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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 351


Review:                  John Nef, War and Human Progress.  Harvard University Press, 1950.

John Nef's War and Human Progress attempts to demonstrate that war has almost always been harmful harmful to "progress."  He looks at Western civilization from 1494 to the present, divided into three periods: "The New Warfare and the Genesis of Industrialism" (1494-1640), "Limited Warfare and Humane Civilization" (1640-1740), and "Industrialism and Total War" (1740 - 1950).  He marshals a good deal of convincing evidence in support of his thesis, but in the end the book almost collapses under the weight of all the other baggage he piles onto it.

Nef goes directly against the thesis of Werner Sombart, a German historian who argued that war played an important, constructive role in the rise of modern capitalism.  Nef finds this thesis repugnant in the extreme, and much of his book is devoted to citing one industry or scientific advance after another which was not based on military needs.  He succeeds in making a good case for a lesser thesis which is contained within his larger argument: that the advances which result from huge wartime spending are based on foundations of general inquiry laid long before.  However, he overreaches himself in attempting to prove that war is generally detrimental to industrial and technical advance, because he refuses to even consider the possibility.

The book is further weakened by Nef's peculiar view of European history.  First, he is a rabid Anglophile.  It is taken as a given that the English are the epitome of civilized humanity; the only issue worth arguing about is, "How were they able to rise to such greatness?"  Second, he feels free to make sweeping generalizations about entire populations based on the thinnest of evidence.  One example of many: "In the early sixteenth century the English had been invariably described . . . as "the fiercest people in all Europe. . . . During the last half of the sixteenth century they became increasingly pacific in their outlook and habits, until they had less relish for fighting than any of the continentals." (21)  Thirdly, his nostalgia for the good old days of the Renaissance colors the entire book and leads him into some very dubious assertions.  For instance, he suggests that improvement in military technology was deliberately restrained during the Renaissance, because inventors recognized man's evil nature:


Data in manuscripts and printed works of the period from 1450 to 1650 show that ideas of the tank, the submarine, and the airplane were not the monopoly of some rare misunderstood genius . . . Many men had plans for these twentieth-century wonders. . . . What held back their realization for a dozen generations?  Apart from the manifold technical difficulties, may not the reticence of the scientists, their Christian sense of responsibility for the sinfulness of man, have delayed the march of mechanical improvement, especially for military purposes? (124)

His purpose is, of course, to cast unfavorable light on those later scientists who did not hark to their Christian sense of responsibility, especially those responsible for putting the atomic bomb into the hands of wicked humanity.  He is apparently oblivious to the patent absurdity of a tank in the seventeenth century.  What would power it?  Where would it drive?  How would it be used?  What would it fire?  This is only a single example of many other ridiculous assertions (as well as a good example of the preachy tone which pervades the book).

Nef had the evidence for a very strong article with a more limited thesis which tempered Sombart's argument.  Instead, he wrote a 400-plus page book in which he attempted to demolish Sombart, exalt the Renaissance, and critique modern civilization; he succeeded in making a convincing case for none of these.

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