By Barbara W. Tuchman
New York: Ballantine Books, 1984
447 pages
ISBN # 0-345-30823-9

Comments by Bob Corbett
April 2011

Barbara Tuchman is moved by John Adams’s claim that government is one institution that has not much improved over the history of humankind.

“While all other sciences have advanced,” confessed our second President, John Adams, “government is at a stand; little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago.”

She then identifies four factors, often working in combination, which can explain this lack of “advance.”

  1. Tyranny or oppression
  2. Excessive ambition
  3. Incompetence or decadence
  4. Folly or perversity

This book is, on her account, to deal with the fourth of these – folly. She describes it as:

“This book is concerned with the last in a specific manifestation, that is, the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved.”

And she even spells out the criteria of folly.

  1. “ . . . it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely in hindsight.”
  2. “. . . a feasible alternative course of action must have been available.”
  3. “ . . . the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond ‘any one political lifetime.’”

What follows are four historical examples to demonstrate her position: A relatively short chapter on the Trojan War, then three very long chapters on three other famous “follies.” The rule of the Renaissance Popes, The British loss of the American colonies and the United States disastrous Vietnam War.

Each of the four chapter case studies are fascinating reading. However, in none of the four do all three of her criteria seem to be operative. One by one each of those chapters are marvelous and challenging reading. The scholarship is impressive and she brings a great deal of clarity to those historical moments. Nonetheless, I came away from the book very pleased and appreciative, but not convinced of the title – The March of Folly. The book seemed to me more like four brilliant essays, three of them almost book length for most authors, but Tuchman seems to like very long books. I read The March of Folly as sort of an excuse to write three book-length treatments of important historical moments, and a significant essay on Troy, and the frame of this “march of folly” seemed more like a convenient tool to justify presenting these books and essay as a single book. I just never became convinced of the unity of the whole.

This view of the book which I took did not in the slightest diminish my delight in reading, nor dim my view of her wonderful scholarship, short book by book and her long essay.

I simply loved her question which almost allows her to dismiss the rationality of the Trojan War: Why in the world did they take it in?! And that seems to adequately sum it up. If ever folly seems evident that act was certainly it, though it doesn’t meet all of her criteria. The decision was an immediate decision of the actors on the scene and not one which spanned more than one generation of political actors.

That section is followed by three book-length chapters, each a powerful and marvelous read. She identifies 6 Renaissance popes between 1470-1530 who jointly followed government patterns, if one could even call them that, that led to the Protestant Secession and the loss of the Church of England.

These 6 were the ones “. . . who carried it to an excess of venality, amorality, avarice, and spectacularly calamitous power politics. Their governance dismayed the faithful, brought the Holy See into disrepute, left unanswered the cry for reform, ignored all protests, warnings and signs of rising revolt, and ended by breaking apart the unity of Christendom and losing half the papal constituency to the Protestant secession. Theirs was a folly of perversity, perhaps the most consequential to Western history, if measured by its result in centuries of ensuing hostility and fratricidal war."

A significant part of the blindness and unwillingness to act was to do with wealth.

Pursuing the spoils of office like hounds on a scent, each of the six, who included a Borgia and two Medicis, was obsessed by ambition to establish a family fortune that would outlive him.

Later Tuchman says:

They regarded protest merely as dissent to be suppressed, not as a serious challenge to their validity.

While Tuchman catalogues a long list of individual scoundrels, especially in political and governmental circles, she points out that huge masses still tried to live decent lives and relied on their Catholic religion for guidance. In fact she points out:

Indeed, it was because genuine religious and moral feeling was still present that dismay at the corruption of the clergy and especially of the Holy See was so acute and yearning for reform so strong . . .

The 6 major villains were:

  1. Sixtus IV, 1471-84 – A murder
  2. Innocent VIII 1484-92 – Host to the Moslem Infidel
  3. Alexander VI 1492-1503 – Model of depravity and spur of simony and inspiration for the revolt of Savonarola

    There was then the short interlude of a would-be reformer: Pius III who died 26 days after being elected pope

  4. Julius II 1503-13 – The warrior who succeeded in political aims and arts, but failed in religion.
    “His two consuming passions motivated by neither personal greed nor nepotism, were restoration of the political and territorial integrity of the Papal States and embellishment of his See and memoralization of himself through the triumphs of art. He achieved important results in both these endeavors, which being visible, have received ample notice as the visibles of history usually do.

    . . . "While the significant aspect of his reign, its failure of concern for the religious crisis, has been overlooked as the invisibles of history usually are.”
  5. Leo X – Key mover toward the Protestant break 1513-21
  6. Clement VII 1523-34 – Who sparked and oversaw the sack of Rome

The essence of the folly she sums up in the major failures:

  1. No fixed policy
  2. Excessive extravagance
  3. Illusion of permanence and the inviolability of their power

Her next case study was the British loss of the North American colonies.

A key issue which drove this historical process was, at the outset, the question of Parliament’s right to tax colonies

“In short, although possession was of greater value than principle, nevertheless, the unworkable was pursued at the sacrifice of the possible. This phenomenon is one of the commonest of governmental follies.”

She points out that at all times the simple economic cost of collecting such a tax would always have been more that the amount of the taxes themselves, thus a clear case of folly.

In addition to the issue of taxation without representation the colonists were extremely unhappy with the British standing army of 10,000.

Another issue was the control of all trade by England allowing no manufacturing in the colonies and the prohibition of trade with nations other than England.

The British, seemingly more interested in the principle of their control than control itself did act after act that deeply offended the colonists and, even if these acts had been successful they were always more costly to impose, police and collect than the amount of benefit to be realized.

Benjamin Franklin said of the British:

“They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one.”

But the British continued to try imposing taxes on imports, leading to the Boston Tea Party, pushed a heatedly resisted quartering act requiring the colonist to pay for quartering the British army in America and then imposing duties on imports themselves.

The continued attempts at oppression and control by England began to spark action of organization and unity in the colonies which had not previously existed

The “Committees of Correspondence” began in 1772 and there began to be a sense of unity of resistance bringing the once separate colonies toward union.

Of course they soon managed to spark the July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence, and the War of Independence which England lost.

Part of the argument in England had always been that losing the colonies would bring England down. Yet history proved otherwise.

“It is striking how often the prospect of losing American inspired prediction of ruin, and how mistaken they were, for Britain was to survive the loss well enough and go on to world domination and the epilogue of imperial power in the next century.”

Tuchman’s final case study is The United States War in Vietnam. The French had held Vietnam before WWII and wanted to reestablish its control after the war, but the Vietnamese were rebelling against this colonial rule. She traces the history of this conflict all the way back to the Truman administration. President Roosevelt had been opposed to the French revival of control, but after he died The State department almost immediately changed to pro-French policy, and President Truman was persuaded to welcome French control in Indochina.

However in August 1945 the Viet-Minh congress in Hanoi proclaimed the democratic Republic of Vietnam. Soon they took Saigon.

“Even if you come to re-establish a French administration here it will no longer be obeyed: each village will be a nest of resistance, each former collaborator an enemy, and your officials and colonists will themselves ask about this atmosphere in which they will be unable to breathe.”

That quote seems valuable. It sort of sums up the attitude and policy of North Vietnam from 1945 until the defeat of the U.S. and then of the South almost 30 years later.

What Tuchman sees as utter folly on the part of the U.S. view was that Vietnam was a crucial plank in Communist aggression in Southern Asia, and that this Communist threat was somehow controlled by Moscow. This is, as she argues, a view of uninformed people not understanding Southeast Asia nor the relative roles of Russian and China in the desired spread of Communism.

Crux of U.S. View – the French had a

“. . . dangerously outmoded colonial outlook and methods in the area . . . . on the other hand . . . . we are not interested in seeing colonial empire administration supplanted by philosophical and political organizations emanating and controlled by the Kremlin.”

Tuchman continually hammers at the “folly” of such an analysis:

“It’s [The U.S.] central belief was that every movement bearing the label Communist represented a single conspiracy for world conquest under Soviet aegis.”

Despite U.S. wishes and support of the French, by 1950 Vietnam was recognized as independent of France and two states were claimed, the later North and South Vietnams.

Under Truman there was actually very little action on the part of the U.S. Truman sent 35 men up to 200 later, but they were not even wanted by the French.

By 1954 the French were out and the nation was partitioned. This was a defeat for the U.S. ideologues who had already accepted the ultimate root of its folly: the domino effect. The rabid right and McCarthy were still around and there was a growing fear of Communism. However most of military leaders were not at all convinced that Vietnam presented any real threat to U.S. interest.

Immediately after Kennedy was elected in 1960 the North declared a war of unification of Vietnam. He had political reasons to need to show his willingness to fight Communism, especially after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba. He too continued the unquestioned view of need to stop Communist ideology. Yet Kennedy knew this had to appear to be a Vietnamese war with the U.S. just providing some aid. He said:

“If it were ever converted into a white man’s war, we should lose it as the French had lost a decade earlier. Here was a classic case of seeing the truth and acting without reference to it.”

By February 1962 the U.S. was beginning to actually get into the war in a more serious manner and within a year from 8,000 to 17,000 U.S. troops were involved. Yet through all of 1963 almost no notice by public and no authorization by Congress was even sought.

That set a pattern and this was the first “executive war” in U.S. history from 1964-1968. President Johnson started the U.S. bombing war using the alleged Gulf of Tonkin incident in August of 1964. All major non-administration advisors argued against this action, and public notice began to grow. Right before the 1968 elections

“At Berkeley 26 faculty members joined in a letter stating that ‘The United States government is committing a major crime in Vietnam.’”

By May 1964 the U.S. had raised its fighting force to 82,000 troops. By June of 1965 Johnson had approved combat troops and increased the draft. By July 40,000 to 200,000 “advisors” had been sent.

Soon success was seen as not coming and the growth of U.S. anti-war sentiment was growing. Johnson withdrew from the 1968 election and Richard Nixon won the presidency, but he continued in the folly that Johnson feared

“From being a fiction about the security of the United States, the point of the war had now been transformed into a test of the prestige and reputation of the United States – and, as he was bound to see it, of the President personally. Nixon too had no wish to preside over defeat.”

In sum the folly of this ill-fated war left 45,000 U.S. soldiers dead and some 300,000 wounded in war.

Tuchman emphasizes that never was the war really in the interest of the U.S., that the U.S. suffered an illusion of omnipotence and completely underestimated enemy resolve.

The thrust of Tuchman’s book is that one could multiply cases like these throughout human history and that the – not the science – fact of human governance has not shown any real advancement in human history. Human error, desire for power, wealth and prestige, rational misjudgment and such human factors had made the phenomenon of “folly” to be central to the history of human civilization.

This is a powerful book, especially in understanding the three key examples she uses. I would highly recommend this serious read to any who love history and wish to see it from a rather global perspective.

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett