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The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984)

by Barbara W. Tuchman

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,388314,635 (3.97)72
In The March of Folly, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman tackles the pervasive presence of folly in governments through the ages. Defining folly as the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests, despite the availability of feasible alternatives, Tuchman details four decisive turning points in history that illustrate the very heights of folly in government: the Trojan War, the breakup of the Holy See provoked by the Renaissance popes, the loss of the American colonies by Britain's George III, and the United States' persistent folly in Vietnam. The March of Folly brings the people, places, and events of history magnificently alive for today's reader.… (more)
  1. 10
    Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: Books investigating decision-making through history, especially instances of catastrophically poor decision-making.
  2. 00
    Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit by Garry Wills (rakerman)
    rakerman: I was interested to read the section on the Renaissance Popes as it reminded me of Garry Wills book Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit.
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I don't care much for the focal point of the book -- the study of governments that pursue policy contrary to their own interests -- and I didn't think Barbara Tuchmann made a great case for why this is a useful angle from which to look at the history of governments. However she does a great job at making the four examples she uses to illustrate the point into compelling narratives. The story of the Vietnam, which is by far the longest section, is particularly well done. Although the book is at time a bit superficial in terms of history, there's a lot of interesting details that can serve as jumping-off points for deeper reading elsewhere. ( )
1 vote fegolac | Dec 26, 2020 |
Contents (By section)
1. Pursuit of Policy Contrary to Self-Interest (This one chapter gives a succinct overview of the rest of the book.)
2. Prototype: The Trojans Take the Wooden Horse Within Their Walls (Again one chapter)
3. The Renaissance Popes Provoke the Protestant Secession 1470-1530 (With one chapter devoted to each of the major popes during this period, the abuses get worse and worse as time goes on.)
4. The British Lose America (20 years of fumbles - not paying any attention to the mood of the people in the colonies, not evaluating how likely their methods are to succeed. Their ineptitude pushes the colonies towards rebellion.)
5. American Betrays Herself in Vietnam (1945-1973 The idiocy of the French is described in the book, and then the American presidents go down the same path.)
6. Epilogue (Is there any hope for doing better?)

Barbara Tuchman did a though job of documenting the unwillingness to see and unwillingness to admit mistakes that plague leaders. Prideful, unwilling to admit error, leaders boneheadedly pursue the path they set, unwilling to bear the humiliation of admitting they were wrong.

The epilogue mentions several attempts to create a government immune to the plague caused by men possessing power. She doesn’t hold out much hope.

I think of the constitution of the United States with it’s system of checks and balances, which has lasted for over 200 years, but is under severe strain. "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” (John Adams in a speech to the military in 1798)

“To qualify as folly for this inquiry, the policy adopted must meet three criteria: it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. … Secondly a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. … a third criterion must be that the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond any one political lifetime." (Page 5)

"[Solon’s] decisions suggest that an absence of overriding person ambition together with shrewd common sense are among the essential components of wisdom. In the notes of his early life, writing of himself in the third person, Solon put it differently: ‘Each day he grew older and learned something new.’” (Page 17)

“Social systems can survive a good deal of folly when circumstances are historically favorable, or when bungling is cushioned by large resources or absorbed by sheer size as in the United States during its period of expansion. Today, when there are no more cushions, folly is less affordable.” (Page 19)

Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 (Page 19)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edict_of_Nantes

“Throughout history cases of military folly have been innumerable, but they are outside the scope of this inquiry.” (Page 25)

“A principle that emerges in the cases so far mentioned is that folly is a child of power. We all know, from unending receptions of Lord Acton’s dictum, that power corrupts. We are less aware that it breeds folly; that the power to command frequently causes failure to think;” (Page 32)

“The pages that follow will tell a more familiar and — unhappily for mankind — a more persistent story. The ultimate outcome of a policy is not what determines its qualification as folly. All misgovernment is contrary to self-interest in the long run, but may actually strengthen a regime temporarily. It qualifies as folly when it is a perverse persistence in a policy demonstrably unworkable or counter-productive. It seems almost superfluous to say that the present study stems from the ubiquity of this problem in our time. (Page 33)

“Opulent elegant, unprincipled and endlessly at odds with each other, the rulers of Italian life were, by reason of their disunity and limited territorial scope, no more than potentates of discord. In reproducing their avarice and luxury, the six popes did no better than their models and, because of their superior status, usually worse. (Page 53)

“Prison does not silence ideas whose time has come, a fact that generally escapes despots, who by nature are rulers of little wisdom. (Page 65)

“The most grievous danger for any pope, … lies in the face that encompassed as he is by flatters, he never hears the truth about his own person and ends by not wishing to hear it.” (Page 85)

“Writing in the same years 1510-20, Machiavelli found proof of decadence in the fact ‘that the nearer people are to the Church of Rome, which is the head of our religion, the less religious are they.’” (Page 112)

Chapter 4: The British Lose America

“The first thing to be said about the British relation to America was that while the colonies were considered of vital importance to the prosperity and world status of Britain, very little thought or attention was paid to them.” (Page 130)

“Social pleasures tended to come first; office was attended to in the time remaining.” (Page 136) This reminds me of the depiction of men in the novels of Jane Austen.

“That physical exercise and a vegetarian diet were remedial was known, but the their of opposites, one of the least helpful precepts of 18th-century medicine, was preferred by Chatham’s physician, a Dr. Addington. A specialist in lunacy, or ‘mad-doctor,’ he hoped to induce a violent fit of gout on the theory that this would drive out the mental disorder. … That he survived at all … represents one of man’s occasional triumphs over medicine.” (Page 173-174) ( )
  bread2u | Jul 1, 2020 |
Historical analysis of folly in government from the ancient world to the modern world. ( )
  piquant00 | Oct 20, 2018 |
Great book about some of the epic errors in history. Too bad no one in the current administration does much reading of this sort. This book covers some of the greatest blunders in recorded history. Back to Troy, the Popes that gave rise to the Reformation, VietNam, America's War of Independence. A great read. ( )
  Kevin.Bokay | Aug 5, 2018 |
This is a really interesting book and goes a long way to prove that history repeats itself and people never learn from past mistakes. Analyzed in clinical detail are four very critical events that changed the course of history not to mention the afflicted nations. These are the a. Sacking of Troy b. The Catholic schism and the

birth of Protestanism c. The Americal Revolution and d. The Vietname war.

I will dwell upon the last three as the first one has entered the realm of mythology bordering on sci-fi and it is very hard to separate fact from fiction.

The split in the Catholic Churcn in Rome was a direct result of the actions of the six Renaissance Popes. Given their proclivities, it is a wonder that they were even called Popes. Their actions would have put even the most decadent and debauched Turkish Sultan to shame. The excesses of these Popes only got worse with each successive one. It is really amazing that people of that time tolerated all this nonsense for as long as they did. All this profligation ultimately led to the split of the church and the birth of Protestantism and the sacking of Rome.

The other act of Folly that was subject to much detailed analysis was the loss of the American Colonies to the British Empire. To assume that the colonists would accept the rule of a decadent, corrupt, inept and rotten Empire from which they had Mayflowered themselves a century and a half ago is very foolish indeed. The agents of the Empire who formed their own elite circle were self appointed minions who elected themselves to office through greasing of the palms and not because of their capacity to administer and rule. Mediocrity and Bungling on a massive scale was the norm. It was no wonder that due to their ineptness and the enacting of some foolish policies like the Stamp Act, rebellion was fomented and this let ultimately to the Revolutionary War and finally to the Declaration of Independence.

The final act is the Vietnam war. Ironically a lot of the policies adopted the British two centuries ago were to be repeated here.
  danoomistmatiste | Jan 24, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barbara W. Tuchmanprimary authorall editionscalculated
Tromp, Bartmain authorsome editionsconfirmed
May, NadiaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"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, Forward to The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, 2969
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A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by government of policies contrary to their own interests.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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In The March of Folly, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman tackles the pervasive presence of folly in governments through the ages. Defining folly as the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests, despite the availability of feasible alternatives, Tuchman details four decisive turning points in history that illustrate the very heights of folly in government: the Trojan War, the breakup of the Holy See provoked by the Renaissance popes, the loss of the American colonies by Britain's George III, and the United States' persistent folly in Vietnam. The March of Folly brings the people, places, and events of history magnificently alive for today's reader.

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