Citizen Writer, Greg Beck wonders, are we repeating WW1, WW2, Cold War or Something else?
With all the recent conflagrations: Russia-Ukraine, Gaza-Israel, worries of China-Taiwan; a recent discussion among some of my classmates posed the question of whether the current world situation is analogous to the run-up to WW1, WW2 or to a new Cold War. With Santayana’s caution in mind that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” each choice above seems to have some ties to the past but not complete alignment with any of them.
Characterizations with WWI included multiple inter-related treaty obligations (NATO anyone?) a relatively quick onset, a lot of artillery/firepower blasting on both sides (seen Ukraine lately?) resulting in a stalemate and trench warfare. The US was relatively isolationist and came into the war in its later stages and so was relatively unscathed and emerged as a budding world leader with its population growing and its economy humming.
WW2 seemed marked by a long run-up to the worldwide conflagration marked by caution, worldwide depression, and appeasement in both Europe with Hitler’s Germany and Japan’s aggressions in the Pacific. Germany’s re-occupation of the Rhineland and takeover of the Sudetenland and Austria using the “mostly Germans lived there” arguments seem analogous to the Russian claims to take Crimea, Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia if not all of Ukraine (“we’re protecting cultural Russians that live there”).
The US, then, was still mostly isolationist, still in the Great Depression, with a weak economy (much like the rest of the world at the time) and it did not enter WW2 until the end of 1941– two years after most historians’ mark as WW2’s “real” beginning. While running a huge deficit to fund WW2, the US was left with a bustling economy, advanced technology, “nukes” and recognized as the West’s leader, if not the world’s.
No longer isolationist in sentiment, the US entered the Cold War with the then Soviet Union jockeying for dominance in a largely 2-polar world and largely dependent on a robust economy and a “reputation of strength” building with a healthy dose/fear of nuclear conflagration thrown in. The Cold War was largely brought to a close by both deterrence and the US being able to outspend the USSR on an arms race—though incurring huge national debts that are still growing rather than receding.
With the world looking at two hot wars right now, worries about Taiwan-China, North Korea and Iran both gaining nuclear capability and Iran’s proclivity to support Hamas, Hezbollah and West Bank parties with money and weaponry. It just doesn’t feel like a new Cold War, vis-à-vis a US-China bi-polar competition though an economic competition between them is occurring. If this is a new Cold War the US is not entering it with a low-debt economy or a robust military and our national reputation is none too strong either. Current mounting US debts are not being spent predominately on military hardware and nuclear modernization but on social programs. We seem to be relying on a past “glory” reputation as a Superpower rather than having actual power.
But the US does seem to be delaying its entry to war much like WW1 and WW2 while supplying others prosecuting those wars, so perhaps history is repeating itself.
Greg Beck is a retired US Army Officer, Aviator, and Command and General Staff College instructor, living in Leavenworth, Kansas but working as a contractor helping train the US Army’s next generation of warfighters.
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