Hamilton: Words matter
In this Atomic Age, which presidential candidate has temperament to be Commander-in-Chief? In a world of fingers hovering near nuclear triggers, rash words, taken seriously, could plunge the entire planet into nuclear winter.
In the world of domestic politics, there is no better exposition of this reality than Dr. Frank Luntz’ “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear” (2008). In the world of foreign relations, there is no better example than the Ems Dispatch that led to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-72. Another example is the diplomatic bumbling that led to World War I and is described so well in Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize winning, “The Guns of August” (1962).
In 1870, France and Germany got into a diplomatic tiff because a German Prince was offered the vacant Spanish throne, causing the French to fear a German-Spanish axis. At the spa town of Bad Ems, the French ambassador interrupted the morning walk of Kaiser Wilhelm I to voice the French complaint. The Kaiser’s actual response was civil, yet non-committal. But Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had his eye on the coal fields of Alsace and the Quiche fields of Lorraine. Bismarck re-worded the official German reply to the French complaint in a way that Bismarck knew would call in question the honor of France. Predictably, the French declared war on Germany and got their derrieres handed to them by the Germans at the Battle of Sedan. By 1872, the Germans occupied the coal mines of Alsace and were dining on quiche in Lorraine, setting the stage for World War I to follow.
Another example of words gone wrong followed the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand of Austria and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Sarajevo was an incident that should have been readily resolved with a few measured words between the Central Powers, Serbia, and even Russia. Although the Austrian government in Vienna wanted to punish little Serbia — a client state of Russia — well thought out diplomatic language coming from France, Great Britain and the other European states should have been able to cool any war fever in Vienna and Moscow. Instead, confusion over the intentions of what the parties were going to do about Sarajevo set in motion the mobilization of the armed forces of Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Germany. Ever fearful of a mobilized Russia, Kaiser Wilhelm II and his Prussian generals decided to secure Germany’s west flank by attacking France via Belgium. Paris in hand, the Germans planned to then secure Germany’s eastern flank from possible Russian attack. Only it did not turn out that way. By 1918, 17 million people were dead and another 20 million had been wounded.
Bear in mind, the diplomatic missteps leading to the Franco-Prussian War and to World War I were taken at a relatively leisurely pace. In both cases, the parties had ample time — weeks or even months — to dial back any harsh words and avert war.
Today, a U.S. president has roughly 30 minutes to erect whatever we have in terms of an anti-missile defense and order our nuclear triad to launch a counter strike. In this election, words matter.
Nationally syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, is a laureate of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma University Army ROTC Wall of Fame, and is a recipient of the University of Nebraska 2015 Alumni Achievement Award. He was educated at the University of Oklahoma, the Army Language School, the George Washington University, the Infantry School, the U.S Naval War College, the University of Nebraska, and Harvard University.
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