Which is more important: to know history well or to use what history you know in making important decisions?

With some hesitation (since one is a trained historian), the authors of Thinking in Time decide for the latter. In a comparison between Harry Truman’s and George Marshall’s ability to learn from history, the authors side with Marshall, even though they consider Truman better read.

“To contrast Truman with Marshall is not to make a case against the usefulness of knowledge. Far from it. But knowledge as such, we do suggest, the knowledge of historical specifics, cannot substitute for (even though it supplements) the kind of mental quality that readily connects discrete phenomena over time and repeatedly checks connections. That is a special style of approaching choices, more the planner’s or the long-term program manager’s than the lawyer’s or judge’s or consultant’s or trouble shooter’s—and surely more Marshall’s than Truman’s.”

Subtitled The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, Thinking in Time is an attempt to instruct people who must “manage” in the way to use history properly. “This book is addressed to those who govern—or hope to do so. It is for men and women elected or appointed to public office. It is also for those who assist them, as aides of ‘bureaucrats,’ and those who report to them or study them or try to influence them.”

Ordinary people are constantly in the position of having to draw on history, whether it is on a professional scale or simply a personal incident in their own past. In drawing on the past, we attempt to learn from it, often making comparisons with the present or perhaps even making predictions for the future. Government officials and businessmen have an obvious need for historical understanding, but so does a person trying to speculate on the future of his favorite team.

There are certain patterns and procedures we use in thinking about the past, but if we are pressed to articulate those procedures, most of us would have some difficulty. The authors’ basic recommendations are clear and repeated often. First, they tell us to list in three columns those things Known, Unclear, and Presumed.

Since history sometimes seems to repeat itself—as the great influenza epidemic of 1918 looked like a model for the swine flu scare of 1976—it is important to separate the Likenesses and Differences. If the Ford Administration had done that, we might have been spared a costly boondoggle. In addition, objectives have to be defined (the authors offer a set of helpful questions), and the options must be arranged and screened for feasibility.

The decision-maker must next ask himself and his advisors, “What are the odds of success?” or “What would have to happen in order for me to change my opinion about the possibility of success?” Finally, a decision-maker must exercise placement, the attempt to grasp the ideologies and backgrounds of one’s advisors in order to determine how their past may be affecting their advice.

The majority of Thinking in Time is devoted to case-analysis of recent events like the Bay of Pigs. Not surprisingly, it is the detail-obsessed Jimmy Carter who takes the roughest beating. For all his mistakes, poor Jimmy should have graduated summa cum laude from the school of experience. Fortunately, he flunked out at the end of his first term.


[Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, by Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May (New York: The Free Press) $19.95]