In late July 1979 Senator Richard Stone of Florida told President Carter of rumors that the Russians had combat troops in Cuba. If this was true, he said, it would violate agreements made after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Satellite photos confirmed that there were indeed Soviet units on the island. Carter, who at that point was trying to get the Senate to ratify the SALT II treaty he had just signed with the Russians, did not want to endanger the treaty’s passage. He told Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to inform Stone that there was “no evidence of any substantial increase of the Soviet military presence in Cuba.”

Nevertheless, the story was getting around, and was likely soon to appear in the press. Vance and his aides telephoned a few key members of Congress so that they wouldn’t be surprised, and told them it did not amount to much. Most took the news calmly, except for Senator Frank Church, the Idaho Democrat, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who was facing a hard reelection fight from an opponent who charged him with being soft on the Russians. Church, who had been attacked by right-wing politicians for supporting the SALT treaty and going to Cuba to confer with Castro, felt it would be prudent to demonstrate his anticommunist credentials. Seizing upon what he had learned from Vance, he demanded the immediate withdrawal of what was now being called the Soviet “brigade,” and urged the President to “draw the line on Russian penetration of this hemisphere.”

Church got his headlines and the administration was hit by a full-blown “foreign policy crisis.” Vance, fearing that the claims about the Soviet troops would imperil the SALT treaty, tried to play them down. But Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser, was less concerned with SALT than with drawing the line against Soviet “adventurism.” Hawks and doves lined up to position themselves on the “brigade” issue. In the middle stood the hapless Carter. As indignation over Soviet perfidy mounted, support for the SALT treaty steadily dwindled.

But an odd thing happened. As more information began to drift in, it became clear that while Stone had been right about the presence of the troops, he was wrong in saying their presence violated agreements. During the 1962 missile crisis President Kennedy had asked the Russians to withdraw their troops, but they had balked and he let the matter drop. A review of old files and conversations with former CIA officials uncovered references to the “brigade” even earlier. It was discovered, as Vance later wrote, that the Soviets “had almost certainly been in Cuba continuously since 1962.” The presence of the unit had simply “faded from the institutional memories of the intelligence agencies.”

An embarrassed Carter sought to bring this farce to an end by citing a letter from Secretary Brezhnev that the unit was simply a “military training center.” In an effort to save face he announced that the US would increase its political and military presence in the Caribbean. The important thing, he told the Senate, was to get on with ratification of the SALT treaty. But Carter’s fumble proved disastrous. Valuable months had been lost during which forces opposed to SALT used the brigade issue to discredit the treaty. While the treaty languished in the Senate, losing many of its supporters, the Soviets sent their troops into Afghanistan. An indignant and defeated Carter withdrew the treaty from Senate consideration.

A number of lessons can be drawn from this episode. For Richard Neustadt and Ernest May it demonstrates the dangers of failing to take into account the history of an issue before engaging with it. The administration while shooting itself in the foot had killed the SALT treaty. The sorry and, indeed, shabby incident could have been avoided had any of the major participants bothered to ask when the Soviet unit had arrived. They simply assumed the Russians had embarked on an act of adventurism. But even someone ignorant of the history of the “brigade” should have asked why the Russians would do this at a time when they were seeking an arms accord pact with the US. One theory that Brzezinksi’s staff told reporters at the time was that the Russians wanted to “test” Carter. But if it was a test, why was it not flaunted? The theory tells more about the psychological insecurity of the Carter administration than about the behavior of the Russians.

Why did no one ever ask when the “brigade” arrived? US intelligence agencies did not have the facts on hand because they were not used to being asked historical questions. Since Carter did not ask them, neither did his assistants. Nor was it customary to ask people who were once in government and had experience with the issue. There were certainly people around—like Dean Rusk, Kennedy’s secretary of state, and Robert McNamara, his secretary of defense, who had been in office during the Cuban missile crisis and could have set them straight. Nobody thought to ask them. Nobody posed the elementary question: When did the Soviet troops leave?


Does this seem far-fetched? Not to anyone who has spent time in Washington. But it is a peculiar way to run a government. Viewed from the other side, it may even seem an improbable way. Consider how it might have looked to the Soviets. Working on the perhaps unjustified assumption that American leaders knew what they were doing, the Soviets could quite reasonably have assumed that some deep purpose was involved. Why was Carter picking a fight over Cuba—especially at a time when the SALT treaty was under assault in the Senate? Was this a signal that he was about to sacrifice SALT in order to placate right-wing voters for the upcoming 1980 elections?

At the end of the affair, when one of Vance’s aides explained to Anatoly Dobrynin that the administration simply had suffered a lapse of institutional memory—that it had forgotten about the Soviet unit—the incredulous Soviet ambassador replied: “You don’t expect me to get people in the Kremlin to believe this story?” Whether or not some did, the episode may well have strengthened the hand of the hard-liners in Moscow and tipped the balance on the decision to invade Afghanistan. In any case, the whole business had been, as Vance later mused, a “very costly lapse in memory.”

Should it be thought that the Carter administration was unique in its ignorance and its cavalier indifference to history Neustadt and May give numerous other examples of administrations no less culpable. They cite, for example, the now generally applauded decision by Harry Truman to send American troops to South Korea in June 1950 to repel the North Korean invasion. Here the problem was not forgetfulness, as in the Cuban episode, but rather Truman’s proclivity to draw false analogies from the past.

Though they support Truman’s initial decision, Neustadt and May observe that only a few months earlier the National Security Council, with Truman himself in the chair, endorsed the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Korea was “of little strategic value to the United States and that commitment to United States use of military force in Korea would be ill-advised.”

Why did Truman do enthusiastically in 1950 what he had ruled out in 1949? Partly, no doubt, there were domestic political reasons: he was falling in the polls and the Republicans had accused him of “losing” China to the Communists. Partly, too, he feared that the Europeans might be disheartened if America did not act. And to a high degree his head was full of the fateful events of the 1930s. Truman believed, as he later wrote in his memoirs, that “communism was acting in Korea just as Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese had acted ten, fifteen or twenty years earlier.” He felt certain that “if South Korea was allowed to fall, communist leaders would be emboldened to override nations closer to our own shores.”

None of Truman’s advisers questioned whether the analogies of the 1930s applied to this case. Memories of that time were so powerful for these men that they simply assumed their relevance to Korea. But the parallel, the authors point out, even if correct was improperly drawn. The goal should have been to stop the aggression, repel the invaders, and restore the status quo ante. This is what the League of Nations had failed to do in the 1930s, and perhaps the reason why the totalitarian states felt free to continue their aggressions.

But Truman did not stop at pushing back the North Koreans. When the victorious American and Allied forces reached the border between the two Koreas, he instructed them to drive forward to “liberate” North Korea. A defensive war became an offensive one. Caught in the exhilaration of success, Truman could not resist the opportunity to show the Republicans that it was the Democrats who really knew how to “roll back” communism. Instead it was the Americans who were now rolled back. The result was a disaster. As American troops approached the Yalu River, the Chinese—who had warned they would enter the war if this occurred—surged across the frontier and pushed the Americans back to the 38th parallel. The war dragged on with terrible casualties until 1952 when public disgust helped to drive the Democrats from office.

Truman might have avoided this disaster had he taken to heart some of the advice given in Neustadt and May’s richly anecdotal primer for statesmen. The two have together taught for a number of years a course at Harvard for executives in public life: legislators, ambassadors, military officers in mid-career. They found that the intelligent people they taught, though knowing surprisingly little history, nonetheless constantly drew on historical analogies to buttress decisions they believed to be right—just as Truman in 1950 drew on his memories of the 1930s. When they were not reading backward into the past to justify their reading of the present, they were oblivious to much that had happened before—assuming it could have no relevance to current problems.


Through a series of examples, or case studies, Neustadt and May try to demonstrate how history can be used to illuminate the choices facing decision makers: how it can clarify the alternatives available and separate the salient issues from the irrelevant or misleading ones. They seek to counter the tendency of people in positions of authority to concentrate single-mindedly on the issue at hand without taking into account how the problem arose and where the course of action they suggest might lead.

They are realistically modest. They do not expect to revolutionize the way decision makers think, or even get them to read history books for guidance. One does not, after all, have to read Thucydides’ account of the ill-fated Athenian campaign against Sicily to know that nations can engage in acts of national folly and self-delusion. And it would not have helped much during the Vietnam War to have read Thucydides—as the key planners of the war undoubtedly had—unless one made a small leap of imagination to go beyond the differences of technology to see the underlying similarities of the two colonial wars undertaken by great imperial powers. What Neustadt and May propose is history as a method, as a way of looking at the present and organizing one’s thinking.

Thinking in Time offers no solutions, but it does provide a great many examples that demonstrate why bad decisions are made and how they might be avoided. As such it offers a much-needed corrective to the various model-building theories that clutter, and indeed have virtually taken over, most departments of political science. Such abstract “models” provide justification for the banks of expensive computers which enthrall their practitioners, and without which they would not be feasible, but which otherwise may be considerably less useful for understanding politics than one chapter of Gibbon.

Neustadt and May’s case studies are drawn almost entirely from the post-1945 period, which still makes them “history” for many of their students, but at least not ancient history. They look at what they regard as successful decision-making episodes, such as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and the Social Security reform of 1983, as well as such fiascoes as the Bay of Pigs, the Americanization of the Vietnam War, Gerald Ford’s efforts to protect the country from a swine flu epidemic that never came, the Mayaguez “rescue” that killed more Americans than it saved, various misadventures of the Carter administration, and Reagan’s early mishandling of Social Security cuts. Had they written their book later they would no doubt have included in the category of How Did We Get Into This? the dispatch of the marines to Beirut during the Lebanese civil war and the ditch into which Washington and Moscow dug themselves over the Zakharov–Daniloff affair.

From a host of examples Neustadt and May seek to draw lessons that might help to avoid similar mistakes in the future. What they propose is not simply that students read more history. No other president, after all, was a more avid amateur historian than Harry Truman. Rather, they suggest a particular way of learning from history to frame sharper questions and avoid disastrous decisions. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, for example, John F. Kennedy—embarrassed by Republican charges that he had neglected the Soviet military buildup in Cuba—was pressed by his advisers to launch an air strike against the bases. He decided to wait before taking such a dangerous step. Instead he probed the history of the Cuban issue and looked hard at key assumptions about the meaning of the Soviet buildup. Time and a cool head worked for him. He got the Soviet withdrawal he wanted, and avoided the head-on collision toward which events were pulling him.

If such arguments seem unexceptionable, and they mostly are, nonetheless they do not suggest the way decisions are usually made in government. The “usual way,” according to Neustadt and May, can be boiled down to six basic tendencies: an imperative to leap before looking; overdependence on fuzzy analogies; inattention to an issue’s past; failure to think about basic presumptions; stereotyped suppositions about people or organizations; and a disinclination to see choices as part of a historical sequence.

Better decisions could be made, they suggest, if policy makers—before taking a course of action—would draw up a list that clearly separates the “known” from the “unclear,” and both from the “presumed.” A willingness to concentrate on matters of evidence provides at least momentary protection from saying, What can we do fast? instead of asking, What’s our problem? It was, for example, an eagerness to show resolve rather than to focus on the problem at hand that in 1950 led Harry Truman not only to send US troops to South Korea, but to dispatch four US divisions to Europe, triple the military budget, and give the green light to the rearmament of Germany.

Once policy makers sorted out the known, the unclear, and the presumed, Neustadt and May would have them compare the “likenesses” and “differences” between the supposedly analogous historical situations and the ones they are currently dealing with. Such an exercise, they suggest, might have dissuaded Truman from invading North Korea once the US pushed the communists out of the South. At least it would have dramatized that he was going far beyond what he thought the League should have done in Manchuria or Ethiopia or Czechoslovakia in the 1930s—or even what he himself intended only a few months earlier. He might have limited himself to restoring a border rather than eradicating one.

Analogies are almost irresistible. Naturally Korea would bring to mind the 1930s for a man who remembered when Hitler marched into Prague only twelve years earlier, just as the swine flu scare of 1976 evoked the 1918 flu epidemic for Gerald Ford, and just as Watergate, the Tehran hostages, the marines in Beirut, and the invasion of Grenada will each evoke a set of reactions for decision makers of the future. The point is not to discount the past but to recognize that the “lessons of the past” (to use the title of an excellent earlier book by May) are not necessarily those that stick most easily in our heads.

Neustadt and May provide a graphic example of distorted reference to the past in their discussion of Lyndon Johnson’s decision in 1965 to make the war in Vietnam an American one by bombing the North and making a large commitment of US troops. While the deliberations were taking place, McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, sent the President a nine-page, single-spaced memorandum entitled “France in Vietnam, 1954, and the US in Vietnam, 1965—A Useful Analogy?” Bundy, who had earlier challenged General William Westmoreland’s request for the despatch of 150,000 men, delineated in his memo why he thought likenesses between the two Western military adventures in Vietnam were almost nonexistent, while differences were numerous. Among the differences he cited were: (a) France fought to preserve a colony, while the US was backing an independent nation; (b) France had opposed reform, while the US supported “noncommunist revolution”; (c) the French were fighting a major war with half a million troops against regular communist armies, while the US was fighting only guerrillas and had made a low commitment; (d) the French government was unstable and the war unpopular at home, while in the US the administration had just been returned to power with overwhelming public support.

But had Bundy’s memo been for analysis rather than advocacy, he might have looked at France in 1950 or 1951, before it had committed half a million men and began suffering high casualties, rather than in 1954 when it was on the verge of defeat. He might also have looked ahead and asked what were the chances that—as the war dragged on and many more Americans died—conditions in America in, say, 1968 might resemble those of France in 1954. Among the skeptics, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey pointed out to Johnson in February 1965 that “if…we find ourselves leading from frustration to escalation and…embroiled deeper in fighting in Vietnam…political opposition will steadily mount.” Undersecretary of State George Ball, outspoken and outflanked “dove” of the administration, warned against drawing the wrong lesson from Korea. For him the lesson was not: Be firm and do not fear using force—as it was for Johnson. Rather, it was: Do not try to fight a protracted, limited war.

Humphrey also tried to underline that the long Korean War of 1950–1953 had cost the Democrats the White House. But he was considered a bad team player and few listened. Yet the advice was sound. Had Johnson’s staff used history to analyze alternatives rather than to buttress a rapidly mounting intervention, the President might have realized not only that Washington would come to resemble Paris in 1954, but that by 1968 he could well be where Truman had been in 1952: bogged down in a hopeless war and abandoned by voters who sought out a candidate promising peace.

Neustadt and May offer a number of other useful suggestions. Among them is the technique they refer to as placement—using historical information to flesh out facile stereotypes about another person’s outlook. “Placing” Ronald Reagan in the situation of a young man struggling in the Great Depression, rather than that of an elderly man looking back on the New Deal, would, they argue, have made it easier to understand that his admiration for Franklin D. Roosevelt was sincere.

The bare facts of a biographical sketch may be of little help. To look at the Who’s Who account of Martin Luther King Jr., for example, is to see a man born into a prominent middle-class black family who, after earning his Ph.D., went on to become an apostle of nonviolence, a leader of the civil rights movement, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. But missing from the list, and what made King’s opposition to the Vietnam War so hard to fathom even for such a master “placer” as Lyndon Johnson, were segregation, lynchings, inequality, and all the hidden injuries of race experienced by a black person for whom they were reality, not “history.” And if it was not easy to place King, how much harder to place Malcolm X, whose father was murdered by whites, and who was a pimp, an armed robber, a convict, and a disciple of Elijah Muhammed—yet an extraordinary man who was trying to reach out beyond hatred and separatism before he was assassinated. And if King and Malcolm are “history” to young people today, how about Jesse Jackson, who can act like a conventional middle-class politician but who is a product of the Deep South, institutionalized segregation, the civil rights movement, not to mention the power struggles of Chicago city politics?

American decision makers rarely bother to place people. Most assume that everyone, foreigners included, is like them, and when thwarted react with hostility. Instead of asking, Why did he do that? their reaction often is, How can I get back at him? This is partly a result of our training, and perhaps even more of our national character. We turn our back on the past as though it were an impediment or even an embarrassment. Everything begins today, as though we, and the nation, are born anew each day. What relevance, in fact, can “yesterday’s people” have for us?

We turn out lawyers who believe that disagreements arise from transgression and can be resolved by plea bargaining, hairsplitting, or a payoff; engineers who think there is a solution for every problem; economists who measure national goals chiefly by statistics; business school graduates who view life as a series of deals. Getting such people to visualize issues not as isolated “problems,” but as stories that had a beginning and will come to an end, is no easy matter. This does not necessarily require historical learning so much as it does an ability to connect events over time and constantly to ask whether the connections make sense.

Neustadt and May cite with approval the example of General George C. Marshall in the late 1940s when he was Truman’s secretary of state. The communists in China were on the verge of victory, much to the dismay of American policy makers. Marshall’s adviser, General Albert Wedemeyer, wartime commander in the China theater, urged that the US send several thousand troops to aid Chiang Kai-shek’s forces. This would, he predicted, turn the tide against Mao Zedong. But Marshall insisted on restricting US aid to money and supplies. Anything more, he told the Senate, could involve “obligations and responsibilities…which I am convinced the American people would never knowingly accept.”

History and experience had taught Marshall that the American public had a short tolerance for war. His first assignment had been in the Philippines in 1898, when public exuberance over the new empire had led to sympathy for the Filipinos who were resisting conquest. He had witnessed the disenchantment that had followed the First World War, and the public’s distaste for the intervention in Nicaragua in the 1920s once it lasted more than a few weeks. Having served in China, he had some sense of its history. Although he did not want the Communists to win, his awareness of what had gone before both in China and his own country and what might follow persuaded him that it would be a mistake to intervene.

Seeing “time as a stream,” in the authors’ phrase, is a vague term, but it makes practical sense. It means not only recognizing that the present flows from the past, but that what is special about it is how and when it differs. This is not easy when the press and television—under the obsessive need to produce “news”—constantly try to make us believe that change is the norm rather than the exception (“This is the 141st day of the hostage crisis….”). Those who do not see the past as irrelevant think of it as a refuge. Those, for example, who call for a new “consensus” on American foreign policy do not seem to know, or recall, that there hardly was ever a period when such a consensus existed, not even in the supposedly bracing days of the Marshall Plan in the late 1940s. To take another example, those who lament that the Atlantic alliance has suddenly been rent by nationalism, neutralism, and mutual suspicion forget, if they ever knew, that it has been in a chronic state of “crisis” since its creation nearly forty years ago.

Thinking in Time will hardly correct the confusions it so justifiably describes. Though the examples are clear, the organization is sometimes confusing, and it occasionally descends into social science jargon or sentences that elude easy translation (“Change points, then, in programmatic content, the moments marking substantial alterations of this kind, can be no less significant than trends in helping to define the ‘problem’—or as we prefer, ‘concerns’—emergent from the telling of such stories”). Though this book is not difficult to read, it is hard to extract a clear meaning from some passages, and there are stylistic tics (such as phrases like “prudence-in-the-small”) that make for obscurity.

Nonetheless, the message comes through strongly enough, and if heeded could prevent some unfortunate results. The authors are modest in what they prescribe (“particulars matter,” “marginal improvements in performance are worth seeking,” “a little thought can help”) and what they hope their counsel will achieve. For them most misjudgments could be avoided by asking a few simple questions: Will it work? Will it stick? If not, what?

This isn’t asking much. It may not be asking enough. But Neustadt and May know they can expect no more time from a decision maker at a moment of crisis than he spends watching the TV news or doing his morning calisthenics. The simple moral of this book is that history helps. It may not always give answers. But it can give perspective to hasty assumptions. This should be painfully obvious, yet it seems to require constant reiteration. Each generation of policy makers seems to have to learn it anew.

Consider the argument today over Nicaragua. Some see the situation there as directly analogous to Vietnam. Never again, they say. Others view the defeat of the Sandinistas as a relatively simple matter, like Grenada in 1982 or the Dominican Republic in 1965. Some see it as a replay of Vietnam with all the horrors, others as a chance to arrive at a happy ending even better than in the Rambo films. Both cite history to buttress their arguments. What Neustadt and May can contribute to this argument is not that they cite history, whose “lessons” are infinitely malleable, but that they also offer some guidelines that may induce us to hesitate before leaping boldly into the glorious muck beyond. Their counsel may sound banal: separate the known from the unclear and the presumed, avoid facile analogies, examine presumptions behind pros and cons, analyze your own stereotypes, know the issue’s history. Yet it is advice that could save some grief. And one of the lessons of history, after all, is that most useful advice is banal. While it may be futile to get Americans to accept Talleyrand’s counsel about the dangers of zeal, perhaps we can at least come around to recognizing that being born yesterday is not necessarily a cause for congratulation.

This Issue

November 6, 1986