The Lessons of History

One of the popular justifications for studying history is that it helps us to “avoid the mistakes of the past.” By graduate school, however, people don’t tend to say this, on the principle that history “never really repeats itself.” Every time something happens, it happens once under a unique set of conditions, which will never again configure in exactly the same way. We cannot repeat historical events in a laboratory; as a student of mine once said, there is no control factor in history. This is especially true in military affairs: British generals were always famously “preparing for the last war.”

But surely we can learn something predictive from studying the past? I mean, it’s true, you can’t ultimately prove anything through inductive reasoning, which is what all historical inquiry is. “Just because the sun has come up every day for as long as you can remember, does not mean that it will come up tomorrow.” But it’s a pretty safe bet that it will – and that gravity, electro-magnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces will keep functioning in the same way at least for the next week.

But humans are a lot more fickle, yes? You’d think that treating people with respect would engender good will. Unfortunately, while some people respond well to being treated with respect, others interpret it as a sign of weakness and an invitation to try to take advantage – as Machiavelli knew only too well. How can you really predict how someone will react to your policies? What if this time it really is different? I think that if you’re in a position to apply any lessons of history, the best thing you can have are simply good instincts: you have to have a good idea about when to push people, and when to back off – and you’ll never get it right 100% of the time, or for 100% of the people.

This is all by means of bringing up one of the most allegedly important lessons of all: that of Munich. No, not the 1972 Olympics, but the 1938 Conference, by which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier conspired to shaft Edvard Beneš of Czechoslovakia by making him hand over the Sudetenland to Hitler’s Germany. The Sudentenland was ethnically German – but it was given to Czechoslovakia in 1919 on account of it being industrialized and mountainous, granting the new state an advantage in economics and defensible geography (similar ideas were used to justify the Polish corridor between Germany and East Prussia). These violations of the nationalist principle were only two of the many grievances Germany had against the Treaty of Versailles. Unfortunately, as it turned out, addressing these grievances was not all that Hitler had in mind: as he stated in Mein Kampf, he had a vision of a vast continental German empire, won through racial struggle against the inferior Slavs – a vision that he actually tried to implement. It turns out those Slavs weren’t nearly as inferior as Hitler believed, although it took tens of millions of deaths to prove the point.

So we all have fantasies about going back and stopping Hitler before he could do serious damage. If only we had stood up to him as he remilitarized the Rhineland. If only we had prevented the Anschluss with Austria. If only we hadn’t sold out Czechoslovakia. Hitler claimed that this was his last territorial demand – but six months later he occupied the rest of that unfortunate country (in violation of the nationalist principle) and six months after that he invaded Poland. Only then did France and England go to war – against a rearmed and motivated opponent. If only we had stood up to the bully earlier, however justified he claimed to be. If only….

So a very important lesson was learned from Munich: no more appeasement! If you don’t give them an inch, they’ll never be in a position later to take a mile. The choice is always framed as being between a war now, or a much worse war later. Poor Chamberlain – gone down in history as a dupe, his name a byword for “sucker.” It is good to remember, though, that in September of 1938 he was the man of the hour – he avoided a war, which no one wanted. You could even say that he bought Britain enough time to rearm itself, giving the country a better chance when war inevitably did come. But this argument is still not a common one, and a great many politicians since have staked their legacy on not repeating Chamberlain’s mistake.

It is precisely this impetus that got the United States involved in southeast Asia. President Kennedy in particular felt he had something to prove, since his father had been ambassador to the Court of St. James and a supporter of appeasement. So although it had no real legitimacy, we sent all sorts of aid to South Vietnam, trying to prop it up, lest the Communists take it… and thereafter Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and who knows what else.

Turns out we got a lot more than we bargained for too. We fielded a draft army, in a country halfway around the world utterly foreign in language and culture, with an inhospitable climate and an enemy that fought dirty, but that had the political capital of having kicked out the French, where we could not tell friend from foe and had no clear objective apart from propping up a corrupt, western-created state… is it any wonder that we lost, no matter how many resources we threw at it? “Could we have won in Viet Nam?” I asked a veteran once. “If we had backed the other side,” was his reply. Thus the other great Lesson of History: we must avoid the quagmire – the doubling-down on bad policy, the throwing of good money after bad, the failure to heed the injunction that “When you’re in a hole, stop digging!” I remember how people feared that the Kuwait conflict of 1991, and then the Kosovo conflict of 1999, would drag us down into a quagmire, “just like in Viet Nam.”

If you recall the run-up to Bush’s Iraq adventure some thirteen years ago now, you may remember the appearance of both of these tropes. “Have we learned nothing from history?” asked one side. “We have to stop Saddam before he goes any further!” “Have we learned nothing from history?” replied the other. “It will turn into a quagmire, like Viet Nam!”

Clearly both sides could not be right – although quagmire just may have been an appropriate metaphor at some points during the last thirteen years. But I guess that’s only because we deposed and killed Saddam, before he could do any more damage, leaving the quagmire the only fulfilled prediction? So maybe both sides were right after all – or maybe they were both wrong. Saddam was not Hitler – he had no visions of conquest, but just wanted to stay in power – but Iraq was not Viet Nam either – Islamism (whether Shiite or Sunni) is not Communism and does not have a worldwide sponsor as motivated as the USSR; Iran does not have an irredentist claim to Iraq, etc.

So as ever, we must be willing to take a step back and ask serious questions about historical comparisons. They’re not completely valueless, but important differences often exist between the two things you’re comparing and you’ve got to take those into account for any comparison to be meaningful.