Every century must appear to those who live through it as the most important in history. In the case of the 20th century, an argument can be made that it represents a turning point comparable to the great transitional periods of human history and that, unlike these other periods, it affects directly and immediately most of the globe and not just Europe and its dependencies. Such an argument would no doubt begin by citing the quantitative data for economic production, technological progress, population growth, war casualties, and mass consumption, and it would be a compelling case on these statistical grounds alone. The argument would conclude with reference to the intellectual revolution of 20th-century science, the collapse of European and American dominance of the nonwhite world, and the rise of mass ideologies and organizations that claim the future of mankind. Neither William R. Keylor’s The Twentieth Century World nor Bernadotte Schmitt and Harold C. Vedeler’s The World in the Crucible makes such an argument, however, for it lies beyond the more prosaic tasks that they in general admirably perform in their pages.

Keylor, Schmitt, and Vedeler fortunately avoid the rehash of historiographical controversies that so often serves as a substitute for history and dwell instead on their own reading of 20th-century history and of its progenitor, the First World War. That reading in general is the orthodox or establishment view of contemporary events. Keylor essentially argues that German expansionism was the principal cause of World War I, that Hitler’s ideologically based aggression and the lackluster response of his foreign opponents were the causes of World War II, and that American misinterpretation of Stalin’s seizure of Eastern Europe as Marxist imperialism led to the Cold War and its anxieties. Similarly, while perhaps overemphasizing the military history of the war at the expense of internal political and social changes, Schmitt and Vedeler offer negative assessments of the German state, German strategy, and German statecraft during the war. They are generally hostile to the institutions and societies that were swept away by what was once naively called the “Great War.” Neither volume is intended to be particularly thought-provoking, but both, allowing for the ideological prepossessions of their authors, are probably among the most comprehensive and objective textbooks available.

Nevertheless, amidst the assemblage of facts and chronicles, the reader may begin to perceive the world-historical importance of this century, the war that brought it about, and perhaps even what may come from it. Although Schmitt and Vedeler do not state the problem so explicitly, it is clear from their volume that the crucial challenge of the 20th century has been Ortega’s revolt of the masses. This revolt is only in part due to deracination and rebelliousness. It is more specifically the result of the increase in population coupled with the far-reaching reorganization of the masses through new technology (especially in communications). Because of unprecedented population growth, traditional social and political institutions were unable to contain the new masses. The first brutal evidence appeared when World War I, contrary to the expectations of the strategists who planned it, began to consume hundreds of thousands of casualties in single battles and to require ever larger financial and material resources for its voracity.

The technology of 20th-century social and political organization (not simply office gadgetry but more importantly the bureaucratic state and the managerial organization in economy and society), coupled with the available masses, dictated and informed the most important events of the century. Although this revolution had its roots in the 19th century, it was the First World War that forced its participants to invent the organizational and disciplinary means by which entire societies could be mobilized for a single purpose. What the rest of the century learned from World War I was that these new organizational forms could be used for peacetime goals as well and indeed that they were the only discernible forms for controlling and motivating the masses.

In economic life, the war created the need for mass production of food, clothing, and the apparatus of war; hence, the size and composition of the labor force altered, and the state took a larger role than before in the coordination of economic activity. As Schmitt and Vedeler summarize this phenomenon:


The ever-increasing need for the largest possible measure of war production compelled a reorganization of the national economy and state machinery in the form of war socialism, or Zwangs­wirtschaft. The expanded state of many agencies and tentacles directed the economic life of the nation and put into operation a planned economy for the purpose of utilizing the national resources with maximum efficiency in the prosecution of the war. The state was forced to create a mechanism for ordering priorities of allocation and distribution of scarce raw materials and manpower.


The demands of the war forced further changes in what was left of the private economy in the expansion of automation, the reorganization of the factory system, and the standardization of mass production. The expanded bureaucracy and the new, rising managerial class increased the size of middle-income strata but corresponded with a decrease in the number of independent entrepreneurs, the heroes of the bourgeois order. The emancipation of women and the increased power of organized labor, with their attendant cultural and political effects, were also results of the war.

In terms of political organization, the war led to equally far-reaching consequences. The totalitarian state of Lenin was the immediate creation of the war and offered a model for the organization and control of the masses that continues to appeal to American college professors. Lenin’s revolutionary apparatus so fully proved its value for seizing power that it also continues to be emulated. One of the most interesting chapters in Schmitt and Vedeler’s book, “The Revolution in Warfare,” discusses the new dimensions of political and economic conflict, with their emphasis on the mobilization of mind and emotion for political ends and of noncombatant sectors of the mass population. Total war involves not only a fight to the death, but also the mobilization of all sectors and institutions of society, and only a total state can conduct it. While Lenin’s political inventions are extreme cases, the effect of World War I on Western states was to transform them also into incipient totalitarian regimes. The specialized bureaucracy that operated the newly emerging states has remained as the characteristic form of political organization of the 20th-century world.

The enduring importance of the First World War, then, does not lie in its physical destruction or international destabilization, but in its creation, through the conjunction of mass and machine, of a new form of society that was known to neither the aristocrats and dynasts of the old regime nor to the bourgeoisie and proletariat of the 19th century. The new society required a new kind of ruler, detached from his social roots, indifferent or hostile to traditional values, and basing his power on his specialized ability to understand and make use of the new technology of social control in state, economy, science, education, war, and propaganda—in short, the manager.

Mr. Keylor’s account of the international relations of this new society includes not only the usual discussion of European affairs but also informative chapters on U.S.-Latin American relations and of Far Eastern events. Unfortunately, his book, designed as a text for undergraduates, omits virtually all discussion of the role of the unique characteristics of the 20th century in international affairs. As the author tells us in his Preface, “little attention is devoted to the internal social, political, or cultural history of individual states,” and he follows the traditional practice of discussing the conduct of foreign policy in terms of national units—e.g., “Japan went to war”—and acknowledges that “it would be tedious to repeat each time what is denoted by these handy labels: the political, economic, and military elites that shape the foreign policies of a state.” The result is a detailed but rather artificial portrait of disembodied abstractions pursuing or failing to pursue equally disembodied interests. At the risk of being tedious, Mr. Keylor might have done well to discuss not only the role of internal elites in the formulation and conduct of foreign policy but also the conflicts within internal elites as well as the relationship of other aspects of 20th­century society to international affairs. Thus, the rise of professional foreign services in place of aristocratic amateurs, the technological sophistication of war, and the replacement of 19th­century tycoons and adventurers by mass, publicly owned, manager-controlled corporations are distinctive features of the century that play important foreign policy roles but which are passed over entirely by Mr. Keylor’s history.

Perhaps, from this perspective, the most striking phenomenon of contemporary international affairs is the demise of the United States as the predominant world power-a demise that is not due to material breakdowns and which has been not only intentionally promoted but also praised by the new managerial elite that presided over it. It is all very well to talk about the economic challenge of Europe and Japan, the military expansion of the Soviets, and the unwillingness of the Third World to defer to Western and American predominance. The fact remains that these trends have been encouraged by the American establishment through foreign aid and development, the embracing of detente and “Mutual Assured Destruction,” and more recently through the imposture of “human rights.” The great question is: does the elite understand what it is doing or is it so naive, guilt-ridden, or possessed by its own ideological illusions about man and his world that it really does not know what happens to nations that surrender power?

Critics of American foreign policy generally have dismissed the former alternative as “conspiracy theory” and have preferred some version of the latter. There is, however, a tertium quid. The dominant elite in the United States holds power through its ability to control the mass organizations and technology of 20th-century society. Its power is not the power that derives from force or the threat of force but rather from expertise, manipulation, negotiation, and management—the form of power that World War I began to perfect. The elite is therefore not fitted to deal with coercive power relations; it is essentially incapable of fighting wars or suppressing violent challenges to its regime by criminals and terrorists. (It is no accident that we now have an elite profession of “crisis management” to deal with terrorism and outbreaks of mass violence.)

This manipulative mentality of the national elite, assumed to meet the demands of its internal position in a postindustrial society, is irrelevant to the characteristic problems of international power. Nations, said Thomas Hobbes, are perpetually in “the posture of gladiators,” and relations among them are. seldom mitigated by laws, traditions, or justice. In those instances where the mentality of our elite is shared by others (i.e., Western Europe, Japan, Canada,  and  a  few other developed states), the managerial style in diplomacy can probably work; in those instances where there is no such consensus among elites—the communist states and the majority of Third World regimes—the predominance of this style in policy typically leads to disaster and the erosion of the international power of the managerial states.

The suicidal impulses of American foreign policy are therefore, in this view, inherent in the elite that formulates our policy, and it is no good to talk about new ideas or new policy­makers if they are drawn from the same elite formations as the old ones. What really should be explored is how the structure and mentality of this elite dominated by the “foxes” of Machiavelli and Vilfredo Pareto can be modified or balanced so as to promote a mentality that can understand and make use of coercive power successfully. The prospects for such a development are not promising, however.

The history of the 20th century therefore awaits an analyst who can assess its complex and contradictory details within an informed appreciation of its unique and world-historical nature. These two books do not· attempt such an interpretative synthesis, but the fact that they can be written at all perhaps suggests that it will soon be possible to hazard an attempt.