The Declaration of War against Germany: met with war-fever and buzzing excitement above the dread. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Hulston Archive/Getty Images
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From the archive: Desmond MacCarthy’s diary “August the Fourth” on the outbreak of the First World War

The Bloomsbury-group writer and critic describing the night the First World War began for Britain, observes the madness in London, the onset of war-fever, and laments the irony of international conflict.

NATURE, I believe, meant me to be a special reporter, only she forgot to endow me with the knack of always being on the spot to which most attention is directed. Still, sometimes the many-eyed stare is not fixed on significant scenes, only on noisy ones, and, again, sometimes so much worth noticing is going on everywhere that it does not matter much where you are. The night of August 4th was such an occasion. It does not disqualify me as a re­porter that I was not in the pushing, yelling, chaffing, music-hallish crowds which thronged the Horse Guards or in the cheering ones outside the House of Commons.

I met at two in the morning, in the far and quiet west, in a shining-clean, empty residential street, an old eager, one-eyed vendor of papers with a Union Jack in his billycock. A tattered bill fluttered before him as he shuffled wearily and hurriedly forward. “Thrippence. Declaration of War,” he was shouting in a monotonous quinsied whisper. I stopped and bought. It's not in it,” he added, confidentially, pocketing the coppers, “but it's true; God's truth it is – I couldn't get the latest. I was an hour and a quarter getting through the crowd.” I looked at him and felt as if I had been in that crowd myself – yes, and could describe it, too. “If Mr. Disraeli was alive!” he croaked huskily; and after this unexpected comment he lunged on again with bent knees, leaving me under the street lamp staring at the columns of the new but already familiar heavy-leaded type.

Though the region where I parted from my friends was fairly well known to me I had lost my way. After walking about an half an hour I had come out somewhere below Holland Park. How late the ‘buses were running! And the taxis were bizzing one after the other down the main thoroughfare, just as if it was 10 o'clock. I recalled vaguely printed public injunctions about economy in petrol. Of course, of course; but economy was impossible to-night; on this night of good-byes, of slow intimacies and friendships huddled into climaxes ; night of sociable, equalising forebodings, night ominous to the solitary, but gay, positively gay, to the gregarious. For under the threat of common danger and of widespread suffering, narrow-minded, sparrow-minded humanity suddenly discovers how inspiring it is, after all, to be in touch with everybody, all; in consequence becomes much happier than usual in spite of dread and worry.

I had noticed on my late ramblings and strayings that good-nights were more frequent, and that they had a different ring. People seemed to like being stopped and asked for a match or to point out the way; their eyes were more alive, less preoccupied, more conscious of one as an individual. When I joined a group round a coffee-stall to drink a cup of hot slop, I did not feel that customary embarrassment at not being suitably dressed. The silence was more friendly; some sort of barrier was down; no one asked me for money. Beside me as I drank stood one of those little, odd, undersized fly-by-nights, her grubby hands resting side by side on the oil-cloth of the counter. She looked up under her feathers and smiled. It was a different sort of smile.

As I crossed, striking southward, some idea – what was it? – began to peep through these impressions. Then a taxi full of people and flags whizzed by, down the now empty road. A girl in a pink jersey and a man, sitting on the half-open roof, set up a long hooting screech like a siren whistle as they passed; I felt I had sampled the patriotic enthusiasm of Piccadilly Circus without going there. What luck! If I had, how depressed I should have been. For there is nothing to equal the heart-dampening sensation of being crushingly convinced by a crowd that it is only occasionally when people feel strongly that they feel like oneself.

In a road of modest villas (it was quiet and dark) I passed first one and then another waiting taxi… close on three o'clock, and in this region of prudent living! Behind the shivering acacias a door opened and a woman ran down the steps waving back to a man standing in the lighted oblong, signalling and nodding at her, agitated encouragement. In she sprang and flung herself back with that rapid preoccupied movement which seems equivalent to exclaiming “this is life,” and off she went. This hectic communal excitement we call fever,” which overlays gloom and forebodings – my idea had something to do with that. In some places, and at some times, it expressed itself in confused uproar and romping, in others in more intimate ways.

I had not come up against those blatant manifestations of it, that swaggering contempt for suffering which suggests in people such an ignominious combination of cowardice, stupidity, and cruelty. The great majority loved war unless they feared too much for themselves or for the lives of those nearest them. There was exhilaration abroad to-night, though the crisis was too apocalyptic and ominous for it not to neighbor heaviness and gloom. Close beneath lay forebodings of dreadful days and a dumb resentment at the cold-blooded idiocy of diplomacy. Still, there it was – a kind of happiness. Why did a declaration of war make people in a way unusually happy? Was it only love of excitement? Where exaltation roared and romped and streamed along the streets, it seemed it might be so; but where I had surprised it, in quieter eddies, there seemed to be another element involved. 

I caught the idea which had been peeping at me, and the irony of it was enough to make one cry: few people experience so genuinely the sense that life is worth living which a feeling of brotherhood gives as when they are banded together to kill their fellow men; never are they so conscious of the humanity of others as when they are out together, sharing risks, to smash the self-respect and mutilate the bodies of those who might, but for a few politicians, just as easily have been fighting alongside them, hoping with them, dying with them side by side.

Earlier in the night I had seen a party of French recruits doubling through the streets singing; everybody had hailed them as they went by. Coming towards me now under the lamps was a man in spectacles and a small straw hat. He looked Teutonic, so “Gute Nacht,” I said as we passed. He stopped for a second. “Ach Gott, Ach Gott! Mein liebe Freund!”

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No, Donald Trump isn't starting World War Three in North Korea

The US president is living up to his promise to be "unpredictable". But is he using war as a sales pitch? 

“I plan on not dying,” Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen told Spin magazine in 2008. “But if I have to, I want to die in Liverpool.” And so it was that nine years later, when war in the Asia-Pacific region suddenly seemed plausible, perhaps even likely, the musician pulled out of a solo show in Tokyo that was scheduled for 14 April and, according to Japan Today, left the country without even informing the event’s organisers. “We apologise for this significant inconvenience,” they later tweeted to ticketholders, blaming “news of an armed conflict between the US and North Korea” for the abrupt cancellation.

McCulloch isn’t the only one spooked by the heightened tensions between the two countries. Japan, America’s most strategically valuable ally in east Asia, lies within striking distance of Pyongyang’s weapons – military hardware that North Korea’s deputy foreign minister, Han Song-Ryol, recently insisted would continue to be tested “on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis”. On 8 April, three days before the North’s Supreme People’s Assembly was scheduled to convene, the 333-metre-long US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson left its home port of San Diego, accompanied by missile destroyers and a cruiser. The American president declared that he was sending an “armada” to the troublesome peninsula. If this was intended as a deterrence, however, North Korea was not deterred, and it fired a test missile from an eastern port on 16 April. The experiment ended in failure: the weapon exploded almost immediately after launch. Yet the message was clear. Don’t mess.

So the Korean War, which began in June 1950 but was never formally concluded with a peace treaty, has seemingly reached a crisis of a magnitude not felt since the armistice of 1953. Kim In-ryong, North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador, has accused the US of creating “a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment”. If that’s true, McCulloch did well to take the first plane out of the area.

Such an apocalyptic scenario, however, remains unlikely to play out. It would serve no one’s interests, least of all North Korea’s, since the country could be wiped out almost immediately. Donald Trump demonstrated as much when he deployed the “mother of all bombs” – the Moab, the largest conventional explosive that the US has ever used in combat – on Isis bunkers in Afghanistan on 13 April. Perhaps more concerning to other heads of state than the damage done by the weapon was the apparent irrationality of the strike: Isis’s presence in the country is limited in comparison to that of the Taliban, and such an attack was unlikely to lead to any long-term resolution of the various crises there.

The US president, in effect, was signalling that he could match foes such as Kim Jong-un in terms of unpredictability – something that he had already underscored on 6 April with his surprise strike on a Syrian government airbase. It was a showbiz gesture.

On the campaign trail in January last year, Trump was asked whether he would consider bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. “I’m gonna do what’s right,” he said. “I want to be unpredictable.” Since his inauguration, he has stuck to the latter part of that plan, from his on-again-off-again flirtation with Putin to his recent reversal on Chinese currency manipulation. Trump, it seems, is a president who wants to keep both enemies and allies on their toes. It’s a deal-making mentality – the sensibility of a salesman, not of a statesman. And it’s a dangerous one when applied to the global stage, where trust between nations is essential for any meaningful diplomacy.

If Trump is applying his “art of the deal” to America’s recent international ventures, it’s worth asking what the deal – or deals – in question might be. North Korea has long been a proxy for other problems in east Asia. The winding down of its nuclear weapons programme for its own sake looks, to me, unlikely to be the president’s principal objective (the US had a chance to pursue this in 1994 when it signed the Agreed Framework with North Korea, but political enthusiasm for it cooled almost before the ink had dried). But for a Third World War, even a thermonuclear one, to be put on the table as a potential reality, surely the stakes must be high?

I have my doubts. Trump’s foreign policy seems nowhere near as coherent or developed as, say, that of Barack Obama (imperfect though his doctrine of “patience” turned out to be). America’s recent actions have seemed opportunistic, rather than strategic. Brinkmanship from either side won't achieve anything, as both are reluctant to make concessions. So what could the US be up to?

Maybe the supposedly impending nuclear apocalypse is, at least in part, a ruse to sell stuff. Among the policy areas closest to Trump’s heart during his presidential campaign was trade. Last month, Peter Navarro, the director of the White House’s national trade council, told the Wall Street Journal: “Any country we have a significant trade deficit with needs to work with us on a product-by-product and sector-by-sector level to reduce that deficit over a specified period of time… That can be achieved, if they buy more of our products than they now are buying from the rest of the world, whether it’s chemicals or corn or whether, from a national security perspective, it’s submarines or aircraft.”

The countries with the largest trade imbalances with the US are China, Japan and Germany. China denies that it is deliberately pursuing a surplus in its dealings with US (and, frankly, what could America do about it anyway?), while Germany’s trade relations are handled by the European Union and so are difficult for the US to reset on a nation-to-nation basis. But Japan – which the US vice-president, Mike Pence, visited on a trade tour this week – has a pliable leader in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Abe, a nationalist by instinct who has long struggled to remilitarise Japan and has incrementally reinterpreted his country’s pacifist constitution to permit increased military engagement, signed a significant arms trade pact with the US last year. Resistance to his agenda has been vocal in Japan at every step. However, fears of a rising threat from North Korea would give him more wriggle room. A Japanese commission is considering the potential benefits of deploying the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on its territory. This system will soon be in use in South Korea – much to the annoyance of China, which suspects that it would be capable of tracking and countering its nuclear programme.

Trump’s insistence that trade imbalances be remedied is unrealistic in many sectors, not least in the auto sector, since Japan already allows US cars into its market tariff-free and they still don’t sell. Upping trade and collaboration in arms, however, would help Abe appease Trump while getting closer to fulfilling his own goal of a militarily robust Japan. The threat of war could also allow him to establish a more active role for the nation’s “self-defence forces”. The US president, meanwhile, would have succeeded in getting one of America’s supposed “free-rider” allies to contribute something closer to what he deems its fair share, while strengthening his hand against the real adversary: Beijing.

While US arms dealers are doubtless readying their wares for sale, war with North Korea will probably be averted by pressure from China, without whose oil, airports, trade and access to financial markets the rogue nation could not function. (Some 80 per cent of North Korean exports and imports are with China.) From this perspective, the recent tensions between the US and North Korea represent an admittedly melodramatic episode of the US “pivot” to the east, more than the beginning of the end of the world.

It’s an unstable stability, but stable enough to allow for shallow political game-playing – and I suspect Trump is gaming it (as the revelation that the Carl Vinson flotilla was 3,500 miles away from North Korea and heading the wrong way at the time of Trump’s “armada” threat suggests). So McCulloch needn’t have denied Japanese fans a rendition of “Killing Moon”. The bombs aren’t likely to fall yet.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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