12th Grade: Thucydides and the Cold War


This week we began our own Peloponnesian War game on Friday, and in class we delved into the diplomatic tension that ended up bringing on a war between Athens and Sparta.

Athens and Sparta represented two different ways of life, with two different basis of military power.  During the Persian Wars between 490-479 B.C. they attained to a measure of foreign unity only because of a common foe.  Afterwards they resumed their normal role of a “cold” animosity.  Just as the war began the Greek world looked like this. . .

Sparta had an army no one could touch, and the same applied to Athens’ navy.  In a way, they had achieved a kind of ancient M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction).  Both could do each other in, hypothetically, in different ways.  Then Athens decided to build a wall around its city and still preserve access to the sea.  It looked something like this:

Athens' Long Wall

Some of us may remember Reagan’s idea of a “Star Wars” missile defense system.  Many objected to the idea along the grounds that the project would not work or be too expensive, but many in Europe objected to it as well.  Why would even our allies object to a defense system?

  • Some probably thought that if the Soviets could not use their long-range weapons to hit the U.S., they would concentrate on their medium-range missiles and obliterate Europe instead.  Thus, some saw that U.S. actions might have an enormous impact on their lives, and yet they had no say in the making of those decisions. Arnold Toynbee called this the complaint of, “No annhilation without representation.”
  • Others saw that if the system worked, M.A.D. would be obsolete.  The deterrent to war from the U.S. perspective would be gone, which might make offensive action from us more likely.  Or, would the Soviets do a first-strike before the system became operational, knowing that their “time was short?”  In this way, many saw the building of a “defensive” system as an essentially offensive act.

Many in Sparta saw the situation in Athens the same way.  If the Spartans could not invade and sack the city, then the Athenians had much less of a deterrent to venture far and wide with its navy.  The walls had the direct purpose of defending themselves from attack, and after all, the Persians had sacked Athens during the Persian Wars.  But, this was not how others interpreted their actions.

When the Cold War began in the late 1940’s Secretary of State George Marshall urged those around him to delve into Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, for he believed that the conflict had significant parallels to the problems they would face.  He proved prescient.

Athens faced a crucial decision between the years 434-433 B.C.  Corcyra had maintained neutrality in the run-up to what would be the war but faced a crisis.  Corinth threatened them with invasion, and they knew that in time, they would likely fall in a protracted war.  As a neutral they had no allies, but they could turn to Athens (Corinth was a Spartan ally, so they certainly could not ask for Spartan help).  Athens heard from both delegations, and Thucydides records that the debate hinged on a few key points with one of them being the idea of the inevitability of war.

The Corcyrans argued that conflict with Sparta would come sooner or later, but it would certainly come.  Thus, you should ally with us because when war comes you want us as friends rather than enemies.

Corinth countered with the opposite: peace was the current reality between Athens and Sparta and that had every reason to continue.  War would only come by overt disruption of the peace, and Athenian ships tangling with Corinthian ships might be just the thing to bring on war.

LeMay with KennedyIn the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 General Curtis LeMay believed that Kennedy should order a full-strike against the missiles in Cuba and initiate war with the Soviet Union.  He knew that at the time we had a significant lead in nuclear weapons and would therefore win any kind of nuclear conflict.  Yes, millions of U.S. citizens would die, but the Soviets would no longer exist and trouble us no more.  If we waited, the Soviets would close the gap on our lead and then when war came millions more Americans would die and our victory would be much more in doubt.

Athens had the same decision to make, and decided to attempt a halfway solution.  They allied with Corcyra, but only for minimal defensive purposes.  Most of the students approved of this option as a way to get the best of both worlds, and it could have possibly worked out.  In actual fact, the presence of Athenian ships at the Battle of Sybota made Corinth hopping mad, but were not enough to tip the battle decisively in Athens and Corcyra’s favor.  The Corinthian fleet would live to haunt Athens at a later date.

Next week we’ll delve into the actual fighting as the war began.

If you are interested in the speeches of Corcyra and Corinth as Thucydides records them, they can be accessed online, beginning with Book 1, Chapter 32.