It was long held in the scholarly literature that wars for the most part end in victory for one side and defeat for the other. Stalemates and settlements with no discernible victor or defeated were regarded as relatively rare. This was not often stated as a general principle and was sometimes subjected to challenge. Nevertheless, it appeared repeatedly, sometimes as an empirical observation on selected groups of wars, sometimes as an underlying assumption in the theoretical analysis of war endings.
Thus, Melvin Small and J. David Singer in The Wages of War: 1816–1965, A Statistical Handbook (1972), assigned victor or defeated status to the belligerents in all but one of fifty interstate wars and forty-three "extra-systemic" wars that they included in their study. Similarly, George Modelski found that some four-fifths of one hundred internal wars since 1900 ended in an "out-right win" or victory of one side or the other. The theoretical significance of assigning victory had been set forth earlier by H. A. Calahan, who held that the key to peacemaking lies simply in the recognition of defeat on the part of the vanquished: "war is pressed by the victor, but peace is made by the vanquished."
This view was echoed later by others, including Paul Kecskemeti and Lewis Coser, but its fullest theoretical statement appears in Nicholas S. Timasheff's War and Revolution (1965). Timasheff views war as "a means of solving an inter-state conflict by measuring the relative strength of the parties." Timasheff goes on to make clear that the return to peace must take place through the initiative of the defeated, concluding that in studying the "movement from war to peace" (that is, war endings), the determination of victory is central: "Therefore, the study of the causal background of the return of political systems from war to peace is tantamount to the study of the premises of victory and of the mechanism converting victory into peace."
This preoccupation with victory and defeat persists in some measure today despite the fact that, as James D. Smith and others have pointed out, there has been a significant trend away from the conclusion of wars and armed conflicts by clear-cut victory of one side. Negotiated settlements, stalemates, and withdrawals of all parties are increasingly prevalent as outcomes of war in the late twentieth century. "'Victory,' then, is becoming increasingly elusive in modern warfare." Yet in their text How Nations Make Peace (1999), Charles W. Kegley, Jr., and Gregory A. Raymond center their entire analysis on "situations in which there was a clear winner and loser," exploring the "policy problems and moral dilemmas victors face," the choices to be made by "victors" after a "decisive military victory," and particularly "the relative merits of compassionate versus punitive peace settlements." In posing these issues, Kegley and Raymond express the laudable hope that their work may help to "bring the ethical dimension of decision making into the study of international relations." However, by narrowing the focus to exclude the great diversity of contemporary armed conflicts and their different kinds of endings, Kegley and Raymond obscure the broader question of "how nations make peace" and direct disproportionate attention to the relatively few instances in which the winner/loser, victor/defeated model prevails. Meanwhile, the elusive goal of victory continues to command the imaginations of both military and civilian leaders, often standing as a significant obstacle to timely and effective peacemaking, as illustrated in a number of case studies examined by James D. Smith in Stopping Wars (1995).