The March of Folly


Barbara Tuchman


Non Fiction


Date Reviewed:

June 23, 2006

he subtitle to the March of Folly is: why do governments pursue policies that are contrary to their own interests? That is an excellent question to ask, considering that America is currently embroiled in the expensive and pointless war in Iraq. Tuchman's book was written in 1985, and she focuses on four examples: The Trojan Horse at the Gates of Troy, the Renaissance Popes, the British policies that sparked the revolution in 1776, and America's fight in Vietnam. It is the last two sections that were the most interesting, and fortunately they comprise the majority of the book. The section regarding the popes is kinda boring - it is an endless recounting of corrupt men who abuse the papal office to pursue earthly gain. I recommend skipping the popes and starting right in on the American revolution.

The British in the 18th century readily acknowledge that they can not afford to lose the American colonies, they know that if the North American groups fall under the sway of the French or the Spanish, then the loss will threaten British pre-eminence as a world power. There would be no greater catastrophe than the loss of the colonies - and the politicians and the public are well aware of this at the time. (Ultimately, history shows that the American colonies ARE lost, but the British empire thrives by exploiting its other colonies in Africa, Australia, Canada and especially in India.) Despite the danger of antagonizing the colonials, Parliament issues a series of laws, such as the Stamp tax and Tea tax that are seemingly designed to provoke the Sons of Liberty. At the heart of the issue is Parliament's insistence upon showing the colonials that the crown has the right to determine taxes and passes laws without regard to what the colonials themselves think. For example, the Tax on Tea would actually have cost the crown more to collect than it would have produced in revenue, and the British government knew this, but felt it would be worth the cost because it would establish the precedent that the Americans shall be taxed however the King chose. Another example is the billeting of troops - providing security to the colonies is expensive, after the Seven Years War (which we call the French and Indian War), the crown found itself greatly in debt and thought it reasonable to turn the colonies to pay for their own defense. As Tuchman points out, the colonies would have liked to pay for their defense, providing that they could raise the taxes and pay the troops as they deemed fit. But the British don't want input from the colonials, and are offended by the lowly Americans demands to be treated as equals. This is a major theme in the English attitude toward the colonists - that the Americans are nothing more than uneducated rabble. Tuchman points out that at no point during the Revolutionary War did the British try to enlist troops from the Loyalist (or "Tory") Americans - the colonists are deemed to be worthless as British soldiers (despite the fact the rebel colonists are proving to be formidable foes on the battlefield.) Never does a single member of Parliament journey to the American colonies to learn about what happens there. In the end, exactly what British feared, and what they provoked, does occur, when the French give their support to the rebels. The British continue a fight that they can not win, and which they realize that they cannot win, because King George III refuses to go down in history as the King who lost the Colonies. So the war drags on, and in the end King George's historical reputation is tarnished anyway. Tuchman points out that we look at back at historical figures with an aura of greatness, expecting that they are people driven by purpose and rational plan to make history, but in fact, often history is made by inept figures who find themselves in situations beyond their control. Thus, history placed King George III in power at the time of the Revolution, and he was unable to rise to the challenge.

The chapters on America's entanglement is Vietnam were ultimately depressing, but still very much worth reading. I was a child when the war was fought, so I was mostly unaware of the events as they took place (I was born in 1961). The parallels between Vietnam and our present situation in Iraq are stunning - I find it hard to believe that the current leaders in this administration (Cheney, Rumsfeld) could have witnessed what happened in Vietnam, and yet commit the same mistakes again in Iraq. Wasn't Vietnam heartbreaking enough? Reading this book, Tuchman makes it clear that American politicians, as far back as Eisenhower, recognize that Vietnam is a losing situation, but for reasons of pride and political expediancy, they can't withdraw. JFK, for example, intends to exit Vietnam, but not until after his re-election in 1964. The situation worsens with each successive administration. Much like King George III couldn't bear to admit that the colonies were lost, no US President can bear to think of himself as "The man who lost Vietnam", and so each escalates the fight, until finally Nixon drops more bombs on Vietnam than the US dropped during all of World War II. Each presidency is paralyzed by the fear of being labelled soft by the right wings hawks in the country. Even LBJ, who in 1964 has won one of the most lopsided presidential elections in history and has plenty of political clout, rather than withdraw, instead wants to show what a tough guy he is. The US wants to bomb North Vietnam to the negotiating table, so we can negotiate from a position of strength, but a fair assessment would reveal how ineffecive this policy is. And so American finds itself propping up a government that is not supported by the populace, America tries to train and equip an army of unmotivated, disinterested South Vietnamese to defend a nation that they don't believe in. Doesn't Vietnamization sound exactly like Iraqification? The same mistakes are being repeated, the same woodenheaded behavior is on display. For political expediancy, the war continues when all the original objectives are long forgotten. It is a sad thing to read, in the March of Folly and in the daily headlines.