The Practical Uses of History

Levinson History Lecture, St Andrew’s School – Middletown, Delaware

We’ve all heard it many times – and some of you may even have said it: “I hate history! It’s so boring: All those dates, names, and battles!” I suppose it’s impossible for those of us who do like history to understand such an attitude. All of us, I think, like stories, and the tales of history are the best.

But if this audience contains those whose spirits and emotions are not lifted and engaged by history – somebody’s history – then let me try to reach you hard-headed future MBA’s another way: On the very practical and very useful reasons for reading history – for what it teaches you to do and what it teaches you to avoid. It is how you can expand your own limited personal experience by borrowing from the triumphs and foibles of others, without losing your job or your head.

As an aspiring public official, I read history for inspiration. For example, there was Winston Churchill’s stirring exhortation to youth:

Twenty to twenty-five: These are the years! Don’t be content with things as they are. ‘The earth is yours and the fullness thereof.’ Enter upon your inheritance, accept your responsibilities. Raise the glorious flags again, advance them upon the new enemies, who constantly gather upon the front of the human army and have only to be assaulted to be overthrown. Don’t take No for an answer. Never submit to failure. Do not be fobbed off for mere personal success or acceptance. You will make all kinds of mistakes; but as long as you are generous and true, and also fierce, you cannot hurt the world or even seriously distress her. She was made to be wooed and won by youth.

Churchill wrote these words in memoirs published in 1930, during his so-called wilderness years out of power, when he no doubt looked back on the adventures of his youth as the best time of his life. But his greatest glories still lay a full ten years in the future. That is itself a kind of inspiration.

Later, as an incumbent public official, I read history for guidance, seeing how others handled and survived their own crises. For example, when I was an assistant secretary of the Navy during the Reagan Administration, a new secretary was appointed. He was Jim Webb, now US senator from Virginia, one of the most remarkable men of my generation and arguably the most remarkable on the right-hand side of the baby-boomer ideological divide. Even before he became “SecNav”, Webb had won distinction as a Marine combat veteran of the Vietnam War (receiving the Navy Cross for valor), as a much-praised novelist and journalist, and as an assistant secretary of Defense.

Yet, despite all these admirable achievements, or perhaps because of them, Jim was a difficult man to work for. An Annapolis graduate, he put me and his other new subordinates through a kind of plebe summer, subjecting us to extra pressure and demands. I found this treatment irritating and insulting, not to mention wholly unnecessary. But dishing it out was Webb’s prerogative as boss, so like a good plebe I braced up, said “Aye aye, sir!”, and went forth to do as he directed.

During this stressful time, I happened to be reading John Niven’s biography of Gideon Welles. During the James K. Polk administration, Welles was a political appointee in the Navy Department, serving under George Bancroft, a famous writer whose most lasting accomplishment as secretary of the Navy was founding the US Naval Academy. (The huge residential building at Annapolis, where Jim Webb underwent his own plebe summer, is named Bancroft Hall.)

In the pages of Niven’s book, I found this passage:

[Welles] was irritated at Bancroft’s condescending air, his tendency to find fault where no fault existed, [and] his temperamental outbursts. After an especially painful interview with the Secretary, [Welles] wrote: ‘As yet, we do not fully understand each other.’ … Eventually, the Secretary came to appreciate Welles’ honesty and competence, but their association was never really harmonious.

This tale out of history provided me with great solace, since Gideon Welles survived his hazing at the hand of George Bancroft and went on to become secretary of the Navy himself under Abraham Lincoln and to be one of the greatest civilian leaders in American military history.

In later years of my life, as an ex-public official or (in our “revolving door” form of government) a possible future official, I read history as a practical training exercise. I would put myself in Lincoln’s or Franklin Roosevelt’s place and ask how I would solve a particular problem they faced. Of course, this exercise works best with episodes of history with which you’re unfamiliar. But, there are plenty of these to test your imagination and judgment. (As Harry Truman liked to say, “The only thing new in the world is the history you haven’t read.”) Then, continuing to read – or, more often on Houston freeways, to listen to – the narrative, I would test how my solution matched with theirs and whether I got it right.

Perhaps the most serious student of history among modern presidents was John F. Kennedy, who wrote a couple of books of history himself. In 1962, about a year after he took office, Barbara Tuchman published her celebrated book about the start of World War I, The Guns of August. The major lesson that JFK took from this book was not what to do the next time an Austrian archduke got shot but how quickly statesmen can lose control of events in a crisis — or not have real control over them in the first place. For example, here is what Tuchman wrote that Kennedy’s counterparts in 1914 faced: “General staffs, goaded by their relentless timetables [for the mobilization of troops], were pounding the table for the signal to move lest their opponents gain an hour’s head start.” And this was in the era when the fastest form of communication was the still-infant telephone.

Just a few months after reading The Guns of August, Kennedy faced an even graver circumstance than was presented by all of World War I, with its millions of dead: The placement of nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba by the Soviet Union. At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis – the 50th anniversary of which will be next month – Kennedy told his intimates: “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time, The Missiles of October. If anybody is around to write after this, they are going to understand that we made every effort to find peace and every effort to give our adversary room to move.”

Following this prudent path, Kennedy kept events from spiraling out of control, gave Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev a face-saving (and earth-saving) means of backing down, and brought the direst moment of the Cold War to a safe conclusion. It was not an unmixed triumph: Kennedy had to promise to withdraw American missiles from Turkey and not to invade Cuba, for which he was severely criticized. Half a century later, Cuba remains in chains, but Turkey is still free, and the Soviet Union is no more. While credit for this relatively happy ending belongs to Kennedy and not to Tuchman, we can nevertheless say with confidence that the Cuban Missile Crisis might have had a much different – and perhaps devastating – outcome had not the young president read a certain book of history.

Kennedy brought to the crisis his own judgment of facts and people, a judgment shaped for him – as for all of us – by experience. Mark Twain once said that, “Experience is the name we give to our mistakes”, and Kennedy had made one doozy of a mistake not long after becoming president in 1961. This was the infamous Bay of Pigs – named for the spot on the coast of Cuba where a mere 1600 anti-Castro exiles went ashore as part of a US plan to spark the overthrow of communist rule. Kennedy had inherited the lame-brained plan from the Eisenhower Administration, but he let it proceed to its ignominious, disastrous collapse. He took full blame for the failure, and the American people were forgiving: His job approval numbers actually rose to 65%.

But JFK was not so forgiving of himself. To his closest associate, Ted Sorensen: the President said in despair: “How could I have been so far off base? All my life I’ve known better than to depend on the experts. How could I have been so stupid to let them go ahead?”

The historian-in-residence at the Kennedy White House, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., wrote in A Thousand Days what JFK learned from the Bay of Pigs:

The first lesson was never to rely on the experts. He now knew that he would have to broaden the range of his advice, make greater use of generalists in whom he had personal confidence, and remake every great decision on his own terms…. Thereafter he took care to make sure that the presidential interest would be represented in the large decisions.

Trusting his own judgment and that of such valued counselors as his brother Robert, President Kennedy remained skeptical of the advice he received from a hand-picked group of senior current or former government officials who met with him frequently during the Cuban Missile Crisis nineteen months after the Bay of Pigs. Some of them wanted to attack the Soviet missile sites on Cuba, and when he didn’t accept their advice they grumbled about the young president’s lack of nerve or wisdom.

But Kennedy saw what his eminent advisors, focused entirely on Cuba, did not: Namely, the danger that if the US bombed the Cuban missile installations and killed Soviet advisors, it would provide Khrushchev the pretext to move his massive forces on the isolated western garrison in Berlin. So, trusting in his own judgment, Kennedy acted with skillful discretion in Cuba to prevent a greater and more cataclysmic clash in Europe.

In our time, another young president took an important lesson from some history he had read. Shortly after his election in 2008, Barack Obama let it be known that he was an admirer of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s superb book about the politics of the Lincoln Administration, Team of Rivals. Mrs. Goodwin’s book, which had been a best-seller after it appeared in 2005, saw a big new spike in sales after Obama’s statement. (When this was reported, I envisioned thousands of deserving Democrats rushing to the nearest bookstore to grab copies of Team of Rivals, saying as they eagerly paged through it, “Somewhere in here is how I can get a job in the new administration!”)

More than a Civil War history or a portrait of the great political personalities of the North, Team of Rivals is a book on how to win friends and influence people, even if you don’t happen to be president of the United States. Lincoln’s sterling attributes as a man and as a leader of men were his willingness to ignore insults and to overlook the aggravating flaws of others in order to motivate and mobilize them for a larger cause than his personal gratification. And in so doing, he managed to make the men who had once sneered at him into deep and devoted admirers.

Perhaps guided by Goodwin’s book, President Obama gave two former rivals the top two positions in his government: He made Joe Biden vice president and Hillary Clinton secretary of State. Whatever the pitfalls of Obama Administration policies, it must be admitted that he has built and kept a unified team at the top. But putting political opponents in one’s cabinet can only do so much. No one, Democrat or Republican, will argue for example that Obama’s making Ray LaHood, a Republican congressman from Illinois, his secretary of Transportation caused the opposition to swoon and fall in line behind even the President’s transportation policies, let alone his health care reform.

The greatest reader, writer, and actor in modern history was Winston Churchill. For decades before becoming prime minister in 1940, Churchill had earned his living as a popular historian, writing most notably of his illustrious ancestor the Duke of Marlborough and of the Great War of 1914-1918. In his delightful memoir, My Early Life: A Roving Commission, which I cited earlier and strongly recommend you read, Churchill wrote with weary wisdom what that ghastly conflict taught him:

Let us learn our lessons. Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events. Antiquated war offices; weak, incompetent, or arrogant commanders; untrustworthy allies; hostile neutrals; malignant fortune; ugly surprises; [and] awful miscalculations – all take their seats at the Council Board on the morrow of a declaration of war. Always remember, however sure you are that you can easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think he also had a chance.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, I wondered if those advising President George W. Bush remembered this quotation. Churchill was especially revered in our administration: His bust resided in the Oval Office, and his books stood proudly on shelves in the West Wing and in the Pentagon. With so many Churchillians around, did anyone invoke the great man’s words in any of the “council boards” considering whether to attack Iraq? For that matter, did anyone remember what Churchill called Iraq after Britain’s own experience trying to quash a bloody Sunni insurgency there in the 1920’s? He called the country an “ungrateful volcano“.

Maybe there was someone in the Bush White House who raised Churchill’s warnings, and if so he or she was probably slapped down for committing our administration’s greatest transgression: That of being “off-message”.

The message, of course, was that Saddam Hussein was a man of such transcendent evil, with access to some of earth’s grisliest weapons, and that he needed to be removed before he inflicted further misery and death on the region. The parallel was with Adolf Hitler in the years prior to the Second World War, when he took over Austria and Czechoslovakia before invading Poland. The western powers let Germany run riot over Europe out of fear of another world war. Most infamously, this fear drove them to let Hitler acquire the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia in the Munich agreement of 1938.

(Asked in later years whether he regretted his role at Munich, the Earl of Halifax, who had been British foreign secretary at the time, was philosophical. “Oh, well,” he said. “If you don’t make one mistake, you make another.”)

The determination to avoid “another Munich” was to govern many a foreign-policy decision in many a capital in the postwar era. Thus did the United States and other nations of the West form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 to contain the further expansion of the Soviet empire. Thus did France and the US fight in Indochina; that Britain, France, and Israel fought in Egypt in 1956; and that the US and its coalition allies fought to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991. The threat of Saddam’s possible (even likely) possession of weapons of mass destruction in 2003 was strong enough to prompt a second President Bush to launch a second Gulf War.

There is no question that Saddam Hussein and his coterie approached Adolf Hitler and his thugs in evil. And, like Hitler, he had previously invaded a small neighboring country. But, if the US had not invaded Iraq, would Saddam have seized more countries? Would he have menaced the United States? The answers to these questions were not to be found in history but in contemporary intelligence, and that, we now know, was severely flawed, if not severely manipulated. George Tenet, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency, assured President Bush that the invasion would be “a slam-dunk”. With regard to the overthrow of Saddam’s regime, Tenet was right, but neither the CIA nor the Defense Department foresaw the subsequent disintegration of public order and a new-style Sunni insurgency.

Henry Kissinger understood what Tenet was doing long before he did it. In his book Diplomacy, published nine years before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the former national security advisor and secretary of State wrote:

What political leaders decide, intelligence services tend to justify. Popular literature and films often depict the opposite – policymakers as the helpless tools of intelligence experts. In the real world, intelligence assessments more often follow than guide policy decisions.

Bush Administration policymakers should have known what to expect; the details were right there in history: In accounts of the British misadventure in Iraq after World War I and in official reports on the successful American occupation of Germany and Japan after World War II. These volumes were right there in the library for National Security Council staffers and Pentagon planners to check out and study.

So the problem lay not with the literature but with the readers – or non-readers, as the case may have been. Come to think of it, weren’t they the very experts, early 21st century-variety, whom John F. Kennedy had painfully learned during the Bay of Pigs to hear only with acute skepticism

Teachers of history, facing classes unhappy about being there, often quote the famous words of the American philosopher George Santayana: “Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.”

The Economist of London, on the 50th anniversary of the co-called Suez Crisis of 1956, had a different view of things. In the crisis, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden had seen Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser as the Adolf Hitler of the day when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Conspiring with the French and Israelis, the British invaded Egypt but were forced to withdraw in the face of global opposition, especially that of the United States. As a consequence of the disaster, Eden lost his job.

Observed the Economist in 2006: “Instead of saying those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, George Santayana might have better said that those who misinterpret the past are condemned to bungle the present.”

A man who was teaching history during my undergraduate days at Harvard, Professor Ernest May, wrote a book on the misapplication of history in American foreign policy decision-making. He called his book “Lessons” of the Past, putting the word “Lessons” in quotation marks, in order to cast doubt on what policymakers thought were history’s guideposts.

“Potentially, history is an enormously rich resource for people who govern,” Professor May wrote. “[But] such people usually draw upon this resource haphazardly or thoughtlessly.” But he had his solution: “People in government who see value in more critical and systemic reasoning will need help from men and women who have studied history and given some thought to how work by professional historians can best be exploited.”

Emily Pressman [history teacher at St Andrew’s], please call the White House!

Actually, Professor May took back his prescription almost as soon as he issued it: “Imprudent advisors,” he wrote, “are as frequently found among historians as among any other group.”

There is value in analogies to history, such as Munich 1938, but that is the best they can be: Only analogies or hints of what might happen in another time and place. Eden had erred mightily in comparing the Suez Canal to the Sudetenland and Nasser to Hitler. So did John Kennedy and his successor Lyndon Johnson in comparing North Vietnam’s war on the noncommunist south as analogous with the expansion of Nazism or the Soviet seizure of Eastern Europe. Like Harry Truman, facing the invasion of South Korea by the north in 1950, they remembered not only these events but also the furious and effective Republican allegation after 1949 that the Democrats had “lost China” to Mao Zedong (as if China had been ours to lose in the first place).

The real lesson was that aggression can never be tolerated because, allowed to stand, it only encourages more aggression. Thus was Truman right to send American troops into Korea, and Kennedy and Johnson were right to send them into Vietnam: To allow the people of both nations to live their lives free of communist oppression and terror.

While it is now accepted academic dogma that the war in Vietnam was fought over a patently ridiculous “domino theory”, the truth is that the fall of South Vietnam was accompanied by the fall of Laos and Cambodia as well. Threats to the freedom of the rest of Southeast Asia were halted at the borders of old French Indochina because the United States provided effective political and military support to the neighboring states of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

Ask leaders in those countries today about the Vietnam War, and, far from denouncing it as folly, they will tell you it saved them from invasion or subversion. And the millions who died at the hands of the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong, and the Khmer Rouge, not to mention the tens of thousands who lost or risked their lives fleeing the new, unified Vietnam, are a collective testimony to the need to defend freedom and resist aggression, even at the risk of failure.

To conclude, here is what I think an effective instruction of history should seek to impart: Not the names, maps, and dates that make so many students recoil but history’s larger lessons, sorely-gained by those who had to make real decisions based on real facts. Included in this wisdom, as we have seen, are such things as always:

Striving to create, and keep open, options;

Giving your opponent escape hatches;

Viewing so-called expert advice with skepticism;

Employing your own good judgment and life experience, which, after all, is what got you elected or selected over the other guy; and

Treating your associates with tolerance and indulgence, if not affection, in the interest of motivating them to achieve your goals.

And because these lessons are intensely personal rather than theoretical, read biography, which as Emerson said is the only proper history. Benjamin Disraeli, another writer-politician, put it best of all: “Read no history, nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.”

To those in this audience who are only just embarking on journeys that will take you into decision-making positions in government and business, I say, why waste time and bring unnecessary embarrassment upon yourself for making the same mistakes that others before you made?

History – excuse me, Mr Emerson, biography – will save you a lot of time and trouble. And there is the practical value of history, even if you are blind to its splendors and deaf to its music.

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