Barbara Tuchman and History

My approach to history is not overly theorized. I believe that there is such a thing as evidence, and that we can use that evidence to discover what actually happened in the past. Nevertheless there are some things that you want to avoid when going about this activity. You generally should not assume that things that turned out badly were necessarily the result of bad decision-making, as though it were apparent from the get-go what the result would be.* I write this in reference to Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984), of which RU has “multiple holdings available.” Tuchman was a popular historian of some repute. I saw in Barnes & Noble recently that her Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century is still in print, almost forty years since it was first published. This book annoyed a lot of medievalists, both on account of its manifold errors of fact and for its wild success; its dim view of the Middle Ages, like that of Thomas Manchester’s World Lit Only by Fire, didn’t help either.

I read DM once and can’t remember much of it. I don’t remember being turned off by it (unlike WLOBF, which is a terrible book), and I didn’t catch any of the errors. As for her success, well more power to her. But I don’t think much of this sort of thing, from the preface to March of Folly:

Why… did the Trojan rulers drag that suspicious-looking wooden horse inside their walls despite every reason to suspect a Greek trick? Why did successive ministries of George III insist on coercing rather than conciliating the American colonies though repeatedly advised by many counselors that the harm done must be greater than any possible gain? Why did Charles XII and Napoleon and successively Hitler invade Russia despite the disasters incurred by each predecessor?… Why did Chaing Kai-Shek refuse to heed any voice of reform or alarm until he woke up to find his country had slid from under him?… etc. etc.

And why did Hitler invade France in 1940, when he was well aware that the last German effort to do so got hopelessly bogged down and never took Paris? Why did Churchill foolishly insist on fighting the Nazis and not accepting the peace that they offered him? Why did the Zionists, surrounded by enemies, declare their own country in 1948? Why did the US, despite not having the technology to do so, attempt to put a man on the moon in the 1960s? You get the picture. You can’t take some “disaster” and credit “folly” to the decisions that led up to it, with dissent assuming the mantle of “wisdom.” Sometimes an idea really seems good, and sometimes it succeeds against all odds, or at least against conventional wisdom. To say “bad result, therefore bad decision” is condescending to the past, and example of so-called whiggish history and something to avoid. (And in a game of tit-for-tat, who commits the “folly”? Was it folly for the US to freeze Japanese assets and restrict the export of scrap metal and aviation gasoline to Japan, thereby provoking Pearl Harbor? Or was it folly for Japan to attack Pearl Harbor, thereby drawing the US into war? Both sides are moral actors; both sides have choices.) The best rhetorical question Tuchman asks, and one that exposes her own methodological folly:

Why do we invest all our skills and resources in a contest for armed superiority which can never be attained for long enough to make it worth having, rather than in an effort to find a modus vivendi with our antagonist – that is to say, a way of living, not dying?

Boy, does that take me back, to the world of The Day After and Mr. Those-Americans-Sure-Are-Stupid Johnson’s grade-ten Social Studies unit on the Cold War. But the world did not end as portrayed in The Day After. As we now know, the answer to Tuchman’s question is: in order to bankrupt their corrupt system, forcing them to seek a modus vivendi with us!

* To say nothing about the possibility of moral judgment over what’s “good” and “bad” – all things have positive and negative consequences, of course.