The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America

by Christopher Bassford

Oxford University Press, 1994

Table of Contents

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Chapter 1. Introduction

Bernard Brodie liked to characterize Carl von Clausewitz's military classic On War (Vom Kriege, 1832) as being "not simply the greatest book on war but the one truly great book on that subject yet written."(*1) This is hyperbole, of course. Nonetheless, if any one work can be said to form the basis for modern military thought, On War is the book. First published in Germany in 1832, it has been the bible of many thoughtful soldiers ever since the elder Moltke attributed his stunning victories in the wars of German unification to its guidance. Since 1976, when Peter Paret and Michael Howard published their magnificent new English translation, the interest in it of soldiers and scholars has grown almost exponentially; Indeed, "Clausewitz studies" have become something of a cottage industry for military intellectuals. By the 1980s, the philosophy of Clausewitz (1780-1831) had become a major, direct influence on American military doctrinal writing and even on national policy (if we are to consider the "Weinberger Doctrine" as official policy), as well as on the writing of most sophisticated military history. Most unusually for a book of its abstract nature, the new translation of On War has sold over forty thousand copies.(*2)

Inspired in large part by the efforts of Paret, Howard, and Brodie, a great deal has been written in English about Clausewitz over the past few decades. There have been new biographies, new attempts at analysis, and reissues of old (and often hoary) condensations. Clausewitz's own thoughts have been traced to their sources. Their influence in many countries—most particularly Germany itself—has been examined in great detail.(*3)

For various reasons, however, the latter efforts have tended to ignore the history of the study of Clausewitz in English, particularly that before World War One. This peculiar state of affairs has many roots. Clausewitz's students tend naturally to focus on Germany, where Clausewitz wrote and where his disciples have most eagerly identified themselves as such. In contrast, the Anglo-Saxons are often perceived as hopelessly parochial in the military realm. British and American strategic successes often appear to owe little to any military-theoretical sophistication on the part of the leadership. They can more easily be ascribed to geopolitical, economic, and demographic advantages sufficient to counterbalance the persistent military naiveté of these two nations. The dissertation from which this book is derived is entitled "The Reception of Clausewitzian Theory in Anglo-American Military Thought, 1815-1945." It was suggested by more than one commentator that the term "Anglo-Saxon Military Thought" was an oxymoron. Because much British writing on Clausewitz during the interwar period was hostile and seemed to indicate little real understanding of his ideas, it has generally been assumed that Clausewitz had had no positive impact on that nation. In this view, Clausewitz exercised no meaningful influence in either country until after the Second World War, perhaps not even until after Vietnam.

There is some truth to this opinion, especially in regard to the Americans. It would be absurd to claim that Clausewitz exercised any sweeping influence in Great Britain—much less the United States—before 1945, although perhaps not much more absurd than claiming that he had exercised any such sweeping influence on the military behavior of Germany, his own homeland. Nonetheless, this book demonstrates that the Anglo-American study of Clausewitz has had a longer history, has involved a larger readership, and has assumed a quite different character from what such disparate historians as Basil Liddell Hart, Russell Weigley, and Peter Paret have thus far suggested. A number of Clausewitz's works, both historical and theoretical, have been examined by British readers since the mid-1830s. Significant commentaries on Clausewitz were made in the 1840s by members of the duke of Wellington's circle (including the duke himself), by instructors at the British army's Staff College at Camberley after 1860, and by members of the "Wolseley ring," the clique of military reformers surrounding General Sir Garnet Wolseley, from the 1870s on. Clausewitz was a significant and direct influence on British military thought in the period preceding the First World War.

On War also had a noteworthy influence on important individual American soldiers and writers after about 1910, but recent attempts to demonstrate an interwar appreciation of Clausewitz at the institutional level are flawed. It was the inexorable pressures of World War Two that forced the creation of a genuine class of military intellectuals in America and made Clausewitz a significant intellectual influence on some. It was the uncertainties of the atomic era and the Cold War that made Clausewitz's conceptions appear fundamental to the American military intellectual community in general. It was only the crisis of self-confidence wrought by Vietnam that made them institutionally acceptable to the armed forces themselves.

Thus Clausewitz has had a pervasive—if ambiguous—impact on Anglo-American military thought for a long time. The uses made of Clausewitz's concepts by Anglo-Saxon writers have, however, been different and less obvious than those by German and French commentators. Also, at various times and for various reasons, some British and American writers have deliberately obscured the influence that Clausewitz has had upon their thinking. These considerations account for some of the underestimation of his audience. Some of the misunderstanding of Clausewitz's reception in English also derives from a generalized contempt for Anglo-American military thinking or institutions (a failing particularly but not exclusively of German expatriate writers) and from a misunderstanding of his message (a failing particularly of native popular writers and military historians). The former factor led to an easy assumption that the philosopher had been ignored. The latter factor caused some historians—basing their analyses on little reading of Clausewitz or on a too-credulous reading of his critics—to look for his influence in a doctrine of unremitting, offensive, amoral, mass warfare. Particularly damaging were Liddell Hart's unreasonable attacks, which left a generation of military commentators confused about the relationship between the philosopher's theories and those of his alleged "misinterpreters."

In fact, most of the British and American military commentators who actually read On War, at least those who recorded their impressions, understood Clausewitz in sensible if not necessarily "correct" ways. The oft-cited "misinterpretations" of Clausewitz originated with authors, mostly French or German, who understood but consciously and explicitly rejected key portions of his argument. Native British proponents of total war and the unremitting offensive (Douglas Haig, James Thursfield) were also quite aware of the conflict between Clausewitz's arguments and their own.

The study of Clausewitz runs like a subterranean river through all of modern military thought. The reception of Clausewitz's ideas in Great Britain and in the United States is thus an important and often revealing aspect of the evolution of military thinking in both countries. If this study has no other value, it can at least serve as a bibliographical guide to English-language studies involving Clausewitz. A historical examination of the various uses and interpretations made of the philosopher's works may also help our understanding the actual messages that those works convey. It is, after all, changing historical circumstances rather than the actual content of his work that have led to Clausewitz's being called in different eras the "apostle of total war" and "the preeminent military and political strategist of limited war in modern times."(*4) Beyond that, the manner in which Clausewitz's ideas have been received in the English-speaking countries may offer some broader lessons concerning the manner in which such ideas are transmitted, rejected, ignored, or implemented. The relevant factors include personal and national character, institutional and private values, rational calculation and irrational lashing out, careerism and national interests, personal and international antagonisms.

The aim of this book, therefore, is to survey the  reception given Clausewitz by military commentators in Great Britain and the United States up to 1945, and to examine the manner in which their views fit into the larger context of Clausewitz's world-wide reception up to the present day. Such a survey must include certain works by foreign writers, particularly those whose discussions of the philosopher are available in English translation. The primary emphasis, however, is on works written in English.

It is also important that the reader understand what this study is not. It is not an attempt to discover the practical uses to which Clausewitz's teachings have been put on the battlefield or in doctrine. Indeed, this research has made me skeptical of any attempt to determine the "practical" influence of theory. There is a close relationship between theory and practice, but it certainly is not a simple "cause and effect" relationship running in either direction. Neither does this book attempt to interpret the broad military views or actions of Anglo-American military writers or leaders as being somehow "Clausewitzian" or otherwise. Nor is it a history of Anglo-American military theory, education, or practice, although it throws a useful light on those subjects. Rather, this is a study of the rarefied world of individual military thinkers, not of practical warfare or even of military institutions.

In titling this work, I have chosen to use the term reception rather than influence for reasons important to explain. Influence is rather hard to define. One can be influenced by a book without agreeing with it, without reading it, or without even being aware of its existence. A great book's influence often comes second- or thirdhand via other writers, diluted and inextricably mixed with their own, often quite contrary, ideas. This has certainly been the case with Clausewitz. To avoid these complexities, I have focused narrowly on the manner in which British and American commentators on military affairs, be they soldiers, journalists, historians, political scientists, propagandists, or some combination thereof, have specifically and explicitly discussed Clausewitz and his ideas.

I do not argue that the writers to whom I refer had necessarily any great practical influence on military organization, doctrine, or events, since this is in most cases impossible to determine in any meaningful way. In many cases they probably did not. Rather, I am interested in the nature of their interpretations and in the reasons why they settled on particular views. I focus on writers like Francis Egerton, Lord Ellesmere, simply because they were English speakers who had something to say about Clausewitz: They reflect at least something of the wider culture. Other writers that I discuss clearly did have influence, although the practical impact upon policy of a Spenser Wilkinson or a Colonel Repington, even of a major military figure like William Robertson or Dwight Eisenhower, is surprisingly difficult to gauge.

Neither is it my purpose to examine Clausewitz's writings themselves, beyond the broad description of the man and his ideas provided in Chapter 2 for the convenience of the reader. To condense or summarize On War, even in the belief—in my view erroneous—that parts of it are "obsolete," is unavoidably to distort it. Its form and method are as important as its specific arguments. Although the commentaries of other writers are in some cases nearly indispensable to its interpretation, the reader who wants to gain a genuine understanding of Clausewitz cannot escape the task of actually reading On War.

Because this is a work of intellectual history, there are some special structural problems to be explained. First of all, this book treats a large number of different individuals whose relationship to one another was often tenuous at best. The subject naturally lacks the kind of organic unity to be found in any discrete event. As Peter Novick pointed out, writing intellectual history is much like "nailing jelly to the wall."(*5) My treatment therefore tends to be topical and episodic, although I have tried throughout this study and in its conclusions to delineate whatever trends and interconnections appear to be indicated by the sources.

To impose some order, this book is basically organized around a few key historical events. Part I covers the period from 1815 to 1873, the first date being chosen because that is the point at which one of Clausewitz's writings first appeared in English, the second because of the near-simultaneity of Germany's emergence as the world's leading military state and the appearance of the first complete English translation of Vom Kriege. The two latter events may or may not be connected. Personally, I suspect that the timing was coincidental, but the sources do not permit a firm conclusion either way. Part II covers the period between this first translation and the outbreak of World War One. The Great War sparked changes in the way that Clausewitz was interpreted, in some degree because it marked a decisive change in the way that Western society looks at war in general. Part III ends in 1945 because the explosion of American nuclear weapons over Japan in that year marked what was perceived at the time as—and what may have been in fact—a decisive change in the nature of war itself. It certainly had a great impact on the way in which On War was subsequently used and interpreted. The advent of nuclear weapons also led to the growth of an entirely new class of military intellectuals, particularly in the United States, so 1945 also marks a convenient cut-off point for the main body of this study. Clausewitz's reception after 1945 is so large and complex a story that continuing the detailed approach of the main treatment would be impracticable.

Unfortunately for the writer of intellectual history, individual human beings are not so easily periodized. Although the nature of the era often determined a writer's acceptance of some particular aspect of Clausewitz's theory, sometimes it did not. As an example of the latter case, Julian Corbett stood almost alone as a limited war theorist in the period just before World War One. The interwar theorist Hoffman Nickerson wrote in a period of mass armies, which he loathed. He nonetheless considered Clausewitz—generally associated with such armies—to be a guiding light. Some writers on Clausewitz lived through these key events without ever changing the way they treated him in print. Basil Liddell Hart is a good example: Even in 1963 his public attitude towards Clausewitz was determined almost exclusively by the events of 1914-18. Dwight Eisenhower discovered Clausewitz in the 1920s. He formed his views at that time and did his most important work as a soldier before 1946, but the sources for his interpretation of On War derive mainly from his time as president, from 1953 to 1960. Whether Eisenhower perceived the coming of the atomic era as a strategic sea change is debatable. It did not, in all likelihood, change his interpretation of On War. Other writers, most notably J.F.C. Fuller, continuously evolved in their views on the philosopher.

The point is that there is no way in which to compartmentalize neatly within the rigid framework dictated by historical events the various writers with whom this book deals. Operating under the belief that a rigid consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds (a belief that Clausewitz shared), I have therefore dealt with each writer on a case-by-case basis. In most cases I have elected to deal with an individual's entire career more or less in one continuous narrative, even when that takes us outside the boundaries of our periodization.

I have also found it necessary to take issue with a number of historians who have written on this topic. In such cases I have dealt with them within the period at issue rather than in the period during which the historian himself was writing. The latter approach—which might, strictly speaking, be more logical—would make for endless redundancies. For example, I have discussed the modern historian Hew Strachan in Part I because our views of Clausewitz's reception in that period differ, as do our understandings of his message. Similarly, I have taken issue with Liddell Hart over the influence of Clausewitz on the British army in the period before World War One and with Russell Weigley's 1962 interpretation of the views on Clausewitz of Robert M. Johnston, who died in 1920.

For such inconsistencies I can offer no apologies. Whatever value this study might have would be sharply reduced by any attempt to force it into a rigid structure. For added measure, I have added in the Conclusions a chapter that brings the story up to the present day, in the firm belief that the present is prologue to the past.

Notes to Chapter 1.

1. Bernard Brodie, "Clausewitz: a Passion for War," World Politics, v.25, no.2 (January 1973), referring to Carl [Philipp Gottlieb] von Clausewitz, Hinterlassene Werke, vols.1-3, Vom Kriege (Berlin: Dümmlers Verlag, 1832).

2. Carl von Clausewitz, eds./trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976). Sales figures courtesy of Princeton University Press, letter Deborah Tegarden to Bassford, 24 July 1989.

3. For a useful survey see Michael I. Handel, ed., Clausewitz and Modern Strategy (London: Frank Cass, 1986). This includes essays on Clausewitz in France, Italy, and Germany, but the discussion on England is limited to the works of J.F.C. Fuller and Liddell Hart. See also Jehuda L. Wallach, The Dogma of the Battle of Annihilation: The Theories of Clausewitz and Schlieffen and Their Impact on the German Conduct of Two World Wars (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986)—hereafter cited as "Wallach, Dogma." Vom Kriege's modern editor, Werner Hahlweg, included a very broad survey of the international literature on Clausewitz in the 19th German edition (Bonn: Ferdinand Dümmlers Verlag, 1980); see esp. "Clausewitz und die angelsächsische Welt," (138-153).

4. The first term is one used frequently by Liddell Hart. The second is from Robert Endicott Osgood, Limited War Revisited (Boulder: Westview, 1979), 2.

5. Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 7.

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