Commentary Magazine


The March of Folly, by Barbara W. Tuchman

From Troy to Saigon

The March of Folly.
by Barbara W. Tuchman.
Knopf. 448 pp. $18.95.

At first glance, a remarkable idea: to examine cases in world history in which rulers, to preserve their power or principles as they saw them, persisted in policies which damaged or destroyed that power. Barbara Tuchman defines such policies as “folly” if they meet three criteria: they “must have been perceived as counterproductive in [their] own time”; “a feasible alternative course of action must have been available”; and, finally, the policies must have been those “of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond any one political lifetime.” She chooses four examples, one mythological, two from early modern Western history, and one contemporary.

The mythological example, presumably included as a sort of archetype of folly, “the prototype of all tales of human conflict,” is the Trojans’ taking of the Wooden Horse into their city. The horse, as we know, was full of armed Greeks, who emerged under cover of darkness and opened the gates to their fellows. In the myth, the Trojans had indeed been warned, but nevertheless collectively decided to bring in the horse.

The criterion of an available alternative course of action is, however, not fulfilled in this example, as it could not easily be in a mythological story. The message of most Greek myths is precisely that the tragic outcome is fated and that warning voices are not heeded; if they were, there would be no story. Mrs. Tuchman’s treatment of the ancient legend smacks of the rationalist prejudice typical of the less attractive side of the modern Enlightenment tradition. In her belief, “the gods (or God, for that matter) are a concept of the human mind.” Thus, she finds it legitimate to judge the actions of the Trojans by modern utilitarian standards, and not in terms of the religious or the psychological world view to which they adhered. She is, in effect, blaming the Trojans for being characters of legend.

Now, historians are not obliged to be religious phenomenologists or comparative anthropologists. It is apparently not even considered odd today to set forth opinions on ancient matters without knowing Greek or Latin. A historian writing for the general reader, however, has a special obligation to respect the insights, knowledge, and methods of applicable disciplines, and this Mrs. Tuchman fails to do.

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Her failure becomes the more obvious in her second example, namely, the “provocation” by the Renaissance papacy of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Her account of the actual goings-on at the court of the Borgia, the della Rovere, and the Medici popes is entertaining enough, though in my opinion Will Durant did this job better and without any of Mrs. Tuchman’s occasionally sententious moralizing, as when she speaks of the “rampant greed and grab and uninhibited self-gratification” of the Renaissance princes of the Church. But the idea that the German revolt which broke out in the 1520′s was caused chiefly by the worldly behavior of the popes in Rome is another simplistic dogma of the anti-Christian Enlightenment with which no serious historian, whatever his beliefs, would today agree.

The Reformation was the result of long-term social, political, and cultural changes, and was a process which affected those who remained loyal to Rome as well as the Protestants. Luther was motivated primarily by his own doubt of the value of sacramental religion, a doubt which coincided with the political rejection of the old medieval order by strong forces in German society. The character of the hierarchy and the papacy of his time merely confirmed his beliefs, they did not shape them.

The folly of the Renaissance popes, in fact, provoked reform, not schism, which had other and deeper causes. That Luther and the hardliners of the Counter-Reformation—Pope Paul IV and his successors—between them destroyed the moderate forces represented by the Englishmen Thomas More and Reginald Pole does not invalidate the efforts of those forces. The destruction of the middle, especially by Paul IV, was indeed a much greater example of folly in Mrs. Tuchman’s sense than the antics of Alexander VI and Leo X. More tragic, too, since it was the result of deliberately chosen strategy.

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Mrs. Tuchman’s next example from early modern times is the British loss of America, the result of the stubborn folly of consecutive British governments. The flaw in her reading of this episode was pointed out by Theodore Draper in his review of Mrs. Tuchman’s book in the New Republic:

The loss of the colonies was regarded as the certain cause of Britain’s economic ruin and downfall as a great power. . . . The ultimate folly could have been avoided only if the British had agreed to give up effective power in advance, a policy which no British government could have adopted and survived. Fighting in what one believes to be a life-and-death matter deserves some other status than “folly.”

This last remark by Draper is especially interesting in the light of his own opinions about the Vietnam war, the subject which forms Mrs. Tuchman’s final example and to which she devotes the entire second half of her book. Though many people clearly believed that there were vital Western and American interests and principles at stake in Indochina, Mrs. Tuchman ridicules this notion, and Draper, despite his stated belief that it is not folly to fight for what one believes to be vital interests, applauds her for it:

Only in this segment was I convinced that her organizing concept was fully warranted. Much harsher things could be said about this most stupid and ignominious war in American history; folly must surely be one of the kindest.

Mrs. Tuchman’s approach to the Vietnam war is clearly indicated by the title of her narrative, “America betrays herself in Vietnam.” In this section of her book she clearly reveals herself to be not a historian but a partisan proponent of a particular ideological perspective on recent American and world history.

Mrs. Tuchman still believes what many took for granted before 1975, namely, that Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communists were primarily nationalist rebels fighting, first, the French colonial regime and, later, the corrupt puppets of American imperialism. She notes that Ho was saved by American airdrops during the Japanese occupation in 1944, but asserts that his refusal to cooperate with the U.S. after the war was due exclusively to the American failure to approach him and win over his “nationalist” movement from the Soviet Union and Mao. Her account of the crucial period of the 50′s, when Ho was securing his regime in good Stalinist fashion, largely ignores Vietnamese affairs in favor of strident criticism of the American “belief” that “every movement bearing the label Communist represented a single conspiracy,” a conspiracy which was in fact only “envisaged by a self-induced state of mind.” Dean Acheson’s remark, lucid in its prescience, that Ho was “the mortal enemy of native independence in Indochina” is regarded by Mrs. Tuchman as too stupid to merit comment. She reserves her shrillest vituperation for John Foster Dulles, Acheson’s successor as Secretary of State, whom she calls a “bully,” “combative,” and an “extremist,” despite the fact that he never sought to practice what he occasionally preached, namely, a counteroffensive against Soviet expansion.

Her account of the culmination and end of the war does not deviate an inch from the ideological guidelines of her title. Blinded by their “protective stupidity,” Lyndon Johnson and his advisers insisted that the North was out to conquer and not just to “exploit the disintegration of the South.” The conduct of the war was marred by atrocities and arrogance, and above all by the irrational idea that the fall of South Vietnam would lead to “imaginary falling dominoes.” If the lesson of this fruitless effort were only learned, laments Mrs. Tuchman in one of her many digs at the Reagan administration, perhaps we could avoid “imbecility in El Salvador.”

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One is embarrassed to have to remind Mrs. Tuchman (and Theodore Draper as well) that there is nothing imaginary about the Boat People, about the tragic situation of Cambodia, about the Communist occupation of Laos, about the Soviet naval forces in Cam Ranh Bay, about the strategic threat to the Philippines, about the whole ghastly deterioration of the possibilities of resistance to Soviet expansion in Southeast Asia, or indeed about the rampant isolationism and willful neglect of international realities which ever since 1975 has bedeviled, if not paralyzed, American foreign policy.

Mrs. Tuchman, of course, blames the U.S. for the brutality of the Vietnamese Communist regime, which at least she does not try to deny. In a throwaway line, she says that “perhaps the greatest folly was Hanoi’s—to fight so steadfastly for thirty years for a cause that became a brutal tyranny when it was won.” This is a truly grotesque notion—that what Hanoi achieved was in any way different from what Ho, Giap, and the others wanted all along. The American intervention merely delayed, it did not create, the Vietnamese gulag. Yet that Ho might have stood, from the beginning, for something other than a regional variant of American Left-liberalism is apparently an idea too complicated for this historian to grasp.

The real reason Mrs. Tuchman ascribes the cruelty of “the new political order in Vietnam” to American intervention is that to believe otherwise might lead to the dangerous conclusion “that the American attempt to prevent a Communist domination of the area was not without moral justification,” to quote the final words of Guenter Lewy’s America in Vietnam. This conclusion threatens the legitimacy of Mrs. Tuchman’s most cherished assumptions. It implies that there was a point to the effort, however ill-conceived or badly executed it was. It further implies that there was at one time a consistency to American foreign policy, a consistency shattered by the successes on the domestic political scene of people with Mrs. Tuchman’s own ideological views.

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“Who since Vienam would venture to say of America in simple belief that she was the ‘last best hope of earth’?” asks Mrs. Tuchman sarcastically toward the end of her story. If the answer is “no one,” it is not for the reasons she might suppose. The Vietnam war may have been an example of folly. Much greater is the folly of those who, like Mrs. Tuchman, still refuse to understand either its course, its outcome, or the full lessons to be learned from it.

Mrs. Tuchman’s judgments of current American policy can be deduced with depressing ease from passing remarks in her narrative. As I have noted, she assumes as a matter of course that the Reagan administration’s Central America policy is a case of “imbecility.” She informs us that “the superpowers can and should divest themselves of the means of mutual destruction” since nuclear war is becoming more likely and will result in “human suicide.” She asserts that the U.S. is seeking nuclear superiority and that this is the primary cause and source of East-West tension. Government under Reagan is characterized by “accelerating incompetence.” The foolish “insistence” on economic growth is “demonstrably using up the basics of life on our planet.” Such outdated clichés, presented without a shred of evidence, populate her pages.

They also give a clue to her popularity. Mrs. Tuchman’s writings pander to the pseudo-sophistication of the new “yuppie” class, products of the chaotic and collapsing college education of the 70′s. She does not remedy her readers’ lack of historical or political knowledge by introducing them to past ideas and events. Instead, she interprets, or rather misrepresents, certain important junctures of world history in such a way as to confirm their suspicions and prejudices. The principles of power and political realism are already held in dishonor in America; a book purporting to show, with superficial arguments, that major confrontations of the past have been due merely to “folly” and not to much deeper and fundamental oppositions, merely contributes to the general decadence.

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Mrs. Tuchman asks, in conclusion, “whether . . . a country can protect itself from protective stupidity.” This is indeed a relevant question. But the real question her work raises is whether the refusal to learn from history and the rejection of experience and realism by the liberal intellectual establishment are not themselves the prime examples of protective stupidity in our time.

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