The March of Folly, from Troy to Vietnam
Ronald Hutton reviews a book by Barbara W. Tuchman.
Barbara Tuchman's proposal is to explore 'one of the most compelling paradoxes of history: the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests'. She begins by providing a range of brief examples of the phenomenon, covering most centuries since the tenth before Christ. She then examines three cases in detail the 'provocation' of the Protestant secession by the Renaissance papacy; the loss of their American colonies by the British; and the American intervention in Vietnam. The structure is thus extremely neat, the exposition of the problem being followed by its illustration from an autocracy, an oligarchy and a democracy. In its apparent erudition, its assumption that the same lessons can be drawn from humankind during all ages, and its willingness to point a moral, the whole work is strongly reminiscent of those of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Unfortunately, it prompts similar criticisms.
First, the author's grasp of historical problems weakens as she goes further back in time. The central argument of the section on the papacy is destroyed if it is appreciated that the popes of the early middle ages frequently behaved worse than those of the Renaissance without provoking schism. The power of Luther's challenge lay in a novel concept of salvation which made pious Catholics as much his enemies as worldly hierophants. At times Ms Tuchman seems aware of these problems, but brushes them aside with an impatience ironic in. view of her castigation of such a response in statesmen. After this, the section upon the loss of the colonies is much more persuasive, if familiar, save for a tendency to caricature. It should be remembered that the dim-witted, silk-clad British dilettantes portrayed here somehow managed to preside over a nation growing into the most powerful and stable on earth, The chapters upon Vietnam represent over a third of the book, and are by far the best of it. Characters and events are treated with imaginative sympathy and the cumulative effect is very impressive. It is the stuff of which Pulitzer Prizes are made.
Taken as a whole, the book nevertheless leaves an impression of shallowness. Ms Tuchman speaks repeatedly of the corrupting effects of power, but when she lists leaders whom she considers to have possessed greatness, most turn out to have been absolute rulers. A further look at that list prompts the reflection that several of these individuals were simply intelligent people who did not have to face the nightmarish dilemmas of many of those whom this author accuses of folly. One mistake or piece of bad luck sufficed in many cases to make the difference between success and disaster. Ms Tuchman attacks the popes for blindness and the British ministers for having had fevered imaginations. She condemns Charles XII, Napoleon and Hitler for their rashness in invading Russia, without noticing that Swedes in 1611 and Germans in 1918 did so successfully. She rebukes Montezuma for entertaining Cortez without commenting upon the fact that fighting him subsequently proved even less successful. She states that the USA has repeated its error in Vietnam, in Iran and El Salvador, without accounting for the fact that her nation has not (so far) poured half a million soldiers into either of the last two states. It is true that leaders have constantly risked disaster abroad to ward off instability at home, but it is also unfortunately correct that such gambles have often achieved their object. What Ms Tuchman portrays as idiocy is too frequently tragedy instead.
The March of Folly: from Troy to Vietnam
by Barbara W. Tuchman. 428 pp. (Michael Joseph, £14.95)
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