Si vis pacem, para bellum is a Latin adage translated as, ‘If you wish for peace, prepare for war’ (usually interpreted as meaning peace through strength—a strong society being less likely to be attacked by enemies). The adage was adapted from a statement in ‘De Re Militari’ (‘Concerning Military Matters’) by Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, although the idea it conveys is also present in earlier works, such as Plato’s ‘Nomoi’ (‘Laws’).
With reference to the foreign policy of Napoleon Bonaparte, the historian, de Bourrienne, said: ‘Everyone knows the adage… Had Bonaparte been a Latin scholar he would probably have reversed it and said, ‘Si vis bellum para pacem.” Meaning that if you are planning a war, you should put other nations off guard by cultivating peace. Conversely, another interpretation could be that preparing for peace may lead another party to wage war on you.
The idea of ensuring peace by deterring warlike powers through armaments took an ominous turn in the 20th century with the increased militarism of Nazi Germany and other Axis Powers. Suggesting that perhaps merely being prepared for war is not enough and that it is necessary to wage war in order to deter war. The National Arbitration and Peace Congress of 1907, presided over by Andrew Carnegie, had addressed this issue years earlier alluding to not only the Second World War but also the First: ‘These vast armaments on land and water are being defended as a means, not to wage war, but to prevent war…. there is a safer way … it requires only the consent and the good-will of the governments. Today they say …. ‘If you want peace, prepare for war.’ This Congress says in behalf of the people: ‘Si vis pacem, para pactum,’ ‘if you want peace, agree to keep the peace.’
‘If you want peace, make war’; this solution does not apply in the case of the nation that does not desire peace. Imperial Germany went to war in 1914 and was castigated by Richard Grelling, a German-Jewish pacifist, in ‘J’Accuse.’ In 1918 Grelling wrote again, this time as an ex-patriate in Switzerland. Citing the ‘The world must be safe for democracy’ speech of Woodrow Wilson, Grelling says: ‘when all other means fail, … the liberation of the world from military domination can in the extreme case only take place by battle. … in place of ‘si vis pacem para bellum’ a similarly sounding principle … may become a necessity: ‘Si vis pacem, fac bellum.’
The great wars of the 19th and 20th centuries were opposed by the philosophy of pacifism, which in the 19th century was associated with early socialism, even though the socialism of the 20th often lacked pacifistic tendencies, preaching violent revolution instead. The pacifism that opposed the world wars traced a lineage to Barthélemy Prosper Enfantin, an early French socialist and one of the founders of Saint-Simonianism (a French political movement). As early as 1841, he had said in a letter to General Saint-Cyr Nugues: ‘Le fameux dicton … me semble beaucoup moins vrai, pour le XIXe síècle, que ‘Si vis pacem, para pacem.” (‘The famous dictum … to me seems much less true, for the 19th century, than ‘Si vis pacem, para pacem”). His statement was made in reference to Algeria; Enfantin goes on to say that war could have been avoided if a proper study of Algeria had been made.
The main clause of the adage has been used as a motto by German arms maker Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (DWM), and is the source of the term Parabellum as applied to firearms and ammunition (especially the 9mm Parabellum, aka 9mm Luger). The term is an opposed parallel to the English use of ‘peacemaker’ to mean the Colt Single Action Army handgun. This adage is also a catchphrase used by the Marvel antihero the Punisher.