World War Averted?
July 27, 2006 10:59 PM   Subscribe

Historyfilter: What are the times in history when a major war seemed inevitable, but didn't happen?

I already know of the Cuban missle crisis, but I am coming up short on any others. I am specifically interested in how the conflict was averted, and especially in the role that the represented people (the common man) played in averting the conflict
posted by bigmusic to Grab Bag (29 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Just American? Otherwise I bet there are more than can be listed here.
posted by Kickstart70 at 11:06 PM on July 27, 2006

The Suez crisis may be worth looking at.

There didn't seem to be much role that citizens played in averting the war.
posted by sien at 11:10 PM on July 27, 2006

Read up on the India-Pakistan flame-up of 1999-2002. Closest we've come to two combatants exchanging nukes since, well, ever (yes, I'd estimate it as being even closer than the Cuban Missile Crisis). Craziness.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 11:13 PM on July 27, 2006

I think it's going to be difficult to come up with many examples like that, precisely because in retrospect if a war was avoided then it won't seem to have been inevitable -- since it didn't actually happen.

Such few cases as I suspect would fit your criteria, the reason war was avoided was because one side surrendered without a fight.

For example, the German conquest of Czechoslovakia in principle should have resulted in war, because France and the UK had mutual defense pacts with Czechoslovakia which should have caused both nations to go to war with Germany. But instead the French and Brits gave up and let the Germans have Czechoslovakia without a fight, leaving the Czechs helpless and hopeless.

The situation with Poland was pretty much the same. France and the UK also had mutual defense pacts with Poland, and once Germany started invading, they should have attacked Germany's south. Instead, they engaged in what was later referred to as "sitzkrieg" or the "phony war"; mobilized, but not actually fighting. They didn't actually really begin to fight until Germany invaded France, and we all know how that went.

Of course, a major war did end up happening -- but not when it should have. Once the western allies had access to Germany's records, it became clear that France and the UK could easily have defeated Germany in 1938 if they'd tried, instead of selling the Czechs up the river. Sometimes when major war seems inevitable and doesn't happen, it's because it's been deferred for a little while, and when it finally arrives it's a lot more bloody for everyone.

I think that one of the few cases of a major war that didn't happen which didn't involve either side surrendering was the Cold War, in the sense of a full scale nuclear exchange. There were times when it seemed like that was what was going to happen to us all. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest we all came to armageddon, but there were other cases. And in a sense the Cold War did have a lot of hotspots: Korea, Vietnam, various brushfire wars in Africa and Central America, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, so it's not really correct to say that it "didn't happen". Tens of millions of people were killed by the Cold War all over the world.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:22 PM on July 27, 2006 [5 favorites]

Just out of curiosity, how could the UK and France have possibly defeated Germany in 38? What sources do you have on that?
posted by Riemann at 11:31 PM on July 27, 2006

In 1938 Germany hadn't really begun its military buildup yet. Hitler's generals told him that if he pushed it too far and it really did come to war, Germany would get stomped.

Hitler judged the psychology of the French and British leaders, and decided that they were cowards. They were capable of winning, but wouldn't want to make the attempt. So he bluffed with a weak hand and won.

That was one of the factors which led him to distrust the advice of his generals later in the war, since they'd been so obviously wrong in 1938. The advice they were giving him was good, but he didn't believe in them any more. They kept urging caution and conservatism, but in 1938 it was "toujours l'audace", and so later in the war Hitler was consistently foolhardy, particularly in his unwillingness to authorize tactical or strategic retreats.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:41 PM on July 27, 2006

I can give you a lot of cases from history where major wars were averted by surrender. But I suspect that isn't what you're looking for.

During the Mongol campaigns in central Asia and the Arab world, when they approached a fortified city they would send in heralds to demand surrender. If the city surrendered, it would be taken peacefully and absorbed into the Mongol empire. If they didn't surrender, the Mongols would lay siege, and once they took the city they'd slaughter every person in it.

Word got around about those two possible outcomes, exactly as the Mongols expected, and surrenders became the norm, precisely as the Mongols wanted.

So a lot of Arab cities were conquered by the Mongols without any combat -- because the cities surrendered as soon as the Mongols rode up.

Another example of ways in which major wars are avoided is when the situation is settled by combat long before it could escalate into full-scale war. Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 are good examples of that. Both nations started trying to cast off their chains, and the Soviets sent in the armor. It didn't take long to pacify the situation, and in both cases it was all over before the larger political situation could become serious. Besides which, both Hungary and Czechoslovakia had been sold out to Stalin by Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta, and in the middle of the Cold War the NATO powers weren't willing to take any risks for the Hungarians or Czechs. So in a sense this is yet another case of a fight being avoided because one side gives up.

With all due respect, it sounds like you're looking for historical evidence to back the idea that a sufficiently moral and resolute group of civilians can prevent a war. I don't think you're going to find any such evidence. Frankly, I can't think of any cases in history like that; not even one -- except for cases where those moral and resolute civilians decided to surrender.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:54 PM on July 27, 2006

In the '91 Gulf War when Saddam started dropping Scuds on Tel Aviv, Israel was itching to strike back but was kept back by the US who probably didn't want to piss of the Saudis.
posted by PenDevil at 12:05 AM on July 28, 2006

Response by poster: With all due respect, it sounds like you're looking for historical evidence to back the idea that a sufficiently moral and resolute group of civilians can prevent a war. I don't think you're going to find any such evidence.

That would be interesting, but any role that civlians exerted any kind of pressure would interesting as well. I'm primarly concerned about how wars are averted, but the will of the common man intervening just one way I had hoped it might have played out in the past.
posted by bigmusic at 12:06 AM on July 28, 2006

Israel didn't respond because the Americans were afraid that the UN forces led by the US, which included a lot of Arab forces and which was fighting its war from Saudi territory, would fall apart. Instead the US sent Patriot batteries into Israel, and convinced the Israeli leaders that the battle was going to be fast.

The Israeli leaders weren't fools, and understood the situation and decided not to retaliate. The Patriot batteries gave them political cover at home. (Even though it turns out that they didn't work, militarily speaking. They did work, politically speaking, and that was what was important.)

But this isn't a case of war being avoided. It's simply a case of one particular nation deciding to sit out the fight. Kuwait was liberated, and tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers were killed. (Remember the "highway of death"?)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:16 AM on July 28, 2006

I'm primarly concerned about how wars are averted, but the will of the common man intervening just one way I had hoped it might have played out in the past.

Afraid not. And except for through surrender, there aren't damned many cases of wars being averted in the sense that I think you mean.

The only major case of that I can think of is indeed the fact that there was no fullscale nuclear exchange during the Cold War. The only factor that "the common man" played in that was in supporting politicians who built up the nuclear deterrent. It was because we were prepared to fight a "total" war that total war was averted. (Thank goodness.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:20 AM on July 28, 2006

Partition of India maybe..
posted by Chuckles at 12:25 AM on July 28, 2006

And how many wars have there been since then between India and Pakistan? And how many terrorist attacks in India and in Kashmir? That's a case of war being deferred, not averted.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:29 AM on July 28, 2006

Perhaps you could say the same of war between Russia and the USA. Putin is a KGB man, after all..

If you look at the history of conflict between India and Pakistan, it looks to me like 'the big one' hasn't happened. Whether it will in the future or not is beyond the scope of this question.
posted by Chuckles at 12:35 AM on July 28, 2006

Wikipedia on India Pakistan wars.
posted by Chuckles at 12:36 AM on July 28, 2006

I'm primarly concerned about how wars are averted

Then you want to read papers or books that make use of the Correlates of War / Militarized Interstate Dispute dataset.

People have coded every international dispute in which at least one country used, threatened, or displayed force from the Napeolonic Wars to the present (minus a few years for coding delays). The data are freely available if you want to look at them yourself, or there are approximately a jillion papers and books analyzing just this by various IR people.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:29 AM on July 28, 2006

hy say The US were days away from a War with Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Diplomacy/sanity prevailed.
posted by Gungho at 4:31 AM on July 28, 2006

Arguably the US Civil War was put off at least once by some political smoke roomery.

Another scenario, unlikely to hit much more than the footnotes of history area, involves: They came, they saw, the walls were too high, they went away (usually in search of softer targets).

Or the general dies on the eve of the big battle, and so they all go home. Various examples of both recur throughout the ages.

Though I suppose most of these are not the stuff of major wars.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:14 AM on July 28, 2006

In 1983, the USSR was convinced that a NATO exercise, Operation Able Archer, was a cover for war preparations. This came close, maybe even closer than the Cuban Missile Crisis, to sparking a war between the USSR and the USA. For links see:

Able Archer 83 - Wikipedia

CIA Study: A Cold War Conundrum, the 1983 Soviet War Scare
Parallel History Project on NATO and the Warsaw Pact
posted by Boobus Tuber at 5:54 AM on July 28, 2006

Also, around the same time, and an example of an incident where one person did avoid war, Soviet early warning systems detected 5 American missiles being launched, which was ignored by the colonel in charge. Cold War Report
posted by Boobus Tuber at 6:06 AM on July 28, 2006

I'm primarily concerned about how wars are averted, but the will of the common man intervening just one way I had hoped it might have played out in the past.

If this kind of opposition, when it's present and when it works, usually halts the war before it gets anywhere near the "inevitable" stage. Take for example the Reagan years; plenty of people in his administration were eager to open up full scale assaults on El Salvador and Nicaragua (and probably several other Latin American countries as well). However, there was a strong - and most likely correct - consensus that the general public in the US just wouldn't tolerate such actions. So Washington had to settle for funding terrorist armies to do the dirty work for them (and even that met with considerable opposition from people in a number of countries, including the US).

I doubt seriously that anyone at that time would have described a US invasion of Nicaragua as "inevitable," but certainly there were people who wanted it to happen and certainly there were people who feared it would happen and it was certainly prevented by popular opposition. If you search history for similar examples, you'll probably find quite a few. However, you're going to have to do a fair amount of reading between the lines and you may have to consult some left wing or other non-standard sources, because history books and media types try not to talk about this sort of stuff except in a pretty roundabout way.

Books about history usually depict events as the result of the actions or inactions of leaders. They spend little time talking about the role of common people, even though it's actually quite large. Similarly, media coverage of current events tends to gloss over this element. Any time you hear CNN say that a country or organization "lacks the political will" for military action, what they mean is that the people in that country or organization or so opposed to it that the leaders don't dare try it. So it's often implied but rarely stated. Leaders - going back at least as far as the Roman empire - have always lived in fear of what the great unwashed masses would do if they got too riled up. Even maniac dictators like Kim Jong Il and obscenely wealthy ruling elites like the Saudi royal family understand that they can't piss off too many people too severely too often or they'll have a revolution on their hands. And one of the surest ways to piss off the general public in your country is to start a war that they don't support.

Now, when I say "revolution," I don't necessarily mean the violent overthrow of a government. In the US, I'm pretty sure that a popular revolt would be peaceful; something like the anti-war movement during the Viet Nam era. However, in other countries, it might easily be violent, such as the Iranian revolution of 1980 or the Cuban revolution of 1959. Of course, it doesn't have to be anywhere near these extremes. In the US you might just see a congressional investigation or the passing of some legislation intended to limit the power of, say, the executive branch. In non-democratic countries you might see protests, boycotts, roadside bombs, etc. The bottom line is that the leader folks weigh the degree of popular resistance they anticipate against the potential benefits of going to war and then judge whether the price they're going to pay is worth it. Of course they don't always judge correctly, but if you read your history books carefully, you'll find that they always make this calculation.
posted by Clay201 at 6:12 AM on July 28, 2006

There's always the case of Stanislav Petrov, who (it can be argued) personally averted World War III. But he was a colonel, not a member of the public.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:14 AM on July 28, 2006

I don't know about world wars but one of the most interesting regional conflicts that could have happened but didn't was a war between the US and Canada that was triggered by a pig.
posted by lockle at 6:43 AM on July 28, 2006

I was thinking of mentioning the 19th century Canada-USA thing. Not the silly justification angle, but the US manifest destiny angle. Presumably many believed that a US invasion was inevitable, but it never came..
posted by Chuckles at 7:42 AM on July 28, 2006

You could use the 1986 People Power Revolution as one example of the will of common people trumping a case for war -- or at least a civil war. For a couple of days, the military was legitimately split between factions loyal to Marcos and Aquino, and it seemed likely that some kind of reckoning was at hand. Yet, overwhelming popular support for Aquino's faction led Marcos' side to back down and forced the President into exile without shots being fired.

Some say that a civil war would've been preferable since it would've forced a lot of Marcos' cronies out of government. Instead, Aquino settled to retain a large amount of Marcos' government structure and much of the corruption that was endemic to the administration. But, I honestly doubt that such a conflict would have been so neat or decisive, and all it would have achieved was a great deal of chaos, bloodshed and a deeper sense of class animosity.
posted by bl1nk at 8:17 AM on July 28, 2006

There was also EDSA II.

Are failed coups wars averted, or just lost?

Either way, these weren't international (depending on how one views the former U.S.S.R in '91) though certainly the Soviet Coup had the potential to get really messy.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 1:29 PM on July 28, 2006

The recent history of Peru is of a civil war averted, and averted again.

The modern history of China, in the period from about 1700 to 1850 and some would say until 1911 (generally known as the Qing dynasty) is the story of small skirmishes of regional chiefs and foreign powers with the Chinese central authorities, who were constantly making compromises to hold the country together.
posted by paulsc at 1:36 PM on July 28, 2006

The Coming War With Japan was based on the premise that the conditions leading up to the US-Japanese conflict in WWII were being repeated in the early 90s. Two possibilities: the authors were wrong about the conditions in the 90s (they are very accurate about the WWII causes) or the leaders of Japan and the US took steps to avoid the war. If you believe in the second possibility, you can look for actions (ex., NAFTA) that defused the conditions listed by the authors.

It's an interesting book and was a best-seller in Japan for quite a while.
posted by forrest at 1:44 PM on July 28, 2006

A late addition I know, but this article is very interesting:

Key Issues: Nuclear Weapons: Issues: Accidents: 20 Mishaps that Might Have Caused Nuclear War
posted by Boobus Tuber at 4:52 AM on July 30, 2006

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