Causes and Prevention of War >> Content Detail



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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 Participation15%
Two 8-page Papers35%
Two Quizzes15%
Final Exam35%

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:

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

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

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

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

Amazon logo 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.

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

Amazon logo 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.

Amazon logo 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:

Amazon logo 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.


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