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The March of Folly by Barbara W Tuchman

What on earth can have brought this book to mind? In these worrying times, foolish people seem to have power, and foolish policies appear to be unstoppable, so my mind turns to The March of Folly. Sadly this book does not provide answers to how to prevent folly in policy. But it reminds us that power does not always reside with wise people, and we must be on our guard and maintain our democratic processes to counter folly. And the subtitle, from Troy to Vietnam, reminds us that the historical roots of folly are deep.

The Decades Project on Bookword has reached the 1980s. The project features non-fiction by women from each decade from the start of the 20thCentury. The March of Folly was published in 1984 and was written by an American.

The March of Folly by Barbara W. Tuchman

The argument of this history book is straightforward. Folly is frequently committed by policy makers. To qualify as folly she employs three criteria:

  1. the policy must be seen as counter-productive at the time,
  2. there must exist a feasible alternative, and
  3. the policy is promoted by a group of people, not an individual.

Barbara W Tuchman explores 4 examples of folly that meet these criteria, although she refers to many others.

Her first example is the decision by the rulers of Troy to move the wooden horse into the city. The siege of Troy was a story first told by Homer and then by other historians.

Troy falls at last after ten years of futile, indecisive, noble, mean, tricky, bitter, jealous and only occasionally heroic battle. As the culminating instrumentality for the fall, the story brings in the Wooden Horse. (43)

There were warnings and caution was advised. ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,’ warned Laocoon. They were advised to burn the horse, or throw it in the sea or at least cut it open. But instead it was pulled into Troy with some difficulty and when the Greek soldiers were released it was the means to the complete defeat of the Trojans.

She moves on to consider the actions of the renaissance popes in the face of rising dissention, which allowed the Reformation to split the Christian church. Next she explores England’s policy under George III towards the American colonies, which led to the War of Independence and to the loss of the colonies by the British. Finally, in the longest section, she considers American policy in Vietnam. The book was published in 1984. It was less than ten years since the US had pulled out of their bloody involvement in Vietnam.

To account for such policies of folly Barbara W Tuchman suggests that there must exist a certain amount of wooden-headedness or mental standstill, blindness to alternatives, deafness to criticism. Sometimes the group act with folly out of self-aggrandizement, or a lust for power, or are corrupted by having power. They may even have an excess of power, she suggests. Persistence in a false action can be the result of a difficulty in admitting to errors. And there may well be a lack of moral courage.

Having presented her four case studies she finishes on a downbeat.

Perhaps better men flourish in better times, and wiser government requires the nourishment of a dynamic rather than a troubled and bewildered society. If John Adams is right, and government is ‘little better practised now than three or four thousand years ago,’ we cannot reasonably expect much improvement. We can only muddle on as we have done in those same three or four thousand years, through patches of brilliance and decline, great endeavour and shadow. (486)

Barbara W Tuchman

Barbara W Tuchman was born in the USA in 1912 and before her death in 1989 she wrote many books of history for the general reader. She was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

It is no surprise that she was criticised by academic historians for not being academic enough. Her books were very popular however.

And although it can be satisfying to see events in history that one regrets as the result of folly, she has been criticised for not explaining the rise of folly.  Her examples are recounted in increasing detail, but the circumstances that allowed the policies to persist are really only explained by – well – folly.

In 1984 she commented:

It seems superfluous to say that the present study stems from the ubiquity of this problem [the folly of policy makers] in our time. (40)

As Britain continues on its path to Brexit folly, we too must fall back on explanations of power, self-aggrandisement and inability to admit errors. We are, I am convinced, engaged in a 21stcentury march of folly ourselves.

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara W Tuchman published in 1984. I read Abacus edition published in 1985. 559pp

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 I am featuring non-fiction by women in each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:

Elizabeth David’s books in the Kitchen(1950s)

Silent Springby Rachel Carson(1962)

84 Charing Cross Roadby Helene Hanff(1971)

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project