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History Lessons

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam

by Barbara W. Tuchman
Knopf, 447 pp., $18.95

Barbara W. Tuchman is our foremost popular historian, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and a best-selling author. She has achieved this popular success by writing good traditional narratives on numerous subjects from the origins of World War I and Stilwell’s mission to China to fourteenth-century Europe. She writes history, she once said, not “to instruct but to tell a story.”

The professional historians have often given Tuchman a bad time in reviews. They have made her feel that she is something less than a professional, and she justly resents it. She does not like being called an “amateur” by all the “professionals” who have graduate training, advanced degrees, and university positions. She prefers, she said in a 1981 collection of her essays covering her career, to recognize the difference between them and her “by distinguishing between academics and independents, or between scholars and writers, rather than between professionals and amateurs.” She may not have a Ph.D., but she is as much of a pro as the professors are, and rather more so if making a living by your work is any criterion of being professional. She can communicate with a willing readership, which is more than the professors can do. “When you write for the public you have to be clear and you have to be interesting.” The professors have too many captive audiences, first with their dissertation supervisors, then with their students in lecture halls. They really do not know how “to capture and hold the interest of an audience.”

And the reason the professors cannot capture an audience, wrote Tuchman in 1966, is that they do not know how to tell a story. They believe storytelling is “old-fashioned.” They are too much caught up in “interdisciplinary techniques,” in “subjects such as demography,” and in “the computerized mechanics of quantification.” Their efforts are directed “toward uncovering underlying patterns in history and human behavior which presumably might help in understanding the past and managing the future, or even the present.” They want history, in other words, to be a science, which means that they want it “to be utilitarian and teach us lessons.”

In the 1960s Tuchman had only scorn for such efforts to make history a science. “History,” she said back then, “has a way of escaping attempts to imprison it in patterns.” Human behavior has too many variables to be susceptible to the scientific method, and “reliable patterns, or what are otherwise called the lessons of history, remain elusive.” Systems and theories therefore should not be imposed on the past. The facts of the past should be allowed to speak for themselves. Why did history have to teach lessons anyway? “Why,” she asked with some exasperation, “cannot history be studied and written and read for its own sake, as the record of human behavior…?” History is not a science, it is an art. History needs writers, or artists, who can communicate the past to readers, and that has been Tuchman’s calling. Her “form,” she said in 1966, “is narrative.” She knew it was “looked down on now by the advanced academics, but I don’t mind because no one could possibly persuade me that telling a story is not the most desirable thing a writer can do.”

Yet all the while Tuchman was telling her stories in the 1960s and 1970s, she had a latent urge to do some teaching as well. The desire to instruct always subtly suffused her narratives, and in her occasional pieces it often emerged full-blown. Even as she questioned the possibility of finding lessons in history, she admitted in the same breath that history might have something to teach us after all. Maybe, she said in the mid-1960s, we could learn from “past mistakes” and “manage better in similar circumstances next time.” Vietnam, for example, could tell us something about mistakes, “if we would only listen.” Growing despair with our times, reflected in her gloomy picture of fourteenth-century Europe, A Distant Mirror, finally seems to have gotten the better of her. Our government’s mistakes in Vietnam and elsewhere have now released all of her pent-up pedagogical urges. The result is her new book, The March of Folly.

This book is very different from her previous best-selling histories. To be sure, there is still some well-written historical narration here. But the tone and character of the book are different; its didactic purposes are now explicit, unmistakably clear. Her history is no longer art: it is not written for its own sake. It is now science, popular political science—what she once said she would never write. She has not taken to using computers or to calculating the prices of wheat, but she is very eager now to find patterns or lessons in the past with which to teach us.

It is all very ironic. Just as academic historians are becoming disillusioned with scientific history and are moving back toward old-fashioned narrative, Tuchman has decided to become scientific, to discover some general principles of politics that are “independent of time and recurrent in governorship” and that might tell us how to act in the present and future.

Tuchman is now nothing if she is not scientific, at least in her claims. She begins her book with a taxonomy of misgovernment. She says there are four kinds of misgovernment, often in combination: 1) “tyranny,” 2) “excessive ambition,” 3) “incompetence or decadence,” and finally 4) “folly or perversity.” This last is the focus of her book, which she describes as “a generalized inquiry” into the ways governments have committed folly by acting against their own best interests. Political philosophers from Plato on, she writes, have investigated the major issues of ethics, sovereignty, the social contract, freedom and order, and so on, but few of them, “except Machiavelli,” have bothered with “mere folly, although folly has been a chronic and pervasive problem.”

Tuchman aims to make up for this neglect. Examples of folly, she believes, are “timeless and universal” and “independent of era or locality.” These constants, these scientific principles, are what she is after. All the particulars of political events, all the peculiar and specific facts, “must be sifted out in the hope that abiding principles may appear.” By isolating these abiding principles of politics she hopes to become a sort of Machiavelli for the masses.

To qualify as folly for her purposes, a government’s actions must meet three criteria: 1) they must have been perceived as counterproductive in their own time; 2) they must have been the actions of a group not one individual; and 3) they had to persist in the face of alternative suggestions. In her opening chapter Tuchman ransacks history for various examples of such folly—everything from Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But most of her book concentrates on several major historical events that illustrate folly. After a short chapter on the Trojan horse as the classic example of political stupidity, Tuchman devotes a chapter each to the provoking of the Protestant Reformation by the Renaissance popes, the British loss of America, and America’s betrayal of itself in Vietnam.

Like any good scientist Tuchman is more interested in the present and future than in the past, and she does not hide it. Each of the chapters gets progressively longer, so that the chapter on Vietnam is nearly twice as long as that on the Renaissance popes. And her book is sprinkled with references to the present. “Why,” she asks, “do the superpowers not begin mutual divestment of the means of human suicide?” Why does the United States persist in its “imbecility in El Salvador?” Political folly may have been bearable for us in the past, but not anymore, not with the “accelerating incompetence in America.” In the end, writes Tuchman, “it seems almost superfluous to say that the present study stems from the ubiquity of this problem in our time.”

After describing the episode of the Trojan horse as the prototype of “policy pursued contrary to self-interest—in the face of urgent warning and a feasible alternative,” Tuchman turns to the folly of the half-dozen or so popes who ruled the Roman church between 1470 and 1530. “Their governance dismayed the faithful, brought the Holy See into disrepute, left unanswered the cry for reform, ignored all protests, warnings and signs of rising revolt, and ended by breaking apart the unity of Christendom and losing half the papal constituency to the Protestant secession.” In vigorous and vivid prose she exposes all the examples of papal greed, corruption, and lust for power that she can find in order to indict the leadership of the Church for its folly in bringing on the Protestant Reformation.

Historians will probably wince at this explanation of the Reformation according to what the papacy did or did not do. Actually the idea that the abuses of the Church alone caused the Reformation is an old one, but it is not much supported by historians today. Well over a half century ago the great French historian Lucien Febvre made a scathing attack on the adequacy of such a view.* The notion that something as complicated and profound as the Protestant Reformation—a deep-rooted upheaval in religious sentiment throughout much of Christendom—could actually spring from “nothing more than a revolt of healthy and honest minds and consciences against the nasty spectacles and wicked people around them” was to Febvre hopelessly limited and partial. And most subsequent historians have agreed with him. The abuses of the Church were neither more prevalent nor more evil in the early sixteenth century than in many earlier periods. For centuries reformers had cried out against the Church’s wickedness. The papacy may even have been more degraded in the ninth and tenth centuries than it was in the fifteenth.

The Protestant reformers were moved by more than simply the abuses of the papacy. In fact, it is doubtful how much of the profligacy of the Renaissance popes that Tuchman so colorfully describes was known to people remote from Rome. Despite all their criticism of the selling of indulgences, Luther and the Protestant reformers were far more interested in transforming the basis of faith and doctrine in the Church than in cleansing it of corruption. Any explanation of the Reformation like Tuchman’s that ignores the emergence of powerful feelings of popular piety throughout northern Europe is bound to be one-sided.

Not only has Tuchman built her case for the folly of the papacy on this narrow base, but her chapter on the Renaissance popes is riddled with anachronism. She can never quite accept the fact that the papacy was a secular power in fifteenth-century Italy. The popes’ eagerness to extend their political strength, and their obsession with “conspicuous and useless expenditure…for the sake of effect” are to Tuchman sheer madness. She has little appreciation of the papacy’s political role and its fear of dependency in a world of aggressive emerging nation-states. To her the popes just seem so irreligious. “What kind of apostleship of Christianity” did the Renaissance popes “see themselves as filling?” she asks. It is true that the papacy’s riches “nourished immortal works of art, but however much these have graced the world, the proper business of the Church was something else.” Where, she might even have asked, was Pope John XXIII when the Church really needed him?

Britain’s “follies” in the eighteenth century “were not so perverse as the popes’.” Her ministers were not as greedy, but nevertheless they were just as arrogant and stupid, and their mishandling of America in the 1760s and 1770s cost Britain an empire. Tuchman has almost nothing good to say about Britain’s ruling elite in these years. The level of British “intelligence and competence in both civil and military positions” was generally “low.” George III was marked by “tragic flaws” and he “was not the most astute politician.” The “upper crust of the governing class” had “few of outstanding mind.” With colorful quotations from the likes of Horace Walpole, Tuchman paints a pathetic picture of British ineptitude. The government was made up of men bred to snobbery at Eton or West-minister, close-minded and wooden-headed by training and temperament, and so hung up on the punctilios of Old World etiquette that they “could not bring themselves to refer to the opposite Commander-in-Chief as General Washington but only as Mister.”

George III and his ministers have never been used to gentle treatment by American historians, but certainly not in recent times have they been denounced so severely as they are here by Tuchman. It seems they could do nothing right. If they were weak they are criticized for their lack of self-confidence; if they were strong, then they were arrogant. If Grenville was pigheaded, then Townshend was “given to reversing himself by 180 degrees if expedience beckoned.”

Tuchman is aware of the possibility of anachronism: in a note she apologizes for using “on the right” in reference to the political spectrum because she realizes that it is “an unhistorical term not then in use.” But at the same time she misses all the larger and more serious anachronisms that run through her account. She seems always to be judging these British officials by some absolute rational standard of political leadership that she has in the back of her mind. Thus she caricatures Lord North, who was one of the most astute parliamentarians of eighteenth-century Britain, as a lazy, awkward slob who had no ideas or will of his own and who could scarcely stay awake in debates. She sees Townshend’s “spoiling fault” to be his passion for fame—as if the desire for fame were not the ruling passion of most of the great men of the age, including Washington and Hamilton. Somehow or other Tuchman’s indictment comes down to her feeling that the “attitude” of the British leaders “toward government was less than professional.” Presumably they all could have benefited from a term at the Kennedy School of Government.

It is an incredible picture that Tuchman has drawn of Britain’s political system. Her descriptions of the “unreality of 18th-century English government” and the “unsuitability for government” of its leaders refer in fact to a political system that was the marvel and envy of the age and that despite the loss of the colonies carried Britain through an era of tumult and into the next century without serious convulsion. She has the same limited view of the American Revolution as she had of the Reformation—from the top down. She says nothing about growing American pressures and demands that would have challenged any imperial authority, no matter how talented.

When Tuchman gets to America’s involvement in Vietnam, she has the real model of political folly that was in her mind all along. In vigorous polemical prose she tells the miserable story from 1945 to 1973; indeed her chapter is probably one of the better short accounts we yet have of America’s venture in Vietnam, although it does not have much to say about the war as it was viewed and conducted by America’s opponents. But is it history, the kind of history that Tuchman had always wanted to write? She once said that because she was too emotionally involved in the present, “I could not write contemporary history if I tried.” “A historian needs,” she said, “a perspective of at least twenty-five years, and preferably fifty, to form an opinion of any value.” But apparently the present crisis has become too great for these inhibitions to apply any longer.

What can we make of Tuchman’s political science? Surely we can all agree with her that there have been plenty of examples of folly in past political affairs. Folly in fact has been so much a “timeless and universal” constant of human behavior that it seems inherent in the process of history. Perhaps the ubiquity of folly is due to the fact that folly is not always the consequence of what Tuchman thinks it is: stupidity, wooden-headedness, and irrationality. Perhaps it is equally the result of reason and the best, most honorable and sensible of intentions. Tuchman assumes that the participants in the past knew, or should have known, they were making mistakes but perversely still kept on making these mistakes. “Persistence in error,” she writes, “is the problem.” But what if the historical participants, having no advantage of Tuchman’s hindsight, though they were persisting not in error but rightly and rationally?

The British leaders, for example, were not perverse in trying to preserve their empire and they did not perceive reality any more irrationally than the American Revolutionaries. Tuchman seems to expect the British officials to have realized the futility of what they were attempting. Couldn’t they see all the forces against them? Certainly they were warned enough of failure. But of course they did not see the future and they pushed on, just as the American Revolutionaries did in the face of similar warnings. If the Americans had lost the Revolution, one could easily make a Tuchman-like case for their folly too. Imagine, the colonists attempting to fight the most powerful nation in the world, and all for a constitutional principle that probably would not have amounted to much anyway! They were a free, prosperous people who were destroying a working relationship with the greatest and most liberty-loving nation in the world.

Such were the warnings the Revolutionaries received, not just by Tories but also by frightened Whigs like John Dickinson who refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. Yet the Revolutionary leaders were too wooden-headed, too emotional, too blind to the realities of British power, and against all the odds and all the warnings they made a revolution, even though their revolution did not cause the ruin of Great Britain as everyone had expected. Whether the historical participants’ actions become examples of Churchillian determination or perverse wooden-headedness seems therefore to depend ultimately on the unpredictable outcome of events.

Folly then is not just a constant of history; at times it seems to be even a necessity. More often than not it is folly—false and irrational perceptions of reality—that gives people the intellectual and emotional energy to act as they do. Tuchman criticizes the British officials for believing that the Revolution was a conspiracy of designing men; it was just another example, she says, of “the self-deception that characterizes folly.” But the American Revolutionaries suffered from the same sort of self-deception; they also believed in a conspiracy, a conspiracy of British officials against them. And for both sides these false and unreasonable beliefs in conspiracies were crucial in mobilizing people into action. It was precisely the intelligent men like Dickinson, who perceived reality most accurately and doubted the existence of evil intentions on either side, who in the end hesitated to act. Reasonableness, clear thinking, and accurate perceptions of reality, in other words, are not necessarily what is needed either to make a revolution or to put one down, or even to get anything done at all.

If the political follies of history are constant and often necessary for action, can they really teach us anything? Can we in fact learn lessons from the past? Tuchman certainly hopes so, for that is the burden of her book. And most people, including many historians, will probably agree with her. Sunday supplements certainly present us often enough with Santayana’s fatuous phrase that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Actually after all our talk during the 1950s and 1960s of the lessons of Munich and now of the lessons of Vietnam, a better case can be made for the opposite: that those who remember the past may be the ones condemned to repeat it.) Mercifully Tuchman spares us Santayana’s saying, but instead gives us Coleridge’s: “If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us!” But Coleridge is no more right than Santayana is. History does not teach lots of little lessons. Insofar as it teaches any lessons it teaches only one big one: that nothing ever works out quite the way its managers intended or expected. History is like experience and old age: wisdom is what one learns from it.

Unlike sociology or political science, history is a conservative discipline—conservative of course not in any contemporary political sense but in the larger sense of inculcating skepticism about people’s ability to manipulate and control purposefully their own destinies. By showing that the best-laid plans of people usually go awry, the study of history tends to dampen youthful enthusiasm and to restrain the can-do, the conquer-the-future spirit that many people have. Historical knowledge takes people off a roller coaster of illusions and disillusions; it levels off emotions and gives people a perspective on what is possible and, more often, what is not possible. By this definition Americans have had almost no historical sense whatsoever; indeed such a sense seems almost un-American.

Too much of this historical sense, too much skepticism, is not of course very good for getting things done. Which is why Nietzsche believed that “forgetfulness is a property of all action.” Too much “rumination,” too much “historical sense,” he wrote, “injures and finally destroys the living thing, be it a man or a people or a system of culture.” Fortunately, however, there seems to be little danger of our becoming too historically minded in America today.

Letters

In Praise of Folly October 11, 1984

  1. *

    Lucien Febvre, A New Kind of History, edited by Peter Burke (Harper and Row, 1973), p. 55.

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