Thinking in Time

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

“History smiles at all attempts to force its flow into theoretical patterns or logical grooves; it plays havoc with our generalizations, breaks all our rules.” Despite this observation from popular historian Will Durant, partisans of every stripe continue to employ the “lessons of history” to buttress their own arguments and to ridicule the arguments of others. Such “lessons” often prove highly selective and open to rebuttal. History by nature offers a little something for everyone.

Yet when one American president learns of the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962 and another faces the threat of a virulent new influenza virus sweeping the nation in 1976, the accuracy of historical perception becomes more than academic. The proper use of history is of crucial importance in a mature response to national crisis. In setting forth its guidelines, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decisions-Makers presents the modest hope that public-policy decisions might become marginally more effective.

The book derives from the “Uses of History” course taught by the authors at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The course began in the 1970’s and grew from an experiment to become a regular part of the curriculum, spawning similar courses at other institutions. Richard E. Neustadt, a professor of public administration, served President Harry S Truman as a junior aide at the start of the Korean War and became a consultant to President John F. Kennedy some ten years later. Ernest R. May, a professor of history at Harvard, served during the Korean War as a historian for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the 1970’s, May worked for three secretaries of defense to supervise the preparation of reports analyzing the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The many case studies throughout the book draw heavily on these past associations and attempt to show how policy decisions are improved through the application of a few simple principles. The authors caution decision makers to resist the temptation to “do something” without first having answered the questions “what crisis?” and “whose crisis?” If the Soviets are found to be shipping missiles to Cuba, can the United States ensure their removal without precipitating an even graver danger? If “swine flu” appears to threaten the American populace, how should government be involved? Neustadt and May recognize that there are no unequivocal right answers for a John Kennedy confronting a missile threat or a Gerald Ford facing a potential epidemic. They suggest, however, that before some action is taken it is desirable to probe any historical analogies that can be brought to bear on the problem and to “place” people and organizations historically so that the actions of those involved might be anticipated.

The simplicity of this task is deceptive. Effective probing must rely on nuanced observation of recent history. The case studies in the book are intrinsically interesting because the authors describe small, telling details of the missile crisis debates within the Kennedy Administration and elucidate the positions of those advising President Ford about swine flu. (It is obviously much more difficult to probe events from the distant past in this way and thus more difficult to use historical analogies from another era to suggest a detailed course of action.) Neustadt and May attempt to provide conceptual tools that busy decision makers can use to analyze any historical analogies that seem relevant to the situation; theirs is not the task of propounding some new philosophy of history. It is important, however, that such analogies be developed with as much care and attention as is possible, given the pressures of the moment, and probed just as carefully.

The first step is that the very nature of a crisis has to be made explicit. What is known must be separated from what is unclear and presumed. In 1950, for example, President Truman was confronted with the fact that North Korean forces, aided by the Soviet Union, had crossed the thirty-eighth parallel to attack the South. Domestically, Senator Joseph McCarthy was on the rise, accusing Truman’s administration of harboring Communists. What may have been unclear was the unaided defensive ability of the South Koreans; how the Soviets might react to an attack on North Korea by the United States; and how the American public would respond. Neustadt and May suggest that in the “presumed” column would be the observation that, given American superiority in nuclear weapons, the Soviets did not want to start World War III. Presumably a decision by the United States to support South Korea would be accepted by the American public, at least for the short term. What action should Truman take? South Korea was of little strategic value to the United States, but stopping Soviet expansionism was of paramount importance. Truman thus sought not a declaration of war but rather a United Nations action (with the participation of the United...

(The entire section is 2059 words.)