Some Damn Fool Thing from the Balkans of 1914 to the Koreas of 2017, It Doesn't Take Much to Set off Hair Triggers

By Shribman, David M. | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), August 20, 2017 | Go to article overview

Some Damn Fool Thing from the Balkans of 1914 to the Koreas of 2017, It Doesn't Take Much to Set off Hair Triggers


Shribman, David M., Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


SIBENIK, Croatia

Some damn fool thing in the Balkans.

That is the answer Bismarck gave when he was asked what might spark an uncontrollable military conflict in Europe. Years later his prophecy was realized with tragic implications. Some damn fool thing in the Balkans - in that case the assassination of Archduke Frank Ferdinand and his wife Sophie at Sarajevo, less than five hours by motorcar from here - began the Great War. It took another generation for that war, which stretched form 1914 to 1918, to require the wide use of an ominous Roman numeral.

Now, some damn fool thing in East Asia, involving some damn fool in Pyongyang, threatens to unleash another war, the most dreaded of all military conflicts, one perhaps involving nuclear weapons and a third set of Roman numerals.

The world shudders - and gropes for historical antecedents. The most obvious one occurred 55 years ago, with the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the two great powers of the time, the Soviet Union and the United States, went eyeball to eyeball - the phrase is attributed to Dean Rusk, the American secretary of state - before Nikita Khrushchev blinked and began the long process of removing nuclear weapons from the island 90 miles from Florida.

But like most comparisons, it is an imperfect one. The two near-combatants of 1962 were superpowers led by rational men, aware of the consequences, knowledgeable about each other - they had met in Vienna more than a year earlier - and respectful of diplomatic norms. The least experienced of the two, the callow American president, had been beaten up at the summit but, nonetheless, John F. Kennedy knew something about how the world worked. Indeed, while Americans like to quote his "ask-not" riff in his eloquent inaugural address, the more relevant phrase may be this one: "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate."

Fortunately, the cooler heads in Kennedy's successor administration of today apparently heed the back half of that sentence.

There maybe no crisp antecedents to the current crisis, but there are historical lessons that can shape our perspectives as the situation works its way to resolution or confrontation, and some of them come from the Balkans, an area as full of damn fools as any. Here we can start to apprehend one of the signature elements of the Korea situation.

The beginning of understanding the Balkans is the notion of the difference between countries and nations. Postwar Yugoslavia - which encompassed Croatia along with Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia and Bosnia/Hercegovina - was a country. But it was composed of many nations - and languages, some using the Latin alphabet, some the Cyrillic. Some of its residents spoke Italian, and indeed much of the fruit in the street markets of Slovenia today comes from Italy. This hodgepodge in defiance of history was not a 20th-century invention. The old Hapsburg monarchy, which ruled from Tyrol in the west to Transylvania in the east, was an uneasy construct consisting of Germans, Magyars, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, Serbs, Slovenians, Italians, Romanians, Poles and some Russians. …

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