The Lessons of History

In 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."

However, 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.)

In 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.

Because 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:

"There 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."

However, 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.

The 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?"

Such 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."

The 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.

However, 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.

There 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.

That 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."

However, 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.

In 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.

In his column "A Voice from the Past" 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.

But 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:

"The 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."

That 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!

Cleon, 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:

"You 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."

However, the full text is as follows:

"You, 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."

That 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.

Another 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.

Confusion 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.

Last 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.

Now 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.)

The 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."

The 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."

History 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.

To 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.")

Hitler, 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 agreement.

In 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.

Do 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.

Hanson boldly extended his reading of past events as supporting his politics just 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…"

But 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.")

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

"Words 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."

Perhaps it hits a little too close to home.

November 19, 2002