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History is too important to be left to the history professors, Part 2


Completely non-gay historian Niall Ferguson, a man who we can be sure would never be caught at a ballet or a poetry reading, informs us that the British decision to enter the first world war on the side of France and Belgium was “the biggest error in modern history.”

Ummm, here are a few bigger errors:

The German decision to invade Russia in 1941.

The Japanese decision to attack America in 1941.

Oh yeah, the German decision to invade Belgium in 1914.

The Russian decision to invade Afghanistan in 1981 doesn’t look like such a great decision either.

And it wasn’t so smart for Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait, but maybe the countries involved were too small for this to count as “the biggest error in modern history.”

It’s striking that, in considering the biggest error in modern history, Ferguson omits all these notorious acts of aggression (bombing Pearl Harbor, leading to the destruction of much of your country, that was pretty bad, huh?), and decides that the worst, the absolute worst, was Britain’s defensive an act of defense. Ferguson appears to agree with the Kaiser that starting a war is no big whoop, but defending your country or your allies is a crime.

The London Independent, in reporting this, characterizes Ferguson as “a most surprising peacenik,” but I don’t think it’s peaceable at all to Britain’s move to aid an attacked ally as a bigger error than Germany invading Russia or Japan attacking the U.S. Rather, Ferguson just seems to be on the side of offense. It’s almost like he opposes British involvement in World War 1 because it ruins the pretty story by which Germany’s invasion of Belgium was a smart move, rather than a ruinous mistake that plunged a continent into war. Ugh. I wish he’d just go back to taunting dead economists.

P.S. Thoughtful reflections from Dave Brockington here. Also 99 comments. Hey—there seem to be blogs out there that get more readers than Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science! Who’d a thunk it?


  1. Ken Carson says:

    There’s a difference between an error and a losing bet. It’s not an error to bet on the Seahawks for Sunday’s game if you like the spread, and it does not become an error if the Broncos win. It would be an error to bet on the winning team at miscalculated odds, and I think this is Ferguson’s assessment of the UK’s decision-making in 1914. I’m sure Ferguson is wrong about a lot of things, and he may be wrong about this, but you have not yet made the argument. I did slog my way through all 550 pages of “The Pity of War,” and he does make a pretty compelling case for bumbling miscalculation. I don’t think the same could be said of Pearl Harbor, where Japan knew exactly what they were doing.

    • Andrew says:


      I definitely haven’t made the argument; I’m just expressing my opinion. It seems evident to me that Germany’s decision to invade Belgium, which led to their loss in one or two world wars (depending on how you’re counting) along with many millions dead, was a bigger error than Britain’s decision to defend France and Belgium, which sure led to some bad consequences but not so much for Britain itself. Ferguson is bummed that Britain lost its empire, but I have a feeling that was going to happen anyway, and, in any case, I don’t really care if Queen Elizabeth is also Empress of India or whatever.

      I think that, by giving your gambling analogy, you’re expressing a bit of a bias toward offensive military action, the same sort of bias that Ferguson is showing. When a country starts a war or massively escalates it (as Germany did by invading Belgium, and Japan did by attacking the United States), that counts as a gamble, perhaps a savvy move that didn’t work out. But when a country makes a defensive move or comes to the aid of an ally, there’s no benefit of the doubt. Why is that? If it’s ok to say that Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was a gamble that didn’t happen to work out (and, really, if they really “knew exactly what they were doing” when they attacked the U.S., then yes it really was a major blunder; after all, Japan was already having difficulty fighting China and Russia at the time), then why can’t Britain’s decision to send troops in 1914 get that same credit? I think it’s a bias in favor of the offensive. And, as a citizen of a country that has a big army, I’m a bit scared of this bias!

      • Corey says:

        “I think that, by giving your gambling analogy, you’re expressing a bit of a bias toward offensive military action, the same sort of bias that Ferguson is showing.”

        I disagree. Ken Carson is just pointing out that you’re appealing to consequences to give grounds for your opinion. Under the assumption that the only value of a lottery ticket is monetary, it is always a bad decision to buy a negative expected-value lottery ticket, and this remains true even for the person who decided to buy what turned out to be (but what they could never have known was) the winning ticket; and the reverse is also true.

        I think the notion of “bias toward offensive military action” mixes values (which are independent of decision-making criteria) and optimal decision-making procedures (which are independent of values in the sense that they take values as an input, and so give the same “recipe” for decision-making no matter what values are given). I wish we all agreed that killing hundreds of thousands of people is bad even if those people are “enemy” combatants or civilians, but I don’t know how to argue for my version of morality to someone who doesn’t already hold it.

        • Andrew says:


          I understand the concept of prospective utility and I don’t say that offensive military action is always a bad idea. But in this particular case I do think Ferguson is blinded by his bias. Consider the two decisions: Britain’s decision to send troops to Europe, and, before that (indeed, immediately precipitating that), Germany’s decision to invade Belgium and France. Even prospectively, Germany’s decision looks worse to me. First off, they’re escalating a general war, which is typically a negative-sum outcome. Second, they’re doing it in alliance with Austria-Hungary. Not such a great move, even prospectively. And they’re bringing the French and, quite possible, the British armed forces in on the other side. In contrast, Britain has the much stronger allies of France and Russia, also they’re not escalating. Again, considering prospectively, the British intervention has a good chance of stopping the war early.

          And then look at the endgame. Britain got an outcome—losing its colonies—that Ferguson still thinks, a century later, was so horrible. In contrast, Germany got it a lot worse. And this was true prospectively, too. The only way the German move in 1914 looks savvy is if you assume an 1870-style outcome. That’s just pure optimism, it’s not serious prospective decision making at all.

          Comparing to the German invasion of Russia and the Japanese attack on the U.S., the case seems even clearer. In either case, you’re escalating a war and bringing in one of the world’s most powerful countries on the other side. Not a smart move. Even prospectively. Even if Germany and Japan were going to lose the war anyway, I think they would’ve got a lot less destroyed if they hadn’t brought Russia and the U.S. in as enemies. So, if you work out the decision tree, each of those attacks are reducing the probability of a win, and they’re reducing the expected utility of a win. In contrast, Britain’s move in 1914 is questionable, I agree (after all, both Niall Ferguson and Bertrand Russell opposed it), but not nearly so clear-cut, and it does not seem to be at all serious to consider it as “the biggest error in modern history.” Prospectively or retrospectively.

          • Ken Carson says:

            I readily concede that Austria-Hungary and Germany also miscalculated. I don’t see how that weighs one way or the other on the question of whether the UK also miscalculated. As for my biases, they’re pretty strongly strongly anti-war, and anti-Ferguson. I was merely looking for a simple way to make the point that Corey stated more clearly.

            Anyway, thanks for the discussion.

          • Corey says:

            I understand the concept of prospective utility

            Oh, I know you do; it’s just that other readers might not, and if all I wrote was, “I disagree. Ken Carson is just pointing out that you’re appealing to consequences to give grounds for your opinion,” then it might not be intuitively obvious why appealing to consequences is not the right way to go about it.

        • Andrew says:


          Let me elaborate further. I do see the relevance of the distinction you gave, between moral reasoning and decision theory (realpolitik, as it were).

          My arguments in the comment above (and in my original post) were based on realpolitik. But it is because I have a moral belief against war except when absolutely necessary. You point out that not everyone holds that view of morality, but I think it’s pretty clear that most people do. I submit as evidence that, when war is justified, it tends to be justified not because it is good in itself but because it is the only possible option. (That’s pretty much Christopher Clark’s justification for Germany’s invasion of Belgium, for example.)

          Along these lines, although my argument was in utilitarian form (from the perspective of the countries involved), and I think that Ferguson’s statement is completely silly from a purely decision-theoretic perspective, the reason why his statement bothered me involved values. He wasn’t just making a misinformed argument along the lines of, “going for it on 4th down is always a bad idea,” he was making a particular misinformed (or mischievous) argument that served to promote the idea that a defensive military action was a worse decision than various offensive, escalating military actions. And that does bother me. Ferguson is an influential public intellectual (maybe more so than the now-famous Melissa Harris-Perry!), and I would not want his provocative stances translated into policy.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Britain very much had the option of sitting out WWI or entering triumphantly late like the USA.

        The great powers of the Continent, in contrast, tended to believe they would be invaded if they didn’t invade first. Thus, German wanted to take Russia down a notch, but feared being invaded by Russia’s ally France if it occupied itself in the east, so once it started considering war with Russia, it needed to defeat France first before Russia could get organized.

        Anyway, from the perspective of 2014, we pretty much ended up with the world that British neutrality in 1914 would have created: the Anglosphere is on top gobally and Germany is on top on the Continent. Too bad about Communism, Fascism, and Naziism in the interim, but they are all gone by now.

        • Dave W. says:

          ” Thus, German wanted to take Russia down a notch, but feared being invaded by Russia’s ally France if it occupied itself in the east,” … true, but:
          “so once it started considering war with Russia, it needed to defeat France first before Russia could get organized.” … no. They *thought* they needed to defeat France first before Russia could get organized. They were wrong. Had they thought ahead better, they could have not invaded Belgium and stood on the defensive against France, while taking out Russia.

          We know (in hindsight) that this strategy was viable, since the latter two parts is basically what they wound up doing in the actual war, once their original plan failed. Had Germany done this, they would likely have delayed the entry of Britain into the war for some time (since the invasion of Belgium was the proximate cause of Britain’s entry) and so delayed the establishment of the blockade that ultimately strangled the German economy. They probably would have defeated Russia more quickly by putting a bigger effort in the East initially, though there is an argument that Tannenburg might not have happened if the Russians hadn’t been so overconfident in their superiority. This seems like a better outcome for Germany all around than the historical path.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            “Had they thought ahead better, they could have not invaded Belgium and stood on the defensive against France, while taking out Russia.”


            Not understanding the lessons of the trench warfare of the last year of the American Civil War was a massive mistake everybody made in 1914.

            Further, the Germans could have seriously tried before 1914 to make a deal with France, offering back Lorraine and maybe even Alsace to break up the weird alliance between the French Republic and the Czarist autocracy.

            From the standpoint of 2014, the wisdom of hindsight suggests that a secure, prosperous, not illiberal Germany not facing a two front threat would have been able to arrange matters in central Europe to its satisfaction with only modest fighting.

            The world might have more quickly and peaceably become more like it is today, with a Germany dominant on the continent (but having to maintain its friendship with France as a precondition) and Anglo-America power and culture dominant elsewhere.

            The key to a better 20th Century would have been a German peace initiative to France to heal the wounds of 1870.

            • Steve Sailer says:

              A secure Germany that was friends with France could have eventually helped liquidate the obsolete Austro-Hungarian empire, incorporating Austria and other German-speaking regions into Germany. Germany would have become powerful that it could have sponsored new small independent Slavic nations as part of its economic sphere, much as in 2014 Germany and its Anglo-American allies are trying to detach Ukraine from Russia’s sphere of influence.

              Instead, Germany chose the Schlieffen plan.

            • Steve Sailer says:

              Back when Paul Johnson was on the left, he wrote an amazing 1972 history of the English people (called in the American edition “The Offshore Islanders”) in which be called Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey the worst villain in English history for dragging England into massive foreign entanglements on the Continent. For many hundreds of years, Johnson argued, the English had been free of responsibilities to Continental masters, slipping away from the Pope in the 1530s, allowing the English to descend upon the Continent intermittently for their own balance of power or piratical purposes, but never getting tied into catastrophic Continental obligations.

      • stringph says:

        The argument that German entry in 1914 was a bigger error is a fallacy unless invading Belgium (and of course France) *necessarily* caused all the subsequent negative results. You are assuming there was no sequence of events – or plausible course of action for Germany – after starting that war that would not lead to an eventual heavy defeat and punitive Versailles-style peace terms.

        Well, one course of action is for Germany to have pursued peace negotiations more seriously in late 1916, they would have had a much stronger hand at that time than any subsequent one, and the medium-term result would almost certainly have been enormously better (for Germany). Invading Belgium was not in itself a catastrophic error, it only became so in combination with the refusal to accept anything except ‘total victory’.

        The other part of Ferguson’s reasoning which may be passing people by is that Germany had less to lose than Britain and more to gain by entering a war. Again, you can disagree on the accounting but it isn’t self-evidently false.

        • Andrew says:


          No, I’m speaking probabilistically. I’m saying that, in my assessment, holding a defensive strategy against a (possible) French invasion would’ve had a higher expected benefit (balancing possible losses and gains) than an invasion which had a high probability (and, in fact, did) bring Britain into the war against them too, also had a high probability (and, in fact, did) end up with total surrender.

    • Anonymous says:

      Japan clearly knew exactly what they were doing? seriously? I would have put it up there as one of the biggest bumbling miscalculations around, right up there with Xerxes going all six-million on the Greeks. From the attack onwards, Japan clearly had zero chance of winning that war (as Yamamoto himself clearly indicated), only delusions of some of the high command to sustain them.

      • Andrew says:

        Yup, if you’re already in a war with Russia and China, maybe it’s not so smart to pick a fight with the United States, too.

        • Shaun says:

          Hi Andrew,

          Just a small nitpick. The Japanese and Soviets signed a non-aggression pact in April 1941, providing the Japanese with a little more freedom to start a war with the US. Agree they were fairly well bogged down in China, though, and made a very big gamble starting a war with the much larger United States.

      • Lex says:

        Specifically, Japan was gambling that a successful surprise attack against Pearl Harbor (and other U.S. sites in the Pacific, such as Wake Island and the Philippines) would so dishearten America that it would sue for peace rather than fight an aggressive war from spot to spot all the way across the vast Pacific. And, had the Pearl Harbor strike caught the carriers in the harbor as it was intended to have done, perhaps that would indeed have been the case.

        But I’m pretty sure not.

        So far unmentioned, but also a factor and perhaps even an unforced error, was that Germany used the occasion of Pearl Harbor to declare war on the U.S. Had it not done so, the U.S. might have been able to concentrate all its resources on the Pacific and end the war there somewhat sooner. But I think U-boat warfare eventually would have brought the U.S. into the European conflict anyway.

        What’s a little annoying to me is that neither Ferguson nor anyone else appears to have defined “biggest error in modern history” in objective, quantifiable terms.

  2. Entsophy says:

    From the point of view of someone in the Anglosphere, the one point at which an English speaking nation had a realistic chance to radically changing the bloodbath of the 20th century, saving possibly 50m+ lives, was when Britain joined WWI.

    • Andrew says:

      I haven’t seen the full quote. It’s possible that Ferguson was restricting his “biggest error in modern history” claim to English-speaking countries, so that Pearl Harbor wouldn’t count.

      • Andreas Baumann says:

        Ferguson’s point was that Britain would have kept her empire and the world would have avoided the Second World War, if she hadn’t intervened.

        But – I think – Ferguson is also much more committed to the traditional historical view of states as bidding for supremacy in judging what actions should or should not have been taken. It’s not a bad idea per se to invade a neutral country, it just happened to be a bad idea with regards to Belgium because the Brits intervened.

        • Andrew says:


          First off, I think that empire was going in any case. Second, it still seems to me that the escalation on the German side was more of an error, in part because that escalation created the conditions for the British intervention (i.e., by doing it, the Germans had to take into account the high probability that the Brits would get involved) and in part because the results of the wars were so much more catastrophic for the Germans. From pure considerations of national interest, what happened to Germany (or Japan) in the wars was so much worse than what happened to Britain. Britain lost some colonies that I doubt would’ve stayed around anyway. Germany and Japan got destroyed.

          I continue to think that what Ferguson is doing is not realpolitik but instead is a systematic bias toward the offensive, which might have made sense in 1870 but didn’t make so much sense in 1914 or 1941 or, I suspect, now.

  3. Rolf says:

    There wouldn’t have been a Soviet Union and no Nazi Germany, if the Empire had stayed out of that war.
    Hm…some stuff for the “alternative history” science fiction writers…

    • Jon says:

      Well, sure. But that goes for every state’s decision-making from July to August 1914. To put the burden on the British as having made the worst decision when clearly the other parties in the run-up to WWI had at least as much responsibility and misjudged reality just as badly is a form of special pleading.

  4. D.O. says:

    From reading Ferguson I’ve got the impression that he speaks only about British history. Also, I didn’t read him as saying that Britain shouldn’t have fought Germany, only that it was not ready for the war and should have militarized first.

    I am pretty sure that most Germans (including right wing historians) think that Germany shouldn’t have started 2 world wars because it was both morally abhorrent and disastrous. And any Russian who has even a modicum of common sense should think that Balkans were not worth tragedy that happened because of war, revolution, civil war, and Communism.

  5. jonathan says:

    I think you made your point best in the reply to Ken: Ferguson draws a line or establishes a starting point for “error” that excludes the actual primary cause of the catastrophe, which is that Germany chose to start the war.

    I hear similar perverse arguments about WWII in the Pacific: the US should have let Japan invade SE Asia, etc. and grab whatever resources it needed, including oil, to run its (hideous) empire … so it’s the US’ fault that we clamped down and helped goad the Japanese into attacking us. This argument turns causation on its head and is racist in its framing of the Japanese as puppets being somehow pulled into war by US string pulling. They chose to invade Manchuria years earlier. They were the aggressors. They have the capacity to make decisions.

    Also in Ferguson’s comments are the need to blame. His writing can be interesting and one of his tools is to look at a subject and flip it around. In that sense, blaming Britain for responding to German aggression is an example of his general method. There is some value in this: was the decision “worth it”? I have no problem with a discussion about whether a short WWI with much less bloodshed would have been better, especially considering what happened after. But blame and characterization is inappropriate.

    I struggle with this issue in a number of arenas. The best I’ve ever done with it is to see this kind of thinking as an example of the Jesus saying “turn the other cheek”, a comment Christianity has interpreted in many ways over the centuries. (As I see it, btw, when you strip the comment from its Jewish tradition, you miss the reference to essential Torah stories like Lamech, who killed a young man merely for touching him – meaning way out of scale with the “wrong” – and then the “eye for an eye” concept that doesn’t mandate vengeance but instead limits it to the extent of the harm done. The question in Jewish terms would be “do you really need vengeance?”, which is an extension of the way Joseph left punishment of his brothers to God rather than act himself.) Anyway, there seems to be a bias towards blaming the responder because, after all, he could have turned his cheek. This turns the Jesus saying on its head in a subtle way: you should be praised for turning the other cheek, but that doesn’t mean you should be condemned because you did not. Again, rip it out of Jewish context and …

    In more general terms, I think of this as the tendency, even a need to reduce complex motivations and actions to the movement of puppets, to a dumb show of correlation and causation. Life as Punch and Judy. Punch hits Judy. Judy hits back … that’s the big mistake because then Punch pummels her. Thing is Judy can’t run because the puppet stage is artificially limited. And Britain couldn’t run in 1914 – or America in 1941 – because the stage is always limited. And you can be praised for restraint but you should not be condemned for action.

    • stringph says:

      ‘Actual primary cause of the catastrophe’? Well, why not Austria-Hungary who chose to declare war in July 1914. Why not Serbia who chose to set up an assassination of the Austrian succession – arguably the most successful act of terrorism in history. Who is ‘responding’ to what?

      And where do you read ‘need to blame’ in Ferguson’s case? If you read all his comments as reported, he doesn’t blame Britain for the catastrophic development of the war as a whole; he says clearly that the error was not a sin or a crime but an error, a miscalculation in identifying Britain’s self-interest. He may be right or wrong on that but it is not a moralizing apportionment of guilt, it’s a cost-benefit analysis.

  6. Barry says:

    Dave Brockington over at Lawyers, Guns and Money demolishes Ferguson quite nicely (

    Short form:

    1) Germany would have won, and won much faster with fewer losses if the UK hadn’t intervened.
    2) The UK was already strained keeping up with Germany. If Germany had access to more resources, and either the French fleet or neutralization thereof, the situation would be worse. [my comment - the UK:European trade situation would be worse for the UK]
    3) British success in the Napoleonic Wars came from European land-based allies; there’d have been very few in a Europe where German had won (a quicker and cheaper) WWI. [my comment – it’d have come down to Italy).
    4) Germany would have had much better access to the Med, stretching the Royal Navy quite a bit.

    • stringph says:

      5) … no German revolution, no Weimar republic and no Third Reich.

      Yeah, I know that’s not part of Ferguson’s argument, but someone might care one way or the other about those aspects.

  7. Barry says:

    Or, to put it in Bayesian terms, Ferguson is wrong until proven right :)

  8. Ezra says:

    About Japan going to war against the US, it’s easy call that a mistake, and it surely was, but in terms of the choices facing Japanese leaders in 1941, I find it hard to imagine them (or anyone) acting any other way. After the US/British/Dutch embargo in the summer of 1940, Japan faced a status quo which it couldn’t possibly endure permanently and there were only two ways out: 1) seize the resources that the “ABCD” powers were denying them–in the end, an embargo always rests more on military strength than on economic strength, and to deny Japan necessary resources is to assume Japan didn’t have the military strength to simply come forward and take those resources by force; any embargo which might fulfill its purpose is essentially a dare to war, or, 2), to withdraw from China, from the conquests they’d fought four years to gain, to admit defeat in a war that, until then, they’d been winning, and to accept second-class power status. I don’t believe very many national leaders in world history could have made the latter decision, and definitely not the people making decisions for Japan in that year. Their actions came out of their past experiences, and in order for their actions to differ, their past experiences and social environments must also have differed.

    • Manoel Galdino says:

      I agree with Ezra. They had no other option then to attack US by surprise. Waiting would only make things more difficult. And one more thing. I’m pretty sure Andrew has a name for the “in hindsight, everything is obvious” fallacy. I think we’re making this fallacy here. Ex-ante the world is full of possibilities and making judgment on historical calls is hard because of that.

        • Phil says:

          You guys can point to Andrew and claim he’s exhibiting hindsight bias, and he can point to you and say you’ve fallen into historical determinism.

          The idea that Japan “had no other option than to attack US by surprise”, that’s a pretty extreme statement. It’s one thing to say that Japan’s decision was understandable given the circumstances at the time, but to say it was _inevitable_ given the circumstances at the time, that seems very strange to me. We have options now, and we expect to have options in the future. It seems strange to say that people didn’t have options in the past.

      • Andrew says:


        No, they had another option. They could’ve stopped invading China etc. Sounds like a silly idea, but it would’ve avoided millions of deaths of Japanese and Chinese alike. Even prospectively, that would’ve been a good call. And, again speaking prospectively, starting a war with the U.S. when you’re already at war with Russia and China, that’s bad news.

  9. Ken Houghton says:

    Hey. Let’s have some love for the U.S., already at war with Afghanistan, deciding to start a war with Iraq!

    Shifting from a one-front to a two-front battle force (see Germany/Russia and Japan/US in 1941) is always a bad idea, even if you have superiority over either side. Or, to be nice about it, a “negative-sum outcome.”

  10. numeric says:

    Andrew state

    The only way the German move in 1914 looks savvy is if you assume an 1870-style outcome. That’s just pure optimism, it’s not serious prospective decision making at all.

    I disagree. The von Schlieffen plan had a reasonable chance of success (particularly since Schlieffen could count on a French frontal attack across the common border, allowing the enveloping movement through Belgium to take place unopposed). The failure was to plan for the failure of the maneuver (it would have helped if Ludendorff hadn’t been removed from the General Staff in 1911 and had been there to provide some spine to Moltke). An appeal for a peace based on status quo ante would have been very difficult to refuse by the Entente in 1915.

    The expected utility calculation is easy: Outcome 1–victory in France and domination of the European continent. Huge utility. Outcome 2–failure of the von Schlieffen plan but occupying northern France, followed by a negotiated peace. Moderate disutility. Outcome 3–Entente refusal to entertain a peace status quo ante–under those conditions America refuses to enter the war and we are left with a stalemate (unlikely either side could defeat the other–Operation Michael had basically failed without (until the end) American troops being engaged and France and Britain were exhausted and needed American troops for the final 100 day advance). Worse disutility than outcome 2, and maybe equivalent in magnitude to outcome 1. I would put the odds of outcome 1 at 40%, outcome 2 at 55%, and outcome 3 at 5%. Note, in any case, Germany is not defeated and the Kaiser remains on his throne (which, in the final analysis, is whose utility is being maximized).

    Also, Andrew states:

    “If it’s ok to say that Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was a gamble that didn’t happen to work out (and, really, if they really “knew exactly what they were doing” when they attacked the U.S., then yes it really was a major blunder; after all, Japan was already having difficulty fighting China and Russia at the time)”

    Japan and Russia were not at war at the time of Pearl Harbor–in fact, they had signed a non-aggression pact pledging neutrality (even though Germany, in the late fall of 1941, with Operation Barbarossa lagging, was urging an attack on Vladivostock). While non-aggression pacts at this time were of course suspect, Richard Sorge, a Soviet spy in Tokyo, was keeping the Soviets informed of the Japanese intentions (of not attacking the Soviet Union) and this allowed Stalin to transfer numerous divisions to European Russia where they were instrumental in winning the battle of Moscow for the Soviets.
    The Soviets did not attack Japan until after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (their involvement in the Pacific war had been agreed upon at Potsdam).

    • Barry says:

      Adding on to this is the fact that Germany had been doing (railroad) blitzkriegs repeatedly in the past 50 years, and had been very successful. We don’t see it due to the old technology and the overshadowing effect of WWII, but in 1914 Germany was also master of lightning war.

      It just didn’t work out this time, and the likely difference was the British forces prevented German forces from pulling a basically unopposed flanking movement.

      • numeric says:

        You’re absolutely right about the importance of British forces on the left-wing, opposing the German right-wing. Originally seen as an ancillary force, the BEF ended up holding a vital place in the line and helped the French avoid encirclement. This is the answer to Ferguson–the contingency of war made Britain’s contribution invaluable. The choice was truly between a German-dominated Europe or British intervention. Ferguson’s a nut case for preferring a world without British intervention to one with such.

        As far as lightening war, while I agree that Germany was the best military power in the world, there were substantial differences between WWI and WWII. Ludendorff in his memoirs states that the German Army never really engineered an encirclement, and von Manstein notes in Lost Victories that the rule of thumb in WWI was that an army could not operate more than 95 miles from the last railhead (and Manstein marched 200 miles in the opening 4 days of Barbarossa to capture the Divina bridges–marched is a bad word-the tank corps supported by motorized transport captured the bridges). So there were large qualitative differences between the two wars. Still, the advance of the German right-wing through Belgium and Northern France was certainly the most impressive military operation the world had seen to that date, and it was a masterpiece of mobile warfare. While I’m grateful the Germans failed, I suspect the outcome would have been much different had von Schlieffan been alive and in control of the German General Staff.

    • Andrew says:


      Regarding 1914, I think your utility calculation is not quite right because it assigns zero probability to the outcome that actually happened! And also zero probability to plausible and even more extreme outcomes (for example, the Kaiser being hanged at the end of the war, or Germany becoming a soviet republic, etc.)

      Regarding 1941, I take your point. Indeed, the Japanese withdrew from conflict with the Russians after being defeated by them in 1939. That said, I still thank that if you’re having difficulty in a war with China, it doesn’t make sense to pick a fight with the U.S. At some point you gotta know when to fold ‘em.

      • numeric says:

        I was responding to your comment:

        The only way the German move in 1914 looks savvy is if you assume an 1870-style outcome. That’s just pure optimism, it’s not serious prospective decision making at all.

        I disagree with the statement “the only way…looks savvy” is through a complete victory (as in 1870). My point is that it could have been “savvy” (in terms of expected utility calculations) even without another Sedan. My larger point is that Germany should have considered beforehand what would happen if the von Sclieffen plan failed. I make no claims to the originality of this argument, btw. It is made in “The German High Command at War: Hindenburg and Ludendorff Conduct World War I”–a wonderful book.

        There is a larger lesson in the German General Staff to game out all scenarios, though. It happened multiple times in post-war American military history: MacArthur’s refusal to consider the possibility of Chinese intervention in Korea (the Chiefs of Staff kept sending him missives that boil down to “are you sure?”–he was and was wrong), Vietnamese escalation (read the Pentagon Papers), disbanding the Iraqui army after the invasion (thereby putting 400,000 armed and trained individuals on the street where a good proportion proceeded to engage in insurrection). It’s also happening in American politics (budget shutdown/default threats). The human ability to believe what one wants to believe is consistently underestimated as a factor in decision-making.

        As for Japan, obviously they should have just seized the the East Indies without attacking the US (they needed the oil since the US had embargoed them). This would have lead to war with the US but it would have been similar to the Spanish-American War, with a negotiated settlement (we didn’t attack Spain, for example, in that war). Even had the Japanese had taken out the entire US fleet, our industrial capacity was so much higher that they we could have replaced it relatively quickly (Yamamoto realized this and had told the government that he could ensure victories for six months to a year but after that the Americans would likely dominate). It is interesting that Chinese plans for Air-Sea battle appear to recapitulate the Japanese strategy (a quick attack with a settlement, realizing that in a long war the US would dominate).

  11. Barry says:

    Also (on Lawyers, Guns and Money), there was a big change in 1913 which Germany probably wasn’t aware of. The RN changed their strategy from a close-in blockade to a distant blockade. The prior German plan was to deal with a close-in blockade, using minefield, destroyers, torpedo boats and submarines to harass the RN, with occasional short dashes by German main fleet forces when opportune.

  12. chuck says:

    Andrew wrote:
    No, they had another option. They could’ve stopped invading China etc. Sounds like a silly idea, but it would’ve avoided millions of deaths of Japanese and Chinese alike.

    In terms of outcomes, if Japan had backed down rather than invading the military leadership would have been embarrassed. Instead, the military leadership was shown to be unable to win war they created—an occasion of substantial embarrassment to many military leaders. And, Japan lost millions of lives and billions of dollars of treasure.

    The structure of Japanese decision making was horribly screwed up. And, it generated some really bad decisions.

  13. Steve Sailer says:

    Sir Edward Grey secretly committed Britain to the French-Russian alliance, but didn’t mention that fact to the Germans, who were surprised by British intransigence, so the alliance lost its deterrent effect to keep the peace. This is parodied in Dr. Strangelove:

    Dr. Strangelove: Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you *keep* it a *secret*! Why didn’t you tell the world, EH?

    Ambassador de Sadesky: It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.

    • numeric says:

      I should point out that the German General Staff counted on British intervention and made a relatively accurate forecast of when the forces would arrive and their relative strength. This was not difficult, given that the size of the British Army was well known (6 divisions were in France for the climactic battle on the Marne, about what the Germans had estimated). Since the Germans thought they would knock France out of the war in 6 weeks, there was no concern of the large British Army that would eventually face them (800,000 on the Western Front alone). The point is that there was no possible deterrent effect from announcing support for France and Russia, at least for the German General Staff (and they pretty much ran things in Germany). So the Strangeglovian analogy is not really accurate (incidentally, before WWII broke out, Britain did exactly what it didn’t do before WWI–give a guarantee of going to war in case of a German attack on Poland–that didn’t stop Germany either).

  14. Alex1 says:

    Andrew wrote:
    “No, they had another option. They could’ve stopped invading China etc. Sounds like a silly idea, but it would’ve avoided millions of deaths of Japanese and Chinese alike.”

    I’m sorry, but these kind of comments really undermine the point of not leaving history to the historians (and you know, Nial Ferguson isn’t the most representative of those given that his methods are non-standard at best).
    No one who reads a history on Stalin expects a detailed discussion, or even a consideration of the possibility, of Stalin turning the USSR in a participatory democracy with freedom of speech and full constitutional protection. Of course this would have been mora

    • Alex1 says:

      *Of course this would have been better from both a moral and utilitarian standpoint, but proposing that Stalin would have done that isnt just assuming hindsight, its assuming that Stalin wasn’t Stalin, and the CP wasnt the Cp and the USSR wasnt the USSR. It basically violates the anthropic principle.

      Equally the idea for Japan to back down from the war is a nice proposal, but it again assumes that Imperial Japan wasn’t Imperial Japan. Its not the goal of the historian to consider such possibilities and so he doesnt (and its kind of important for his sanity, because at every point in time every single actor literally had infinetely many options at their disposal, so evaluating every single one of them would be an excercise in futility)

    • Andrew says:


      I don’t think your examples are parallel. For Stalin to have allowed participatory democracy, sure, that would’ve been against all of his principles, and he personally wouldn’t have gained anything out of it. But the Japanese military leaders were in a war, and a disastrous loss (which is what happened, and could’ve been anticipated, once they were fighting China and the U.S. at the same time) wasn’t good for them either. To put it another way, Japan didn’t attack the U.S. in 1931, they didn’t attack the U.S. in 1932, they didn’t attack the U.S. in 1933, etc. So, sure, not attacking the U.S. in 1941 was an option too. It seems to me to be unreasonably deterministic to suggest otherwise. “Not attacking the U.S.” is something that was completely in their experience. Not like the Stalin-democracy analogy.

      • Erik says:

        Sure, but in 1931, 32, 33 and so on the US did not try to use an Embargo against the Japanese to get them to back down from their existing military conflicts. Caving in was certainly as unthinkable to the military leadership as democracy for Stalin.

        • Andrew says:


          Caving for the Japanese would be a means to an end, with the end being avoiding complete and utter defeat, humiliation, and destruction. If caving was truly unthinkable to them in this situation, this represents a failure in their decision making process and does not at all contradict my claim that their attack on the U.S. was one of the biggest errors in modern history.

          In contrast, there was no point at which Stalin would clearly have had anything to gain by instituting democracy. So I don’t see the analogy as working here.

      • Alex1 says:

        “But the Japanese military leaders were in a war, and a disastrous loss (which is what happened, and could’ve been anticipated, once they were fighting China and the U.S. at the same time) wasn’t good for them either. To put it another way, Japan didn’t attack the U.S. in 1931, they didn’t attack the U.S. in 1932, they didn’t attack the U.S. in 1933, etc. So, sure, not attacking the U.S. in 1941 was an option too.”

        Yes, but what I’m trying to say is that *historically* it is only really considered an option if the actors considered it a serious option. Otherwise I can create an infinite set (no idea if it would be countable) of possible options that Japan had at this point in time and could have possibly considered. Moreover I could create such an infinite set for every single major event in history and I can thus frame every single political decision in man’s history as an error and I can find a flaw in every person’s decision making process since the dawn of human civilization – because there always conceivably was an option that was superior for all actors concerned somewhere in that set. Its true, but its true in a somewhat trivial way and really not interesting to historians.
        (And note that I’m implicitly agreeing with you on Ferguson here)

        And just a point on that:
        ““Not attacking the U.S.” is something that was completely in their experience. “
        I am not sure I understand the meaning of this. Not doing something is *always* in your experience *before* you do it, but that doesn’t imply anything about what you consider doing when circumstances change.

  15. Ken Carson says:

    This whole discussion reminds me of a (probably fictional) story one of my math teachers told about one of his math teachers:

    Guy writes a lemma on the board, and says, “This is obvious.”
    Student raises his hand, and asks, “Are you sure that’s obvious?”
    Prof goes away for two hours, muttering, jotting down proof attempts, then comes back and says, “Yup, it’s obvious.”

    My point: if we’re having this much fun discussion Ferguson’s remark, he may be wrong, but it’s not obvious that he’s wrong.

    • Barry says:

      Ken, that doesn’t follow.

      • Barry says:

        Somebody coined the phrase ‘fractal error’ when ripping apart a bad piece of work. What this meant was that the thesis was wrong, the parts were wrong, the paragraphs within the parts were wrong, the sentences within the paragraphs were wrong, and many clauses within sentences were wrong.

        Ferguson is like that – his thesis will be full of sh*t; his evidence will be wrong and used badly, and he’ll be quite dishonest throughout the whole piece. He’s like a chew toy; one can spend hours working on his stuff.

        • Andrew says:


          Yes, but, annoyingly enough, Ferguson clearly is a smart guy, when he chooses to be. I liked his Virtual History book a lot. I just think that his current utility function is all about being a celebrity, an advisor to the powerful, and someone who gives expensive talks to rich guys. (Search this blog for Ferguson to see more on these issues.) You don’t maximize this particular utility function by being scholarly.

          Christopher Clark, I know nothing about, but I assume he is within an academic environment where there are revisionists and counter-revisionists and counter-counter-revisionists etc., and that he makes strong statements in the context of these struggles within the field of academic history.

          • Barry says:

            ” Ferguson clearly is a smart guy, when he chooses to be.”

            If somebody is smart, and honest, then you should put weight on his opinions (and alleged factual statements). If they are smart and dishonest, you should not. I’ve notice that this distinction is one which is frequently lost in academia (see Larry H ‘Smartest Man in the World’ Summers for an excellent example).

            • Barry says:

              Andrew: “Yes, but, annoyingly enough, Ferguson clearly is a smart guy, when he chooses to be. “

              This is an example. By now, Ferguson has demonstrated quite clearly that he’s dishonest (examples on request). Smarts in this case is like smarts in a con man.

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