Can History Save the World?


Perhaps the greatest contribution historians have made to humanity, at least as historians sometimes tell it, came during the Cuban Missile Crisis when Barbara Tuchman’s book, The Guns of August, saved the world from nuclear war. The book is Tuchman’s account of the origins of the First World War, an account that, in President John F. Kennedy’s reading, showed how miscalculation and inflexible military planning could force great powers into catastrophic conflicts against their leaders’ wishes. In trying to avoid a similar outcome in 1962, Kennedy told his brother, Robert Kennedy, “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [and call it] The Missiles of October.”

For a long time, it seemed that Munich and Vietnam were the only historical reference points required for discussing U.S. foreign policy. As has often been noted, avoiding “another Munich” or “another Vietnam,” continue to serve as reliable stand-ins for the opposing dangers of cowardice and rash action.

Recently, though, the Great War has reemerged as another historical reference point in our foreign policy discussions. As Kennedy discovered, it’s an excellent cautionary tale about the dangers of carelessly blundering into a pointless and catastrophic conflagration. More Vietnam than Munich, perhaps, but better suited for a multi-polar, post-Cold War world. And, what’s more, the Great War just celebrated its centenary.

But anyone who tries to sort through all the recent First World War references quickly discovers how convoluted this seemingly straightforward and potentially world-saving metaphor can become. Unfortunately, only by wading through this confusion can we gain a true appreciation for the real role of history in contemporary political decision-making.

Consider this comparison, between present-day Russia and imperial Germany, that appeared in a recent article on the renewed risk of a U.S.–Russian nuclear confrontation:

Today’s Russia, once more the strongest nation in Europe and yet weaker than its collective enemies, calls to mind the turn-of-the-century German Empire. … Now, as then, a rising power, propelled by nationalism, is seeking to revise the European order. Now, as then, it believes that through superior cunning, and perhaps even by proving its might, it can force a larger role for itself.

Compelling stuff. But then, several paragraphs later, the same article quotes Harvard professor Joseph Nye comparing Russia to the Austro-Hungarian Empire:

Russia seems doomed to continue its decline — an outcome that should be no cause for celebration in the West. … States in decline — think of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914 — tend to become less risk-averse and thus much more dangerous.

So basically, Russia might launch World War Three because it is too strong, but also maybe because it’s too weak.

If that weren’t confusing enough, both these metaphors also hint at a lingering tension between those who see the Great War as an accident and those who see it more as something arranged by Germany. A recent article by Jordan Michael for example, starts from the premise that, as many historians continue to argue, Tuchman’s argument in The Guns of August was completely wrong. If, he says, rather than blundering into war, the Germans actually wanted it all along, then for Kennedy and all of us, “Guns of August became one of the most helpful incorrect books of all time.”

Not surprisingly, with German aggression as the starting point, it is easy to draw a more straightforward lesson that would have been disastrous in 1962: Going to war was the right choice in 1914. As David Frum argues, for example, America had to fight the Kaiser in order make the world safe for democracy — Wilson, of course, thought so too — just as we must be prepared to confront “aggressive and illiberal” powers that threaten democratic societies today.

To bring this metaphoric confusion full circle, Kennedy actually pretended that’s exactly what he was doing during the Cuban Missile Crisis. While Kennedy told his brother at the time that Tuchman’s book gave him the wisdom to behave with restraint, his public account of the crisis emphasized only his administration’s toughness. Kennedy later claimed that with the United States and Russia eyeball to eyeball, “the other guy blinked.” In fact, the crisis was defused due to Kennedy’s offer to remove U.S. missiles in Turkey if the Soviets removed theirs in Cuba. When blinking meant prioritizing the survival of mankind, The Guns of August actually gave Kennedy the wisdom to blink. But Kennedy refused to admit it.

Faced with such a bewildering and contradictory array of metaphors, many people have not surprisingly concluded that history, like the Bible, proves whatever people want it to. Scholars have argued that rather than help leaders make the right choice, history just confirms their pre-existing assumptions. Kennedy, in other words, already had plenty of reasons to avoid nuclear war; it just helped to have some relevant history to fall back on in making his case.

Several years ago, Margaret MacMillan, a leading scholar of the First World War, delivered a talk to members of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service titled “Is History Any Use in International Relations.” Her question was whether world leaders could effectively use history to make better decisions. In many cases, she concluded, they could not.

But of course all the examples MacMillan cited of policymakers drawing the wrong conclusions from history were themselves drawn from history. What choice did she have? Until we can determine whether Obama is drawing the right conclusions from history today all we can do is look back at whether, say, British and French politicians used history effectively when evaluating their strategic choices in the interwar period.

And this is the essence of the paradox: The Munich Agreement is probably the most famous historical example of statesmen drawing the wrong lesson from a historical example. European leaders like Neville Chamberlain were, no less than Kennedy, desperately trying to avoid repeating the tragic errors of 1914. But while today we can’t figure out if Russia is more like Germany or Austria-Hungary, their mistake was in drawing the seemingly more plausible parallel between Germany (in 1938) and Germany (in 1914).

So can history teach us anything?

We tend to turn to history for clear lessons, or correct analogies, as if we just need to figure out what historical moment we’re reliving today and then act accordingly. Indeed, the search for the perfect historical analogy remains a popular approach for op-ed writers. But the real value of history might be in reminding us of all the sometimes contradictory possibilities that co-exist in the world.

This is why some scholars have been able to build a credible understanding of international relations by mining Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian Wars. Enough diverse things happened in this sprawling conflict between ancient Athens and Sparta that most political possibilities were prefigured. Literature works too. In the lead-up to the Iraq war some pundits cautioned against Hamlet-like indecision. Their mistake wasn’t in drawing lessons from Shakespeare. They just forgot to read the play where Othello smothers his wife to death with a pillow based on false intelligence.

If nothing else, what has happened remains an imperfect, but still unparalleled, guide to all the things that could happen. With this more modest approach, we can benefit from understanding how Russia today is like Germany and like Austria-Hungary, and also how our confrontation with Russia is like Munich and Vietnam and the Cuban Missile crisis all at the same time. Yet this very wealth of potential comparisons should be the best reminder that none of them can be perfect, and that the challenge remains understanding the world around us today.


Nick Danforth is a doctoral candidate in Turkish history at Georgetown University. He writes about Middle Eastern history, politics, and maps at