The return of history with the Trump administration

Mark Moyer:
Not since Teddy Roosevelt occupied the Oval Office have students of history featured so prominently in the U.S. government as they do today. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster holds a Ph.D. in history and is the author of the highly acclaimed Vietnam War history, Dereliction of Duty. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has relentlessly studied and applied history during four decades as a Marine Corps officer and since, amassing an enormous library. Both have long championed the use of history in tackling contemporary national security challenges. “It’s better to learn from somebody else’s mistakes than from your own,” Mattis routinely tells the troops when exhorting them to study the past.

This interest in history would have been less noteworthy 50 years ago, when the nation still required all of its citizens to know the history most pertinent to national security: military and diplomatic history.

Since the 1960s, those fields have been squeezed out of the academic world by historians who view them as ideologically objectionable or as unworthy in comparison with their own interests, such as the history of sexism, white privilege, cross-dressing, peace movements, and the like. The intrepid souls still willing to pursue careers in military or diplomatic history without bending to the winds of political correctness—in their choices of either research topics or viewpoints—have largely been relegated to the Defense Department or think tanks.

The role of historians and the historically minded in devising U.S. national security policy has experienced a similar shrinkage since the 1960s. The constriction of military and diplomatic history has facilitated the rise of social scientists, many of them intent on supplanting historically grounded analysis of national security with abstract theories and mathematical calculations.

In one of the earliest manifestations of this group’s influence, Lyndon Johnson’s administration attempted to avert a major war in Vietnam in the mid-1960s by applying Thomas Schelling’s “rational actor” theory. Schelling, an economist who died last year, argued all nations respond in a rational, and hence predictable, manner to circumstances. Johnson’s policy backfired catastrophically, however, as North Vietnam’s Communist rulers did not respond to small shows of force by restraining themselves as Schelling’s theory had predicted, but instead invaded South Vietnam in order to win before the shows of force became larger.

Such debacles have done little to diminish the clout of theoreticians at American universities. Social scientists who retain deep skepticism of a priori assumptions and pay great heed to historical experience remain a regrettably small minority. The only good news is that the influence of ahistorical theorizing on real-world decision-making has fallen. Although the Obama administration was as close to a product of the academic establishment as we are likely to experience in our lifetimes, its leaders recognized early on that history was more useful than abstruse reasoning and number crunching in managing the crises of the day.
There is much more.

Mark Moyer is an excellent military Historian who has written on the mistakes made by the Johnson administration in Vietnam as well as the art of command.  As someone who has read many of the same books as Gen. Mattis and Gen. Patton I get what he is talking about.

While President Obama may have avoided Johnson's "rational actor" theories he still made some of the same mistakes and in some cases worse ones.  He engaged in micromanagement of the conflicts which did great harm to the effectiveness of the military action that was allowed and his decision to retreat from Iraq and pull troops out of Afghanistan was nothing short of a disaster.

Victor Davis Hanson explains the enduring writings of  Thucydides in the discussion of warfare.


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