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Thinking Historically: A Guide for Strategy and Statecraft

November 17, 2016

Editor’s Note: This is adapted from the 12th Annual Alvin H Bernstein Lecture at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, delivered by the author on November 10.


On November 22nd, 2011, The New York Times published a short Errol Morris op-doc, “Umbrella Man,” to mark the 48th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. In the six and a half minute video, Morris employs his Interrotron camera to create his trademark intimacy while interviewing Josiah “Tink” Thompson, author of a book on the famous Zapruder film titled Six Seconds in Dallas. Backed by a haunting score arranged by minimalist composer Arvo Part and spliced with snippets of video from the fateful day, Thompson tells the mysterious story of a shadowy figure called the “umbrella man.”


Who was the umbrella man? During the Zapruder and other films and photographs from that fateful day in Dallas, an upright figure can be seen standing on the so-called grassy knoll, holding an open black umbrella, moments before the assassin’s bullets are fired into the president’s motorcade. The image is arresting: The weather in Dallas was sunny and warm.


The sight of a lone man under the umbrella would have been disconcerting even if Kennedy’s murder had not taken place right in front of the man seconds later. As Thompson says: “In all of Dallas, there appears to be exactly one person standing under an open black umbrella …. Can anyone come up with a non-sinister explanation for this?”

Writing in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” series in December 1967, writer John Updike suggested the mystery surrounding who the umbrella man was and what he was doing on the grassy knoll “dangles around history’s neck like a fetish.” None of the authorities — the Dallas police, the Secret Service, the FBI, or the Warren Commission — ever located or even identified him or could explain his baffling appearance.gavin-4-umbrella-man Given all the mystery surrounding the assassination, it was only natural to concoct all sorts of ominous motives animating this sinister character and his menacing umbrella. Who was the umbrella man and what was he doing? Clearly he played a key role in the conspiracy to kill the president. Perhaps the umbrella was a gun device of some sort, firing a flechette into the president’s throat. Or maybe it was a way to signal to the actual shooter to go ahead with the assassination. Into the vacuum of uncertainty, it did not seem unreasonable to make a causal link between the shadowy figure, his umbrella, and the fateful events of that day.

Or not. In 1978, Louie Steven Witt reluctantly came forward to the House Select Committee on Assassinations to admit he was the umbrella man and explain himself. gavin-3-wittIn 1963, Witt worked near the Dealey Plaza and took a walk every day during his lunch hour: “I was going to use this umbrella to heckle the President’s motorcade. … Being a conservative-type fellow, I sort of placed him in the liberal camp and I was just going to kind of do a little heckling.” The umbrella was a symbolic protest:

It had something to do with the–when the senior Mr. Kennedy was Ambassador or England, and the Prime Minister, some activity they had had in appeasing Hitler. The umbrella that the Prime Minister of England came back with got to be a symbol in some manner with the British people. By association, it got transferred to the Kennedy family, and, as I understood, it was a sore spot with the Kennedy family.

When asked if his protest had anything to do with the president’s “posture with; say, the Russians,” Witt replied “No. No. No. That was not it at all.” gavin-5-umbrella

As Thompson points out, this explanation “is just wacky enough to be true.” It was a stark reminder to anyone looking to the past:

[I]f you have any fact which you think is really sinister, is really obviously a fact that can point to some sinister underpinning, hey forget it man.  Because you can never on your own think up all the non-sinister, perfectly valid explanations for that fact.  A cautionary tale.

Talking about the film, Morris argued his interest in the assassination emerged from his curiosity about the nature of historical investigation and how to assess evidence:

Why, after 48 years, are people still quarreling and quibbling about this case? What is it about this case that has led not to a solution, but to the endless proliferation of possible solutions.

Thompson, summarizing Updike, says that historical research may have two parts — the macro level “where things obey natural laws and usual things happen and unusual things don’t happen” and the world “under a microscope” where you will find “a whole dimension of weird, incredible things going on.”

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This essay is about thinking historically. It is not a history of a particular event, person, place, or process. Nor is it strictly a presentation about methodology or how to do historical work effectively. There are many excellent books and articles that can help you become a good historian. What I hope to do is explore something I call “historical sensibility,” which I believe can be a powerful tool to understand and aid making policy, especially foreign, foreign economic, and national security policy.

This may strike many as odd or problematic. First, there are many who assume that the main role of the historian is to unearth, collect, and present facts. These facts are then strung together to create a linear narrative, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. For many in the “harder” social sciences, however, this is often seen as little more than story telling. For true knowledge to appear, many facts have to be collected, shaved down to look alike, then aggregated and analyzed to discover generalizable laws of the universe.

To be sure, historians are dogged pursuers of evidence and will travel the world over to find a document or conduct an interview that might shed light on the past. They also construct stories to help us understand worlds gone by. But the facts do not speak for themselves, and the linear, surface narrative that so appeals to our brains is often misleading. Immersing oneself in the past sensitizes you to how unusual, unexpected, and non-linear history can be. Historians traffic in ironies, unintended consequence, and are often the ambulance chasers of surprise. We live in that gap that Thompson identifies, between a world structured by discoverable natural laws and the dimension where “weird, incredible things” are happening. We try to make sense of both and bring these worlds together. We try to understand and explain the origins and consequences of seismic events like the assassinations of presidents, while trying to understand if that man with the black umbrella should worry us at all.

What do I mean by a “historical sensibility”? It goes beyond our notions as to what historians do: collecting evidence, largely from archives, to tell stories about the past.  I define it as a familiarity with the past and its powerful and often unpredictable rhythms.  A historical sensibility is less a method than a practice, a mental awareness, discernment, responsiveness to the past and how it unfolded into our present world.  Developing this sensibility can provide many benefits and insights to the decision-maker facing complex issues and radical uncertainty about the future, not the least of which is humility and prudence. Scholar and policymaker Eliot Cohen has termed it the “historical mind,” which he aptly describes as a “way of thinking shaped by one’s reading of history and by using history as a mode of inquiry and a framework for thinking about problems.”

What are the qualities to this orientation and how can one obtain it? A historical sensibility includes several characteristics. First, this sensibility demonstrates a toleration and even appreciation of uncertainty, surprise, and unintended consequences in human affairs, and a comfort with indeterminacy and multi-causal explanations. It makes the unfamiliar familiar, while revealing the unfamiliar in what was believed was well-understood. Furthermore, the historical sensibility provides an empathy (though not necessarily a sympathy) for the past — a willingness to understand historical subjects on their own terms and as products of a particular time and place. This also means developing a consciousness of the powerful hold that history exerts on other cultures, leaders, and nations. It also acknowledges the fundamental importance of the perspective of the observer. Though the historian strives for an elusive objectivity, she admits that the who, what, and when of the historian matters quite a bit when reconstructing the past. Finally, a historical sensibility recognizes and appreciates complexity and, though willing to be proven wrong, casts a skeptical eye on claims of parsimonious models that claim to explain, generalize, and predict complex social, cultural, and political behavior. As Gordon Wood eloquently stated,

To possess a historical sense does not mean simply to possess information about the past.  It means to have a different consciousness, a historical consciousness, to have incorporated into our minds a mode of understanding that profoundly influences the say we look at the world.

Or to quote the historian and policymaker Phil Zelikow:

The path of complexity is difficult, but the rewards include more lifelike fitness training for the intellect.  And seen through a microscope, including a historian’s microscope, the world can be far stranger and more fascinating than anything that can be seen by the unaided eye.

The best historical work, and the adept historical sensibility, combines and integrates these insights and methods, to develop both a better understanding of the past and what it can tell us — and not tell us — about the choices and circumstances we face today.  Sympathetic to the concerns of both the social scientist and the decision-maker, I identified nine tools, lessons, and advantages a historical approach might provide to a policymaker.

I will not go through them all here. Some are obvious, like “vertical history,” which is assessing the temporal, or short, medium, and long term causes of an event, and how they interact.  Or “horizontal history,” which looks at the spatial dimension of history, or how different issues are interconnected and related.  Another tool of the historical sensibility is teasing out the unintended consequences of actions. When President Eisenhower approved financing for dams and irrigation canals in Afghanistan in the 1950s, he hoped to improve agricultural productivity in a developing nation. He did not aim to make possible the creation of one of the world’s largest opium fields.

A less obvious lesson from this sensibility is that history teaches decision-makers about something I call “chronological proportionality,” or the weight of historical events. The issues that most grab our attention today and dominate the headlines of newspapers are not likely to be the questions that have the most important long-term consequences. In 1967 and 1968, for example, American newspapers had far more print on the war in Vietnam than on the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, the Six-Day War in the Middle East, or political changes in China and Eastern Europe, but what event mattered most to long term U.S. and global interests from our current perspective? Or consider historian Erez Manela’s path-breaking work on U.S. policy towards global efforts to eradicate smallpox during the same period.  During the first seven decades of the 20th century, 300 million people died of smallpox, twice the number killed by wars during the same period. In 1967 alone, two million people fell to smallpox. Less than a decade later, the disease was eradicated. Manela demonstrates how a combination of factors and actors came together, far below the level of high policy but still the result of discrete decisions, to generate policy outcomes that had profound global consequences that few recognized at the time or since.

It is not always clear in real-time what matters most, though a historical sensibility can sensitize us to look for real-world consequences in unusual places. Will the recent U.S. presidential election seem like the key issue we faced 30 or 40 years from now, when perhaps some deeper, more fundamental shifts (the climate or demographics, for example) or a completely unexpected event shapes the realities of that future world?  We don’t know, but it is worth considering.

Relatedly, history conditions decision-makers to understand that policy decisions made in world capitals are often far less important in shaping what matters in the world that other, often less visible historical forces. Culture, technology, demographics, and geography, for example — all are critical forces that are less pliable to policy than we often think.

My favorite examples are three events that took place within a very short period of time: the sale of the early Apple personal computer, the release of Star Wars — the highest grossing motion picture of all time, and the famous 1976 “judgment of Paris” in which previously unknown wines from Napa Valley bested established French wines in a blind taste test. In other words, policymakers in Washington in the mid-1970s who were pouring over economic data, looking at crime statistics and urban crisis, witnessing political chaos abroad, and fearing a Soviet military behemoth that appeared to be winning the arms race had little reason to be optimistic about the future.


But the future was being made elsewhere and in different ways than policymakers understood in places like California, where deep and often obscure historical forces were working to transform the U.S. economy, society, technological base, and culture in ways that would have profound effects on American power and world history.

A deep historical perspective should also allow the decision-maker to avoid outcome or retrospective bias, or fall into the trap of what I call “understanding the Third Balkan War.” As former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger pointed out: “History is written through a rear-view mirror but it unfolds through a foggy windshield.” If the past is to be of use to policymakers, it must be exploited in a way that avoids what economists call “the curse of knowledge,” or that cognitive bias that emerges that in hindsight, the outcome of a historical event was more predictable than was likely the case. Since we know how past events have turned out, we can easily assume that the causal path that led to the event was inevitable. But most complex and difficult policy choices involve what former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has called “51/49” decisions: In other words, it is very difficult to know, a priori, whether a difficult policy choice will turn out correctly, even if in retrospect it seemed obvious. This is true for good policies as well as bad, which an immersion in history and an understanding of the past should tell us.

This point relates to why we should be careful not to cherry pick events from the past or be unaware of horizontal connections, as mentioned above. During what Fred Logevall has called the “long 1964,” the Johnson administration made what was, in retrospect, a tragic and unwise decision to escalate America’s role in the war in Southeast Asia.  Looked at both in hindsight (we know the outcome) and in isolation (just focusing on American policy in Southeast Asia) President Johnson and his advisors look inept. At the same time, however, the same administration carried out an impressive debate and discussion of how to respond to what was seen as a far greater long-term danger — the People’s Republic of China’s detonation of an atomic device in October 1964. This process led to a sophisticated and successful nuclear nonproliferation policy that resulted in the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and established the principles that guide U.S. policy to this day. Did the same people who crafted these complex strategies simply lose 20 IQ points when the discussion turned to Vietnam? In fact, making policy in real time is extraordinarily difficult. History should avoid simplistic judgments based solely on future outcomes that could not be anticipated.

Finally, a historical sensibility conditions the observer to recognize perspective. We know that it is important to understand how others view and understand the past. But there is also a temporal aspect to perspective. Let me give you an example: Imagine a country that possessed the world’s eighth or ninth largest economy, which was politically dominated by its aggressive military and surrounded by seemingly insurmountable security challenges. Let’s say you told the leaders of that country:

Follow the grand strategy I suggest, and in a very short period of time, from a historical perspective, you will possess the world’s second largest economy, built on a thriving technological base, be relatively secure, and develop a healthy democracy and a civic culture that was largely pacifistic.

A country would have to be crazy to pass up that deal, but it effectively describes a Japan in 1940 compared to 1970. Japan pursued a disastrous war that left its country in ruin. Only decades later, however, the country had transformed its economy, governance, and security situation in ways that were the envy of the world.  History is full of surprises and unintended consequences, and intent only rarely produces the obvious and desired outcome. Or imagine this exercise: A publisher provides a scholar with 300 pages to write the history of the world between 1945 and 1990. Even though the subject and end date would remain the same, we can easily imagine the book chapters might look much different when revised in 2000, 2020, or 2045, than it would when originally published in 1990. History reveals that how you assess the past does not only involve who is involved, but when the question is asked.

Perspective also encourages the policymaker to challenge their assumptions and constantly revise their understanding of the past. Many things that we believe to be true are often not. How many of you think you know the story of the famous baseball player, Ty Cobb? Baseball fans recognize Cobb as the greatest hitter who ever lived, but they also grew up with stories of his mean-spiritedness, cheating, violence, and racism, hated by his fellow baseball players.


This image was repeated in various fora over the years and accepted as gospel truth, until Charles Leerhsen started researching a biography and soon recognized that the received wisdom was completely wrong. It turns out Cobb was an avid student of history descended from a long line of abolitionists who enjoyed acting on the stage. While he was a passionate and aggressive ball-player, Cobb was well respected and liked by his contemporaries and demonstrated a racial sensitivity unusual for the age. Leehrsen highlights why the myth of the terrible Cobb emerged — an unscrupulous biography by Al Stump simply made up sensational stories to sell books — and why it persisted for decades. Leerhsen explains, “It is easy to understand why this is the prevailing view. People have been told that Cobb was a bad man over and over, all of their lives. The repetition felt like evidence.”

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The benefits of history to policy are not obvious. As a discipline, it sits awkwardly but proudly between the humanities and the social sciences. History provides few “off the shelf” lessons, makes no predictions, and resists easily generalization. It is better at demonstrating what an event or phenomena is not than identifying what it is. History is as likely to be misused than provide lessons, and it often resists efforts to become “applied.” Compared to its other, more muscular cousins in the social sciences, history can look anemic.  As Gordon Wood points out,

Unlike sociology, political science, psychology, and the other social sciences, which tend to breed confidence in managing the future, history tends to inculcate skepticism about our ability to manipulate and control purposefully our destiny.

Historians are also strange people, very different from policymakers, at times intellectually chaste and at others times wildly promiscuous. Chaste in their obsession to uncover ever last shred of evidence, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant; promiscuous in their ability to create whole worlds and civilizations on the written page largely from their imaginations. What other avocation could obsessively fight over the precise timing of a telegram sent between two political leaders on the eve of war in 1914 but boldly and out of thin air name and define whole historical periods? It is easy to forget that categories such as the Middle Ages or the Renaissance or the Modern World do not exist in nature but are instead the creative result of the historian’s imagination, or that, as the great historian Simon Schama points out, the very concept of a “French Revolution” was not completely solidified until established by historians almost a half-century after the event.  Bringing this world of history together with policy is not easy or natural.

Unfortunately, knowledge is no guarantee of success. The double firsts Sir Anthony Eden earned in Persian and Arabic while at Oxford did not prevent him from pursuing disastrous policies towards Iran and Egypt when he was the prime minister of Great Britain. History can offer lessons, insights, and even methods, though they are often meager and must be used cautiously and with care. The most important quality of a historical sensibility, the most valuable gift provided by an immersion in the past, is humility. From the world of social science, where bold predictions and generalizations are the coin of the realm, and from the universe of policymakers, where difficult choices demand clear answers and decision can have enormous consequences, this may not seem like much.  Perhaps that is the point — making difficult decisions facing complexity and the radical uncertainty of the future is very hard. Even the best ideas will only help so much, though given the stakes, even those marginal improvements are well worth seeking.  Perhaps it is helpful to remember the words of Sir Michael Howard:  “The true use of history, whether civil or military, is not to make man clever for the next time, it is to make him wise forever.”


Francis J. Gavin is the Frank Stanton Professor in Nuclear Security Policy Studies at MIT. His writings include Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age. In January 2017, Gavin will become the inaugural director of the Henry A Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at SAIS-Johns Hopkins

Image: Hartwig HKD

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3 thoughts on “Thinking Historically: A Guide for Strategy and Statecraft

  1. Mr. Gavin,

    I just wanted to take a moment to commend you for this excellent piece. As a person with a background in history and international affairs, history has proven to be an invaluable tool in helping me gain critical insights when analyzing world events and national security issues. As you alluded to in your piece, understanding the context of historical subjects is crucial. Though history does not give us all the answers, those who ignore or show little respect for the lessons of history do so at their own peril.

    1. As one that is always fascinated by history but would not consider themselves a historian, I find this article a very good look into how historians think and how they approach understanding. It will always be important to understand our past, know where we are now, and think clearly about where we want to go. I think history helps provide this critical baseline as long as it does not bind us. Thank you for this brilliant piece.