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Van Evera, Stephen, 17.42 Causes and Prevention of War, Spring 2009. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare),  (Accessed 09 Jul, 2010). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Causes and Prevention of War

Spring 2005

Photograph of jet launching missile.

An F-16 Fighting Falcon dropped two joint direct attack munitions on the bombing range over Chik-Do Island, South Korea, during training July 2. The munitions were dropped by Lt. Col. Eric Schnitzer from the 80th Fighter Squadron at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Alex Lloyd.)

Course Highlights

This course features an extensive reading list addressing topics related to the causes and prevention of war.

Course Description

The causes and prevention of interstate war are the central topics of this course. The course goal is to discover and assess the means to prevent or control war. Hence we focus on manipulable or controllable war-causes. The topics covered include the dilemmas, misperceptions, crimes and blunders that caused wars of the past; the origins of these and other war-causes; the possible causes of wars of the future; and possible means to prevent such wars, including short-term policy steps and more utopian schemes.

The historical cases covered include World War I, World War II, Korea, Indochina, and the Peloponnesian, Crimean and Seven Years wars.


Course Topic

The causes and prevention of interstate war.

Course Goal

Discovering and assessing means to prevent or control war. Hence we focus on manipulable or controllable causes. The topics covered include the dilemmas, misperceptions, crimes and blunders that caused wars of the past; the origins of these and other war-causes; the possible causes of wars of the future; and possible means to prevent such wars, including short-term policy steps and more utopian schemes.

The historical cases covered include the Peloponnesian and Seven Years wars, World War I, World War II, Korea, the Arab-Israel conflict, and the U.S.-Iraq and U.S.-Al Qaeda wars.

This is an undergraduate course but is open to graduate students.

Format and Requirements

Class Format

Two 1.5-hour general meetings and one 1-hour discussion section meeting per week. Class starts on time and runs exactly an hour and twenty-five minutes.

Course Grading

Section Participation 15%
Two 8-page Papers 35%
Two Quizzes 15%
Final Exam 35%

Discussion Sections

Students are required to attend section meetings. Unexcused absence from section will be penalized. We need you to come to section to help make the class work! Help us out!

Two student-led debates on responsibility for World War I and World War II will be organized in section when those wars are covered in April.


Students are required to write two short ungraded response papers that reacts to course readings and lectures, and several longer papers on questions arising from the course material. The two response papers each will be two pages long (doublespaced--not 1.5 spaced, please). The longer papers will total 16 pages.

Your 2-page response papers should advance an argument relevant to the course. Specifically, your argument can dispute argument(s) advanced in the reading or lectures; can concur with argument(s) advanced in the reading or lectures; can assess or explain policies or historical events described in the reading and lectures; or can address current events that are relevant to course materials or issues. In other words, your choice of topic is quite open. Evaluation of policies or ideas covered in the reading or lecture is encouraged. Somewhere in your papers--preferably at the beginning--please offer a 1-2 sentence summary of your argument. These papers will not be graded but are mandatory and must be completed to receive full credit for class participation.

The response papers will be due one day after lecture 14 and one day before lecture 25.

We require that you submit a finished draft of at least one of your longer papers a week before its due date in order to get comments for rewrite from your TA, and/or the 17.42 writing tutor. You are wise to submit all longer papers to your TA early for comments--you'll learn from it! So please leave yourself time to get comments on drafts of your longer papers from your TAs before you submit final drafts.

Before writing your papers, please familiarize yourself with the rules of citing sources (to be handed out) and make sure you follow them. Failure to cite sources properly is plagiarism.


Two short (15 minute) quizzes will be given. They will occur in lecture 10 and lecture 22. Three short define-and-identify questions will be asked on each quiz.

Final Exam

A 2.5 hour final will be given in the last session. I will circulate a list of study questions before the final. The final exam questions will be drawn from this list. Students are encouraged to study together to prepare their answers. The final will also include short-answer questions that will not be distributed in advance.


Assigned readings total about 1650 pages, for a 14-week average of 118 pages per week, but they vary markedly in amount, so try to budget your time to be able to cover heavy weeks (e.g. the two World Wars, which together cover 770 pages in 4 weeks--i.e., nearly 200 pages per week.) Students are expected to do the readings before section meeting. This is important! (You may be called on in section from time to time.)

Students should buy these books:

 Haffner, Sebastian. The Meaning of Hitler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979. ISBN: 9780297775720.

 Ienaga, Saburo. The Pacific War, 1931-1945. New York, NY: Pantheon, 1979. ISBN: 9780394734965.

 Iklé, Fred. Every War Must End. Revised ed. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1991. ISBN: 9780231076890.

 Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner. Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1954. ISBN: 9780140440393.

 Miller, Steven E., Sean M. Lynn-Jones, and Stephen Van Evera. Military Strategy and the Origins of the First World War. Revised ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991. ISBN: 9780691023496.

 Stoessinger, John. Nations at Dawn. 6th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1994. ISBN: 9780070616264.

 Lynn-Jones, Sean M., and Steven E. Miller, eds. The Cold War and After: Prospects for Peace. Expanded ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993. ISBN: 9780262620888.

 Rees, Martin. Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind's Future in this Century - On Earth and Beyond. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2003. ISBN: 9780465068623.

I also recommend--but don't require--that students buy a copy of the following book that will improve your papers:

 Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. 6th ed. Rev. by John Grossman and Alice Bennett. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996. ISBN: 9780226816272.

Turabian has the basic rules for formatting footnotes and other style rules. You will want to follow these rules so your writing looks spiffy and professional.

Your papers and public speaking may also be improved by seeking help from MIT's Writing and Communications Center. They give good writing advice and have useful practice facilities for public speaking.

Films: The 17.42 Film Society

A couple of optional evening film-showings will be organized during the term on topics to be chosen by acclamation of the class. Topics could include the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, or other subjects.

17.42 is a HASS Communications Intensive course, and so helps fulfill the HASS CI requirement. Communications intensive subjects in the humanities, arts, and social sciences require at least 20 pages of writing divided among 3-5 assignments. Of these 3-5 assignments, at least one should be revised and resubmitted. HASS CI subjects further offer students substantial opportunity for oral expression, through presentations, student-led discussions, or class participation. In order to guarantee sufficient attention to student writing and substantial opportunity for oral expression, the maximum number of students per section in a HASS CI subject is 18.

17.42 requires 20 pages of writing, requires early submission of at least one paper, and includes two public speaking exercises in section. Sections will include fewer than 10 students. Thus 17.42 meets all HASS-D communication-intensive course requirements.


Lec # topics key dates
I. Introduction
1 The causes of war in perspective. Does international politics follow regular laws of motion? If so, how can we discover them? Can we use methods like those of the physical sciences?  
II. 33 Hypotheses on the Causes of War
2-3 8 Hypotheses on Military Factors as Causes of War  
4-7 Misperception and War; Religion and War
10 Hypotheses on Misperception and the Causes of War
Hypotheses from Psychology; Militarism; Nationalism; Spirals and Deterrence; Religion and War; Defects in Academe and the Press
8-9 14 More Causes of War and Peace: Culture, Gender, Language, Democracy, Social Equality and Social Justice, Minority Rights and Human Rights, Prosperity, Economic Interdependence, Revolution, Capitalism, Imperial Decline and Collapse, Cultural Learning, Emotional Factors (Revenge, Contempt, Honor), Polarity of the International System
Causes of Civil War
III. Cases: Wars and Crises
10 The Seven Years War Quiz 1
11 The Wars of German Unification: 1864, 1866, and 1870; and Segue to World War I  
12-14 World War I World War I debate
Paper one due one day after lecture 14
15 Interlude: Hypotheses on Escalation and Limitation of War; and Nuclear Weapons, Nuclear Strategy, other Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Causes of War  
16-19 World War II World War II/Europe debate
World War II/Pacific debate
20-21 The Cold War, Korea and Indochina Quiz 2 during lecture 20
22 The Peloponnesian War  
23-24 The Israel-Arab Conflict; the 2003 U.S.-Iraq War Paper two due one day before lecture 25
IV. The Future of War
25-26 Testing and Applying Theories of War Causation; the Future of War, Solutions to War  
  Final Exam   Tell A Friend