The historian Carl Becker stated, “History is the memory of things said and done.”
The overwhelming majority of individuals who make their living as historians are attached to institutions of higher learning as teachers and researchers. They hold advanced degrees in their discipline and have settled into professorships that provide them with both a lectern to share their knowledge with students and the means to pursue their specific lines of interest. When they publish the results of their probing into the past, as they necessarily must, their colleagues critique their work. Aware that unconscious cultural biases that gain the blessing of the academy can be as seditious as the intentional perpetuation of prejudices, and relying on their own views and methodologies, the history doctors will sharpen their scalpels and examine the new work for pathologies. Spirited discussion will ensue.
Preserving “the memory of things said and done” is not the exclusive province of professionals. There are also historians who practice outside the formal confines of academic approval. Their work is not subject to peer review, but relies instead on popular acceptance. Their general audience, not having the resources or the expertise to challenge the work presented to them, must trust the honesty of the historian, learn to recognize authors with a particular axe to grind, and keep their skepticism within reach.
Barbara Tuchman (1912 – 1989) stood outside the academic pale. She was a graduate of Radcliffe College (1933) with a strong background in history and literature, but she never obtained an advanced degree in any field and was never associated with a university. She was not a professional historian with a talent for writing, but a superb writer with a passion for historical subjects, as attested by her Pulitzer prizes for The Guns of August (1962) and for Stilwell and the American Experience in China (1971).
In The March of Folly (1984), Tuchman poses the hypothesis that governments often pursue policies contrary to their own interests. She offers seven preliminary examples and four detailed case studies, one drawn from mythic literature and three from history.
“Pursuit of Policy Contrary to Self-Interest” (1) The obstinacy of King Rehoboam of Israel precipitates a war that forever divides the twelve tribes. (2) The superstition of Montezuma, ruler of an Aztec empire of five million people, abets the Spanish conquest by Cortes with 600 soldiers. (3) In the late 6th century, the Visigoth king Recared attempts to unify the antagonistic Arian Christian and Roman Catholic factions in the Iberian peninsula, making the fateful decision to elevate the Catholics to supreme authority, initiating two centuries of land seizures and persecutions of non-Christians. In 711, the Jews invite the Moors to invade Spain, resulting in the establishment of an Islamic civilization in southern Europe that would persist for nearly 800 years. (4) The 72-year reign of Louis XIV exhausts the resources of France through ceaseless wars and the counterproductive suppression of the Huguenots, setting the table for the French Revolution. (5) After 35 years of revolution, counter-revolution, and Napoleonic reign, Charles X, aided by his state-subsidized Ultras, tries to reconstitute the shattered monarchy in France, reminding everyone that Bourbon dynasts “learn nothing and forget nothing.” (6) The German High Command decides to resume unlimited submarine warfare in January 1917 based on their invalid estimation of American readiness to enter the First World War on the side of the Allied Powers. (7) Recalling the success of their preemptive strike against Russia at Port Arthur in 1904, the Japanese try to ensure their ambitions for a Pacific empire with a knockout blow against the United States at Pearl Harbor in 1941.
The case studies:
“Prototype: The Trojans Take the Wooden Horse Within Their Walls”. The tale from Homer’s Odyssey relates how wiser heads among the the Trojans are ignored when they are presented with the Wooden Horse left behind by the Greeks.
“The Renaissance Popes Provoke the Protestant Secession: 1470 – 1530”. A succession of six popes in the late 15th and early 16th centuries turn a deaf ear to cries for reform of the Church, use their pontificates to exercise secular power, and deplete the Vatican treasury for armed connivance against their enemies, for grandiose displays of their status, and for the enrichment of their families, making inevitable the Protestant Reformation.
“The British Lose America”. Beginning with the reasonable hope of recovering the costs of defending their American colonists in the French – Indian War (1756 – 1763), the ineptitude of British cabinet ministers, the intractability of negligent attitudes toward the Americas, the demands of a mercantilist economic system, and incessant intrigues and antagonisms between England and France contribute to Great Britain’s loss of the American colonies.
“America Betrays herself in Vietnam.” Fear of Communist expansionism, the Revolution in China, and domestic political pressure from the right push America into attempting to control Vietnamese destiny after the expulsion of France from Indochina. Thirty years of American military and economic involvement (dating from the supply of U.S. military transport for French troops to restore colonial control in 1945 through the fall of Saigon in 1975) yield disastrous results.
Tuchman describes her work as “chronological narrative”. She understood the methods of historical research and used primary sources (diaries, memoirs, correspondence, archival records, site visits, interviews with principals) whenever possible. She made a point of having no overall philosophy of history, but saw instead “human conduct as a steady stream running through endless fields of changing circumstances” and realized the importance of allowing research material to shape her view rather than imposing her view on the material. Her training as a journalist with The Nation (owned by her father, Maurice Wertheim) served her well, gracing her literary style with confidant brevity, a sharp sense of the salient fact or incident, and just the right touch of wit.
Barbara Tuchman’s collected writings constitute a splendid “memory of things said and done”. In The March of Folly she does not despair of human wisdom, but advances the case that its presence in government is unfortunately rare.
(Review posted on Amazon.com, August 2011)