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World History
Mr. D. Marsh
Is History a Guide to the Future?
An extract from Practicing History by Barbara Tuchman.
The commonest question asked of historians by laymen is whether history serves a purpose. Is it
useful? Can we learn from the lessons of history?
When people want history to be utilitarian and teach us lessons, that means they also want to be
sure that it meets scientific standards. This. In my opinion. It cannot do, for reasons which I will
come to in a moment. To practice history as a science is sociology. an altogether different
discipline which I personally find antipathetic although I suppose the sociologists would
consider that my deficiency rather than theirs. The sociologists plod along with their noses to the
ground assembling masses of statistics in order to arrive at some obvious conclusion which a
reasonably perceptive historian. not to mention a large part of the general public, knows anyway.
simply from observation - that social mobility is increasing. for instance. or that women have
different problems from men. One wishes they would just cut loose some day, lift up their heads.
and look at the world around them.
If history were a science. we should be able to get a grip on her, learn her ways. establish her
patterns, know what will happen tomorrow. Why is it that we cannot? The answer lies in what I
call the Unknowable Variable namely, man. Human beings are always and finally the subject of
history. History is the record of human behavior, the most fascinating subject of all, but illogical
and so crammed with an unlimited number of variables that it is not susceptible of the scientific
I say this bravely, even in the midst of the electronic age when computers are already chewing at
the skirts of history in the process called quantification. Applied to history, quantification, I
believe, has its limits. It depends on a method called 'data manipulation', which means that the
facts, or data, of the historical past - that is, of human behavior - are manipulated into named
categories so that they can be programmed into computers. Out comes - hopefully - a pattern. I
can only tell you that for history 'data manipulation' is a built-in invalidator, because to the
degree that you manipulate your data to suit some extraneous requirement, in this case the
requirement of the machine, to that degree your results will be suspect - and run the risk of being
invalid. Everything depends on the naming of the categories and the assigning of facts to them,
and this depends on the quantifier's individual judgment at the very base of the process. The
categories are not revealed doctrine nor are the results scientific truth.
The hope for quantification, presumably, is that by processing a vast quantity of material far
beyond the capacity of the individual to encompass, it can bring to light and establish reliable
patterns. That remains to be seen, but I am not optimistic. History has a way of escaping
attempts to imprison it in patterns. Moreover, one of its basic data is the human soul. The
conventional historian, at least the one concerned with truth, not propaganda, will try honestly to
let his 'data' speak for themselves, but data which are shut up in prearranged boxes are helpless.
Their nuances have no voice. They must carry one fixed meaning or another and weight the
result accordingly. For instance, in a quantification study of the origins of World War I which I
have seen, the operators have divided all the diplomatic documents, messages, and utterances of
the July crisis into categories labeled 'hostility', 'friendship', 'frustration', 'satisfaction', and so on,
with each statement rated for intensity on a scale from one to nine, including fractions. But no
pre-established categories could match all the private character traits and public pressure
variously operating on the nervous monarchs and ministers who were involved. The massive
effort that went into this study brought forth a mouse - the less than startling conclusion that the
likelihood of war increased in proportion to the rise in hostility of the messages.
Quantification is really only a new approach to the old persistent effort to make history fit a
pattern, but reliable patterns, or what are otherwise called the lessons of history, remain elusive
To me it is comforting rather than otherwise to feel that history is determined by the illogical
human record and not by large immutable scientific laws beyond our power to deflect.
I know very little (a euphemism for 'nothing') about laboratory science, but I have the impression
that conclusions are supposed to be logical; that is, from a given set of circumstances a
predictable result should follow. The trouble is that in human behavior and history it is
impossible to isolate or repeat a given set of circumstances. Complex human acts cannot be
either reproduced or deliberately initiated - or counted upon like the phenomena of nature. The
sun comes up every day. Tides are so obedient to schedule that a timetable for them can be
printed like that for trains, though more reliable. In fact, tides and trains sharply illustrate my
point. One depends on the moon and is certain, the other depends on man and is uncertain.
In the absence of dependable recurring circumstance, too much confidence cannot be placed on
the lessons of history.
There are lessons, of course, and when people speak of learning from them, they have in mind, I
think, two ways of applying past experience. One is to enable us to avoid past mistakes and to
manage better in similar circumstances next time; the other is to enable us to anticipate a future
course of events. (History could tell us something about Vietnam, I think, if we would only
listen.) To manage better next time is within our means; to anticipate does not seem to be
beyond us.
Theories of history go in vogues which, as is the nature of vogues, soon fade and give place to
new ones. Yet this fails to discourage the systematisers. They believe as firmly
in this year's as last year's, for, as Isaiah Berlin says, the 'obstinate craving for unity and
symmetry at the expense of experience' is always with us.
I do not know what the new explanation is, but I am sure there must be some thesis, for as one
academic historian recently ruled, the writing of history requires a 'large organizing idea'.
I visualize the 'large organizing idea' as one of those iron chain mats pulled behind by a tractor to
smooth over a ploughed field. I see the professor climbing up on the tractor seat and away he
goes, pulling behind his large organizing idea over the bumps and furrows of history until he has
smoothed it out to a nice, neat, organized surface in other words, into a system.
The human being - you, I, or Napoleon - is unreliable as a scientific factor. In combination of
personality, circumstance, and historical moment, each man is a package of variables impossible
to duplicate. His birth, his parents, his siblings, his food, his home, his school, his economic and
social status, his first job, his first girl, and the variable inherent in all of these, make up that
mysterious compendium, personality - which then combines with another set of variables:
country, climate, time, and historical circumstance. Is it likely, then, that all these elements will
meet again in their exact proportions to reproduce a Moses, or Hitler, or De Gaulle, or for that
matter Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who killed Kennedy?
So long as man remains the Unknowable Variable - and I see no immediate prospect of his ever
being pinned down in every facet of his infinite variety - I do not see how his actions can be
usefully programmed and quantified. The eager electronic optimists will go on chopping up
man's past behavior into thousands of little definable segments which they call Input, and the
machine will whirr and buzz and flash its lights and in no time at all give back Output. But will
Output be dependable? I would lay ten to one that history will pay no more attention to Output
than it did to Karl Marx. It will still need historians. Electronics will have its uses, but it will not,
I am confident. transform historians into button pushers or history into a system.
Pearl Harbor is the classic example of failure to learn from history. From hindsight we now
know that what we should have anticipated was a surprise attack by Japan in the midst of
negotiations. Merely because this was dishonorable, did that make it unthinkable? Hardly. It
was exactly the procedure Japan had adopted in 1904 when she opened the Russo Japanese War
by a surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur.
In addition we had every possible physical indication. We had broken the Japanese code, we had
warnings on radar, we had a constant flow of accurate intelligence. What failed? Not information
by judgment. We had all the evidence and refused to interpret it correctly, just as the Germans in
1944 refused to believe the evidence of a landing in Normandy. Men will not believe what does
not fit in with their plans or suit their prearrangements. The flaw in all military intelligence,
whether twenty or fifty or one hundred per cent accurate. is that it is not better than the judgment
of its interpreter. and this judgment is the product of a mass of individual, social. and political
biases. prejudgments. and wishful thinkings; in short. it is human and therefore fallible. If man
can break the Japanese code and yet not believe what it tells him, how can he be expected to
learn from the lessons of history?
1) What is Tuchman’s attitude toward sociologists? Explain.
2) What are variables and what do they have to do with history?
3) What two meanings does Tuchman associate with the “lessons of history”?
4) Which lesson does she accept and which does she reject? Do you agree or disagree?
Explain why.
5) What does she say about the “lesson of Pearl Harbor”? What does she mean by it?
6) What does she say about Karl Marx and his ideology?