Book Review: The March of Folly

March of Folly, Tuchman

I am aware that the subject for my first book review on the site, Barbara Tuchman’s, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, may result in derision.  After all, the book was first published in 1984 and seemed particularly timely in light of the end of the Vietnam conflict occurring roughly ten years earlier, but why review a book published in 1984 now?

There are really two answers to that.  The first is the decline of Borders Books and their subsequent closing and going out of business sales which encouraged me to pick up on some books I have long wanted to own.  The second, very simply, is that Tuchman’s scintillating and entertaining analysis of the persistent folly of Government’s throughout history is particularly relevant today.

I became an enormous fan of Ms. Tuchman after reading The Guns of August, an account of August 1914 leading up to the commencement of World War I, many years ago.  Her decidedly anti-ideological perspective of history and her balanced approach that downplayed persistent views of an era being calamitous and inevitable was, to me, the proper perspective on events.  The Guns of August, of course, won the Pulitzer Prize for history, as did her phenomenal Stillwell and the American Experience in China.  The March of Folly was one of her last two works, the other being The First Salute which was her overview of the American Revolution.  It is, for me, a quintessential work of an intellectual that, having reflected on a lifetime of research and writing, had arrived at a moment of serendipitous enlightenment of the culmination of her work on its ultimate meaning.  In Tuchman’s case, that enlightenment is that Government’s, despite short periods of admirable performance, are doomed to folly.

In fact, the opening of The March of Folly is as follows:

“A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of its place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests.  Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity.”

Despite that statement, Tuchman does allude to the other failings of human organization throughout her book, including the failures of religious, business, and humanitarian forms of organization.  She makes, however, a persuasive case, as did many of America’s founding fathers, that the leadership of government, by conferring the highest levels of power on humans, results in follies of greater magnitude and more consistent appearance.  Although the first chapter reviews many of the follies of governments’ past, Tuchman focuses on four particular follies in history in order to illustrate her point:  The Trojan defeat by deception, the Papacy rule of Europe defeat at the hands of lust and greed of leaders, and the 20 year American experience in Vietnam that was an exercise in retention of power and pride.

The March of Folly has been criticized because of Ms. Tuchman’s use of these four anecdotal examples, but her thesis rests on the opposite of assertion, meaning it was relatively easy to find the failures of government to use as analytical benchmarks, but relatively hard to find successes that have been sustainable over time.  Moreover, her primary assertion, that government is the single-most thing humans are bad at throughout history, withstands the test of counter-examples.  Even such things that government is praised for here in the United States, such as social safety nets, have become questionable in their intent and sustainability in light of the ever growing expansion.

Having read almost all of Tuchman’s body of work, The March of Folly is my personal choice as her oeuvre and exemplifies one of the 20th century’s leading thinkers reflection upon her acquired knowledge.  Written in Ms. Tuchman’s trademark accessible but intellectually provocative style, the March of Folly is both a great overview of the sweep of the history of governance and a testament to the practice of history.

To Purchase or Preview at Amazaon.com, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam

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