The Guns of August and the Missiles of August

Historian Barbara Tuchman’s wildly popular book The Guns of August traced how the great powers, simultaneously headstrong and yet unsure of themselves, slipped, miscalculated and stumbled into World War I in August of 1914. Tuchman talks about imperialism and social Darwinism. She speaks of the “bellicose frivolity of senile empires,” and refers to the Czar “as not well endowed mentally, only fit to live in a country house and grow turnips.” During this early period, not unlike Trump’s philosophy today, she shows how social Darwinism is used to justify political conservatism, imperialism, and racism and to discourage reform.

Today we are facing the Missiles of August – the possibility of stumbling into a horrendous nuclear war because of braggadocio and miscalculation.


Unfortunately, some of the most bellicose language we have ever heard from an American President is emanating from Trump’s golf club in New Jersey. Fortunately, NJ is about as far away from North Korea as any U.S. state could be, but that is cold comfort. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un now says he has America’s Territory of Guam in his hair-string trigger view.


In late July all our House members voted for the most recent sanctions against North Korea, as well Russia and Iran. Two days later our NJ Senators did likewise. Rep. Bill Pascrell applauded passage of the bill. Senator Melendez also said, “I am pleased to see the Congress work as a whole to hold Iran, Russia, and North Korea accountable for their continued destabilizing activities across the world.”

Nonetheless, regarding the most recent turn of events in the past week or so our federal legislators appear to be ducking for cover and saying precious little. Sen. Menendez, a lead member of the Foreign Relations Committee, on his website, twitter feed and Facebook page has said nothing. Neither has Sen. Cory Booker. I have seen no recent comments from any of our representatives. Other lawmakers have slammed Trump on his recent comments. Maybe some of our legislators feel tough words are needed but none of them have told us that.

In spite of the fiery rhetoric “America has no desire to invade and conquer North Korea, and the Kim family dynasty has demonstrated that its overriding goal is survival.” Kim Jong Un, is many things, including bellicose and threatening, but there’s no indication that he is suicidal. He lives the life of wealth, comfort and god-like status in Pyongyang. His counterpart in the US, however, ignores the sage advise of President Theodore Roosevelt to “speak softly, and carry a big stick.” Therein lies our dilemma.

It seems unlikely that what is happening now will quickly lead to a catastrophic event, “the likes of which the world has never seen,” as Trump proclaims. Nonetheless the rhetoric and recklessness of our President could yet at some future date lead us down the path that Barbara Tuchman vividly illuminates, and  bring us to a moment far worse than World War I.

Comments (2)

  1. ken bank

    I wouldn’t compare pre-WW1 rhetoric with the bombastic lunacy we’re getting from Trump and Kim. To the contrary, pre-WW1 communications between European leaders was more like a love-in than threats of “fire and fury”. Letters exchanged between leaders of Russia, Germany and England reflected the warm feelings between those who were first cousins and descendants of Queen Victoria (Nicky’s wife Alexandra was Victoria’s granddaughter). There was never any personal animosity between them like there is between Trump and Kim.

    If there are comparisons to be made between the Guns of August and Korea today is the danger of alliances and military commitments that George Washington always warned us about.
    WW1 started because Austria and Serbia got into a spat over Bosnia. When Austria threatened war, Russia was bound by its alliance to defend Serbia. Germany, which didn’t give a rats ass about Bosnia, was nevertheless committed to defend the Austrian Empire, just as the US is committed to defend South Korea.

    The only way ultimately to put an end to all this nonsense is for South Korea, which is perfectly capable of defending itself against North Korea with a two-to-one advantage in population and a ten-to-one advantage is economic resources, to settle its differences with Pyongyang and move forward with a two-state solution that would also include an end to the US military presence on the Korean peninsula.

    And, speaking of entangling military alliances, it’s also time for the US to tell Israel to go play with itself and pay for their own defensive needs. But, of course, that will never happen. Sheldon Adelson and the fat cats at AIPAC will see to that.

    1. Bill Orr (Post author)

      The spat you describe between Austria and Serbia threatening war, with different alliances (now between most countries vs. North Korea and its occasional allies China and even Russia) included players as described above, some senile, others reckless and bellicose but all involved in drawing the world into WWI so that finally all it took was the assassination of an arch duke to set Europe in flames.


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