The Book of History Lessons

January 8, 2012 § 4 Comments

‘Lessons’ of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy (May, Ernest)

Santayana’s aphorism must be reversed: too often it is those who can remember the past who are condemned to repeat it”
Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

When I became old enough to read the papers and learn about the world, it had already been in the icy grip of the Cold War for 35 years. Many of the men and women who reported or analyzed events in the media had never known a different state of affairs in their lifetimes. It was like a primordial tussle between the forces of Good and Evil. If you were on one of the two sides, you automatically knew that the other was Evil, that it was deeply immoral not to resist them, that your eventual prevalence in the struggle was pre-ordained and inevitable, and that the world would come to an end when this happened. But if your country, like mine, did not belong to either of the colliding worlds, but to a ‘third’ world, instead, over by the sidelines, your Cold War experience would have been different from the American or Russian one. Some of us painted it in ‘Good v Evil’ colors as well, but were deeply divided about which one was which, and we felt it would go on forever, like a metaphor for the human condition, the spinning yin and yang of life, symbols of the perpetual dilemmas that rage perennially in our mind. There was a certain epic timelessness about it all, a lack of understanding of the processes of political change, a denial of the very possibility of change, which was ultimately a negation of history. Small wonder, that soon after the War ended, someone who should have known better actually wrote a triumphant book called ‘The End of History‘.

It is this distortion of history that is the subject of May’s book, and to his great credit, he wrote it, not after the end of the War, but in 1973, right in the thick of battle. With the benefit of hindsight, and the perspective that comes from distance from both Washington and Moscow, it is easier for us to piece together the causes and consequences of the war, but such a narrative would not differ in substance from May’s.

Foreign Policy in the absence of History: Cartoon courtesy Filip Spagnoli (

We now know that the US attempted to foist capitalism and US-friendly governments on many countries just as much as the USSR tried to propagate Communism in them. The actions of each side forced the other into defensive and antagonistic positions, and hawkish prophecies fulfilled themselves. Game Theory has often been invoked to explain the onset of this uneasy and unstable equilibrium, but May explains it more in terms of Organizational Behavior.

The advisors that a US President chooses usually share his prejudices and convictions. They collectively seek information and advice on foreign policy from diplomatic dispatches sent in from faraway nations. These diplomats tend to overstate their cases, to counteract what they believed to be the naivety and inertia of the politicians. The penalties for wrong prognoses are asymmetric: ignored indications of bad news are more career-limiting than exaggerated fears that don’t come true. These cases get summarized and never toned down as they go up the state department hierarchy, and by the time they reach the highest echelons of decision making, all shades of gray get systematically edited out and finally, the President is shown the picture in terse black and white terms: good guys and baddies, friends and foes, kill or be killed – much of which validates his original opinions anyway.

The military leadership does not object to doomsday predictions, not because they are paranoid psychopaths but because such a reading helps pass budget bills; then, as today, the first self-preservatory instinct of a cost center is to maximize budgets. The politicians, in turn, see that the general public seldom disapproves of hardline positions: the simpler the narrative, the easier it is to sell. The media agrees. All these factors, willy-nilly, caused a state of cold war to exist, and colluded to maintain the status quo for nearly half a century.

None of this would have happened if the decision-makers, the diplomats and the public had not had an utterly misguided understanding of how history works, which was based on a single pattern of events, that of the years leading up to World War II, and a single image of the enemy, that of Adolf Hitler.

If Hitler had been stopped when he rose to absolute power, Anschluss wouldn’t have happened; if he had been stopped at Austria, Sudetenland wouldn’t have happened; if he’d been stopped in Czechoslovakia, Poland wouldn’t have happened; and if not for Poland, there wouldn’t have been a World War. At every step, appeased by the well-meaning but naive Allies, the monster grew stronger , until he was a threat to the entire world. This was the only lesson that was learnt from the war, and applied to every situation. Thus, the logic went, if Turkey was lost, Greece, Arabia, Africa, Iran, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia would follow suit, and soon we’d be fighting on the beaches of Miami. If South Vietnam wasn’t defended, Laos would fall, followed by Thailand and Burma, and soon the world would be fallen to communism, like dominoes.

And so, in order to avoid playing dominoes, the US and the USSR played poker, using real nuclear warheads for chips, and chess, using real Third World nations for pawns. Even though the term ‘Third World‘ seems to suggest that we were not part of the conflict, it was here that most of the actual shooting and all the civilian casualties in this war took place. The Cold War was better than a ‘real’ one, the reasoning went, and it was – for the people of the first two worlds. Millions died in Angola, Vietnam, Cuba, Laos, Hungary, Nicaragua, Iran, Chile, Afghanistan and several other countries – but then body counts don’t mean an awful lot if you are a pawn.

None of this need have happened, May points out. The Hitler analogy was inapplicable in most scenarios. Further, governments consistently made a layman mistake that qualified historians would never make. May quotes political analyst and fellow Harvard academic Graham Allison (in his Essence of Decision):

“When thinking of international relations, most of us visualize nations as rational unitary actors, defining objectives, laying plans, and following sequences of coherent actions in pursuit of their ends. In doing so we ignore important ways in which complex organizations do not behave like individual men and women.”

Ernest May’s solution is to have presidents employ historians as foreign policy advisors. Trained in analyzing facts and forming educated hypotheses about causes of events, historians would be better at predicting the consequences of actions. Unfortunately, May then helpfully provides a bunch of predictions so that we could judge this for ourselves. Writing in 1973, he predicted that the US policy would remain broadly the same over the next decade or so. First Europe, followed by the Far East, then the Middle East, and then the rest – this, according to May, would remain USA’s order of priorities; but that the experience of Vietnam would cause the US to be wary of engaging in foreign wars. Further, he predicts that the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks started by Nixon in 1973 would continue to ease tensions, and that the US public would, once again, gradually lose interest in foreign affairs.

Of course, however good a historian May was, what he did not – COULD not – foresee, were events themselves. The OPEC oil scare of 1973, followed by the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the Lebanese Civil War and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, all happened before the end of the decade, leading to a reversal of the detente and the re-jigging of priorities, with the Middle East theater gaining a prominence and notoriety in American minds that it has still not lost three decades later.

One problem with historians is that they can identify trends, but they can’t predict game-changing events like these  – nobody can. But the biggest reason that the White House does not employ a large Department of Historian Advisors, is that historians aren’t given to making quick and concise generalizations. This is their biggest virtue, but also their biggest failing as a decision support mechanism. Nobody in today’s fast-paced world has time any more to sort through all the shades of gray, least of all in the middle of a crisis.

What does this mean for world peace? Sadly, that the USA (and everyone else) will continue to make stupid decisions. HistoryMan is not going to fly down in his cape and hood and save us any time soon.


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§ 4 Responses to The Book of History Lessons

  • The 'Cruel Youth' says:

    I agree with everything here, except for one- your suggestion that May was wrong through no fault of his own. I once read a book called “Nuclear War”. Though it was mainly about the physics in nukes, he did manage to figure that in 1954 that tensions would die down even as the nuke got ever more potent, because its destructive nature would mean that the world would be completely destroyed, along with human civilazation, like in On the Beach. He was correct in all but one way- he predicted that one power might take advantage of this and spark said war 😦

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  • Rick Searle says:

    Great post! And you’re right, you lay out almost identical arguments to the ones I’ve made in recent posts. I guess great minds really do think alike ;>)

    Looking forward to your future posts…

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