But perhaps I'm still misunderstanding what she is up to. And there is yet another possible way one might approach her new book. In it, she has gathered four historical essays, each approximately twice as long as the one that precedes it, and the fourth, on the United States's conduct in Vietnam, about 10 times the length of the first, called ''Prototype: The Trojans Take the Wooden Horse Within Their Walls.'' Having noticed that in each example a group pursues a policy contrary to its own interest, Mrs. Tuchman has tried to generalize, calling her the result ''The March of Folly.''
But the generalization doesn't work. First, the four examples don't bear any resemblance to one another, except, very superficially, for the British loss of her American colonies and America's ''loss'' of Vietnam. Second, the essays are detailed narrative accounts of certain historical events and not at all concerned with the search for underlying principles. Thus, when Mrs. Tuchman gets around to drawing conclusions, she is forced by the breadth of her canvas into uttering fatuities. ''Failure of communications appears to be endemic to the human condition,'' she informs us at one point. ''Historical mistakes are often irretrievable,'' she discovers at another.
And in summing up why the Renaissance Popes provoked the Protestant secession, she drops the following bombshell: ''First, it must be recognized that'' the attitudes to power of ''the Renaissance six'' ''and their resultant behavior were shaped to an unusual degree by the mores and conditions of their time and surroundings. This is of course true of every person in every time,'' (what - that he is shaped to an unusual degree by the mores and conditions of his time and surroundings?) ''but more so in this case because the mores and conditions of the Italian governing class of this period were in fact so exotic.''
Exotic to whom, besides outlanders like Martin Luther and his fellow Northern Europeans, who were bound to find their Southern neighbors exotic? Did the Italian governing class seem exotic to the people they ruled, who, one would assume, were part of ''the surroundings'' that shaped that class? Or is it simply that the mores and conditions seem exotic to Mrs. Tuchman, which leaves her, not for the first or last time in this book, committing the historical fallacy of judging the past by present standards.
But any way one approaches ''The March of Folly,'' it is unsatisfying, to say the least. Better books have been written about Vietnam, the American Revolution, the Renaissance Popes and the Trojan Horse. Better things have been said about human folly. In her book's introductory essay, Mrs. Tuchman cites ''a perceptive comment by Ralph Waldo Emerson,'' who apparently once warned, ''In analyzing history do not be too profound, for often the causes are quite superficial.'' The problem is that she has taken his advice too literally. Not only has she confined herself to the shallower wellsprings of history, she has committed the further sin of treating them superficially.Continue reading the main story
“A glittering narrative . . . a moral [book] on the crimes and follies of governments and the misfortunes the governed suffer in consequence.”—The New York Times Book Review
“An admirable survey . . . I haven’t read a more relevant book in years.”—John Kenneth Galbraith, The Boston Sunday Globe
“A superb chronicle . . . a masterly examination.”—Chicago Sun-Times
From the Publisher
Barbara Tuchman defines folly as "Pursuit of Policy Contrary to Self-Interest." In THE MARCH OF FOLLY, Tuchman examines 4 conflicts: The Trojan Horse, The Protestant Secession, The American Revolution, and The American War in Vietnam. In each example an alternative course of action was available, the actions were endorsed by a group, not just an individual leader, and the actions were perceived as counter productive in their own time. Many individuals are guilty of folly (Tuchman also calls this woodenheadedness), but when governments persist in folly, their actions can adversely affect thousands, even millions of lives. Folly is a child of power. "The power to command frequently causes failure to think."(p.32). THE MARCH OF FOLLY may not be as well known as A DISTANT MIRROR and THE GUNS OF AUGUST, but it is my favorite of her works. I heartily recommend it to any Tuchman fans who have not yet discovered it.
Ballantine sales rep