“History,” said the American industrialist Henry Ford, “is more or less bunk.” Even the great eighteenth-century historian of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, was only slightly more respectful: “history,” he declared, is “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of Mankind.” So why bother to consult, let alone write, a multivolume work of international history and international relations such as this? Because history is—whatever Ford thought of it on his good days or Gibbon on his bad ones—the most important of all humanistic inquiries. For modern societies to live with the forces of nature that science has unleashed and that ideological folly or personal vanity threatens to deploy for destructive or oppressive purposes, they first must come to terms with history. Their leaders and citizens alike must understand the ways in which increased material knowledge brings social progress even as it expands conflict and opportunities for war. And they must appreciate that vanity and a lust for power among people of sustained ambition abides still near the center of public affairs and relations among nations and states. In sum, they must realize the profound truth of the matter-of-fact observation, which Albert Einstein once made, that politics is both more difficult, and ultimately far more important, even than nuclear physics.
This work presents readers with the essential continuity of events of their own day with the great ideas, leading personalities, and major developments of the past. Yet, how does any scholar determine what is a key event and who the leading individuals are or identify great-unseen forces and long-term trends that lead to tectonic shifts in the affairs of states and peoples? It is by now axiomatic that historians “know more and more about less and less.” That is a particular problem for a work such as this, where the danger lurks