And I can see no reason why anyone should suppose that in the future the same motifs already heard will not be sounding still … put to use by reasonable men to reasonable ends, or by madmen to nonsense and disaster.  Joseph Campbell (Dedication quote in The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman)

A great historian

By Roger Childs

Barbara Tuchman is one of America’s best ever historians, but sadly passed away in 1989. What is her best book? It’s a beautiful choice and there are four classics.

  • The Guns of August was published in 1962 and it still considered to be the seminal work on the origins and early weeks of the First World War
  • The Proud Tower A Portrait of the World Before the War 1890 – 1914 came out in 1962 and examines with wonderful insights and perception the enormous changes that took places in the generation before the Great War. The title of the book comes from a grim and prophetic quotation from Edgar Allan Poe – While from a proud tower in the town / Death looks gigantically down.
  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. The 1300s were a chaotic time in Europe and elsewhere.  Tuchman chronicles the often disastrous political developments but also some of the positives, and looks at what life like for people of all ages and classes. Lawrence wrote in the New York Review of Books: Beautifully written, careful and thorough in its scholarship. What Mrs Tuchman does superbly is to tell how it was … No one has ever done tis better. 
  • The March of Folly From Troy to Vietnam was published in that significant year 1984 made famous by George Orwell. This is a brilliant study of “the pursuit of policy contrary to self-interest” with detailed analysis of four historical periods of history – The Trojan Wars; The Renaissance Popes; The British Loss of the American Colonies and The Vietnam War.

Sound familiar?

Here is the first paragraph from The March of Folly.

A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom which may be defined as the exercise of judgement acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?

We have a current example at home and one in Eastern Europe. As the Bob Dylan song puts it “When will they ever learn?”

If you are interested in reading about history, lay your hands on a Barbara Tuchman book. You will not be disappointed.