I’m writing the present post to help my group of friends’ discussion of Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly. The book examines why governments pursue policies contrary to their self-interest. Tuchman’s first chapter covers a wealth of examples from the Fall of Troy to the Second World War. Her three parameters for selecting examples of political folly are the following: “it must be perceived as counterproductive in its own time, not merely by hindsight” (5); “a feasible alternative of action must have been available” (ibid.); and lastly, “the policy in question must be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond one political lifetime” (ibid.). These seem wise parameters; however, Tuchman includes two loci classici in order to form the discussion: the revolt of Israel from Judea caused by Solomon’s son Rehoboam threatening to increase the burdens on the people and the story of the Trojan Horse.
The main periods studied by the book are on the Fall of Troy, the misrule of the papacy prior to the Reformation, the American Revolution, and the Vietnam war. The odd thing about these choices is how perspicacious her knowledge is on the two World Wars. In chapter one, she delves deeply into the political debates within the German government of WWI and the Japanese government of WWII, which led to the entrance of the United States into these global conflicts–both times ensuring the defeat of these countries.
Perhaps, Tuchman wished to branch out, but those two sections were the most fascinating. The immediate cause of America’s entrance into WWI was the Germans’ reinstating unrestricted submarine warfare. Many Germans were against this policy, including the Chancellor. But, the Admiralty managed to convince other members of government that the Germans could strangle Britain through this means before the US could enter the war. As for the Chancellor himself, he was brow beaten into submission and privately declared the decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare the “finis Germaniae.” Similarly, many Japanese opposed the attack on Pearl Harbor, but their voices went unheeded. The main worry of Japan was that America would go to war if they continued expanding in Asia; yet, many pointed out that America’s strong isolationist policy would prevent them from declaring war. Admiral Yamamoto, who drew up the attack plans, had close experience with Americans during his time studying there and as a naval attaché in Washington. But, even he thought that America’s reaction would be the reverse of what it was.
The second chapter is very short and does little besides reiterate the first and add some interesting tidbits. The most interesting commentary is on the fate of Laocoon, who heatedly advised against taking the Trojan Horse into the city. After Sinon, a Greek left behind as part of the ruse, gives false reasons for the Greeks leaving behind the horse, two serpents arise from the ocean and kill Laocoon and his two sons. This is seen as a divine judgement against him, and so they bring in the Trojan Horse with its cargo of hoplites. This results in the horrific sack of Troy, the details of which many are well acquainted. (Though, the details of sacks besides the Vandals’ sack of Rome in 455–due to the influence of St. Pope Leo the Great–are always horrific.) The Laocoon story, according to Tuchman, points out how those who speak the truth are often treated with hostility.
Besides the wasteful and atrocious persecution of Huguenots under King Louis XIV, there was not much else of interest in these two chapters. (With the possible exceptions of Rehoboam and the Fall of the Aztecs.) Essentially, stubborn dogmatism or refusal to take a safer or less profitable alternative leads to governments making huge mistakes–“wooden headedness” as Tuchman terms it. I hope the above provides some good ideas for our discussion or encourages our readers to pick up Tuchman’s books.