The Lessons of History

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the current debate of what direction US foreign policy should take
in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, much reference
has been made of the "lessons of history." "History
teaches us," we are told, "that we must act with overwhelming
force against a terrorist threat." Or, perhaps, "History
teaches us that we must stop dictators while they are still weak
and unprepared for full-scale war."

the very idea that history contains such "lessons" is
false, and rests upon a misunderstanding of what history is and
what it can achieve. History is the historian’s effort to construct
a coherent world of the past based on the evidence available to
him in the present. (This contention, that the historian constructs
history, should not be taken to mean that history is merely a reflection
of his whims, political opinions, or social class. If he is faithful
to his task as a historian, he constructs the past that the evidence
compels him to believe is true.)

order to construct such a past, the historian strives to place each
detail of the past into a plausible and comprehensible course of
events. The actions of particular historical figures are seen as
the intelligible outcome of the situation in which they found themselves,
as they understood it to be at that time.

history is a world of detailed, specific events, the idea of ‘general
laws’ of history is self-contradictory. Of course, historical actors
should be understood as obeying the general laws independently derived
by other disciplines, such as the law of gravity or the law of diminishing
marginal returns. But history itself can generate no such laws,
since they would involve abstracting away all of the details of
events, in other words, abstracting away the very subject matter
of history. As Michael Oakeshott wrote in Experience
and Its Modes

is no process of generalization by means of which the events, things
and persons of history can be reduced to anything other than historical
events, things and persons without at the same time being removed
from the world of historical ideas…. In history there are no ‘general
laws’ by means of which historical individuals can be reduced to
instances of a principle, and least of all are there general laws
of the character we find in the world of science."

history is not the only mode of understanding the past. There is
also, for instance, the legendary past, consisting of the stories
a group of people tell about themselves, helping to establish a
sense of identity among those people.

most important rival past to that of history is the practical past.
The practical past is the past seen in terms of how it might guide
one’s present actions. Whereas the historian asks, "What did
those past events mean, to the participants in them, at the time
they were taking place?" the practical user of the past
asks, "What do those past events mean to me, right now?"

a practical inquiry into the past, when generalized, produces not
scientific laws but prudential maxims. Their application is fraught
with the ambiguity of all such rules of thumb. For every past event
I could point to that demonstrates that you should "Look before
you leap," you could find another that illustrates that "He
who hesitates is lost."

professional historian is no doubt especially qualified to pass
judgment on the historical past. His training makes him skilled
at judging what past events are indicated by present evidence. However,
nothing in his training gives him special expertise at deciding
what those events should mean to us today. Of course, a historian
has just as much right as anyone else to draw maxims for practical
conduct from the past; the view entertained here merely asserts
that his skill as a historian is irrelevant to his ability to evaluate
the past in practical terms.

it is extremely tempting for a historian, having special expertise
in dealing with "the past," to try on the role of guru
to those seeking practical advice from days gone by. In attempting
to play such a role, he risks muddling what he properly can say
as a historian into an incoherent stew with what he can say as a
practical man, looking to the past for guidance. Especially, he
is subject to the temptation to present his practical conclusions
as "historical laws," and to claim his maxims are "the
conclusions of history." Should he completely lose his way
in this respect, his explorations will cease to be an effort to
construct a past that he is compelled to believe in by the evidence.
Instead, he will rummage through the evidence, like a man carelessly
rifling through his closet looking for a favorite pair of socks,
tossing aside all facts that do not go with the outfit he has already
picked out for the past to wear.

may be some practical advantages to a historian who succumbs to
the temptation to abandon the historical past for a practical one.
If the maxims he treats as historical laws are closely aligned with
the platform of some political faction, then the faction may decide
to take him on as one of their party historians. They may subsidize
or broadly publicize his work. Instead of life as an obscure academic
with an expertise in 12th-century Islamic military tactics,
he might become the official CNN "historical expert" on
the Moslem world, spouting sound bites like "The only thing
the Islamic world respects is a show of force," as if they
were "historical laws" derived from his studies.

all historians are prey to the temptation to mingle the historical
and the practical past is understandable. After all, who would not
like to be influential? Who would not like to see his own practical
understanding of the world become generally accepted? It is probable
that none of us, placed in such a position, always would
resist the urge to elevate our own practical understanding of the
world to the status of "historical laws."

some historians seem to succumb to the temptation more readily than
others. For example, Michael
Bellesiles apparently became so confused between the historical
and the practical past that, in his book Arming
America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture
, far from
constructing a past based on the evidence of the present, Bellesiles
apparently just made up the evidence required to construct a past
that "demonstrated" that guns don’t belong in the hands
of individual citizens.

the current debate on US policy in the wake of the terrorist attacks
of September 11, no historian that I know of has so blurred the
lines between the historical past and the practical past as has
Victor David Hanson of National Review Online. Hanson is
Professor of Classics at
California State University, Fresno, and also teaches military history.
As such, Greek military history is naturally of special interest
to him, and he refers to it often.

his column "A Voice from the
" Hanson extracts quotes from Thucydides’s History
of the Peloponnesian War
, and treats them as advice,
from the wise general and historian Thucydides, as to how America
should respond to the 9/11 attacks.

a little study of the original text reveals that on a number of
occasions Hanson has excerpted from speeches that Thucydides is
quoting, but treated them as if they were the wisdom of Thucydides
himself. Consider the following passage, approvingly cited by Hanson
as an example of how Americans should regard their opponent:

fate of those of their neighbours who had already rebelled and had
been subdued was no lesson to them; their own prosperity could not
dissuade them from affronting danger; but blindly confident in the
future, and full of hopes beyond their power though not beyond their
ambition, they declared war and made their decision to prefer might
to right, their attack being determined not by provocation but by
the moment which seemed propitious."

passage is not Thucydides writing in his own voice, but in the voice
of "Cleon, son of Cleaenetus, the same who had carried the
former motion of putting the Mytileanians to death, the most violent
man at Athens…" In other words, Thucydides is describing
the demagogery of a mass murderer, while Hanson is presenting the
demagogue’s speech as if it were advice straight from Thucydides!

in the speech above, was attempting to rally the Athenians for war
against the Spartans. In the same column, Hanson offers another
quote, also cautioning against inaction:

are alone inactive, and defend yourselves not by doing anything
but by looking as if you would do something; you alone wait till
the power of an enemy is becoming twice its original size, instead
of crushing it in its infancy."

the full text is as follows:

Lacedaemonians, of all the Hellenes are alone inactive, and defend
yourselves not by doing anything but by looking as if you would
do something; you alone wait till the power of an enemy is becoming
twice its original size, instead of crushing it in its infancy."

is from a speech by the Corinthians to the Spartans (also called
the Lacedaemonians). In other words, per Hanson, both the Athenians
and the Spartans had been too cautious about going to war!
Pundits like Hanson advice us that war is an inevitable part of
human nature, and the best thing for our side is to be prepared
to strike first, if necessary. But perhaps war is only "inevitable"
because each side has its own crew of Hansons, advising it that
war is inevitable.

technique for getting the "lessons of history" to favor
your ideological view is to cherry-pick your examples. If you are
a hawk, find every example where someone acted "boldly"
and won. Ignore little events like Napoleon’s invasion of Russia,
or the fact that Athens lost the Peloponnesian War, to a great extent, because it did act boldly in attacking Sicily. Be especially sure,
in these perilous times, never to mention the Austro-Hungarian Empire,
which acted boldly against a terrorist threat, attacked a country,
Serbia, it believed was harboring terrorists… and ceased to exist
four years later.

between the historical past and the practical past gives rise to
"contra-factual history." Of course, if history is the
construction of a past that we are compelled to believe in by the
evidence of the present, the idea of "contra-factual history"
is puzzling. The evidence of history is used to construct a world
of what we believe did happen, not one of what might
have happened if things had been other than they were. Of course,
we are always free to contemplate alternative courses of events,
different from those of actual history. But we should recognize
that we are merely speculating, and that history itself cannot lend
its authority to our speculations.

week I watched Bill O’Reilly interviewing Charlie Reese. When Reese
recommended a "hands off" policy in the Middle East, O’Reilly
became outraged. He told Reese that the US withdrawal from Southeast
Asia had been responsible for Pol Pot’s massacre of millions in
Cambodia, and contended that the same sort of thing will happen
if the US does not continue to prop up the current regimes in Egypt
and Saudi Arabia.

in some alternative universe where the US had not withdrawn its
troops from Southeast Asia when it did, it is entirely possible
that Pol Pot would not have gained power. On the other hand, it
is also possible that an even more brutal tyrant would have taken
his place. And, since Pol Pot’s rise to power seemed to result chiefly
from the US attacks on Cambodia and the "neutralism" of
Prince Sianhouk,
it is possible that in yet another universe, where the US never
intervened in Southeast Asia, Cambodia might not have experienced
any massacres. (Ironically, the US supported Pol Pot in the UN because
he was anti-Vietnamese, even under Ronald Reagan.)

truth is that none of us know what would have happened in various
contra-factual Cambodias. Again, we are free to speculate and imagine
alternate pasts. The problem with O’Reilly’s scenario was that he
presented it as if it were a "fact of history" that the
massacres would not have taken place had the US not withdrawn. As
Ludwig von Mises wrote,
"Such fantastic designs are no more sensible than whimsical
speculations about what the course of history would have been if
Napoleon had been killed in the battle of Arcole or if Lincoln had
ordered Major Anderson to withdraw from Fort Sumter."

favorite "alternate history" of the interventionists involves
World War II and what "would" have happened had Chamberlain
not "appeased" Hitler at Munich. "History teaches
us," so the common refrain runs, "that appeasing tyrants
only leads to more killing and suffering later. If Hitler had been
stopped in 1938, millions of deaths would have been averted."

teaches us nothing of the sort. It teaches us that an agreement
was reached with Hitler in 1938, which Chamberlain famously boasted
would guarantee "peace in our time." The next year, Germany
attacked Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany, and
a long and bloody conflict ensued. History says nothing about what
would have occurred had Britain and France gone to war in 1938.
Nor does it teach us what might have happened had they not
gone to war over Poland.

illustrate my point, I will describe a different alternative universe
than the one the interventionists describe. In that universe, Britain
and France did not declare war after the invasion of Poland. (It
is interesting to note that Britain
and France ostensibly went to war to protect Polish sovereignty.
And what did they do when the USSR took over Poland at the end of
the war? Sigh and say, "Oh well, at least it wasn’t Germany!")
Instead, Britain and France offered refuge to any Poles, Jews, or
others who found themselves persecuted by Hitler. The United States
joined them in this offer. Hitler, in the 1930s, had been only too
happy to let such "inferior" races leave. (The Nazis,
in fact, had discussed forcibly deporting Jews as a solution to
the "Jewish problem.")

as he had planned, sought Germany’s Lebensraum to the east.
(Historian Thomas Childers points out that Hitler, prior to the
war, had been convinced that Britain and France would not fight
for Eastern Europe, and in fact he saw Britain as one of the four
great powers, each with its own "natural" sphere of influence,
in his new world order.) Soon enough, Hitler’s ambitions brought
Germany into conflict with the Soviet Union, and the two countries
began a long and bloody conflict. After several years of fighting,
both governments were on the verge of collapse. Soviet republics
began to break away from Russia and declare their independence.
In Germany, the aristocracy reasserted itself. Hitler was assassinated,
and Germany and what remained of the Soviet Union reached a peace

my scenario, millions fewer die than in the actual history we endured.
The Holocaust is avoided. At the end of the "Russo-German War,"
Eastern Europe is not under the thumb of the Soviet Union. The Soviet
Union itself has been reduced in size and weakened. The Cold War
never starts.

I know the above would have happened if France and Britain
had not declared war in September 1939? Of course not! But I do
say it is roughly as plausible as the alternative world proposed
by the interventionists. And every bit as much as their alternative
world makes the case for intervention, mine makes the case for non-intervention.
Such scenarios will be convincing mostly to those who already believe
in the policy supported by the scenario, serving to give them added
confidence in the view they have already adopted.

boldly extended his reading of past events as supporting his politics
last week
, when he faulted the World War I Allies for "…allowing
a weary, bloodied, but ultimately undefeated German war machine
to surrender in France and Belgium in 1918 rather than marching
into Berlin to humiliate it…"

the typical historical view has been that the desire to humiliate
Germany at the end of World War I was a major contributor
to the rise of Nazism and, eventually, World War II. Hanson’s prescription
is also plagued by the small problem that the "undefeated German
war machine" might have had some objections to an Allied attempt
to march into Berlin, and tens or hundreds of thousands more would
have died on each side. But for Hanson, it seems, besides never
starting quite soon enough, no war ever lasts quite long enough.
(After all, the end of a war results in those tedious periods we
call "peace.")

Hanson’s enthusiasm for quoting Thucydides, it is odd that I have
never found the following in his columns:

had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was
now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage
of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation
was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides
of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became
the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means
of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy;
his opponent a man to be suspected."

it hits a little too close to home.


Gene Callahan [send him mail],
the author of Economics for Real People, is
an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig
von Mises Institute
and a contributing columnist to

Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives

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