Barbara W. Tuchman: The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam; Alfred A.K Knopf, New York.
William L. Shirer: 20th Century Journey: A Memoir of a Life and the Times. Volume II: The Nightmare Years, 1930-1940; Little, Brown & Company, Boston.
The world of nations, like the world of nature, is characterized by an unremitting struggle for existence. To survive in this milieu, governments must not pursue policies that run significantly counter to their own interests. Yet, self-interest is rarely clearly defined, and even on those occasions when there is a generally agreed upon self-interest, it is not always apparent what particular policies would further it. Sometimes, even if self-interest is pursued, the obstacles faced may be insurmountable. Nevertheless, it would seem that the course of history, strewn with the carcasses of fallen governments, states, and nations, shows that self-interest has not always been correctly identified or pursued. It is this failure to follow self-interest on the part of governments that is dealt with at length in recent books by two intellectual luminaries of the liberal establishment — Barbara Tuchman and William L. Shirer. And though it is unintentional, these works stimulate thinking on the relationship between contemporary liberalism and American national interest.
Barbara Tuchman, author of a number of best-selling historical works, examines the issue of governmental folly — defined as a government’s pursuit of policies contrary to its own interests despite the existence of recognized alternatives. Folly is the irrational persistence in a policy despite clear-cut evidence that it is counterproductive. While providing numerous historical illustrations of folly, Tuchman focuses on four events which she regards to be of particular significance. The first is the Trojan War, in which as the legend has it, the Trojans misguidedly took the Wooden Horse within their walls, oblivious to numerous warnings and ill omens, thus bringing on their own destruction. Next, Tuchman covers the Renaissance Papacy of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, which was totally engrossed in secular affairs — art, welfare, carnality, money making schemes — to the neglect of its spiritual realm. Numerous calls for repentance and renewal were unheeded. The ultimate result was popular disgust with the Papacy and the Protestant Reformation. Tuchman then looks at Britain’s George III and his government’s blind refusal to understand the American colonists. Placing its emphasis on the enforcement of abstract principle — Parliament’s right to tax — and ignoring the realities of the situation, Britain unintentionally fomented rebellion and ultimately lost its American colonies. Finally, Tuchman’s liberal mind-set is revealed most clearly in her discussion of America’s Vietnam debacle, where she offers those well-worn clichés that everyone but an eremite must know by heart. According to this view, American intervention in Vietnam was the result of monomaniacal anticommunism. Vietnamese communism was probably not initially true communism, and even if it was, it was fundamentally nationalistic and thus not an enemy of the United States. American hostility made Vietnamese nationalism the communist foe that it eventually became.
Unlike Jane Fonda, Tuchman does admit that Ho Chi Minh and his crew were totalitarian and ruthless, but this was to be expected since individual freedom and democracy are concepts alien to Southeast Asia. Oddly enough, this excuse for communist brutality does not prevent her from lambasting the noncommunist governments of South Vietnam for their departures from democratic practice. In Tuchman’s view, America did everything possible to destroy communism in South Vietnam, but since America’s puppet governments lacked popular support and because Vietnamese communists identified so completely with the nationalistic aspirations of the Vietnamese people, America’s final defeat was inevitable. But it was actually the prosecution of the war that was more deleterious to America than the ultimate defeat. All during the Vietnam War era, America’s leaders continually lied to the public to a degree never before witnessed in American history. As a consequence, the American people, especially the idealistic youth, lost faith in their government and its institutions.
Obviously, the Vietnam myth recited by Tuchman bears little resemblance to reality. Totalitarian Vietnamese communism was far more repressive than authoritarian regimes of South Vietnam. While America spent billions of dollars and lost thousands of men in Vietnam, the restrictions placed on the military would have made victory unlikely in any war against a determined foe. The United States government did not talk openly to its citizens, but this would seem no more egregious than the lies and distortions made by the Roosevelt Administration during and just prior to World War II. Finally, it was not the élan of the North Vietnamese that in the end enabled them to prevail, but the fact that they were heavily armed by the Soviet Union.
The lesson drawn from Vietnam, which serves as the guiding light for fashionable thinking on foreign policy, is that the United States should never oppose procommunist movements nor ever support anticommunist ones. Ironically, while leftists now preach nonresistance to totalitarianism, when they look at the 1930’s they see as the ultimate folly the failure of the Western democracies to resist nazism. An early and prominent exponent of this antiappeasement view, which has become historical orthodoxy, is William L Shirer, who was situated in Europe during the 1930’s, first as a newspaper reporter and later as a radio commentator. Shirer has focused on this antiappeasement theme in a number of popular books — the most notable of which is the highly acclaimed The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The Nightmare Years is an autobiographical account of the appeasement era. (This book is the second volume of Shirer’s memoirs, the first of which, The Start published in 1976, covers his life before 1930.)
In capsule form the orthodox antiappeasement interpretation of these events runs as follows: From Hitler’s very accession to power, Germany took steps to regain military strength and thus be able to move toward foreign aggression. Since even these early steps to remilitarization were treaty violations (of the Versailles Treaty and the Locarno Pact), Britain and France had the legal and moral authority to launch preemptive war and thus nip the nazi menace in the bud. Most certainly, they should have waged war when Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936 or when he threatened Czechoslovakia in the Sudetenland crisis of 1938. Instead of pursuing the moral and realistic course of waging war, the leaders of Britain and France opted for appeasement that only allowed the nazi German peril to increase its strength. While there were a number of motives for appeasement — fear of war, naivete toward Hitler — looming largest was the conservative British and French leaders’ hysterical fear of communism and their perception of Hitler, a “right wing” dictator, as a bulwark against proletarian revolution. Instead of opposing communism, self-interest dictated that Britain and France form an alliance with the Soviet Union to thwart nazi aggression
This interpretation of appeasement with its highly censorious, moralistic tone, while not such a distortion of reality as the Vietnam myth, is nonetheless a simplistic rendition of the complicated events of the 1930’s. First of all, the morality and legality of Hitler’s pre-1939 actions were ambiguous, not a clear-cut case of wrongdoing demanding British and French retaliation. The Versailles Treaty had lost its moral authority years before Hitler attained power. Whereas the Versailles Treaty had been predicated on the assumption that Germany was the aggressor in World War I, most historians had absolved Germany of that guilt. Instead of perceiving Germany as an inherent aggressor that had to be kept down, fashionable public opinion in Great Britain had come to look upon Germany as the aggrieved nation and postwar France as the oppressor. Germany’s program of rearmament and its remilitarization of the Rhineland could be easily viewed as justifiable exercise of its sovereignty. And in Hitler’s pre-1939 territorial expansion — Anschluss with Austria and the acquisition of the Sudetenland — Germany was merely gaining land inhabited mainly by ethnic Germans, most of whom seemed to desire incorporation into the Reich. This conformed to the universally acclaimed principle of national self-determination which the Treaty of Versailles had failed to apply when it would have been to Germany’s benefit.
Finally, the orthodox critique of appeasement downplays the importance of tl1e strong pacifistic sentiments in the Western democracies that placed constraints on policymakers. The awful carnage of World War I had turned public opinion vehemently against war. And the development of air power fostered an almost pathological fear that civilian populations would suffer immeasurably in a future war. Fear-mongers contended that air attacks using poisonous gas would completely wipe out urban populations. ‘This antiwar attitude was most intense on the left and was concretely reflected in the fact that the British Labour Party continually voted against rearmament up until the out• break of war in September 1939. With the aid of hindsight it is easy to brand the appeasers as utterly misguided. But given the context of the 1930’s, such a verdict is not that clear. At least, before holding up appeasement to censure or ridicule, it is appropriate to take a closer look at the contemporary liberal orthodoxy to which Tuchman and Shirer so completely subscribe.
Tuchman castigates America’s possession of nuclear armaments, its support for El Salvador, and the pursuit of economic growth. Shirer equates the appeasers’ attitude toward Hitler with what he alleges to be America’s current fondness for right-wing dictatorships. He was extremely agitated over America’s invasion of Grenada. Goldsmith’s observation that “the folly of others is ever most ridiculous to those who are themselves most foolish” might be applied to Tuchman and Shirer. But there is a difference. For as misguided as the fools of history might have been, they did not actually desire the destruction of their society. The Trojans did not want their city sacked; the Renaissance Popes did not will the Protestant Reformation; the appeasers of the 1930’s did not desire a Hitler-controlled Europe. The results of their policies, in short, ran counter to their desired outcomes in addition to being contrary to the self-interest of their groups and countries.
While at this juncture of history, American power has declined dramatically to the point where survival itself is now in question, it is not apparent that this calamity has been unwelcome to the ideological agenda of the European and American Left. This is not to say that they consciously desire the destruction of the West: one of their main problems is the failure to think in terms of the ultimate consequences of ideas. The demise of America and the West may prove to be the final result of liberal thought. It is for this reason that James Burnham referred to liberalism as “the ideology of Western suicide.” Liberalism, as we know it now, may be therefore, a step beyond folly — a halfway position between the conscious agent of defeat, and the foolish individual depicted by Tuchman and Shirer.
Where folly is the cause of self-destruction, a reversal of policy is always possible, which, if undertaken in time, can bring about recovery. Thus, the Protestant Reformation sparked the Catholic Reformation, which enabled the Church to gain new spiritual vigor and not only contain the spread of Protestantism but recoup some losses. And the final German takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1939 caused Neville Chamberlain, the quintessential appeaser, to realize that further German expansion could not be tolerated. Individuals and groups under the spell of folly can ultimately learn from their mistakes. Modern liberalism, in contra t, is immune to reality. In its essence, liberalism is nonfalsifiable. America’s defeats, or the wrongdoing of America’s enemies, can always be interpreted as underscoring America’s perfidy. In this light, American failures in Southeast Asia, Iran, and China are seen as the result of America’s having supported the wrong, “unpopular” side. Soviet aggression in Afghanistan or Eastern Europe is interpreted as the end product of previous American belligerency. How long the United States can survive so self-destructive an ideology is an open question. cc