Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly”

The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman cover art

A book review and discussion. This is a first for this particular blog, but I’m planning to make it a more regular occurrence.

You can keep up with the best of my readings here, but if you want more you can get in touch and we can connect on Goodreads.

Now, on with the entirely written show.

I read this book in 2016 and it figures as one of if not exclusively my favorite for the year.

What’s folly?

Tuchman defines it as a policy against self interest conducted across multiple administrations. So, it doesn’t count if only one individual does dumb things. We’re looking for governments, people, and successions of leaders that persist in counter-to-self-interest policies.

The first quote I highlighted is Gustavus Adolphus’s Swedish contemporary in Count Axel Oxenstierna relaying his dying conclusion, “Know my son with how little wisdom the world is governed.”

That quote really sets the stage as we examine the Trojan War from Homer’s Odyssey, the Renaissance Popes, the British loss of the American colonies, and the American self-betrayal of Vietnam. Much of the real world folly is related to the tragic tale of Troy and how clearly the warnings called out the wisdom lacking in rolling a giant wooden horse inside the city walls.

Many German states cared little for the piety of Luther, but they knew a movement when they saw it and jumped at the chance to break with the Holy Roman Church to avoid the financial and political entanglements. The Popes of the age over indulged without regard and believed themselves too unshakably the illusion of power.

The British clearly had no amount of taxes to collect that could recompense them for the potential loss of the colonies, but the enforcement of policy that didn’t even result in revenue as a principle went too far awry for recovery. They repeated folly in their poor preparedness and ill judgement of the colonies ability to fight a professional European army.

The War of American Independence need never have been fought. A wonderful note from this part of the book was the fact that the French did not offer alliance to the Colonists arbitrarily or to help them. It was a cold political calculus that turned on the Colonist’s victory at Saratoga which served not as worthy evidence the Colonists could win, but rather as a sign the French thought even the British could not miss and the French rushed ahead with the alliance before the British could offer acceptable terms to the Colonists. The British terms arrived two weeks late.

The American failures in Vietnam are well chronicled and it was a theme of my readings in 2016. I plan to continue with the 4 part series about LBJ in 2017 or early 2018. The stunning thing about Vietnam is that they were a ready ally in both 1945 and 1954 when we became involved and then equipped and transported a French army respectively. They believed in the dream of America. To top that off, the Kennedy administration knew before escalation that the whole enterprise was folly and doomed to fail but felt we had to press to save face internationally. If we could only bomb them enough, they might accept terms that would be a means to save face. People fought and died on that principle.

I have more highlighted quotes from this volume than perhaps all the other favorites from 2016 combined. For any student of history I highly recommend both The March of Folly and The Guns of August.