Saturday, November 25, 2017

The March of Folly by Barbara W. Tuchman

This is a marvelous book, full of deep historical and sociological insight. Its subject is not just one historical episode or period of time, but a universal sociological phenomenon, manifesting itself again and again throughout the storied history of human culture.

Why, to begin at the beginning, did the Trojan rulers drag that suspicious-looking wooden horse inside their walls despite every reason to suspect a Greek trick? Why did successive ministries of George III insist on coercing rather than conciliating the American colonies though repeatedly advised by many counselors that the harm done must be greater than any possible gain? Why did Charles XII and Napoleon and successively Hitler invade Russia despite the disasters incurred by each predecessor? Why did Montezuma, master of fierce and eager armies and a city of 300,000, succumb passively to a party of several hundred alien invaders even after they had shown themselves all too obviously human beings, not gods? Why did Chiang Kai-shek refuse to heed any voice of reform or alarm until he woke up to find his country had slid from under him? Why do the oil-importing nations engage in rivalry for the available supply when a firm united front vis-a-vis the exporters would gain them control of the situation? Why in recent times have British trade unions in a lunatic spectacle seemed periodically bent on dragging their country toward paralysis, apparently under the impression that they are separate from the whole? Why does American business insist on “growth” when it is demonstrably using up the three basics of life on our planet -- land, water and unpolluted air?

It is all folly, defined by Tuchman as the pursuit of policies contrary to the interests of those pursuing them. In the three primary examples that she examines -- the Renaissance popes provoking the Protestant secession, the British losing America, and America betraying herself in Vietnam -- she not only expertly describes the sequences of historical events, but also shines a light on the human and organizational frailties that are common to all three.

Walking Into Water Over Their Heads

[Folly] often does not spring from great design, and its consequences are frequently a surprise. The folly lies in persisting thereafter. [The] point is reinforced … in a perceptive comment by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who cautioned, “In analyzing history do not be too profound, for often the causes are quite superficial.” This is a factor usually overlooked by political scientists who, in discussing the nature of power, already treat it, even when negatively, with immense respect. They fail to see it as sometimes a matter of ordinary men walking into water over their heads, acting unwisely or foolishly or perversely as people in ordinary circumstances frequently do. The trappings and impact of power deceive us, endowing the possessors with a quality larger than life.

This, I think, is one of the most important insights in the book, and hopefully will color my reading of history from this point forward. One of the most striking examples from Tuchman’s analysis is the following quote attributed to President John Kennedy. Remember for this purpose that prior to America’s involvement in Vietnam, the French had fought there for years, and had eventually lost to local forces.

The American failure to find any significance in the defeat of the French professional army, including the Foreign Legion, by small, thin-boned, out-of-uniform Asian guerrillas is one of the great puzzles of the time. When David Schoenbrun, correspondent for CBS, who had covered the French war in Vietnam, tried to persuade the President of the realities of that war and of the loss of French officers equivalent each year to a class at St. Cyr, Kennedy answered, “Well, Mr. Schoenbrun, that was the French. They were fighting for a colony, for an ignoble cause. We’re fighting for freedom, to free them from the Communists, from China, for their independence.”

Wow. Talk about a man walking into water over his head. Evidently, the only thing that mattered in Kennedy’s estimation was the motivation of the occupying force. The sympathies and preferences of the occupied mattered for not, a point Tuchman summarizes well in her concluding sentence.

Because Americans believed they were “different” they forgot that they too were white.

Or, here at greater length.

The reason why the French with superior manpower and American resources were doing so poorly was not beyond all conjecture. The people of Indochina, of whom more than 200,000 were in the colonial army together with some 80,000 French, 48,000 North Africans and 20,000 Foreign Legionnaires, simply had no reason to fight for France. Americans were always talking about freedom from Communism, whereas the freedom that the mass of Vietnamese wanted was freedom from their exploiters, both French and indigenous. The assumption that humanity at large shared the democratic Western idea of freedom was an American delusion. “The freedom we cherish and defend in Europe,” stated President Eisenhower on taking office, “is no different than the freedom that is imperiled in Asia.” He was mistaken. Humanity may have common ground, but needs and aspirations vary according to circumstances.

Persistent Aspects of Folly

But not seeing the situation from an opponent’s point of view is a persistent aspect of folly. And, as that is Tuchman’s primary purpose, her text is full of other commentary on these persistent aspects of folly. Here’s the diagnosis that comes at the end of her section on the Renaissance popes.

Their three outstanding attitudes -- obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents, primacy of self-aggrandizement, illusion of invulnerable status -- are persistent aspects of folly. While in the case of the Renaissance popes, these were bred in and exaggerated by the surrounding culture, all are independent of time and recurrent in governorship.

Indeed. The one that was especially noteworthy for me was the obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents. Whether we’re talking about the Renaissance popes and their attitudes towards their common congregants, the British royalty and government and their attitudes towards the American colonists, or the American government and their attitudes towards their allies and enemies in Vietnam, the common perspective of the identified constituents was hardly ever taken into account. And it’s not because those in power were necessarily unwilling. As this revealing passage in regards to the Britain’s repeal of the Stamp Act shows, it was primarily because the governments in question did not have the apparatus to capture and consider other ideas.

After a mistake so absolute as to require repeal, British policy-makers might well have stopped to reconsider the relationship with the colonies, and ask themselves what course they might follow to induce a beneficial allegiance on the one hand and ensure a secure sovereignty on the other. Many Englishmen outside government did consider this problem, and Pitt and Shelburne, who were shortly to come to power, entered office intending to calm the suspicions and restore the equanimity of the colonies. Fate, as we shall see, interfered.

Policy was not reconsidered because the governing group had no habit of purposeful consultation, had the King over their heads and were at odds with one another. It did not occur to them that it might be wise to avoid provocative measures for long enough to reassure the colonies of Britain’s respect for their rights while leaving their agitators no excuse. The riotous reaction to the Stamp Act only confirmed the British in their belief that the colonies, led by “wicked and designing men” (as stated in a House of Lords resolution), were bent on rebellion. Confronted by menace, or what was perceived as menace, governments will usually attempt to smash it, rarely to examine it, understand it, define it.

Despite this judgment, Tuchman often goes out of her way to stress the existence of another of her pre-existing conditions before diagnosing anything as folly -- and that is that there were plenty of people, at the time of each government’s actions, who could see and who vocally advocated for another course of action.

In Britain’s loss of America, there were members of Parliament, and even members of the Cabinet, who saw the folly and spoke against it.

Meanwhile within the Ministry, if not the inner Cabinet, Viscount Barrington, the long-serving Secretary at War, entered a dissent. Although formerly in favor of a hard line toward America, he was one of the few in any group who allowed facts and developments to penetrate and influence their thinking. By 1774 he had come to believe that to coerce the colonies to the point of armed resistance would be disastrous. He had not turned pro-American or changed his political loyalties in any way; he had simply come to the professional conclusion, as he explained to Dartmouth in two letters of November and December 1774, that a land war in America would be useless, costly and impossible to win. Useless because it was plain that Britain could never successfully impose internal taxation; costly and impossible to win because conquered areas must be held by large armies and fortresses, “the expense of which would be ruinous and endless,” besides producing “the horrors and bloodshed of civil war.” Britain’s only war aim was proving supremacy without being able to use it; “I repeat, our contest is merely a point of honor” and “will cost us more than we can ever gain by success.”

Same story with America betraying herself in Vietnam. When America first got involved, it was in an attempt to help the French maintain their colonial rule there as a bulwark against Communism. But that didn’t have to be her policy, and there were plenty at the time who said so.

The alternative was present and available: to gain for America an enviable primacy among Western nations and confirm the foundation of goodwill in Asia by aligning ourselves with, even supporting, the independence movements. If this seemed indicated to some, particularly at the Far East desk, it was less persuasive to others for whom self-government by Asians was not something to base a policy on and insignificant in comparison to the security of Europe. In Indochina choice of the alternative would have required imagination, which is never a long suit with governments, and willingness to take the risk of supporting a Communist when Communism was still seen as a solid bloc. [Marshal Josip Broz] Tito [of Yugoslavia] was then its only splinter, and the possibility of another deviation was not envisaged. Moreover, it would be divisive of the Allies. Support of Humpty-Dumpty was chosen instead, and once a policy had been adopted and implemented, all subsequent activity becomes an effort to justify it.

Whether it is the British in the 1770s or the Americans in the 1950s, the machinery of their governments prevented them from considering options contrary to their firmly held beliefs. The American colonies are wholly subservient to the British crown. Communism is a threat that must be contained, and will be conquered by the freedom-loving instincts of humanity. Perhaps most telling of all is this quote from Lyndon Johnson.

Asked once how long the war might last, [Johnson] answered, “Who knows how long, how much? The important thing is, are we right or wrong?”

Funny. I think America is still debating that one.

Executive War

And speaking of Lyndon Johnson, one of the other things Tuchman’s book helped me wrap my brain around was the, to borrow a phrase, folly of Executive War.

War is a procedure from which there can be no turning back without acknowledging defeat. This was the self-laid trap into which America had walked. Only with the greatest difficulty and rarest success, as belligerents mired in futility have often discovered, can combat be terminated in favor of compromise. Because it is a final resort to destruction and death, war has traditionally been accompanied by the solemn statement of justification, in medieval times a statement of “just war,” in modern times a Declaration of War … However false and specious the justification may be, and usually is, a legalism of this kind serves to state the case and automatically endows the government with enlarged powers.

The first half of this paragraph explains why nations should not go to war. The second half explains why no nation going to war should do so solely on the authority of its Executive. But, of course, neither of these explanations were heeded in the case of America’s war in Vietnam.

Johnson decided to do without a Declaration, partly because neither cause nor aims were clear enough in terms of national defense to sustain one, partly because he feared a Declaration might provoke Russia or China to a response in kind, mainly because he feared it would divert attention and resources from the domestic programs which he hoped would make his reputation in history.

And we know how history has judged that decision.

It would have been wiser to face the test and require Congress to assume its constitutional responsibility for going to war. The President should likewise have asked for an increase in taxes to balance war costs and inflationary pressures. He avoided this in his hope of not arousing protest. As a result his war in Vietnam was never legitimized. By forgoing a Declaration he opened a wider door to dissent and made the error, fatal to his presidency, of assuring the ground of public support.

Of course, today America has figured another way around Johnson’s problem. Still no formal Declarations of War from Congress, but now an Executive with his ear ever on public sentiment for the bombs he decides to drop around the world.

But Tuchman isn’t done diagnosing this problem. She’s writing in 1984, about events taking place in 1965, but how familiar to today’s situation the following excerpt is. It’s regarding the hearings held by Senator J. William Fulbright, investigating the causes and authorities associated with taking America to war.

Acquiescence in Executive war, [Fulbright] wrote, comes from the belief that the government possess secret information that gives it special insight in determining policy. Not only was this questionable, but major policy decisions turn “not upon available facts but upon judgment,” with which policy-makers are no better endowed than the intelligent citizen. Congress and citizens can judge “whether the massive deployment and destruction of their men and wealth seem to serve their overall interests as a nation.”

This is a view that is all too frequently absent from our major policy decisions today -- that the nation, and not solely its president, are capable (and empowered by the Constitutional separation of powers) of making them -- and especially those associated with the commitment of U.S. troops to aggressive military action. And, evidently, it was also a minority view in 1965.

The belief that government knows best was voiced just at this time by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who said on resumption of the bombing, “We ought to support the President. He is the man who has all the information and knowledge of what we are up against.” This is a comforting assumption that relieves people from taking a stand. It is usually invalid, especially in foreign affairs. “Foreign policy decisions,” concluded Gunnar Myrdal after two decades of study, “are in general much more influenced by irrational motives” than are domestic ones.

As is so often in history, what is past is prologue. Imagine what Lyndon Johnson would think of the executive war-making powers afforded our modern presidents. And is Myrdal’s diagnosis about irrational motives any less true?

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

No comments:

Post a Comment