WASHINGTON. — A WAR IN THE immediate future has become less likely, which is, of course, good news. At the very least, it provides more time for reflecting on past experiences and future prospects.
On May 4, 1939, an article was published in the Paris daily L'Oeuvre titled ''Mourir pour Dantzig?'' (To die for Danzig?), which made journalistic history; never had a single article caused such a storm. The author was Marcel Deat, a former Socialist parliamentarian whose political philosophy had gradually shifted toward a mixture of pacifism and pro-Nazism.
In his essay he argued forcefully that it was suicidal folly for France to go to war for the sake of Danzig, the Baltic port that had been German but passed to Poland in 1919. (It is known today by the Polish spelling, Gdansk.) In 1939, the Germans demanded it back, claiming that Danzig was German, and that because of the Polish presence, East Prussia was cut off from the rest of Germany. Some Frenchmen welcomed Deat's reasoning, others bitterly attacked it.
Deat later became a leading Nazi collaborator and a minister in the Vichy government. He escaped the gallows only because friends hid him in an Italian monastery. In his autobiography, written many years later, he still insisted that ''Mourir pour Dantzig?'' had been the voice of the authentic, patriotic France, not at all defeatist.
It would be wrong to dismiss Deat's argument simply because of his later aberrations. The day before his essay was published, an article in the London Times also argued that Danzig was not worth a war. And John Maynard Keynes, the greatest liberal economist of his age, probably of the century, wrote that ''the best, the only hope of peace lies in a policy which does not regard war so certain, which breaks down no bridges and makes no final commitments. Herr Hitler, however disagreeable a creature, is a queer one. National hysterias do not last forever. Something totally unexpected may suddenly change.''
The case of the anti-war lobby in 1939 was (to put it briefly) that war was the greatest disaster that could be imagined, that not all the demands of the aggressors were unjustified, and that there was a chance that they could be deflected from their course by ''fattening'' them. A school of revisionist historians nowadays argues that appeasement never received a fair trial in the court of history. Would it not have been preferable to make far-reaching and even humiliating concessions to the aggressors rather than suffer tens of million of dead and immense material damage? Was it not likely that, but for a war, European Jewry would have survived? True, Nazi Germany would have expanded, but Hitler and Mussolini would not have lasted forever. One day, the era of fascism would have come to an end.
It will be claimed that the parallels between 1939 and our current predicament are misleading. Iraq is a small country with a GNP half that of Denmark or Finland. Such a country, whatever the ambitions of its leaders, cannot possibly threaten the United States and its allies. This seems plausible enough.
But it is also claimed, by an impressive array of former secretaries of defense, national security advisers and even chiefs of staff, that Iraq could be defeated only at an unacceptable cost. Such arguments were not heard in 1941 when America was militarily unprepared. They are voiced now after trillions of dollars have been spent on the U.S. forces.
Furthermore, we are told that an attack against Saddam Hussein would destabilize the whole Middle East, cause the overthrow of all moderate governments, make the occupation of Iraq inescapable for many years to come.
In brief, Mr. Hussein is a formidable foe, partly because of his strength, partly because of the sympathies he enjoys throughout the Arab world, but also because of his weakness. If he were overthrown, utter chaos would prevail.
This specific argument has suffered from overuse in recent decades. I remember those who warned against being beastly to Hitler and Stalin because their overthrow would bring even greater monsters to power. The same argument was used with regard to Gamal Abdul Nasser, among others. Yet Nasser was succeeded by Anwar Sadat, and Stalin's successors, too, were a definitive improvement, by comparison.
President Bush has been upbraided for committing an act of verbal aggression comparing Saddam Hussein with Hitler. It is true that historical comparisons are always of doubtful validity. But there is no reason to fear that the Iraqi ruler was mortally offended. ''Fascism,'' ''Nazism'' and ''Hitler'' are terms of opprobrium in the Western world and the former Soviet Bloc, not in the Third World, and least of all in the Arab East.