17.42 | Spring 2018 | Undergraduate

Causes and Prevention of War


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Discussion sections: 1 session / week, 1 hour / session


There are no prerequisites for this course. This is an undergraduate course but is open to graduate students.

Course Description

The course topic is the causes and prevention of interstate war. The course goal is identifying ways to prevent or control war. Hence we focus on causes of war that are manipulable or controllable, or whose effects can be abated by feasible countermeasures. Covered topics include dilemmas, misperceptions, crimes and blunders that caused wars of the past; the deeper origins of these and other war causes; the possible causes of wars of the future; and possible means to prevent such wars, including short-term policy steps and more utopian schemes. We use history to infer and test theories, and use theories to explain specific wars and other history.

Covered historical cases include the Peloponnesian and Seven Years wars, World War I, World War II, Korea, the Arab-Israel conflict, and wars between the U.S. and Iraq (2003) and the U.S. and al-Qaeda and ISIS (1993–present).

Communications Intensive Requirement

17.42 is a HASS Communications Intensive (CI) course, and so helps fulfill the HASS CI requirement. Communications intensive subjects in the humanities, arts, and social sciences require at least 20 pages of writing divided among 3–5 assignments. Of these 3–5 assignments, at least one should be revised and resubmitted.

17.42 requires 20 pages of writing, requires early submission of at least one paper, and includes two public speaking exercises in section. Sections will include fewer than 10 students.

Format and Requirements

Class Format

The class has two 1-hour general meetings and one 1-hour discussion section meeting per week. 

Discussion Sections

Students are required to attend section meetings. Sections cover key material. Also we need you to attend section to make the class work. Help us out!

Two student-led debates on responsibility for World War I and World War II will be organized in section when those wars are covered during Sessions 14–18.


Students are required to write two short ungraded response papers that react to course material, and two longer papers on questions arising from course material. The two response papers each will be two pages long (double spaced). The longer papers should total about 16 pages–roughly 8 pages each.


Two short (15 minute) quizzes will be given. They will occur during Session 8 and Session 20. Three short define-and-identify questions will be asked on each quiz.

Final Exam

A 2.5 hour final will be given during Session 26. We will circulate a list of study questions before the final. The final exam questions will be drawn from this list. Students are encouraged to study together to prepare their answers. The final will also include short-answer questions that will not be distributed in advance.

The 17.42 Film Society

A couple of optional evening film showings will be organized during the term on topics to be chosen by acclamation of the class. Topics could include the current danger of nuclear war, past and present religious conflict, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, or other subjects. Some of the film to be shown include:

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Black and white, 95 min. 1964.

Star Trek: Discovery (tv series). Color, 60 mins. / episode. 2017–.

James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword. Directed by Oren Jacoby. Color, 93 min. 2007.


Haffner, Sebastian. The Meaning of Hitler. Translated by Ewald Osers. Harvard University Press, 1983. ISBN: 9780674557758. [Preview with Google Books]

Ienaga, Saburō. The Pacific War, 1931–1945: A Critical Perspective on Japan’s Role in World War II by a Leading Japanese Scholar. Pantheon Books, 1978. ISBN: 9780394734965. [Preview with Google Books]

Iklé, Fred Charles. Every War Must End. Revised edition. Columbia University Press, 2005. ISBN: 9780231136679. [Preview with Google Books]

Rees, Sir Martin. Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future in this Century-On Earth and Beyond. Basic Books, 2004. ISBN: 9780465068630. [Preview with Google Books]

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner. Penguin Classics, 1972. ISBN: 9780140440393. 

I also recommend—but don’t require—that students buy a copy of the following book that will improve your papers:

Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers. 7th edition. University of Chicago Press, 2007. ISBN: 9780226823379.

Turabian has the basic rules for formatting footnotes and other style rules. You will want to follow these rules so your writing looks spiffy and professional.

For additional readings, see the Readings section.

Grading Policy

Grades are based on:

Section participation 15%
Two 8-page papers 40%
Final exam 30%
Two quizzes 15%

For more detail on the papers, see the Assignments section.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2018
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments with Examples
Lecture Notes