In The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam,[1] Barbara Tuchman discusses in detail four totally different and widely separated instances in which, she argues, foolish leadership produced disaster: the Trojan acceptance of the Trojan Horse, the handling of Protestantism by the papacy in the early sixteenth century, English policy during the American Revolution, and America’s conduct in Vietnam. These four instances are enveloped in a more general theoretical treatment of the role of folly in history. Thus, there are five areas in which to test the validity of the book. What I propose to do here is to examine only one of them in detail: the Vietnam experience, which (I imagine) provided Mrs. Tuchman with her chief motive in producing this work.

My old tutor A. J. P. Taylor used to say that the only lesson of history is that there are no lessons of history. If he believed that literally he would not, I think, have spent a lifetime writing and teaching history, for the object of studying history is not merely to discover what happened but to learn something about the nature of human societies, obviously with a view toward safeguarding or improving our own. To that extent I am with Mrs. Tuchman. Taylor’s real point, however, was the intrinsic difficulty of discovering true lessons and the obvious risks of applying false ones. Thus, Anthony Eden came to grief over Suez in 1956 because he applied a lesson—concerning the dangers of appeasement—wrenched out of its true historical and geographical context. Mankind is on a voyage from an irrecoverable past into an unknown future. All historical situations are unique and unrepeatable; they are usually complex too, and the more closely they are observed, the less easy does it appear to draw thumping great conclusions from them which can be applied elsewhere.

Mrs. Tuchman’s examination of American policy in Vietnam inclines one to endorse Taylor’s scepticism. It follows the conventional, not to say threadbare, lines which the liberal media developed in the 1970s: that American involvement in Vietnam was, ab initio, an error which compounded itself as it increased and was certain to fail all along. She thereby falls into a trap which a historian who seeks to draw lessons from the past should be particularly careful to avoid: to assume that what in the end did happen, had to happen. The inevitability of failure in Vietnam is a bad starting point from which to begin an analysis. It presupposes the same kind of determinism which infests Marxist history and which invalidates it as an objective re-creation of the past. Mrs. Tuchman appears to believe that the Marxist form of nationalism pursued by Ho Chi Minh and his associates was bound to triumph, that it was in some metaphysical sense an irresistible force. This seems to me a dangerous posture for a historian to adopt in general, and especially in this case, since she has considered only half the evidence. We do not know what happened on the other side of the hill, or how close Ho Chi Minh’s enterprise came to failure, as did similar ones in Malaysia and Burma. The sources are simply not available. The Allied expedition to the Dardanelles in 1915 seemed, immediately after it was abandoned, a foredoomed failure, “inevitable”; when the Turkish sources eventually became available, they suggested it might well have succeeded, if persisted in a little longer.

Mrs. Tuchman’s attachment to retrospective inevitability makes her judgment of those who failed to recognize it at the time unduly harsh, and couched in language a historian should be chary of using. Too many people are described as “rabid” or accused of “panic,” “paranoia,” and “hysteria.” Did Churchill “rave” every time Vietnam came up, was Truman “indoctrinated,” did De Gaulle throw a “tantrum”? It seems unlikely. Was Dulles “bewitched” by his own “exaggerated rhetoric”? That was certainly not the impression he gave at the time (in 1954); rather that of a hard-bitten and calculating corporation lawyer who thought he had a good case. Mrs. Tuchman encapsulates Senator Thurmond as “Neanderthal.” It is sad to see a historian use a precise and useful concept of taxonomy as a term of undifferentiated abuse.

Many of Mrs. Tuchman’s confusions spring from a mishandling of terms. I have always thought it a pity that Americans referred to this area as Vietnam. The original French expression “Indochina” was more valuable precisely because it was vague. It was a portmanteau term for a collection of territories roughly between China and India, which encompassed a vast array of different cultures, tribal groups, and religions. In a characteristic form of Asian imperialism, the Viets in the North had traditionally tried to impose their unitary authority on most of this area. The French interrupted this process and sought to impose a superficial administrative unity of their own; but Viet pressure was resumed after 1945 and, more particularly, after the final withdrawal of the West in the early 1970s. The North’s recent attempts at conquest have enjoyed some success, since the Northerners are, at present, very well armed and organized, but one doubts if their presence will prove more permanent than that of the French or Americans. The notion that there were only two sides in Indochina, one of which was bound to win, is as false as the crude simplifications of those who held the “domino theory,” which Mrs. Tuchman excoriates.

To complicate this misunderstanding, Mrs. Tuchman posits a largely imaginary racial conflict between East and West, based upon the crude racial categories habitual among American liberals. She accepts as an unarguable fact that France failed militarily because the French were “white” and that Americans failed in turn because “they forgot that they too were white.” Leaving aside the fact that a high proportion of the French troops came from Africa and that many of the Americans were blacks, Mrs. Tuchman exaggerates the tendency among myriads of different Asian racial groups to see “whites” as the enemy, or race/color as the sole or even principal criterion of self-interest. The Japanese repeatedly tried to play the racial card in the Second World War. They never persuaded or forced more than thirty thousand Indians, for instance, to serve against Britain, and many thousand Indians preferred torture and death to changing their allegiance. More than 2,500,000 of them volunteered to fight against Japan. Of course India, on a far bigger scale than Indochina, was a huge collection of races, castes, and cultures, many of which, being minorities nationally or locally, had much to gain from rule by an impartial external power. It is impossible to understand how Britain governed four hundred million in the subcontinent with home forces which never exceeded one hundred thousand unless one grasps that it was, for the most part, rule by consent. Right to the end, the largest of the overall minorities, the Moslems, would have settled for something less than independence. Instead, the quasi-imperiaiism of the upper-caste Hindus, especially the Brahmins, insisted on outright independence with its inevitable concomitant of partition.

The basis for French rule in Indochina was narrower, and they did precious little to widen it. But it was there. French rule, of a loose kind, was acceptable to many groups, especially in Laos and Cambodia, in the hill regions, and among the sects of the South and the Delta. They, and probably other groups, too, saw rule by “whites” (as Mrs. Tuchman would call it) as preferable to what they were likely to get from Northern sectarians who, they rightly guessed, would be far more repressive and far less principled. That is why they came south in such staggering numbers after the 1954 settlement gave Ho Chi Minh the North and why, since his successors got the lot in 1974, they chose exile by the million.

It is one of Mrs. Tuchman’s weaknesses, springing I suppose from her determinism, that she confuses strongly motivated nationalist elites with populations as a whole. I notice that, in discussing the American Revolution, she has little to say about the so-called “loyalists” who, for a variety of reasons, preferred the King to Congress. There were a great many of them, and they included not merely “colonials” who chose exile in Canada but Indian tribes and Negro slaves. George III, in his inarticulate way, felt he represented them all, and that some of them at least were more likely to find justice in his courts than in those set up by a narrowly based “representative” legislature. The paradox of freedom and oppression marching hand in hand was not lost on Dr. Johnson, who asked “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

The truth—and here is a possible lesson of history Mrs. Tuchman might have considered—is that liberal empires, like the Roman, the British, and the French, are not wholly the product of the acquisitive spirit. They arise because they fulfill a need, usually because their components are not viably sovereign as separate entities. Hence unscrambling them creates as many problems as it solves—often more. It is notable that the Habsburg Empire, a collection of minorities which was liberally enough administered in its final phase, could not be dissolved into ethnic components, in 1918-19, without creating new minorities in each of them, which were far more harshly treated: if the Slav minorities were one of the chief causes of the First World War, the German minorities, especially in Czechoslovakia and Poland, were one of the causes of the Second. Of the fifty-odd independent states created in Africa, only two or three have homogeneous populations; the rest have one or more (usually many) minority problems which frequently transcend frontiers. Under the imperial system they were arbitrated by the external power or powers; with independence the only arbitration is by war—hence the scores of civil and foreign wars which have impoverished Africa since the early 1960s.

The history of Indochina has not been very different. “The longest war had come to an end,” remarks Mrs. Tuchman of the final American withdrawal from Saigon. The viewpoint is obtusely Americocentric. For most of the inhabitants of Indochina the war was only just beginning, and it has continued ever since in all the component territories, with varying degrees of intensity, though we hear little about these shadowy struggles since the interest of the Western media has shifted elsewhere. The curious thing about the French and American phases of the war is that, during them, much of the country, especially Saigon and the South, flourished; living standards rose, population increased. The mass killings and the almost universal suffering produced by social engineering of the most brutal kind began only in 1974-5.

Many American advisers, who knew a great deal more about Indochina than Mrs. Tuchman evidently does, felt that this would happen, and that is the chief reason why they supported intervention, while being painfully aware of its cost and probable failure. They were both more altruistic, and far less foolish and ill-informed, than she makes out in her unsubtle presentation. This problem is not improved, I may add, by her perpetuation of long-exposed fallacies. It is not true, for instance, that the battle of Dien Bien Phuin 1954 was won by Vietminh “elan and capacity” as opposed to French “modern weapons.” It was won chiefly by superior artillery. Again, she is mistaken in supposing that Lyndon Johnson’s bombing of the North failed because air power was inapplicable; it failed because it was subjected throughout to debilitating political criteria, as indeed was Johnson’s entire conduct of the war. Perhaps one lesson of Vietnam is that war is too serious a business to be left to the politicians.

Mrs. Tuchman’s account of the Vietcong Tet Offensive does not make the critical point that it was a military failure but a media victory, a point exhaustively documented in Peter Braestrup’s 1977 study, Big Story. America’s leaders were inclined to confuse media criticism with public opinion. There was indeed a failure of leadership, but not of the kind Mrs. Tuchman supposes. The leadership was neither ill-informed nor foolish; but in the end it subordinated its own better judgment to that of the media, thereby underestimating the will of the mass of the American people to sustain what it intuitively felt to be a just endeavor. It was characteristic of the leadership misconceptions that Lyndon Johnson took the March 1968 New Hampshire primary results as a vote for American withdrawal; in fact, among the anti-Johnson voters the hawks outnumbered the doves by three to two. The relationship between national leadership, media presentation, and public opinion during the Vietnam War is a fruitful area of study; there, if anywhere, the lessons of the conflict, for Americans at least, lie. But Miss Tuchman is not much interested in this aspect.

She soon sees the whole episode as an unrelieved disaster. She quotes a Michigan congressman who felt obliged to tell a couple from his constituency who had lost their son: “There was no way I could say that what had happened was in their interest or in the national interest or in anyone’s interest.” With that she ends her account. A historian ought to be able to do better than that. It is not at all clear that America’s effort in Indochina was wholly futile. It should be judged in the perspective of the overall campaign by the United States, largely single-handed, to produce stability in south and east Asia after the Chinese landslide in 1949. Thirty-five years later the results are by no means contemptible. Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, all then at risk, remain independent, three of them relatively prosperous. In South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, and above all in Japan, remarkably strong economies have come into existence, and these Pacific enterprise states are playing an increasing part in the stable growth of the entire world economy. The United States was not, alas, able to do the same for Indochina, even for South Vietnam. But by holding on there for the best part of two decades, America acted as a lightning conductor, attracting, concentrating, and neutralizing the thrust of forces which might have played devastatingly elsewhere on the vulnerable cluster of states which compose the Asian rim. As it is, they have survived, even flourished.

It is important for the historian to look not only at what is lost but also at what is preserved. Mrs. Tuchman, in her analysis of papal policy in the sixteenth century, fails to note that the papal folly which made the Reformation inevitable was the product of the same obdurate spirit which carried through the successful Counter-Reformation, so that in the closing decades of the twentieth century the papacy still rules in the Vatican over a community of eight hundred million souls, twice the population of the entire world when Luther nailed his theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. Or again, the folly which provoked the American Revolution reflected a definition of legitimacy which, two decades later, was instrumental in enabling England to defy the world aims of the French Revolution and its Bonapartist successor. In the longer perspective of the twentieth century, I doubt if American intervention in Southeast Asia will be seen as a “march of folly” rather than as one of the more doubtful episodes in a global enterprise of containment which started in 1946, continues today, and which, on balance, has been wise and necessary.


  1. The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, by Barbara W. Tuchman; Knopf, 447 pages, $18.95. Go back to the text.