTER: No. These analogies appear to me to be part of the rhetoric of the Cold War, very much a post-Second-World-War idea that if there is a chance of Armageddon, it'll come out of yet another 1914 or 1939.

The problem is that the institution of war itself has changed so that in the 20th century, really until 1950 or so, it was by and large wars between countries with borders. They were wars of territoriality to establish borders. The invasion of Belgium in 1914 brought Britain into the war. The invasion of Poland in 1939 brought Britain and France and, ultimately, the world into the war.

Now, Hezbollah doesn't have borders. Al-Qaida doesn't. There is a new set of circumstances which make the analogies that Newt Gingrich provided of virtually no utility at all.

CONAN: Yet you could see - we're hearing from senior Hezbollah officials being quoted today by news services that they did not expect Israel to react so strongly to the capture of its soldiers and that, effectively, that this conflict started as a miscalculation and that, indeed, if somehow Syria got involved - they do have a defense pact with Iran - between those two countries is the United States' presence in Iraq - you could see some things spinning out of control.

Prof. WINTER: The Middle East has not been peaceful for 100 years. What we are seeing now is a much more dangerous set of conflicts, but they're not that much different from the earlier ones. To make it analogous to the two World Wars, though, is just scaremongering, and you just wonder about the motives of the people who are saying that.

CONAN: It's also that we're reading these analogies from columnists, some of them, and in Mr. Gingrich's case, I guess he - well, he gets paid for it, but someone described him as an amateur historian.

Prof. WINTER: Oh, I think he's more than an amateur historian. But silly statements are made by historians too, and this is one of them.

CONAN: Jay Winter, thanks very much for being with us today. Jay Winter, professor of History at Yale University. He joined us from a studio on Yale's campus in New Haven, Connecticut. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

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