The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America

by Christopher Bassford

Oxford University Press, 1994

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The Apostle of Total War: 1914-1945

The period between the South African War and World War One had been, in Britain at least, the first golden age of Clausewitz studies in English. As a result, elements of Clausewitz's thinking were incorporated into most subsequent English-language military writing, but often in incoherent bits and pieces that were often themselves misunderstood or distorted, and in many cases not associated with their author's name. A more sophisticated understanding certainly existed, more widespread in Great Britain than in the United States until the 1940s, although its practical impact is (as always) difficult to gauge. But even though the European war of 1914-18 sent Clausewitz's great rival Jomini into near eclipse, reaction to the war's slaughter and futility led many to an emotional rejection of Clausewitz as well.

As a result, two contrasting images of the military philosopher began to emerge in the English-speaking world. The first was largely negative, the image of Clausewitz as "the apostle of total war," the "Mahdi of mass," the proponent of a bloodthirsty, amoral philosophy of offensive warfare that prefigured or even caused the disasters of the First World War. That this view was without much foundation was indicated in our examination of the British reception of Clausewitz before the war, yet it seems to have been very widely accepted. Another view, which stressed Clausewitz's emphasis on maintaining a rational relationship between war and policy and which correctly understood him as a believer in the balance of power and the state system, seems to have had far less currency. Nonetheless, the latter view—descending in some measure from the work of Sir Julian Corbett and greatly reinforced by the writings of German expatriates in America—preserved an appreciation of Clausewitz which would later come to predominate in the atmosphere of the Cold War.

The widespread rejection of Clausewitz was rooted in an understandable but in many cases unthinking antimilitarism, combined with Anglo-Saxon chauvinism, general Germanophobia, and, after 1933, anti-Nazism. To the extent that Clausewitz was discussed among military intellectuals, his reputation and message were severely distorted in the course of J.F.C. Fuller's and Basil Liddell Hart's attempts to reinvent military theory. Fuller's treatment of On War was ambivalent, usually favorable but dismissive and often very misleading. Only after 1945 did Fuller become a staunch advocate for the study of Clausewitz. Liddell Hart's public attitude toward Clausewitz, on the other hand, remained consistently hostile, ill considered, and tremendously influential. Representatives of the prewar generation of military thinkers (like Spenser Wilkinson) and newer writers (like Cyril Falls and F.B. Maurice) conducted a rearguard effort to preserve a British appreciation for the theoretical subtleties of On War, but this effort shed relatively little light into the shadows created by Liddell Hart, Fuller, and reaction to the Great War.

During the same period, serious studies of Clausewitz finally began to appear in the United States. This was in part a result of the study of On War by individual American soldiers and in part a natural outgrowth of the continuing study of German methods in American military schools. There is, however, little evidence that Clausewitz's works were a significant element in the American military educational system between the two world wars. In the army's schools, Clausewitz's name was used, but his key ideas were largely ignored, distorted, or rejected. In the navy, Clausewitz's ideas were spread more accurately through the works of Wilkinson and Corbett; his ideas on the relationship between war and policy were better accepted most likely because they were so compatible with Mahan's.

Clausewitz entered the military intellectual mainstream in America only in the mid-1940s, under the pressure of war and largely through the influence of Edward Mead Earle's seminal 1943 anthology, Makers of Modern Strategy.(*1) The first "American" translation of Vom Kriege also appeared in 1943, produced by a German expatriate.(*2)

It was in some respects an improvement on the earlier Graham translation, but Graham's work remained the most widely used version and served as the basis for most subsequent treatments of Clausewitz.

The most sophisticated analyses of Clausewitz to be published in America were the work of German expatriates like Alfred Vagts, Hans Rothfels, and Herbert Rosinski. Rothfels's essay on Clausewitz in Earle's Makers of Modern Strategy was by far the most widely read positive treatment, but in the longer run the most important of these expatriates may have been Rosinski, who was actively involved in American military education. These German scholars, none of whom were military professionals, introduced into English-language discussion the new approach of German scholars to the study of Clausewitz, that is, the attempt to get beyond a literal reading of his published works—principally On War—and to approach the ideas they contained by examining them in their original historical context and by relating them to a deeper understanding of their author as a human being. The attempts of Rosinski and Hans Delbrück to build on Clausewitz's work to create a more applicable—if more narrowly strategic—theory also found their ways into English in this period. It was the German expatriates who laid the basis for the post-World War Two American interest in On War, an interest that would blossom after Korea and veritably explode following the Vietnam War.

Aside from some of the works by German émigrés, however, little of the American comment on Clausewitz between 1914 and 1945 exceeded the sophistication of that published in England between 1902 and 1914. A major exception was Captain (USN) George J. Meyers's work, but Meyers's highly Clausewitzian book Strategy seems to have had no noteworthy impact.

Overall, the predominating Anglo-American image of Clausewitz in this period was probably the distorted one painted dishonestly by propagandists, unintentionally by Fuller, and unreasonably by Liddell Hart.

NOTES to the Introduction to Part III

1. Edward Mead Earle, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1944).

2. Karl von Clausewitz, trans. O.J. Matthijs Jolles, On War (New York: Random House, 1943; Washington, D.C.: Infantry Journal Press, 1950).

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