Niall Ferguson is a Scottish-born historian, political commentator, and public intellectual. He is also the Lawrence Tisch Professor of History at Harvard. Ferguson graduated from Magdalen College and studied for two years as a Hanseatic Scholar in Hamburg and Berlin. Before joining the Harvard faculty, Ferguson taught at Oxford University and New York University.
A prolific commentator on contemporary politics and economics—he came out in favor of the Iraq War in 2003—Ferguson is a contributing editor for the Financial Times and publishes regularly elsewhere in the British and American press. In 2004, Time magazine named him one of the world's hundred most influential people. Ferguson is the bestselling author of the popular histories The Pity of War: Explaining World War One, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, and The War of the World. Ferguson splits his time between the United Kingdom and the United States.
Question: Was WWII the last good war?
Niall Ferguson: Well I’m not convinced that you can describe it as a good war in the first place, though we’d love to. And documentary makers in the United States, particularly, like to represent World War II as a kind of morality play, a contest between good and evil, forgetting conveniently that the war was waged principally, in its later phase, by the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany.
That is where the preponderance of the fighting occurred on the eastern front. And the Soviet Union, though it was allied to the western democracies, was really out of, to totalitarian regime as the others that we were fighting against. And it had, of course, begun the war in 1939 before the United States had became involved on the same side as Nazi Germany.
So in the "War of the World," I try to make it clear that this is extremely hard to take seriously as a morality play. It was a horrible event which could only be won by using the worst possible tactics that had been pioneered by the access of power.
For example, it was only possible to win World War II by bombing civilians. This is an extremely efficient way of killing people. It was a way of killing people that had been denounced by western leaders in the 1930s, but it was wholeheartedly embraced by them after the war begun. And it's ultimate product was the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic weapons.
It’s hard to see this as a good war in any real meaningful sense except that it had a good outcome compared with the old available alternative outcome of an Axis victory. I’m certain that that would have produced a worst world than the world that we inherited in 1945. That is as much as I think one can say about World War II.
Subsequent wars actually may have better claims. The Cold War was a much better war than World War II in two respects.
Firstly the issues were far more clear cut. The choice between freedom with all its disadvantages and complexities, and totalitarian communist rule, was a clear cut choice. And it is obvious which the right side was, although there is no question that the United States and its allies made many moral compromises in order to win the Cold War, it was nevertheless the right side to be on.
And I felt that passionately in the last decade of the Cold War, when I was coming of age politically. And it must be said that not many of my contemporaries at Oxford, in the early 1980s, saw as clearly as I think I saw which side was the right side in the Cold War.
The other good thing about the Cold War was that relatively few people died compared with World War II. Of course there was violence – and most of it happened in the Third World – it wasn’t quite the long piece that some people call it, but it was certainly preferable to a full blown nuclear war. So I’m, in that sense, a fan of the Cold War.
Recorded on: Oct 31 2007