World War One – Lessons from the catastrophe as Great Power tensions rise again

04 Jul 2014

Sir Harold Evans, Moderator, Editor at Large
June 28 marked the 100th anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife. Five weeks later Europe was engulfed in World War One, and America, too, by 1917.

The conflict yielded more than 20 million dead, missing and wounded, reshaped the map of Europe and led directly to World War Two and then the Cold War. Who—if anyone—was to blame for what George Kennan called, “the great seminal catastrophe of this century—the event which…lay at the heart of the failure and decline of this Western civilization.” And what can we learn from the serial miscalculations of risk now that Great Power tensions rise again over Ukraine and the South and East China Seas?

On the evening of June 30 Reuters Editor-at-Large Sir Harold Evans welcomed two former U.S. secretaries of state, two celebrated historians and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author to 3 Times Square to try and answer some of those questions.

Jim Smith, CEO of Thomson Reuters, introduced the panelists and a moving short film commissioned to mark the occasion. In the piece British actor, comedian, presenter and activist Stephen Fry recites the Wilfred Owen poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth” over a trove of World War One photographs from the Imperial War Museum, the Archive of Modern Conflict and some unseen images recently discovered by Reuters in France.

We asked Sir Harold for his favorite moments from the discussion:

  • Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s assertion that her priority in office was to avoid war, and that the Iraq war was something in which we should not have gotten involved, and Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s follow-up assertion that, at  least domestically, wars commonly start in unanimity and end in acrimony.
  • Historian Margaret MacMillan’s injection of levity. At a moment when the other panelists where heatedly debating who should take the blame for causing World War One, she proposed blaming her native Canada for it.

You can watch the entire discussion on Reuters Insider.

Meet the Panelists

Dr. Madeleine Albright was the first female U.S. Secretary of State.Madeleine Albright became the United States’ first female secretary of state in 1997 and, at that time, was the highest ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government. Dr. Albright is a professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and chairs both the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the Pew Global Attitudes Project.
Scott Berg, Pulitzer prize winnerA. Scott Berg is the author of five biographical books including the Pulitzer prize-winning “Lindbergh”. His biography of Woodrow Wilson was published in September, 2013 and became an immediate bestseller.
Henry Kissinger,, 56th U.S. Secretary of State, served as assistant to the PResident for National Security Affairs and was a member of the Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy of the National Security Council and Defense DepartmentHenry A. Kissinger became the 56th U.S. secretary of state in September 1973 and served as the assistant to the President for National Security Affairs from 1969-75. From 1986-1988 he was a member of the Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy of the National Security Council and Defense Department.
Margaret MacMillian, Warden of St Antony's College and Professor of Internatioanl History at the University of OxfordMargaret MacMillan is the Warden of St Antony’s College and a Professor of International History at the University of Oxford. Her books include “Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World” (2001)Her most recent book is “The War That Ended Peace”, published in October, 2013. She sits on the board of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and the editorial boards of International History and First World War Studies.
Sean McMeekin, Norman B. Tomlinson Prize and Marshall Shulman Prize winnerSean McMeekin teaches modern history at Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey.  Educated at Stanford and UC Berkeley, he is the author of five books, including two about World War One: “The Russian Origins of the First World War” (Harvard/Belknap, 2011), which won the Norman B. Tomlinson Prize in 2012, and was listed for the Marshall Shulman Prize; and “July 1914. Countdown to War,” published by Basic Books (USA) and Icon (UK) in 2013.