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Chain of Events

Sometimes it is very clear when a war has begun.

When it starts with a large-scale, early-morning surprise attack, as on Sept. 1, 1939, in Poland or on Dec. 7, 1941, in Hawaii.

When it starts with an act of fratricidal rebellion and violence, as when Confederate Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard began bombarding Union forces at Fort Sumter, S.C., at 4:30 on the morning of April 12, 1861.

When it starts with an invasion by some 90,000 North Korean soldiers crossing the 38th parallel into South Korea early on the morning of June 25, 1950.

When it starts with a formal declaration of war, like the one signed by President James Madison on June 18, 1812.

Or do such events really mark the start of a war?

In every one of these wars, familiar as they are to most Americans, what are now regarded as the opening fights or opening statements are not so much the starting point as the culmination of a long chain of events, of a series of diplomatic exchanges, policy decisions, shifts in public and political opinions, strategic calculations, smaller military skirmishes, deliberately aggressive actions and provocations. Even seemingly unrelated accidents, random civic violence, rumors and happenstances can be links in a chain of events that, in historical retrospect, leads to the outbreak of a shooting war—in hindsight, a war that no nation, political entity or individual in a position of power consciously sought.

Even in a global war, like the Great War that lurched into motion in August 1914, some small acts that preceded it can be discerned as links in that fateful chain of events only later when viewed—with horrified fascination—by historians. The seven Serb terrorists who resolved to strike a blow against Ottoman rule by murdering Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, when he appeared in Sarajevo could scarcely have known their terrorist act would ignite one of the world’s most devastating and consequential wars. Especially since their assassination attempts, with pistols and homemade grenades, were inept nearly to the point of farce. Had one of the youngest Bosnian Serb terrorists, Gavrilo Princip, not been quite so composed and single-minded about getting off a couple of shots at very close range, the archduke and his wife would have motored past unharmed. The history of the 20th century would surely have been different. World War I might well have broken out anyway, but the conflagration would not have been sparked by this particular event in Sarajevo.