"Economic factors were the most significant cause of war." Discuss with reference to two wars, each chosen from a different region.

 From the May 2023 IBDP Paper 2 History exam


 The statement "Economic factors were the most significant cause of war" has long been the subject of historical debate. Indeed, war is a complex phenomenon instigated by an interplay of economic, political, and social factors. The two wars selected to support this discourse are the First World War (1914-1918) and the Vietnam War (1955-1975). The former happened in Europe while the latter occurred in Southeast Asia. Both conflicts featured economic considerations as major factors; however, this essay will endeavour to scrutinise the extent of their significance compared to other variables.

The First World War saw major European powers, including the British Empire, France, and Germany, caught in a catastrophic conflict whose roots lay in a web of alliances, imperialism, and militarism. Renowned historian Fritz Fischer asserted that Germany, spurred by economic imperatives, instigated the conflict to usurp Britain's industrial and colonial supremacy. Indeed, Germany's rapid industrialisation in the late 19th and early 20th century had generated intense rivalry with Britain and France, especially in matters of colonial possessions and trade routes. German economists and policymakers had advocated for "Weltpolitik" or world policy, to secure global influence and safeguard their burgeoning economy. However, Niall Ferguson disputes Fischer's argument, suggesting that the war was more likely a product of Germany's fear of encirclement by hostile powers, rather than its pursuit of economic supremacy. Ferguson maintains that the economic gains from war were nebulous and speculative, whereas the risk of economic ruin was tangible. The presence of deep-seated nationalism and complex entangled alliances between the major powers further muddles the argument for economic considerations being the prime instigator. Therefore, while economic rivalry was undoubtedly a factor, attributing it as the main cause may be an oversimplification of the First World War's genesis. 

Delving further into the economic aspects of the First World War, it's crucial to consider the political economy of the pre-war era. By the early 20th century, Britain, France, and Germany were locked in an intense economic rivalry. As historian David Stevenson notes, Germany's pursuit of economic power, underpinned by its ambitious naval programme, heightened tensions with Britain. The naval race can be perceived as an extension of their economic rivalry, with each nation using its economic might to finance the construction of dreadnoughts and other warships. Germany's pursuit of "Weltpolitik" further exemplifies the role of economic considerations. Their economic expansion necessitated access to raw materials and markets, which could be obtained through overseas colonies and spheres of influence. Such endeavours brought Germany into direct conflict with established colonial powers, especially Britain and France, escalating tensions in the lead up to the war. 

However, whilst Fischer's argument about economic factors driving the conflict is compelling, it may be too simplistic. As historian Margaret MacMillan points out, many European powers at the time were heavily armed and driven by a sense of nationalism, which escalated the situation. Moreover, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by a Serbian nationalist was the immediate trigger that plunged the continent into war. This act was primarily political, not economic. Furthermore, the entangled alliance system that characterised pre-war Europe played a substantial role in the outbreak of the war. As highlighted by historian Christopher Clark, once the conflict began between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, the web of alliances drew other nations into the conflict, expanding the war well beyond the initial belligerents. In conclusion, while economic factors played a critical role in creating an environment of competition and hostility among the major powers leading up to the First World War, they were not the decisive factor leading to the conflict's outbreak. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the resulting domino effect of the alliance system, fuelled by intense nationalism, were more immediate causes. Economic considerations, while significant, were part of a broader tapestry of causes that led to the war.


In stark contrast, the Vietnam War was an ideological conflict, ostensibly fought to stem the tide of communism in Southeast Asia. Transitioning to the Vietnam War, the economic underpinnings of this conflict are considerably different from those of the First World War. The primary economic issue at hand was the role of South Vietnam in the economic stability of Southeast Asia. The United States, fearful of the perceived threat of communism, was committed to maintaining a capitalist South Vietnam. This drive was not merely ideological, but also economic, as the prosperity of Southeast Asia was significant for global trade, including American businesses. Economist and historian Paul M. Johnson emphasised that America's interest in the Vietnam War was deeply rooted in economic considerations. The United States, being a key player in the global capitalist system, was alarmed by the potential domino effect of Vietnam's fall to communism. If communism spread throughout Southeast Asia, it would restrict access to vital markets and resources, directly impacting American businesses. On the other hand, historian George Herring's interpretation of the war argues against the primacy of economic factors. Instead, he proposes that the war was mainly an ideological battle. The American administration believed in the 'Domino Theory', whereby the fall of one country to communism could lead to a chain reaction. Herring argues that the fear of losing other countries to communism, which was seen as an existential threat to democracy, was the predominant reason for American involvement. Additionally, the Vietnam War can also be seen as a product of Cold War dynamics, where the U.S. sought to contain the spread of communism to preserve its global influence. Noted historian William Duiker observes that the strategic importance of Vietnam, situated near the burgeoning communist China, magnified its significance in American foreign policy. In conclusion, while economic considerations played a substantial role in the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, their importance should not overshadow the ideological and geopolitical factors at play. The fear of communism spreading throughout Southeast Asia, and the potential strategic loss this could represent, were pivotal in the decision to go to war.

In conclusion, the economic aspects undeniably played a crucial role in both wars, yet their magnitude in each conflict varied and interacted significantly with political, ideological, and social factors. In the case of the First World War, economic factors were a component of the larger geopolitical rivalry, but they were arguably less significant than political and strategic considerations. In the Vietnam War, economic interests were intertwined with political ideology, making it difficult to completely isolate one as the overriding cause. Therefore, while it is valid to consider economic factors as a significant cause of war, it is reductive to deem them the most significant in these instances. Understanding the causes of war requires an appreciation for the complex and multifaceted nature of historical events.