Thinking in Time

by Ernest R. May, Richard E. Neustadt

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

Thinking In Time by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May explores the idea of using history as a guide for decision making in current events. With an understanding that events are never without historical context or precedent, we can begin to examine the appropriate actions necessary for different events if we can figure out the preceding events or similar historical events. Let's look at some author quotes to illuminate those ideas in the book.

[T]hey used history . . . in very standard ways. Background and context get skipped. The past comes in, if at all, in the form of analogy.

When speaking about President Kennedy and his cabinet's actions regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis, the authors highlight the fact that, while he had gathered together a group of the brightest minds in the nation (a Rhodes scholar and some of the most senior members of the War Cabinet, among others), they still found a way to overlook basic history and ignore similar events when dealing with such a potentially world-shattering event. Only later, when Kennedy mentioned a similar event (Suez-Hungary), did the context change their opinion and help them make the safest call.

The lessons of the thirties . . . enabled members of the Truman, Ford, and Carter administration to make decisions they wanted to make with a minimum of fresh analysis.

During the time period in question, the Presidents found themselves in a habit of quick and simple historical analysis, looking at the same lessons they had been observing for decades and ignoring deeper historical precedent. Because of this, while they thought they were doing effective analysis, they were actually leaving out quite a few important lessons that could improve their analysis. The authors go on to describe a situation they could not easily ignore in their analysis:

American experience in their own lifetimes makes them see Athenian ignorance about Sicilian history, psychology, and capabilities as a strong warning for the likes of Lyndon Johnson when he contemplated warfare at long distance with the Vietnamese, of whom he and his aides knew little if anything more.

After decades of simplistic historical reasoning, along comes an event that is nearly impossible to gloss over: the Vietnam War. Consequently, it illuminated some of the ignorance upon with which it the war was undertaken. Because of the failure to observe prior, similar conflicts (prominently the Greek invasion of Syracuse in Sicily, where the Greeks greatly misjudged their enemies because of their ignorance towards their society), America would struggle mightily in a war that was unlike most it had ever fought. Guerrilla warfare prevailed, and independent groups battled single military units, breaking them down from all sides.

While America was superior in technology and numbers, they did not expect what they encountered and, because of that, ended up mismatched. Had administrators understood similar historical events, they would have been better prepared, or perhaps they never would have decided to engage in the first place.

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