- Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931–1941
This book will not be to every reader’s taste. In the British style, it is heavily detailed, abounding with mobilization plans and organizational entities, even as its subtitle so bluntly spells out its argument that a reader might be tempted to go no further. Might a snappy article have served better to make that argument?
Joseph Maiolo indeed argues that “the arms race drove the world to war,” and he shows in exacting detail how. Fearful or ambitious countries reacted to one another’s advances in weaponry and mobilization by upping the ante in order to deter potential enemies from war-making or from arming further and to prevent them from gaining an advantage should war break out. For political leaders at the time, World War I was the template of what might be done and the example of what could go wrong. One of Maiolo’s themes is how such ideologically diverse parties—the Soviet Union, fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the capitalist democracies such as France, Britain, and the United States—reacted so similarly to the World War I experience, helping to boost “worldwide arms spending” (p. 141) nearly threefold from 1933 through 1936. In turn, the arms race drove diverse states toward similarly authoritarian systems of state planning and coercion. As “the race sent everyone down the same totalitarian track” (p. 4), all leaders “agreed that war was no longer a contest between rival armies, but a life-and-death struggle between whole peoples and economies” (p. 61). Some leaders eagerly seized the moment—Adolf Hitler obviously, though the result for him was more chaotic and less productive than sometimes recognized by rivals who fearfully saw in Germany “a model of Teutonic efficiency, worthy of emulation” (p. 332). British, French, and U.S. leaders entered the moment reluctantly, uneasy about eroding democracy and accelerating the arms race, though for the most part they did so more successfully than their autocratic counterparts. Even the French did better than most people recognize, Maiolo suggests, and Franklin Roosevelt did best of all. “The United States,” he writes, “fascinated the total-war systematizers” elsewhere (p. 105). Maiolo’s astute assessment of Roosevelt points to one of the book’s strengths: he writes convincingly about histories far beyond his British home base. The subject may be old-fashioned—the end of the Cold War has meant that the arms races of the twentieth century have rather fallen out of favor as scholarly subjects—but his treatment yields an impressive international history, one buttressed by extensive research, deft use of older and current scholarship, and evenhanded judgment (with no cheap shots at the flawed leaders he examines or the rival scholars he challenges).
Like the arms race itself, the book seems like a closed world, walled off from other currents at the time and from recent scholarly trends. Maiolo maintains a laser-like focus on states and the calculations made by their leaders and planners about the arms race. He writes little about ideological, cultural, and political developments beyond those calculations. Even though Maiolo recognizes that “war never was just the rational application of violence for some definable political goal; it was also the harnessing [End Page 133] of the irrational passions, such as fear and hate, of the masses” (p. 323), he rarely dips into those “irrational passions” (held, one might add, not only by “the masses”) or explores how they, as much as strategic calculations, drove the world to war. As a result, readers understand the calculations driving the arms race but not the fuel for it. The result, too, is a sense of the inevitability of World War II that burdens most scholarship about its initiation. When discussing British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, for example, Maiolo writes that his “diplomacy was doomed to fail, for the great competition was neither in his nor anyone else’s power to stop” (p. 239), just as “the vicious system...