I have read many books about World War II. There are many different types of books about that war, ranging from dense diplomatic histories, to paperback descriptions of battles with lurid covers to personal memoirs written by soldiers and civilians in every country that fought in the war. But until I read "Not Peace But a Sword" by Vincent Sheean, I don't believe that I have read a book about World War II before the war was fought, before "World War II" was even a term.

This book was written in 1937 and 1938 and published in 1939, during what the author believed to be an inevitable run up to another war. Not everyone at the time agreed, something that much of the book's consternation focuses on. The author was a war correspondent working for the New York Herald Tribune, and his reporting from The Spanish Civil War, The Sudetenland and Vienna were the basis of the work.

It is both fascinating and eerie to read something written about nazism and the coming destruction of Europe before everything predicted in the book came to pass, and came to be a glaringly obvious fact of world history.

It is also interesting to see what was emphasized and what was not. As someone who has read a lot about World War II, I knew very little about The Spanish Civil War, with most books on World War II treating it as a minor prelude to the war. I also knew that Ernest Hemingway (who was a colleague of Sheean's and is present in this book) fought in it. But for a person writing in 1938, Spain was not a sideshow: it was the only overt military conflict of the time, and the degree and spread of its violence would have seemed extreme. On the other hand, Japan, China and the rest of Asia and the Pacific are mentioned only in passing. I don't know whether this is merely the result that the author was much more personally invested in Europe, or because in 1939, no one would believe that Japan could be a serious threat to the United States.

The author's basic thesis, repeated with emotional intensity, is that Adolf Hitler was rapacious and possibly insane and that the Western Democracies were foolish and cowardly to not try to stop him, and were going to have to fight a war with him. This thesis turned out to be correct. It is of course obvious to us, although at the time of writing it showed some foresight. In certain details of politics and military tactics, his predictions are a bit further off: he probably wouldn't have foreseen the Soviet Union's brief quasi-alliance with nazi Germany, and he overestimated the extent of devastation that could be caused by aerial bombing. And most tragically, in reporting about anti-Semitism, while he knew it would escalate, he wrote that "wholesale massacres" of the Jews were not going to happen. But while he was not right about everything, he guessed better than many what would happen.

This is a great book for students of World War II to read. It also has a type of suspense about it that no book written after the conclusion of the war could have. Reading it was somewhat like watching a horror movie where the viewer can see dangers the protagonist can not. The fact that the matters in the book were not yet settled also brought a sense of rage to me that other books about World War II could not. I would recommend this book highly for anyone, but especially for students of 20th century history.

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