Not since Teddy Roosevelt occupied the Oval Office have students of history featured so prominently in the U.S. government as they do today. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster holds a Ph.D. in history and is the author of the highly acclaimed Vietnam War history, Dereliction of Duty. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has relentlessly studied and applied history during four decades as a Marine Corps officer and since, amassing an enormous library. Both have long championed the use of history in tackling contemporary national security challenges. “It’s better to learn from somebody else’s mistakes than from your own,” Mattis routinely tells the troops when exhorting them to study the past.
This interest in history would have been less noteworthy 50 years ago, when the nation still required all of its citizens to know the history most pertinent to national security: military and diplomatic history.
Since the 1960s, those fields have been squeezed out of the academic world by historians who view them as ideologically objectionable or as unworthy in comparison with their own interests, such as the history of sexism, white privilege, cross-dressing, peace movements, and the like. The intrepid souls still willing to pursue careers in military or diplomatic history without bending to the winds of political correctness—in their choices of either research topics or viewpoints—have largely been relegated to the Defense Department or think tanks.
The role of historians and the historically minded in devising U.S. national security policy has experienced a similar shrinkage since the 1960s. The constriction of military and diplomatic history has facilitated the rise of social scientists, many of them intent on supplanting historically grounded analysis of national security with abstract theories and mathematical calculations.
In one of the earliest manifestations of this group’s influence, Lyndon Johnson’s administration attempted to avert a major war in Vietnam in the mid-1960s by applying Thomas Schelling’s “rational actor” theory. Schelling, an economist who died last year, argued all nations respond in a rational, and hence predictable, manner to circumstances. Johnson’s policy backfired catastrophically, however, as North Vietnam’s Communist rulers did not respond to small shows of force by restraining themselves as Schelling’s theory had predicted, but instead invaded South Vietnam in order to win before the shows of force became larger.
Such debacles have done little to diminish the clout of theoreticians at American universities. Social scientists who retain deep skepticism of a priori assumptions and pay great heed to historical experience remain a regrettably small minority. The only good news is that the influence of ahistorical theorizing on real-world decision-making has fallen. Although the Obama administration was as close to a product of the academic establishment as we are likely to experience in our lifetimes, its leaders recognized early on that history was more useful than abstruse reasoning and number crunching in managing the crises of the day.
During the debates over Afghanistan in 2009, Obama White House officials did not invoke the rational actor theory or conduct regression analyses on strategic options, but instead turned to comparisons with prior conflicts. Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster, a history of the Vietnam War, held special prominence in their thinking on Afghanistan. When the Obama administration had to decide whether to stand behind Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in the face of the Arab Spring protests, officials debated whether the Arab Spring was analogous to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 or the anti-Communist uprisings in eastern Europe in 1989.
The Obama administration’s own experiences became the analogues for subsequent decisions. The disappointing outcome of the 2011 Libyan intervention became the precedent that kept Obama out of Syria. The collapse of security in Iraq following the withdrawal of American troops in 2011 helped convince Obama to abort later plans to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Unfortunately for the Obama administration, much like its predecessors, senior U.S. officials drew precisely the wrong lessons from history. Proper use of the pages of history in the making of national security policy demands long study as well as rigorous thought.
The Depth of History
A deep understanding of history is required to curb one of the most dangerous tendencies of decision-makers: turning to the historical analogy that is most familiar or obvious. The Bush administration’s ill-fated “de-Baathification” of Iraq was based upon a superficial comparison with the de-Nazification of Germany after World War II. Had officials examined de-Nazification more thoroughly—or consulted someone who had—they might have reconsidered the comparison. They might have taken note of critical differences between Germany in 1945 and Iraq in 2003, such as the percentage of the population killed in the preceding war or the magnitude of religious and ethnic divisions within the society.
Government officials who have plumbed the depths of history, like Mattis or McMaster, can play a crucial role in banishing false analogies. They can also separate accurate history from the inaccurate. Had Obama possessed a national security adviser steeped in history, he might have been dissuaded from reliance on Goldstein’s ill-informed Lessons in Disaster. That book’s inaccuracies brought the Obama administration to the erroneous conclusion that the U.S. military had led Lyndon Johnson astray in Vietnam, and thus encouraged Obama to ignore what proved to be sound advice from America’s generals on Afghanistan, Iraq, and other vital topics.
The Width of History
Comprehension of a wide range of historical cases further restrains the impulse to jump to the most obvious or most recent analogy. Someone conversant in the history of postwar reconstructions could have looked at Iraq in 2003 and seen that Germany in 1945 was less useful as an analogy than Japan and Italy in 1945, or even the American South in 1865. That individual might have pointed out the virtues of gradual political change as compared with precipitous change, and the perils of disempowerment of an entire governing class.
Consideration of a broad range of historical cases also increases the accuracy of generalizations. Ten cases will likely lead to better generalizations than two cases. One hundred cases, though, will most likely not produce better results than ten, for reliance on so many data points prevents the in-depth analysis required for understanding complexity and context. Nowadays, social scientists often produce foreign policy studies containing data from numerous cases for the purpose of statistical computation, but both the number of cases and the process of quantification necessitate gross oversimplifications of reality, rendering their conclusions invalid.
The context learned through historical study also reveals the limitations and conditionality of generalizations. Most of what occurs in the world results from the interplay of many variables, and history enables us to gain appreciation of the interdependencies among these variables, in a way that the social sciences most often do not. The peaceful transition from autocracy to democracy in a number of non-Western countries after the Cold War led proponents of democracy promotion to generalize in 2003 that countries such as Iraq would be willing and able to democratize. A more careful and thorough analysis would have shown that democratization has often failed, and that successful democratization has been contingent upon leadership and cultural factors such as respect for minority rights and the rule of law.
The familiarization that comes from prolonged study of history is crucial in considering analogies and generalizations—and in reaching decisions. In professional football, successful coaches are renowned for watching and analyzing thousands of hours of game footage. Their attentiveness to past games does not mean they’ll produce invulnerable game plans, but it does familiarize them with the game’s complexities as nothing else can. This way, a coach learns how the addition of a defensive back affects the defense’s capabilities and how it is likely to affect the opponent’s play-calling. The film watcher learns of the hundreds of different ways in which the offense can respond to the change, and gets a sense of the probability that each way will gain an advantage.
In much the same manner, the national security leader versed in the history of diplomacy, alliances, military power, and war has a superior ability to employ all of the instruments of power to the nation’s benefit. A diplomat who has studied how Chinese governments have reacted to foreign provocations over the past 200 years stands a better chance of predicting Chinese reactions to a new provocation than someone ignorant of Chinese history. A general who has examined counterterrorism operations in ten different conflicts will know better how to address a current terrorist threat than someone unfamiliar with the history of counterterrorism.
History in Action
History also has riches to offer leaders who would initiate new policies. Over the course of five millennia of recorded history, nearly every conceivable policy has been attempted. History can show what has worked in the past, and explain the conditions likely to be required for it to work in the present.
Experience, indeed, demonstrates that the most effective governments do not wait for crises to arrive before consulting the pages of history and devising policies and strategies. By leaning forward, they are more capable of taking positive action than those who wait for others to shape the strategic environment. A number of the new administration’s ambitious strategic initiatives suggest that its top historians, Mattis and McMaster, are already putting this principle into practice. Let’s hope the revival of historical consciousness is not just a passing phase.