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New in Paperback: Cry Havoc

Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931-1941

by Joseph Maiolo

Basic Books, 2012

At one point in Joseph Maiolo’s gripping study Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931-1941, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch utters a quip that serves well to summarize the mania that is the book’s main subject. “Weakness in your enemy,” he warns, “does not create strength in you.” In the wake of the First World War and the crushing world-wide economic depression that followed, nation after nation began to subscribe to some variation of Foch’s brooding paranoid mantra, with Nazi Germany leading the field. The armaments industries began go fuel entire national economies, and in the 20th Century’s third decade, just in its first, times of peace began to be seen merely like times of preparation for war.

The critical press showered Maiolo’s volume with praise when it appeared in 2010; the appearance of a sturdy paperback from Basic Books is to be cheered, despite how dour Maiolo’s subject matter is. Lurking behind the high drama of the familiar historical scenario – Nazi Germany’s frantic war-mongering forcing France and especially Britain to join an arms race they knew perfectly well could only justify itself in a war – are the shadowy patterns Maiolo finds everywhere he investigates the question of military supply and demand:

Though expressed in different terms, conceptions of the arms race, its logic and the measures it required, varied little. No matter what type of regime or its military starting point, the race sent everyone down the same totalitarian track. In the general effort to turn ideas into reality, similar technical, economic, political and military problems came up repeatedly. Everywhere the internal debates had a marked tendency toward rhetorical absolutes with a sharp political edge.

The contemporary parallels can’t be missed, but Maiolo’s book has far more serious things on its mind than disguised polemic. This is a shrewd and very clear-eyed assessment of how arms races take on an eerie life of their own, using the threats they exacerbate in order to justify their own existence. “A vast maelstrom,” Maiolo calls this arms race, “a tremendous torrent generated by unchecked competition, understood in terms of lessons drawn from 1914-18 and in all-embracing ideas about how to impose order and meaning on wars to come …”

And although Hitler’s Germany is the obvious choice for villain in this story, even the Nazis from time to time felt a tidal wave building:

If the war dragged on, Hitler knew that any lag in American rearmament of six or twelve months would matter little. In speeches he ridiculed the United States as degenerate, but since the 1920s the capacity of American industry had at once fascinated and horrified him …

In the two generations since Hitler had those forebodings, the United States has scarcely ever relaxed from its belligerent, wartime stance – or its wartime-levels of expenditure across virtually the entire spectrum of its military. “The rules can change,” Maiolo tells us, “and so can the stakes, but the race goes on.”

Cry Havoc is the story of one such race, and it’s a masterpiece of lucid, engaging writing and handily thorough research (nice especially to see Adam Tooze’s equally brilliant 2007 work The Wages of Destruction used so intelligently). The picture the book paints – of governments more or less helpless to resist transforming themselves into arsenals – is both compelling and depressingly relevant, but it forms a much-needed counterweight against the fuzzy hagiography that so often blurs the real forces at work behind the Second World War. Formulations as simple as ‘good v.s. evil’ find very little purchase in these pages. ‘Money v.s. more money’ might not have the same ring to it, but it’s all the more important for that.

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