Academic journal article Parameters

Lessons of History and Lessons of Vietnam

Academic journal article Parameters

Lessons of History and Lessons of Vietnam

Article excerpt

One of the few unequivocally sound lessons of history is that the lessons we should learn are usually learned imperfectly if at all.

--Bernard Brodie (1)

Trying to use the lessons of the past correctly poses two dilemmas. One is the problem of balance: knowing how much to rely on the past as a guide and how much to ignore it. The other is the problem of selection: certain lessons drawn from experience contradict others.

--Richard Betts (2)

Of all the disasters of Vietnam, the worst may be the "lessons" that we'll draw from it.... Lessons from such complex events require much reflection to be of more than negative worth. But reactions to Vietnam ... tend to be visceral rather than reflective.

--Albert Wohlstetter (3)

Of all the disasters of Vietnam the worst could be our unwillingness to learn enough from them.

--Stanley Hoffman (4)

In seeking solutions to problems, occupants of high office frequently turn to the past for help. This tendency is an enormously rich resource. What was done before in seemingly similar situations and what the results were can be of great assistance to policy-makers. As this article contends, however, it is important to recognize that history can mislead and obfuscate as well as guide and illuminate. Lessons of the past, in general, and the lessons of Vietnam, in particular, contain not only policy-relevant analogies, but also ambiguities and paradoxes. Despite such problems, however, there is mounting evidence that lessons and analogies drawn from history often play an important part in policy decisions. (5)

Political scientists, organizational psychologists, and historians have assembled considerable evidence suggesting that one reason decision-makers behave as they do is that they are influenced by lessons they have derived from certain events in the past, especially traumatic events during their lifetimes. "Hardly anything is more important in international affairs," writes Paul Kattenburg, "than the historical images and perceptions that men carry in their heads."6 These images constitute an important part of the "intellectual baggage" that policy-makers carry into office and draw on when making decisions.

Use of history in this way is virtually universal. As diplomatic historian Ernest May has pointed out, "Eagerness to profit from the lessons of history is the one common characteristic in the statecraft of such diverse types as Stanley Baldwin, Adolf Hitler, Charles de Gaulle, and John F. Kennedy." Each was "determined to hear the voices of history, to avoid repeating the presumed mistakes of the past." (7) President Reagan appears to be similarly influenced by the past. His "ideas about the world flow from his life," The New York Times' Leslie Gelb contends, "from personal history ... a set of convictions lodged in his mind as maxims." (8)

Perceived lessons of the past have been found to be especially important during crises. When a sudden international development threatens national security interests and requires a quick response, leaders are prone to draw on historical analogies in deciding how to proceed. Indeed, several studies have concluded that "the greater the crisis, the greater the propensity for decision-makers to supplement information about the objective state of affairs with information drawn from their own past experiences." (9)

The use of historical analogies by statesmen, however, frequently is flawed. Many scholars concur with Ernest May's judgment that "policy-makers ordinarily use history badly." (10) Numerous pitfalls await those who seek guidance from the past, and policy-makers have seemed adept at finding them. Those who employ history, therefore, should be aware of the common fallacies to which they may fall victim. As Alexis de Tocqueville warned, misapplied lessons of history may be more dangerous than ignorance of the past. (11)

The first error that policy-makers frequently commit when employing history is to focus unduly on a particularly dramatic or traumatic event which they experienced personally. …

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