Thursday, November 15, 2012

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam

The History Book Club met last night to discuss The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara Tuchman. The book briefly describes a number of situations in which leaders chose alternatives leading to disastrous results although there were better alternatives available to them, and although they had been warned in advance that they were about to do the wrong thing.

Tuchman details four heights of folly:

  • The decision to allow the Trojan Horse into Troy, resulting in the sack of the city
  • Six Renaissance Popes -- the continuous wars under their leadership, their constant demands for more funds from the faithful (including by the sale of dispensations), their often conspicuously dissolute life styles and their misuse of their office, which combined led to a crisis in the Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation
  • Britain's George III, and by the (often incompetent) cabinet ministers that he appointed -- the decisions they made from the end of the French and Indian War to the end of the American Revolution--decisions that eventually cost England most of its North American colonies
  • The decisions by the leaders of the United States' governments, from the Roosevelt and Truman administrations through that of Nixon, which cost lives and wealth in a futile effort to prevent Vietnam unifying under a Communist government.
16 members of the club held a vigorous discussion. There was general agreement that Tuchman writes well and tells a story well. There was less agreement on the quality of the historical interpretation, with one long time member saying that it was his favorite of the history books he had read, and another that the book was simply Tuchman calling it folly that people had not done those things she now thinks they should have done.

One of our members had searched the books bibliography to discover that Tuchman had not included references to any of the many texts on decision making in government. That led to a discussion of the appropriate models for such decision making. It was suggested that treating a pope, a king or a president as one who can make rational decisions on such matters as Tuchman suggests may itself be an error -- that the course of action of a large institution emerges from bureaucratic and political processes. Actions by churches and governments are often the result of negotiation and compromise  between many actors. Tuchman focuses on choices made with regard to a single objective, but people with many personal objectives conflate their own with institutional objectives, and indeed governments and churches themselves can be seen to have many objectives. There was in fact an objection to the reification of governments as having "national interests".

Much of the discussion was devoted to the Vietnam decisions. The book club usually avoids discussions of events that occurred during members lifetimes, but in this case many of us had strong memories from the time of the Vietnam war. There was a general agreement that American leaders of the time had never understood the nationalism of the Vietnamese Communists, and that they never had strong leaders in South Vietnam as their allies. The American efforts at nation building failed, the increasing build up of American troop strength was met by increased troop strength of their opponents, and the bombing failed to break the will of the opposition. The North Vietnamese and their southern allies always believed that they would outlast the Americans, and that belief proved right in the end. Clearly errors were made.

There was some thought that while President Johnson showed great courage in promoting civil rights legislation, he did not seem to show equal courage in publicly admitting failure of policies in Vietnam. (We did not discuss his Great Society initiatives, and how his concern for them might have influenced his Vietnam decisions.)

Tuchman, published her book in 1984, years before fall of the Berlin wall and the break up of the Soviet Union. It was pointed out that in the minds of the American leaders, the Vietnam War was but one front of many in a long term strategy to contain the spread of Communism. U.S. policy was based on the belief that the internal contradictions of Communism would eventually result in its fall. It was pointed out in the discussion that today there are only scattered remnants of people who believe in centrally planned economies, and almost all of the countries that once were considered the "Communist block" now allow capitalist enterprises and market transactions. Moreover, many (perhaps most) governments have become less coercive and now allow more popular participation. The West may have lost in the Vietnam theater of battle but won the Cold War.

There was some discussion of the failures of the Renaissance papacy. Perhaps the most vigorous discussion was on the counter factual claim that Christianity is today more vigorous than it might have been had not those popes provoked the Reformation and the Counter Reformation. Christianity may have been more successful in its competition with Islam for adherents because of those events, its adherents may on the average be more involved in their faiths, and the churches may be better managed. I don't think we came to a consensus on the topic, but the discussion was thought provoking.

The fundamental point underlying both the discussion of the containment of Communism and the crisis provoked by the Renaissance popes was that the currents of history may look quite different to those of us able to look back upon them with our current knowledge, as compared to those who were muddling through in their present.

There seemed unanimity in our surprise at the wide spread incompetence in governing of the individuals in the English cabinets during the late 18th century. We discussed why the advisers to Johnson and Nixon failed to give useful advice to their presidents on Vietnam, citing many possible reasons.

One of Tuchman's criteria for her choice of the historical tales was that there be people giving good advice that was not heeded. There was some discussion of why that should be -- perhaps ended with the comment that for the people of the time it is not always easy to see which of the many alternative positions advance by different "experts" is the most credible.

Ultimately, the book is about wooden headedness, lazyness, personal ambition, and plain stupidity. We all knew that such things exist in government, and decided that we now had more examples.

The club meeting ended on the discovery that Barnes and Noble's manager had denied the club meeting space for the December meeting. (The B&N Civil War book Club does not meet in December.) Members are looking for another venue.

The book chosen for December is Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World by Maya Jasanoff. That for January is Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John W. Dower

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