The Causes of World War Three Revisited

Prophecy is often wrong, and when it is dire, we are thankful for the mistake.  But sometimes prophecy becomes pertinent again when we displace it from its original context to a new one. Almost sixty years ago, the noted sociologist Wright Mills wrote about the causes of World War Three in a context that eventually proved him wrong.  Alas, his alarms seem more appropriate today.


Almost sixty years ago, the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills published a book titled The Causes of World War Three (1958)[1].  The book shook the liberal complacency of both the political establishment and mainstream academic sociology.  Mills’ theses were fiercely resisted and much criticized, from the existence of a power elite that gave sociological substance to Dwight Eisenhower warning of a “military-industrial complex”[2], to the assertion that the two superpowers at the time, the US and USSR were converging in their bureaucratic management of mass society, and that both elites were war mongering and irresponsible, that is essentially “trigger happy.”

Mills was wrong in his diagnosis at that time.  His book lapsed into oblivion.  The Cold War proved that there was method in the madness of the nuclear arms race, and that deterrence worked as a paradoxical system to prevent the atomic end of civilization.  At the time, “Nuclear Bomb” equaled “No Use.” Deterrence was mad but only in the sense of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).  The two superpowers had a rational interest in avoiding total war because neither would survive.  No first nuclear strike could prevent a massive retaliation by the enemy, and so the two were locked in a perpetual dance macabre.  Things could go wrong, of course, but only as a result of an unchecked rogue actor, as in the famous film of those days, Dr. Strangelove, or How I learned to Love the Bomb (Kubrick, 1964). In this black comedy an insane general triggers a path to nuclear holocaust that a war room full of politicians and generals frantically tries to stop. Substitute Kim Jon-Un or Donald J. Trump for the movie general, and we should be seriously concerned.

In the end the strange rationality of MAD prevailed, even in episodes as harrowing as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.  The dynamics of such peace were the subject of academic modeling, of the kind that earned Professor Thomas Schelling the Nobel Prize.[3]

At the time, the two superpowers represented different models of economy and society –one dynamic and predatory (American capitalism), the other static and brittle (USSR).  Their rivalry ran the show, they led two camps, and most everybody else followed. The first superpower thrived on an industrial-military complex, the second was burdened by it as an old fashion state-directed industrial system, that could have been sustainable if demand for its vast natural resources (especially gas and oil) moved up, together with export prices.  This was not to be, and for this and other internal reasons, the state-socialist model imploded.  This brought an end to the Cold War –and its paradoxical model of peace.

The geopolitical equation changed dramatically.  The USSR morphed into the Russian Federation.  The communist elite became the core of crony capitalism. The US was left as the sole superpower.  Meanwhile China pursued a different transition to capitalism without relinquishing communist control while becoming the industrial workshop of the world and a rising international power.  Former blocs fractured, and there was more room for maneuver for smaller powers to operate –including some that became, from the perspective of the previous balance of power, so-called “rogue” states.  Nuclear ambitions multiplied, and the bomb was no longer the Sanctus sanctorum of a club of the elect.

The custodians of nuclear weapons were now more and less reliable.  Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  (Who guards the guardians?). For a while it was the US, but not for long.  A multi-polar system within a single global economy developed, and this profoundly altered the nature of international conflict.  In many ways, the international arena resembled less the post-WWII equilibrium and more the pre-WWI scenario.  There was a novelty too:  American military intervention was no longer constrained by a massive rival superpower.  It intervened, sometimes overwhelmingly in areas of the world like the Middle East, but only to get bogged down in endless asymmetrical wars.  This was a new strategic impasse in which the US (and the world) still find themselves.

Under these conditions, the theses of Wright Mills may be relevant, much closer to developments on the planet than they were in 1958.  “War not Russia is the enemy,” wrote the noted sociologist then.  Looking at Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and the Korean peninsula, to cite but a few, the phrase rings true now[4]. With Iran’s only temporarily halted ambitions, and with the development of ICBMs and a hydrogen bomb by North Korea, Mills’ contention that the central question of international politics: who is responsible for the threat of atomic annihilation and what should be done to prevent it, retains all its poignancy. His argument may be summarized as follows:

  1. War, in becoming total, has become absurd as a means of national policy. Nevertheless the power elites of many powers are obsessed by a “military metaphysics” which does not take account of this reality, and prefer to perpetuate an arms race. There are reasons for a new sense of urgency, just as it was portrayed (prematurely) by C. Wright Mills. Russia is now resurgent as a military power. The US is no longer the normal country it was for decades.  Its president is irrational and hope now rests on his military advisors, the very same that Mills described as prone to a “military metaphysics.”[5]  Things have come to a pretty pass when many liberals in America think that the Pentagon and the CIA are the last bastions of reason in a dangerous world.
  2. A lunatic definition of reality, as described by Mills, is alive and well in some countries of the West and other countries as well. Brinkmanship is replacing diplomacy. More than ever, intellectuals, communal organizers, and all people of good will should oppose to such lunacy a rational view of the world situation, proceeding from the understanding that “war in any shape or form is now the enemy.”
  3. War is not fatally predetermined. Certain highly-placed officials in whose hands the means of destruction are placed, should be brought to their senses by a mobilization of public opinion and prevented from making choices that bring war closer. They should be brought to follow a different line that would promote peaceful international relations and favorably affect the attitudes of warmongers around them.
  4. The only way to effect this switch in foreign policy by major powers is for the community of “networked” concerned citizens to stop buckling down before the mad strategy of the “brisk politicians,” and to put forward alternative proposals for action, get them debated and adopted.

I have stated that Mills was thankfully wrong in his assessment of the immediate risk of was in 1958, but that he would be worrisomely right in his urgency today.

Globalization in its present form has generated gross inequities.  So far, the social reaction against these injustices has been mostly reactionary, as many seek refuge in the illusions of national or tribal identity, and reject or ignore alternative forms of internationalism.  Those in power take advantage of the resentment of those left behind and redirect it towards substitute targets.  They fan the flames of national and ethnic conflict, pursue the old strategy of divide et impera, and seek internal consensus through sabre rattling.  They thrive by promoting Us vs. Them inside and outside their societies.

When nationalism and the politics of hate prevail, geopolitical power becomes unbalanced.  Multi-polar translates into multi-conflict, and so the international fragmented community can sleep walk into a new type of world war.  In its causes this new world war will recall World War I.  In its destructive capacity it will surpass World War II, and in its consequences it will recall on a larger scale the massacres that raged before the peace of Westphalia[6].

There is still time to prevent such an occurrence.  Only the joint forces of rational debate and mass mobilization can stop the drift towards catastrophe.


[1] Republished by E.M. Sharpe, Boston, 1985.


[3] Robert Ayson, Thomas Schelling and the Nuclear Age.  London and New York: Frank Cass, 2044.

[4] On Syria see




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