By Jack D. Douglas
Vast social revolutions and wars are often preceded by periods of giving up on reforms, despairing withdrawal from public life by the best and brightest, and even peacefulness which seems to have become the normal condition in spite of deep conflicts and growing crises beneath the surfaces of public life. Often, earlier periods of intense conflicts and crises have been overcome and resolved, so it comes to look like that is the normal in life. This lulls most people into assuming their worse fears cannot happen, but this leads them to lowering their guards against growing conflicts and crises, so small ones can more easily cascade down into massive ones. If people expected they could become vast wars or revolutions or implosions, they would take more precautions to prevent that. But when lulled in expecting the worst cannot happen, the worst than they could ever imagine often explodes suddenly.
The cataclysmic French Revolution came after many decades of attempted reforms and conflicts which people had come to think of as unending. It started with new attempts at reforms, then incidents that did not seem so important, then all of it a sudden it exploded. WWI came after so many decades of peace in Europe, in spite of imperial conflicts around the world and an arms race, that most people thought a major war was impossible. Then a single murder in the far away Balkans set in motion an explosive cascade of events that led to a cataclysmic war. The Russian Revolution was preceded by such a long “lull” encouraged by European peace and reforms by the tsar that even Lenin was near despair and was living abroad. After several years of WWI and growing poverty at home, the Russian front imploded and a small event at home triggered a revolution that started small and democratic and then exploded into one of the vastest social revolutions in history. The beginning of WWII on the crucial German-French front was so quiet for so many months after France and Britain had declared war on Germany after it invaded Poland that it was called the “Sitzen Krieg” in Germany, the sit-down war, then it exploded as Germany invaded through the Ardennes. This was repeated near the end of the war as Germany built up its forces secretly for attacking through the Ardennes again.
The American Revolution looked very unlikely until that fateful British march to Concord and Lexington to enforce gun control laws. Then it exploded. The conflicts between the North and South had been so intense for so many decades, off and on, and then resolved again and again by major compromises that the Ante-Bellum period of the 1850’s seemed another replay of that scenario. Then all of a sudden there was a small incident near Charleston, moves to secession, calling up the Northern troops and an explosion of war vastly more ghastly than Americans imagined possible. War between Japan and Germany and the U.S. had been put off so many times and so long that Pearl Harbor came as quite a shock to most Americans. The 9/11 attacks on the U.S. were just as shocking all over again.