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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:
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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
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
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.