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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
Drawing on a comprehensive array of examples, from 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
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.