Essays & Reviews

On Halford J. Mackinder’s The Geographical Pivot of History (1919)

In 1904, British geographer Halford J. Mackinder presented a landmark paper, "The Geographical Pivot of History," to the Royal Geographic Society of London. In this and subsequent writings, Mackinder argued that changes in technology—especially the revolution in land transportation brought about by the railroad, the internal combustion engine, and the construction of a modern highway and road network—had altered the relationship between sea and land power, bringing the Columbian age of dominant sea power to a close. In this new, tightly connected global system, land power would hold the advantage. The center of emerging land power was the Eurasian core area—the geographical pivot, roughly coincident with the tsarist Russian empire—that Mackinder would come to call the Heartland.

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Classic Works

Herodotus, The Histories (5th Century BCE)

Herodotus, who wrote a generation after the Persian Wars, puts these battles in the context of a great clash of civilizations, between Greek freedom and Asian despotism. He seeks to explain why and how a relatively poor, small, and divided collection of Greek-speakers were able to defeat a much larger, wealthier, and centralized empire. On the battlefield itself, on land and at sea, the Greeks were better disciplined and employed superior close-order tactics, such as staying in ranks rather than attempting to kill the greatest number of enemy soldiers in open combat. But Herodotus' generic answer reflected the views of his contemporaries and greatly influenced the West's understanding of itself: "As long as the Athenians were ruled by a despotic government, they had no better success in war than any of their neighbors. Once the yoke was flung off, they proved the finest fighters in the world."

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American Classics

Walter Lippmann, U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic (1943)

Shield of the Republic formulated what might be called the Lippmann equilibrium, which has become the standard of American realists: "Foreign policy consists in bringing into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation's commitments and the nation's power. I mean by a foreign commitment an obligation, outside the continental limits of the United States, which may in the last analysis have to be met by waging war. I mean by power the force which is necessary to prevent such a war or to win it if it cannot be prevented. In the term necessary power I include the military force which can be mobilized effectively within the domestic territory of the United States and also the reinforcements which can be obtained from dependable allies." If this strategic equilibrium could be brought into being, American foreign policy would command domestic support. On the other hand, if American commitments exceed American power, the resulting insolvency—"the Lippmann gap"—would lead to deep political dissension.

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American Classics

U.S. Grant, The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (1885)

What was, and is, extraordinary about Grant's Memoirs is its clarity, which reflected the clarity of thought that distinguished Grant as a military commander. "There is one striking feature of Grant's orders," General George Meade's chief of staff noted, "no matter how hurriedly he may write them on the field, no one has ever had the slightest doubt as to their meaning, or even has to read them over a second time." With good maps at hand—one must have good maps—the logic and power of Grant's operational approach to the war stands out even to the unschooled reader.

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Classic Works

Winston S. Churchill, The Story of Malakand Field Force

"Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result." Thus wrote Lt. Winston Churchill, age 22, as he reflected on his experience as a member of the Malakand Field Force, dispatched in the summer of 1897 to deal with unrest on the Northwest Frontier of British India (now part of Pakistan).

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Essays & Reviews

The Malthusian Revival

The ideas of Thomas Malthus, which had a considerable impact on the thinking of many American Founders, including Jefferson, Madison, and John Quincy Adams (the son of a Founder), have undergone something of an intellectual and political renaissance

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Essays & Reviews

Tom Ricks on Piers Mackesy

Tom Ricks, the Post's Senior Military Correspondent, calls Piers Mackesy’s book on the “strategic history” of the American Revolution, “the single best such work that I have ever encountered.”

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