Why Did Belgium Resist in 1914?

Another entry in a series of blog posts about World War I, political science, and my textbook: The Politics of the First World War: A Course in Game Theory and International Security. You can read the previous entry here.

On 3 August 1914, Belgium refused the previous day’s “request” that Germany be allowed to pass through its territory on the way to a clash with France in the opening days of the First World War.

Germany’s note made the consequences of refusal pretty clear:

Should Belgium oppose the German troops, and in particular should she throw difficulties in the way of their march by a resistance of the fortresses on the Meuse, or by destroying railways, roads, tunnels, or other similar works, Germany will, to her regret, be compelled to consider Belgium as an enemy.

In this event, Germany can undertake no obligations towards Belgium, but the eventual adjustment of the relations between the two States must be left to the decision of arms.

Its request ultimatum denied, Germany duly invaded Belgium on 4 August, and King Albert’s troops mounted a gallant resistance, slowing down Moltke’s right hook as it tried swung around the main French force in an (ultimately vain) attempt to create a modern-day Cannae.

Yet the question of why Belgium resisted near-inevitable defeat rather than accept Germany’s terms, which included promises of restituted territory and financial compensation, looks puzzling after the fact.1 Why did Belgium send its modest army into the field only to suffer entirely predictable death, destruction, and dislocation, to be pushed back to Antwerp as the Germans did what they pleased? And why forfeit the chance that Germany would follow through on its ostensibly generous promises of restitution and compensation?

Reiter and Stam, defending a unilateral model of war onset, put it down to national honor: better to go down fighting than surrendering (p. 380).2 Vasquez, in his wide-ranging and fascinating book on the spread of the war, also nods to national honor but argues further that Belgium’s resistance is an “anomaly” for bargaining theories of war (pp. 111-114)—that is, for theories that view war as a wasteful alternative to negotiations that can (and often do) produce the same outcomes as war-ending negotiations.

It won’t surprise you that I disagree with the “anomaly” take. Here’s why.

The version of bargaining theory Vasquez addresses makes a couple of basic points. First, since war is costly, states have strong incentives to avoid it by striking deals that reflect the likely outcome of a war. Second, if (a) states don’t know what bargains others will accept in lieu of war or (b) bargains struck today will only get worse in the future, then states might knowingly fight costly wars. (For more, I recommend Phil Arena’s venerable breakdown of the seminal piece in this literature.)

Let’s take a look at Vasquez’s argument. He first notes that Germany’s ability to overwhelm Belgian defenses, including the forts at Liège, wasn’t much in doubt (pp. 111-114). And, in the absence of shifting power that would make that bargain obsolete in the future, we’d expect Belgium to cut a deal; why fight a costly war when the offer on the table reflects the likely outcome minus all the death and destruction? What’s more, Germany’s offer of restitution looked pretty generous; Belgium could hardly hope to achieve that much by fighting. So far, so good. Acceptance would be consistent with bargaining models of war…

…but only if Belgium believed that Germany would’ve honored those promises.

My issue with the anomaly claim is that it takes as credible the German prewar promise to evacuate Belgian territory and provide compensation after the war. But unlike the actors in the drama he recounts, Vasquez treats German talk credulously. He argues that Belgium should’ve expected Germany to honor its pledge, citing as evidence one of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s post-invasion Reichstag speeches (a) apologizing for the violation of international law and (b) reiterating restitution promises. Vasquez’s argument that Belgium should’ve accepted Germany’s terms rests on Germany’s 1914 description of its own war aims…precisely when it had incentives to lie about just how expansive its aims were.

Yet one of, if not the, most important parts of the story in August 1914 is that those on the receiving end of German promises about limited aims didn’t believe them. I argue in The Politics of the First World War that one of the animating strategic problems on the soon-to-be Western Front was the question of whether Germany was, as it claimed, fighting a defensive war or, as its actions indicated, using the opportunity of a general war to unhinge the balance of power (see Chapters 4-6 in particular).3 The problem for Britain and Belgium was that Germany would’ve made these same promises whether or not its aims were truly expansionist. Whether we might be able to say after the fact that Germany’s aims were limited (and I’m not sure we can, tbh), what we see with hindsight doesn’t necessarily offer clues about what the actors in our story were thinking in real time.

Incentives to lie create incentives to disbelieve. And Germany’s opponents did just that: they disbelieved.

Yet Vasquez asserts that Belgium should’ve believed Germany in 1914. And this argument that Germany wouldn’t “go back on its pledge” to restore Belgium hangs on a claim that power wasn’t shifting between Germany and Belgium (p. 112).

As noted above, this requires us to credit Germany’s words when Belgium, to say nothing of Britain and France, didn’t. The question for those watching (and fearing) the approaching German right hook was what Germany would do with a prostrate Belgium if given the chance. And protestations of defensive intent simply weren’t credible as German footfalls echoed through Liège, Namur, and Mons.

The claim that power wasn’t shifting between Germany and Belgium elides the fact that, once in control of some chunk of Belgian territory, Germany would’ve been in prime military position to refuse its return. Merely by holding Belgian territory, Germany’s power over Belgium would’ve increased substantially. “Friendly” language in ultimatums, as Vasquez has it, and ex post apologies (as Bethmann-Hollweg hoped to have it) aren’t evidence that the Belgians believed other than they did, i.e. that a Germany aiming to reorder great power politics wouldn’t have relinquished its gains. (You show me an apologetic speech in the Reichstag, I show you the Septemberprogramm.) If the Kaiser held Belgium, Belgians and French and Britons believed, he’d have every reason to hang onto it. And whether we can say that Britain, France, and Belgium were wrong over a century after the fact doesn’t matter if we want to explain Belgian resistance in 1914; it matters what Belgium and France and Britain believed in 1914.

And Belgian resistance responded to a clear commitment problem: whatever promises Germany made in early August would’ve come due after German troops occupied Belgium. Attractive those terms may have been, but credible they weren’t. Demanding tomorrow the withdrawal of a German army already sitting on Belgian territory looked like a fool’s errand today, making war (with eventual Entente support) more attractive, even with long odds in the short term.

Unilateral control of Belgium would’ve allowed France, Germany, or Britain to menace the others, and that that fact wasn’t lost on France, Germany, Britain, or Belgium.4 And as I argue in Chapter 6 of “The Politics of the First World War” and a forthcoming article at Security Studies, violations of 1839’s Treaty of London guaranteeing Belgian neutrality indicated to observers that the violator had aggressive ambitions—i.e., a desire to overturn the European balance of power—even in the face of likely balancing responses by the other powers.5

So, if we take into account

  1. the fact that occupying Belgian territory would’ve shifted power dramatically in Germany’s favor, making it very easy to refuse to leave; and
  2. the international-legal environment, which framed the German invasion of Belgium against the 1839 Treaty of London,

we can see that Belgian defiance in the face of Germany’s note isn’t an anomaly for bargaining theories of war. An account of why Belgium resisted follows directly from those theories. We just have to remember that Germany’s contemporaries were skeptical of its promises, whatever we might believe today about the credibility of those promises.

If Belgium resisted to preserve the national honor (and would any belligerent government have said otherwise?), it also had good reason to believe that resistance promised the best (if long) odds on preserving independence. Had Belgium welcomed German troops, it would’ve compromised its independence if Germany won the war; and it might’ve fare less well at the eventual peace conference had Germany’s enemies won the war. In the final accounting, a commitment problem explains both Belgium’s resistance and its skepticism of German promises.

Vasquez’s account, on the other hand, requires us to (a) ignore what observers in 1914 saw and believed about German aims and (b) deny that it’s easier to hold on to most of a country’s territory than it is to take it in the first place. I’m unprepared to do either. Plenty of offers, even ultimatums, can look attractive, but they’re only acceptable if commitments to follow through are believed to be credible. And when the pain of a future weakened bargaining position is greater than the costs of war today, states may take the plunge into costly war…just as Belgium did in 1914.

TL;DR Belgian resistance to Germany’s 1914 ultimatum isn’t an anomaly for bargaining theories of war. States sometimes have good reason to fight in the face of unfavorable odds if the peaceful alternative is near-certain disaster, and King Albert’s decision is a compelling case in point.


  1. To call back to an earlier post, hindsight is great for generating puzzles but often shit for solving them. ↩︎
  2. I don’t think they needed to make that argument, though. War occurs because the side that wants war chooses to over-demand, not because the victim views defending “one’s own land as an insubvertible good” (p. 380). Countries can still have wars when they want them; they’ve just got to demand (or try to take) more than the other side will yield. ↩︎
  3. And not just in Europe, but globally. This was a bid for world power, in the sense of competing with other global empires, as Fischer notes; but it was a bid to dominate the pre-World War I world of empires, not the one produced by World War I. ↩︎
  4. Belgium was a valuable buffer state, a source of bargaining power to whoever controlled it. ↩︎
  5. Here’s an older post on the topic from the first time I taught “World War I in Real Time.” ↩︎

Why a Textbook on World War I?

Over the next few months, I’ll be blogging about my just-released textbook, The Politics of the First World War, as well as what I learned about international relations by putting the course together, teaching it, and writing the textbook that collects its lectures. (You can find these posts by clicking on the #textbook tag.)

There’s a not-unpopular sense in which studying the First World War isn’t just passé but possibly even misleading, at least for those of us that like to make general statements about the workings of international politics. It’s been done to death, used to generate too many conjectures and theories. Nor can such an outrageous outlier be all that representative of everyday politics of (and conflicts in) the international system. All told, the Great War is an example of charismatic megafauna, the giant panda or the tiger all the kids want to see at the zoo but that doesn’t represent the rest of the animal kingdom all that well.

And yet I taught a course, then wrote a textbook, about The First World War. What was I thinking?1

It’s worth answering that question, because the outlier claim (which I think I saw William Spaniel make somewhere among the internets) and Cullen’s giant panda argument have legs if we’re trying to use the Great War as a jumping-off point for half-baked generalizations.

But that’s (thankfully) not what I’m doing here.

First, the textbook uses the war as a device to teach about international security and game theory in general. Science is very often about the identification of non-obvious commonalities between ostensibly different things (as opposed to, say, the exhaustive cataloging of fairly obvious differences). And the textbook turns the collected wisdom of modern theories of war and politics back on the First World War. It’s an example of many strategic tensions and fundamental political concepts, but it’s not even the only one. I also spend time on the Korean, Russo-Japanese, and Chinese Civil Wars, the politics of nuclear weapons (it’s my book, so I can turn on the time machine when I feel like it), etc. But the goal is to show that things that seem unique, like the July Crisis, which Christopher Clark rightly calls perhaps “the most complex [event] of modern times, perhaps of any time so far,” are really special cases of things far more general…things about which political science already has some good ideas.

Second, the book is ruthlessly committed to a “real time” approach to explanation, casting off inherited hindsight for a laser-like focus on the incentives and constraints and uncertainties that confronted the characters in our story as they faced them. Generals and officers settling into (and stuck in) strategies of attrition. Chancellors and Kaisers, Tsars and prime ministers, debating the merits of war and the credibility of bargains on the table. Neutrals weighing belligerence as the war crept ever closer to their territories. Coalition partners wrangling over burden-sharing and who would be dominant in the postwar negotiations. Titanic strategic gambles, like unrestricted submarine warfare and the Kaiserschlacht, that promised only victory or defeat. Victors redrawing the map of a damaged world, balancing the needs of their own recovery against the hope (vain, as it turned out) to prevent such a thing from happening again. They all look different, and radically so—often more sympathetic, sometimes less—once we shed a century’s worth of hindsight and efforts by the players after the fact to shape the narrative. Approaching and explaining the war this way was a wild ride, and I learned as much as (if not more than) my students in crafting the course, giving the lectures, solving the games, and writing the book.

So, to those who rightly worry that yet another case study of World War I might invade your IR classroom, rest easy. It’s about what we can learn about the First World War by using the collected wisdom and tools of modern theories of war, and it recognizes—explicitly and often pretty aggressively—this basic truth of social science:

Hindsight is excellent for generating puzzles, but it’s very often shit for solving them.

Sadly, no giant pandas here.2 But there are plenty of indulgent Star Wars footnotes, incisive Rambo references, a gloriously apt Eddie Vedder epigraph, and a bonus story about Stalin murdering his pet bird with a pipe. Enjoy.


  1. You mean apart from “the students will totally be into this at the centennial, and maybe I can trick them into doing math”? Sure. I can talk about that. ↩︎
  2. But give me birds any day. They’re dinosaurs! ↩︎

The Politics of the First World War in the Classroom

The Politics of the First World War in the Classroom #WWIinrealtime

#wwi #textbook

My textbook, The Politics of the First World War: A Course in Game Theory and International Security, is out this week (Amazon). And I figure it’s worth talking about how I envision it being used in the classroom. The most important thing to note is that the textbook is supposed to be a bit, in Cambridge’s words, “weird.’’ It’s designed to do things that other IR textbooks don’t do, putting deep engagement with a historical case alongside a survey of the literature on international conflict and an undergraduate game theory course.

That ain’t normal.

But the book’s uniqueness puts the onus on me to convince instructors that it need not be used only for something like my “World War I in Real Time” course that inspired it. As a representation of said course, we can generously call this book “abridged,” apart from the game theory content. The relatively limited World War I content is more feature than bug, though, because those class sessions for which instructors don’t assign a chapter (it’s got only 15, after all) can go one of two different ways, creating two rather different courses:

  1. A game theory course. Deeper dives into game theory, even if only to get more practice with what’s already there or to expand the set of applications. (Practice is everything when it comes to writing and solving your own models. Everything.)
  2. An international security course. Assigning some of the journal articles and books that the chapters reference in their penultimate sections (or stuff in the same area), which the students can then use their developing theoretical skills to evaluate.

I’ve taught this course both ways over the years, and each has its merits. In this post, I’ll share some of the strategies I’ve adopted in both versions of the course, including two sample assignments, to give instructors a sense of what worked for me as I trialed and erred my way through early iterations of this material.

A game theory course

Choosing the right level of formality for the book’s game theory component wasn’t easy (and I owe Toby Rider a debt of gratitude for helping me make some crucial decisions on this, especially in the war termination chapters). Modelers will notice pretty quickly some things left out or treated only superficially, like iterated games with punishment strategies or restrictions on out-of-equilibrium beliefs in Perfect Bayesian Equilibrium.

Off-textbook sessions can easily dive into these topics, though, because the main-text material develops the foundations of equilibrium reasoning (the big payoff, IMHO) and emphasizes basic math practice. Chapter 11’s treatment of the Christmas Truce, for example, discusses how to use punishment strategies to induce cooperation in the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma (a workhorse model in the study of cooperation). But I don’t solve that game, leaving that for further skills development if the instructor wants to make this a game theory course. It’s easy to imagine an off-textbook session on how different punishment strategies (tit-for-tat, penance, grim trigger, etc.) induce cooperation of different quality and variable robustness under different conditions, allowing students to get extra practice with Subgame Perfect Equilibrium and to think about additional applications of repeated games.

An international security course

Games may be the centerpiece of each chapter’s theoretical work, but they need not dominate off-textbook sessions. If instructors prefer to highlight the international security component, the final few sections of each chapter contai reviews of the related literatures, from arms races (Chapter 3) and solutions to the collective action problem (Chapter 7) to the role of national leaders in international politics (Chapter 13) and the relationship between democracy and peace (Chapter 14). I survey the contemporary literature on these and numerous other topics, and instructors can assign a sample of the cited work to give students more direct exposure to the scholarly literature. An instructor might, for example, assign empirical work to expose students to the ins-and-outs of interpreting quantitative models or evaluating case selection in qualitative models. I’ve taken both tacks, and the book’s focus on rigorous theory helps students encounter unfamiliar empirical methods with appropriate standards of judgment—not just the all-too-pervasive (and unjustified) “math”-phobia.

Another option for this version of the course is to assign supplementary historical readings as applications of ideas introduced in the text. The book’s discussions of coordinating limits in the Korean War (Chapter 10), the termination of the Russo-Japanese War (Chapter 12), and the duration of the Chinese Civil War (Chapter 11) are all good candidates. But instructors may also assign histories of whatever crises, wars, and near-wars they know well—from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the War of the Pacific to the Iraq War—and encourage their students to analyze them in light of the theoretical models and literatures they’ve encountered in the textbook. I’ve not taught this analytical-history version of the course, but I plan to the next time I get a chance—sadly, in spring 2020.

Some assignments

Finally, I’d like to highlight two assignments that I’ve trotted out in both versions of the course, each of which the students (and this instructor) take to pretty well.

First, as an application of equilibrium reasoning and how it helps us think through counterfactuals, I like to give students the following writing prompt after Chapter 8:

Put yourself in [Chief of the German General Staff] Moltke’s shoes and come up with an alternative strategy—either in the initial execution of the war plan or in managing the offensive once [French General] Joffre orders the Allied retreat—and then analyze whether your alternative might’ve made a substantial difference in the outcome of the invasion of France in 1914.

Armed with some practice using logical tools and equilibrium reasoning, students typically don’t use this to engage in the loose speculation that every professor rightly fears would happen in response to such a question. (We can’t all be Harry Turtledove, who seems to just come by this stuff naturally.) Rather, the course’s focal formalities prove to be a nice source of discipline for counterfactual, “what-if?” reasoning. Students have to think hard about why countries attack who they attack and how and when they attack them, how likely targets respond, how that influences initial attack decisions, etc. Seriously, this might be my favorite thing I’ve ever assigned: the answers, as you might imagine, are often pretty varied (some workable, some not, and very many of them delightfully creative). But when we discuss and evaluate their alternative strategies as a class, I’m always impressed at my students’ ability to surprise me; with a shared set of logical standards, their discussions in the post-assignment session are insightful, productive, and just fun.

Second, I like to do a puzzle-focused class session, where students submit beforehand their own historical puzzles based on the First World War (this when they’ve been reading narrative histories of the war throughout the semester—I’ll have another post on my preferred sources for that version of the course soon). I sort (and edit for clarity where necessary) the submitted puzzles, then lead a discussion in which we devise collectively models to resolve those puzzles. We specify and solve these proposed games as a group, and it’s a blast. Students feel some legitimate ownership of the course material, and they see the fruits of using the theoretical tools they’ve been learning and practicing through the semester. It’s a chance to see their developing skills at work, of practicing the procedures of model-building that the chapters themselves cover at length. Lightbulbs go off in that session, and as an instructor, it’s superfluously fun to watch. I can’t recommend this exercise enough…but only in the latter part of the semester. Too early, and a few students will get lost; I like it as a kind of pre-Armistice exercise.


I’ll have more to say about the First World War, as well as the textbook, how I used it, and how other instructors might in the coming weeks and months. But I hope this initial post gives a flavor of just how flexible the book can be, its admitted weirdness notwithstanding.

The abrupt end of the Chinese Civil War (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 12)

Yesterday touched off the next unit of the course, which begins with two big events: a drastic reduction in the number of great powers and, our focus in this lecture, the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War. For all its shocking length–Paine argues convincingly that the war effectively started in 1911–the war seems to end somewhat abruptly (if not, from a military standpoint, prematurely) in 1949, with

  1. cascading defections of KMT (and KMT-loyal units) to the Communist armies
  2. a rapid shift in public opinion against the KMT
  3. Chiang’s hasty retreat to Taiwan,

all of them occurring well before the prospect of final military defeat loomed too large–which, given our understanding of how most civil wars end, is genuinely puzzling. Why, after seeing off Japan in 1945, and with massive armies still in the field, did the KMT not continue the fight but, in essence, resign from the war? And why was it not just the leadership, but also the soldiery and the citizenry making similar yet largely independent decisions?

Paine’s analysis (Chapter 8) treats these events somewhat separately, as I noted in the first run of this lecture a few years ago, they all seem consistent with a common root cause (I’ve edited the quote a little to clean up the language, btw):

…the key to understanding each of these events is (a) the conversion of the Communists into a conventional military force and (b) the related string of rapid and sizable battlefield victories. This revealed some important information about the likely outcome of a fight to the finish, which for the Nationalists would be long, horrifically costly, and likely not victorious.

As a result, we saw (a) more of the public being willing to side with the Communists, as individuals were more confident that others would be doing the same thing; (b) armies and their generals thinking along similar lines, hoping to preserve their authority and forces intact; and (c), finally, the Nationalist leadership realizing that cutting their losses and retreating to the relative safety of Taiwan was optimal.

In the end, we’ve got a story about battlefield outcomes revealing information that, in the case of the Nationalist retreat, straightforwardly encourage an end to the fighting, but this is pretty conventional (see, inter aliaherehere, and here). What I found interesting was the apparent second-order effects of the same information–that is, raised estimates of the likelihood of ultimate Communist victory–on the public and the military. In both cases, it seems there were those who could be swayed to defect, but only if they weren’t the only ones to do so, and once such a clear public signal emerged of the relative strengths of the belligerents in the civil war, we saw large and massive–even unexpected, from some perspectives–defections that contributed to the rapid collapse Nationalist resistance and the end of the war.

So the same event, as it happens, is at the root of all three of these mostly independent decisions: the loud-and-clear signal that, while the KMT could hold out for quite some time, it was by 1949 unlikely to be able to win at the end of that endeavor. This leads to rapid attempts to cut one’s losses, just as we would expect based on an informational account of how wars end; if you can guess the outcome and you can secure something similar by giving up the fight, we’d expect you to give up the fight.

I also think it’s worth mentioning that wars ending this way—rapidly and while resistance is still feasible—aren’t unprecedented. Paine attributes some of these decisions to cultural features specific to Chinese history, and while that might be a descriptively accurate rendering of how people and soldiers framed and discussed their decisions, the underlying story we told in lecture shows that the outcome isn’t quite so exotic. In fact, two examples of similar events, particularly for the armies in the field, spring to mind: the rapid German collapse in 1918, despite its territory never being conquered, and the evaporation of Iranian willingness to continue the war against Iraq in 1988.

When information from the battlefield both travels widely and portends bad things about the future, leaders, armies, and civilians can all make rather abrupt decisions to withdraw from a war, and it seems like we saw just such a process play out in the final act of a war that produced the politics of the Taiwan Strait as we know it today: two governments, never formally reconciled to the end of a disastrous civil war, divided by a narrow stretch of ocean, and on opposite sides of the current round of great power competition.

Exam Day in War and Peace in East Asia

Today is our first exam, so while I’m not lecturing on any new material, it’s worth looking back and seeing just where we’ve been so far in the course. We started with two pretty big questions—what is the international system, and (twice) why does war occur?—designed to put in place some simple analytical tools and ways of understanding the sequence of wars, both international and civil, that we’d encounter in subsequent weeks. We linked the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War to information problems, in the form of disagreements about each side’s ability to force the other out of Korea, while commitment problems sat at the core of the stories for the Russo-Japanese War, the Chinese Civil War, the Second-Sino Japanese War, the entry of the United States into the Pacific War, and the end of World War II in Asia. It’s easy, though, to lose one of the main themes of the course, in that breakneck run through 50 years of war: the persistent, sometimes hidden and often overt, hand of great power politics in ostensibly local conflicts.

We’ve seen Japan rise to and fall from great power status over the course of the semester so far, but that narrative was only partially about its displacement of China in Korea and Manchuria, because Japan was also concerned with the eastward creep of Russian (then Soviet Russian) influence in those same areas. A group of European great powers both proved more willing to extend credit to Russia and limited Japanese gains in the Russo-Japanese War, which likely went some way towards convincing Japan that depending on the goodwill of other great powers was less attractive than establishing autarky and setting its own terms for its place in the international system. That gambit ultimately failed, and when we last left the overarching narrative of the course, the regional constellation of power had been radically altered. The European imperial powers are exhausted by the war in their own region. China is victorious but shattered, sliding back into civil war, a nascent great power whose trajectory is stalled by a fight over which faction will guide China back to prominence. The Soviet Union, bloodied and battered, has nonetheless gained a massive buffer zone in Central and Eastern Europe, and its army—as it proved in Manchuria—is a fearsome fighting machine. Finally, the United States, as the only great power to see no sustained combat on (or above) its home territory, has emerged from the war controlling an unprecedented proportion of global wealth and a monopoly on an unprecedented weapon: the nuclear bomb.

Now firmly entrenched in both Europe and East Asia, the United States and the Soviet Union will see their rivalry play out over issues as diverse as the outcome of the Chinese civil war, the bloody end of the French empire in Indochina, and the governance of the Korean peninsula—which, as we’ll see in a few weeks, called up the specter of another world war a bare five years after the Second one ended. However, we’ll see conflicts erupt over the same issues we saw before this radical change in the regional power structure, because the basics of the international system remain in place: territorial units governed by states, which live in a world of de jure anarchy and de facto hierarchy. So, states disagree over the placement of borders, who governs territories within those borders, and their relative places in the hierarchy, and sometimes those disagreements are resolved violently. We’ll pick up Thursday with the end of one such conflict: the Chinese Civil War.

Why did Japan surrender in 1945? (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 10)

Isolating the causes of Japan’s surrender in August 1945 is a fraught process, because it invokes so many difficult topics, from American firebombing of Japanese cities as soon as its bombers were in range to the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the rapid and brutal Soviet conquest of Manchuria, all framed against Japan’s own atrocities against civilians and soldiers alike in China, its other imperial conquests, and in battles with American forces fighting their way (and mistreating prisoners on their own) towards the Home Islands. Some arguments pride nuclear bombs as the war-ending weapons, some revisionist accounts credit the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, which followed the nuclear attacks and preceded the surrender, but we argued today in class that both claims—often ideological, sometimes for the contrarian or partisan fun of it, and frequently weak on theory—fail to consider a key aspect of the politics of surrender: the personal fates of the top-level civilian and military decision-makers in Japan. Seen in that light, both factors can be seen as necessary components of the surrender.

So we had two questions to answer in class today. First, why did Japan surrender when it did, in August of 1945, despite knowing that the war was as good as lost many months before (after all, its initial gambit based on 50-50 odds of defeating the United States in a short war clearly didn’t pay off)? Second, what ultimately drove it to surrender? As it happens, and as Paine argues pretty convincingly in Chapter 7, Hirohito’s decision to accept the Potsdam Declaration and capitulate (to all the Allies except the Soviet Union, which really did have a lot of trouble convincing people that it was the power least shitty to surrender to) was made possible by both the American attacks on Japanese cities (conventional and nuclear, though the former killed far more in total) and the Soviet destruction of Japanese military might on the Asian mainland.

Hein Goemans argues that leaders in some regimes, particularly those that mix democratic and autocratic institutions in such a way as to guarantee that losing office is both probable and deadly after failing to bring home the spoils of war, have strong incentives to fight on even in the face of terrible odds on the battlefield. Indeed, Japan’s civilian leaders, who competed with the military for control over the war effort by 1945, “feared a social revolution from below if the war continued and an army rebellion if Japan surrendered” (Paine, p212), meaning that and end to the war would require either (a) total victory, ensuring the survival of both civilian and military elites, or (b) a catastrophic event that made defeat inevitable and surrender no longer the worst option. In other words, for Japan to surrender, both civilian and military elites would have to be convinced that fighting on no longer held out any prospect of saving their skins; otherwise, fighting would represent a “gamble for resurrection,” a chance (however tiny) of avoiding the certain grim fate that would certainly follow surrender: exile, jail, or death.

Paine argues that the first step in this process was the bombing campaign against Japanese cities, capped off with (though not ended by) the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which convinced the civilian leadership that war no longer held out the prospect of survival. But it was the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, which hurled an army of 1.5 million soldiers against a Japanese army starved of resources after years of American submarine attacks against Japan’s merchant marine, that convinced the military of the same. The combination of both events, one imperiling the civilian leadership, the other imperiling the military, was sufficient to prompt the emperor to announce Japan’s acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration—a nominal unconditional surrender that nonetheless left the Emperor’s role intact and, a concern for the army especially, prevented a Soviet occupation of northern Japan. (In fact, Japan’s refusal to surrender to the Soviets has ensured that the latter’s territorial gains at the end of the war—none of which were previously held by the Russian state—remain disputed in a region full of territorial disagreements.)

So which event—the nukes or the Red Army—precipitated the Japanese surrender? From a logical standpoint, it’s impossible to say. Absent a Soviet menace to its position on the Asian mainland, it’s hard to see the army surrendering, especially after it not only refused to do so in the wake of the nuclear attacks but attempted a coup to prevent the civilians from surrendering after Nagasaki. Absent the nuclear attacks, on the other hand, it’s hard to see an otherwise insulated civilian leadership, confident in the army’s ability to bleed the Americans white if they attempted an amphibious invasion of the Home Islands, willing to throw in the towel when the prospect loomed of forcing the Americans into a negotiated settlement after drawing them into the equivalent of many more Okinawas (a seriously costly victory) just to make headway in Operation Downfall, the massive planned operation to invade and complete the conquest of Japan.

Thus, the nuclear attacks, the Red Army, and—of course—Chiang Kai-Shek’s years-long resistance, tying down massive numbers of Japanese troops on the mainland, all contributed to both why and when Japan surrendered. Take away one element, and it’s difficult to see the other two being enough to cause Japan to surrender when and under what terms it did—meaning that the debate over which particular factor was primarily responsible is fairly beside the point.

Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbor? (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 9)

Today’s lecture saw us focus pretty narrowly on a specific decision: Japan’s choice in December 1941 to attack the American naval base at Pearl Harbor (as well as numerous other foreign outposts throughout Southeast and Asia, including Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaya, etc.), bringing both the United States and the United Kingdom (the world’s two dominant naval powers) into what heretofore had been a local attempt to conquer China. Contrary to what the average American undergrad encounters on the way to this class, these other elements of Japan’s “Southern Advance” are key to understanding the rationale behind what has to be considered one of the boldest gambits of the Second World War. Yet at first blush they only seem to complicate the story; why, after all, did Japan launch a series of attacks far from its main theater of operations (China), that were virtually certain to create for it the problem of a two-front war when the main front was turning into a big enough problem on its own?

To understand Japan’s choice, we have to do two things. First, and here’s an underlying theme of the course again, we have to widen our view of the specific conflict we’re interested in, considering the ever-present interplay of great power politics. Second, we have to put ourselves as much as possible in the heads of the decision makers on both sides of this issue, which for us involves both the Japanese government and the United States—a new element in the region’s great power constellation. If we can pare the story down this way to isolate the essentials of Japan’s strategic context, we’re better poised to see that, given its predicament in 1941, Japan’s choice was not between the unmolested continuation of the war against China and a war with the United States, but between a series of bargains offered by the United States that would (in principle) both avert war and ensure Japan’s access to American oil, on which it was dependent for both domestic consumption and the working of its war machine. Japan was offered terms that looked a lot better than its ultimate outcome in the war, so why didn’t it take them?

Let’s frame the question even more starkly in terms of the inefficiency puzzle that’s been with us all semester. Looking back from 1945, Japan is defeated, occupied, economically troubled, and stripped of both its colonial possessions and great power status, yet throughout the late 1930s and into 1941, the country that would ultimately join the war and help force Japan’s surrender—the United States—offered it a variety of deals, some of which would ensure access to oil and the avoidance of war if only Japan would evacuate its post-1937 gains in China. That is, by most any standard, a better deal on its face than the realization of the near-certain defeat at the hands of the United States, China, and (eventually) the Soviet Union. Yet rather than accept such a proposal from the United States (backed up with a total oil embargo as negotiations continued to deteriorate), Japan chose to lurch outward from China, seizing the oil fields of Southeast Asia and securing a distant perimeter in the islands of the South Pacific in the face of what it knew was essentially inevitable American retaliation. Why?

Let’s start with the United States. Acting like a fairly normal great power in trying to limit the aggrandizement of other great powers (here, Japan), the US pursued this policy in a somewhat unique way: a grand strategy of ensuring both freedom of the seas (to facilitate global trade, like the British before them) and self-determination (i.e., the dismantling of other great power empires, something new and in the view of other great powers dangerously revolutionary). This nearly guaranteed a clash of interests over Japan’s war in China, aimed at closing off the later from the rest of the world trading system as an exclusive, autarkic market dominated by Japan, but it doesn’t explain why Japan and the United States came to blows in 1941, especially in light of what virtually all parties agreed was the foregone conclusion of an American victory in a protracted war. (Remember: disagreements are everywhere, but only some of them are resolved by war.) However, the combination of this great power rivalry and rapidly growing American naval power did prove sufficient to sour Japan on the possibility that any deal it struck in, say, 1941 with the United States would stick—that the American, and even Soviet and British, commitments to such a deal would be credible.

If we recall that Japan launched the war in China to preserve what it believed to be a great power position that would erode if it couldn’t ensure autarky, then we can see that a return to any kind of status quo ante that limited its position on the Asian mainland wouldn’t be credible; the Americans, for example, were building naval strength at a tremendous clip, approaching a multi-ocean blue water capability the world hadn’t yet seen, and once they reached sufficient capacity could not only muscle their way into the Pacific but also—critically—prevent the fall of China. The United States, rising rapidly in power, could hardly commit credibly to any deal that left Japan’s position on the Asian mainland intact. Put in starker terms, rising powers can’t promise not to act like great powers should they reach that status, their prior protestations—and commitments—to the contrary. The Americans could afford to build a massive fleet, and once built they could hardly afford not to use it. Paine is worth quoting here:

[P]eace on American terms, entailing a withdrawal from China, would lead to the gradual impoverishment of Japan and would undo the efforts of generations of Japanese to transform their country into a modern power. War with the United States, on the other hand, offered a 50-50 chance of success (p. 185)

In other words, cutting a deal would allow US power in the region to grow unchecked, and such increased power could be used, down the road, to force Japan out of China anyway. If the worst outcome of a war would be similar (and it was), then rolling the dice before military prospects got even worse—and Japan calculated that its chances of keeping the US out of the region long enough to consolidate its gains would peak at about 50-50 in December 1941—looked pretty attractive. Faced with a rising global power over the eastern horizon, one that would undoubtedly be able to enter the war and force Japan to yield its hard-won great power status (i.e., its potential imperial dominion in China), Japan rolled the dice and hoped to strike a decisive blow against American and British assets in the region, sending them reeling long enough to present them with a fait accompli. If the war could be kept short, and if the war in Europe would take a large part of American attention anyway, then a 50-50 shot at positioning itself to isolate China and win the war in its main theater was relatively attractive…

…but it was a gamble nonetheless, and one that failed to eliminate the American carrier fleet in Hawaii, which would go on to be the centerpiece of the campaign to approach and menace the Japanese Home Islands later in the war. We’ll talk about the end of this war, which will shatter the post-Qing regional order we’ve dealt with so far, on Thursday.