THINKING IN TIME: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers
byRichard E. Neustadtand Ernest R. May.
The Free Press, $19.95.
IN EARLY APRIL of 1945 the position of Hitler’s Third Reich seemed hopeless. Germany was being invaded on all sides. The Red Army was only a few miles from Berlin. Allied bombers flew everywhere. Yet the deranged Führer still would not accept defeat, and he was being consoled by Goebbels, who read to him that chapter from Carlyle’s history of Frederick the Great which movingly described the warrior-king besieged on all sides in the winter of 1761-1762 and planning to commit suicide if his fortunes did not change. A few days after that pledge came the news that the formidable Empress Elizabeth of Russia had died; her successor, Peter, was a fervent admirer of Frederick’s and was eager to make peace. The Führer, Goebbels solemnly reported, had tears in his eyes at the reading of this episode. He was therefore in ecstasy when, on April 13, an excited Goebbels telephoned the news that President Roosevelt had died. “My Führer, I congratulate you!” the Propaganda Minister shouted. “It is the turning point!” History was repeating itself. Once again an overwhelming enemy coalition would crumble, and Germany would emerge battered but victorious, as in Frederick’s time.
The final days in the Fuhrer-bunker provide perhaps the most spectacular and most published misuse of history by any politician in the twentieth century, and had any of Hitler’s staff dared to speak, they might have pointed out howfalse Goebbels’s analogy was. Roosevelt’s successor, Truman, had neither the power nor the inclination to pull the United States out of a war that was already won. Even if he had, the Third Reich’s fate was settled: the British were in the north-German plain, the Russians poised to surround Berlin with a force of over two million men. The so-called Miracle of the House of Brandenburg of 1762 would not be repeated, because so many of the historical circumstances were quite different. History" was not a grab bag, out of which one could pull a reminiscence, an event, a precedent, and blithely assume that it was relevant to current problems.
The fantasy world of Hitler’s last days is not cited by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May in their book Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, but its moral is analogous. Without a properly balanced knowledge of preceding events, policy-makers cannot function; only by looking backward can they go forward, since every decision must be conditioned by assumptions regarding how, say, other governments, or Congress, or public opinion will respond— and those assumptions in turn by knowledge of how they reacted previously. To be sure, analogies from the past are all too frequently invoked, yet little attention is paid to the differences that the similarities go along with: the Goebbels syndrome is rampant, in other words. The so-called lessons of appeasement clouded the minds of Washington politicians and officials at the time of the Korean War, just as the equally nebulous
lessons of Vietnam affect today’s debate over aid to the contra rebels in Nicaragua. History is constantly being employed, therefore, but usually in a selective and one-sided way—to appeal to an emotion, to reinforce a prejudice, to justify a line of policy already decided upon.
BUT JUST HOW can one get contemporary leaders and their staffs to put history to proper use in day-to-day decision-making and management, and, more particularly, how can they employ historical experience in a controlled way when a crisis requires a swift solution? Sending every member of the Administration and of Congress off to complete a Ph.D. in history is hardly a practicable solution, even if it might marvelously affect the rhetoric and prose style of most participants. The answer offered here by Neustadt and May is altogether more pragmatic and plausible. For almost a decade Neustadt, as a professor of public administration, and May, as a professor of history, have together taught a professional-school course at Harvard titled “The Uses of History.” Designed for high-level public officials, it imitates the Harvard Business School’s casestudy system. Far from being a history course per se, it directs its participants toward a detailed examination of a number of decisions made by American governments over the past half century in which reference to the past played a successful, or more often a disastrously unsuccessful, role. It also others a method, a set of ground rules, concerning the uses of history which decision-makers and their aides would do well to employ, even when times are pressing—or particularly when times are pressing.
Thinking in Time, its authors explain, is a polished-up book version of the course, offered to the broader public as a primer on the ways to use historical experience “in the process of deciding what to do today about the prospect for tomorrow.” Though some of its chapters focus on a single case, most of them bring together, for purposes of comparison and contrast, a cluster of examples that illustrate an aspect of this exercise: for example, “Noticing Patterns” (chapter 11), “Placing [that is, understanding the historical roots of] Organizations” (chapter 12), how to avoid “Unreasoning from Analogues” (chapter 3). If some historical episodes are used time and again, it is because they can be made to serve various purposes, and although there is some repetition of material, each chapter is carefully structured and its lessons painstakingly set out.
Predictably enough, there is a full analysis here of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, regarded by the authors as a success story not merely because of its outcome but also because of the way President Kennedy and the executive committee of the National Security Council mulled over historical analogues as they sought to produce a policy both firm and prudent. Should they strike without warning at Russian missiles and bombers in Cuba? No, because that looked too much like Pearl Harbor in reverse. Should they consider what Dean Rusk termed the “Suez-Hungary combination” of 1956—that is, the possibility that the USSR might be planning a move elsewhere? Yes, because of the implications for Berlin. Above all, apparently, there were the probings of Kennedy himself, fresh from a reading of Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, about the series of escalating events that turned the 1914 assassination at Sarajevo into the First World War. “If anybody is around to write after this,” the President told his brother, “they are going to understand that we made every effort to find peace and every effort to give our adversary room to move.” Thus, instigating the naval blockade of Cuba on the one hand and secretly offering to withdraw the obsolete Jupiter missiles from Turkey on the other were part of a complex strategy toward the Kremlin evolved by a team conscious of the connections between the past, the present, and the future of mankind. In Neustadt and May’s words, they saw “time as a stream.”
In contrast, there are many examples here of the misuses of history: the belief held by Curtis LeMay and others that strategic bombing would crush North Vietnam as decisively as it had crushed Japan in 1944-1945 (whereas not only was the enemy’s landscape and infrastructure different but the lesson of the bombing of Britain and Germany in World War Two was that it stiffened resistance); the bizarre controversy over the discovery of a Soviet brigade in Cuba in 1979, which threatened to blow up into another 1962 crisis until it was learned that the Russian forces were not newly arrived, were not a test of Carter’s virility, but had actually been there for two decades; and the unwarranted optimism behind the “deep cuts” arms-control proposals that Cyrus Vance took to Moscow’ in 1977, when any serious study of the pattern of Russian defense policy would have shown how unrealistic those proposals were. Thinking in Time does not exclude cases from the domestic domain, and anybody working on the Hill will benefit from Neustadt and May’s analyses of the Social Security “reform” of 1983; of the swine-flu scare of 1976; and of how to “place” organizations like the Central Intelligence Agency and the Centers for Disease Control, or individuals like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X,
In all of these case studies, and again in a summary, the authors propose certain techniques for the proper employment of history in decision-making. The facts at hand should be divided into the known, the unclear, and the presumed, and special care should be taken to scrutinize those in the last-named category, since they may reveal sloppy thinking, cultural prejudice, and the like. It historical analogies are employed and are seen to be carrying weight, then these should be examined for both likenesses and differences (no Goebbels syndrome here). If a crisis arises, ask “What’s the story?” rather than “What’s the problem?”, since that will focus attention upon how it arose in the first place, and how it may be explained—before jumping at possible solutions.
Much of this, the authors admit, is really common sense. They make their recommendations chiefly because such points have frequently been ignored by politicians and their staffs in the recent past. Even the adoption of the “modest methods” and “mini-methods” of Thinking in Time, they feel, would improve American decision-making, or at least reduce the number of occasions on which the misuse or neglect of history contributes to faulty policies.
All this, in the opinion of the present reviewer, is admirable. History is frequently used and more frequently abused by politicians, and there is little point in professional historians’ ignoring that fact. That does not mean that all historical scholars should transform themselves into compilers of further case studies, ranging from King Canute to George Washington; but they should not scorn this innovative attempt to pass on to today’s decision-makers the methodology of history as a discipline, so that it is no longer used as a grab bag, full of patriotic slogans, misinterpreted events, and faulty precedents.
The one weakness of this book, if it may be called that, is fully admitted by the authors. Because they are offering a primer for busy decision-makers, and using case studies, inevitably they focus on such practical, “mini-method” tasks as sifting out the known from the unclear, the likenesses from the differences. This focus is very American and very contemporary. In consequence, a larger understanding of history, of the broad movements in the affairs of mankind, of the political cultures and philosophies that inhabit this planet and differ so much from the American way, of the acutely historical sense of, say, the Chinese or the French or the Russians—all that is understandably missing here, and it is unlikely to be made up by a quick perusal of Parkman, Bancroft, Thucydides, Churchill, and the other half-dozen authors listed as recommended reading.
That larger sense of history—which has made George Kennan (with his deep knowledge of Russia’s past and culture) so profound a commentator on international affairs, and made Kissinger so brilliantly effective diplomatically (when he saw that the post-1970 world was no longer bipolar but was multi-polar, as in the days of Metternich and Bismarck)— is probably going to be possessed by only a few persons, and these few are unlikely to be politicians who are former accountants, lawyers, real-estate agents, peanut-farmers, or actors. If those politicians can find advisers and Secretaries of State with this larger sense of history, so much the better. If they cannot, then the least they can do now is to consult Neustadt and May’s Thinking in Time and, at the day-to-day level, try to avoid some of the more egregious errors that have characterized decision-making in the recent past.