The march of folly : from Troy to Vietnam

by Barbara Wertheim Tuchman

Hardcover, 1984




New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1984.


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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Archren
This is one of the more idiosyncratic history books that I’ve ever read. While consistently examining folly and stupidity by governing bodies, it seems a little limited by only having four case studies. Each of those is thorough, containing excellent overviews of the issues at hand and the
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contributions of various people to the course of each folly. However, a reader could be excused for thinking that a larger sample size might have been more instructive. As it is, one has to think that the selection of cases and their highlighted points was made with a mind toward a particular axe to grind. Let me list the case studies, and you see if you can pick out which one might qualify: the Trojans accepting the Trojan Horse, the Renaissance Popes using the office for secular means and allowing the Protestant schism, Great Britain losing the American colonies, the American war in Vietnam.

Through my reading of history, albeit as an amateur, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is almost impossible for historians to be objective about things that happen within their own lifetime. Barbara Tuchman does a good job of attempting balance on the Vietnam issue, pointing out folly from both political parties and from some of the domestic protesters. However, it’s hard not to feel that she has a chip on her shoulder, particularly in regards to President Johnson. One comes to suspect that the previous three case studies were done simply so that she could go through the Vietnam case and say “Here they were as stupid as the Renaissance Popes, and over here they were as stupid as the British during the Revolution.” While she may well be correct, and I certainly agree with almost all her points, I’d have a hard time saying that she was being objective.

This isn’t the easiest book of popular history to read. While you don’t need a thorough familiarity with each period covered (a broad grasp of Western world history will suffice), the prose style can be quite a slog. Her sentences sometimes run away with themselves, and I often found myself re-reading paragraphs, not having quite grasped her point on the first round. However, the overall organization of the book is good, and it certainly contains some fascinating detail that you don’t get in your average world history class. Generally speaking I recommend that you read this book for what it is, aware of the agenda behind it, but still getting the benefit of the enlightening examples that she provides. In this time of current governmental folly, it is both depressing and almost comforting to see that it has all happened before.
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LibraryThing member William345
A highly readable account of four instances of human folly over the last 2800 years. These include the Trojans's unaccountable bringing of the Trojan horse into Troy; the transgressions of the Renaissance Popes which brought on the Reformation; the loss by Britain of the American colonies; and
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America's own pointless war in Vietnam. The last section reminds me very much of Neil Sheehan's Bright Shining Lie, which was written several years later than Tuchman's narrative. Her book is vivid, clear, unfussy, with just the right density of diction. It never flags. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member idyll
Essential reading. The Vietnam section was so very hard to read because we're still making all the same mistakes.
LibraryThing member RussellBittner
The March of Folly is an unfortunate title. Or maybe not so unfortunate. Because, after all, what is folly?

Barbara Tuchman gives us several examples of the human animal at its worst — but parading at its best. From Ancient Troy right up through Vietnam (can a sequel including Chechnia, the
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former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan be far behind?), we have proved ourselves to be little better than the apes. If there’s a difference, it’s only in the splendor of our rebarbative behavior. Kings, Popes, Ministers, Generals … it’s all the same. And the tragedy? Invariably, the loss of so many young lives to no real purpose other than to serve the interests of ambition, pride, ignorance, stubbornness — in short, of vanity.

Yes, vanitas, vanitatis. It’s all right there in Ecclesiastes, and not much has changed. We are a prideful, belligerent, deceitful, artful, malignant, umbragious — a word I learned in reading this book—species. In short, we’re prone to folly.

And who pays the ultimate price of that folly? Our youth.

I cannot remember being so disheartened by a book since I read, at a young and impressionable age, A History of Torture — or more recently, Martha Gellhorn’s The Face of War. If you want to continue believing that “all is best in the best of all possible worlds,” don’t read this book. If you want to continue believing that we are governed by people who know what’s best for us, don’t read this book. If you want to believe that the march of history is inevitable, don’t read this book.

Ignore my suggestions at your own risk. But if you don’t, be prepared to undertake a life of activism — and don’t expect it to be a happy life. To buck folly is to question our very essence. And our essence would appear — if Ms. Tuchman’s major premise is to be believed — to be tragically farcical. That, or farcically tragic. The case of the former President Lyndon B. Johnson in one of this book’s final chapters could easily rival that of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Brooklyn, NY
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LibraryThing member prebs99
This book takes a quite distinctive approach in focusing on incompetence or folly in history. Most historians don't go this far, perhaps limiting themselves to discussing errors or mistakes made or by having good versus bad (e.g. Hitler, Stalin). Even tragedy is more often detailed in history books
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than folly. This book makes the commonsense and yet radical observation that governments and leaders and perhaps whole groups can take actions which go beyond error into wholesale foolishness. It is obvious and yet eye-opening approach.

It is also interesting yet depressing while reading this book to play compare and contrast between the Vietnam war and the current mess in Iraq. There are many differences and a few similarities. The profound glaring similarity is the ability of wealthy powerful elites to lead a powerful nation into a fundamentally foolish endevour that is deeply hurtful to the the nations self interest in the long run. Perhap every generation has to learn that it can fail profoundly and tragically.
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LibraryThing member addict
Twice a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, author Barbara Tuchman now tackles the pervasive presence of folly in governments through the ages. Defining folly as the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interersts, despite the availability of feasible alternatives, Tuchman details
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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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LibraryThing member davidveal
This is one of the wisest history books ever written. It is an exposure of the insanity of emotion, irrationality, and self-deception that leads people and nations to self-destruction.
LibraryThing member hailelib
Here Folly is defined by Ms. Tuchman as a pursuit of policy contrary to self-interest and must meet three criteria: it must have been seen as counter-productive at the time; a feasible alternative must have been available; and it must have been action by a group rather than an individual that
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extended beyond one political lifetime, for example, a succession of office holders. She uses four historical periods to illustrate "folly': the Trojan War, the Renaissance Popes in the period before the Reformation, the events precipitating the American Revolution, and the escalating involvement of the U.S. in Vietnam.

While the whole book was interesting, the Renaissance era was the hardest for me to follow because I wasn't very familiar with the people and events the author was covering. The section on the British loosing its colonies was the most enjoyable and the one on Vietnam the most maddening since I lived through it and while I knew it was a stupid war at the time, she had amassed a lot of details that I wasn't aware of. This book was very detailed and would work best for those who want all the facts rather than a brief overview. Also be aware that "Folly" was published in 1984 so an accounting of the Vietnam War written today migh
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LibraryThing member mafinokc
Another infuriating book, especially the chapter on Vietnam. Callous powerful men sitting in luxurious boardrooms and making ill-considered decisions that led to the needless deaths and injuries of millions of people. The Vietnam War was a futile war in a worthless cause.
LibraryThing member carterchristian1
This is a book that is standing the test of time as "folly" continues. Were she still alive Tuchman would probably be adding a new edition with a few more wars.
LibraryThing member fegolac
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member KirkLowery
An important lesson about human nature, especially human nature in groups: they don't always act in their own self-interest. Such as a war in Iraq...
LibraryThing member nbmars
For her 1984 book, The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman defined “folly” as the ”Pursuit of Policy Contrary to Self-Interest,” as the first chapter is entitled. In this book, she explored and detailed the action of governmental regimes that persisted in policies that were manifestly failures
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despite knowing that they would not, indeed could not, succeed.

She cites numerous examples of such folly, but she focuses on four prominent and famous instances: the Trojans bringing Greek soldiers into their midst despite warnings from Cassandra; the Renaissance popes continuing their avaricious practices despite rumblings of discontent from their followers; successive British governments attempting to tax their American colonies; and the decades-long efforts of the American government to prevent Vietnam from becoming communist. [The American war aim of securing a stable non-communist south was “unattainable…short of total war and invasion, which [the USA] was unwilling to undertake.” The same lesson took many years for Americans to learn about Afghanistan.]

In every case, the government had plenty of warning that its policies were ineffective, but it continued its vain efforts. It seems that the economic concept of “sunk costs” does not register to many policy makers, who would rather persist in futility than admit prior error.

Notably, she averred that “wooden-headedness” in statecraft, i.e., “assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs,” has become a politically desirable option.

The forces driving such obstinacy are lust for power, blind tribal loyalty, and “the refusal to acknowledge that your chief or your kind could be wrong.”

So. How can we avoid future disasters? Clearly the forces that led to disaster in the past still operate, as seen so graphically recently in the United States. Tuchman opines that:

"The problem may be not so much a matter of educating officials for government as educating the electorate to recognize and reward integrity of character and to reject the ersatz. [Good luck with that.] Perhaps better men flourish in better times, and wiser government requires the nourishment of a dynamic rather than a troubled and bewildered society. If John Adams was right, and government is ‘little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago,’ we cannot reasonably expect much improvement. We can only muddle on as we have done in those same three or four thousand years, through patches of brilliance and decline, great endeavor and shadow.”

Evaluation: Despite the author’s pessimistic conclusion, the book is an enjoyable and informative read.

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LibraryThing member aitastaes
Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Barbara W. Tuchman, author of the World War I masterpiece The Guns of August, grapples with her boldest subject: the pervasive presence, through the ages, of failure, mismanagement, and delusion in government.

Drawing on a comprehensive array of examples, from
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Montezuma's senseless surrender of his empire in 1520 to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Barbara W. Tuchman defines folly as the pursuit by government of policies contrary to their own interests, despite the availability of feasible alternatives. In brilliant detail, Tuchman illuminates four decisive turning points in history that illustrate the very heights of folly: 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' own persistent mistakes in Vietnam. Throughout The March of Folly, Tuchman's incomparable talent for animating the people, places, and events of history is on spectacular display
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LibraryThing member piquant00
Historical analysis of folly in government from the ancient world to the modern world.
LibraryThing member danoomistmatiste
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member keylawk
The march of folly has accelerated since Erasmus; it is no longer fit for praise. Government, which plays its role in our communal destiny, must be clear-sighted and rational. Tuchman chronicles the rarity of those moments, as she presents the simple paradox: The recurring pursuit by governments of
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policies contrary to their own interests. By Chapters:
II. Trojans take the Wooden Horse within their walls.
III. Renaissance Popes provoke the Protestant Secession.
IV. British Lose America
V. America betrays herself in Vietnam.
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LibraryThing member KendraRenee
Tuchman does a fantastic job of telling history through her own lens--the lens of "folly," as she calls it. It may be one side of the story, but she supports it so well that one feels like it can be the only honest interpretation of the events as they shook down. I especially enjoyed the chapter on
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Vietnam, since I hadn't really understood America's role and read Tuchman's book primarily to remedy that ignorance. Interesting that my opinion on the Vietnam war didn't change--I still think it was really really stupid, and now, thanks to Tuchman, I have arguments to support that opinion!
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LibraryThing member maunder
A fascinating book which traces how political regimes tend to persist in folly in spite of all warnings to the contrary. The author examines the siege of Troy, a series of Popes immediately prior to the reformation, the British government prior to the American Revolution and the American
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involvement in Vietnam. The analysis makes fascinating reading especially when you compare the American folly in Vietnam under 6 presidents and the current involvement in Iraq.
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LibraryThing member ljhliesl
Two things distracted me from the author's point: One, I read it 30 years on and the early '80s mindset felt alien and distant. Two, the narrator's pronunciation. The VattieCAN. Marry-land. "Congress" with the stress for a verb even if it served as a noun. Tuchman has a whole section on the
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Renaissance popes and every time the narrator named their city I responded, "The Vatican't?"
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LibraryThing member bordercollie
The recurring pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their self-interest is exhaustively chronicled in four examples: the Trojan horse, the Renaissance Popes provoking the Protestant reformation, the British loss of America by provoking the Revolution, and the Vietnam War. The follies must
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have been seen as counter-productive in their own time, with feasible alternatives available, and must be the result of group effort, rather than an individual. Thought provoking and deserving of greater study.
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LibraryThing member BruceAir
Tuchman is most famous (and deservedly so) for her books about World War I, viz., The Guns of August and The Zimmermann Telegram. But I've also frequently returned to A Distant Mirror, about 14th century Europe, and been delighted at each re-reading. The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam didn't
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receive the critical attention I think it deserves. And given the current state of world affairs, it ought to be on the reading list of every policy-maker (and voter).
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LibraryThing member jddunn
It was good, but not by her standards. Episodic and a bit shallow. I expected more of a systematic look at historical folly, but she just picked out 4 cases(Troy, The Renaissance Popes, Georgian England, Vietnam) and covered those more or less well. The middle two cases were really good and taught
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me stuff I didn't already know, the other two were fairly indifferent.
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LibraryThing member rlad35
to quote the cover, it tackl;es barbaratuchman's boldest subject of the history of folly in government. folly is defined as the pursuit by governments' policies to pursue policies contrary to their own interests, despite the availability of feasible alternatives.
LibraryThing member rakerman
I found The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman to be a good book on history, using an unconventional approach. There are many different schools of historical analysis. As far as I understand, after years of analyzing history, B. Tuchman decided to write a book showing how sometimes people, leaders
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in particular, just behave like idiots. 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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