Barbara W. Tuchman, The March of Folly -- From Troy to Vietnam (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984)

[bold font Barbara Tuchman's excerpted epigram] "And I can see no reason why anyone should suppose that in the future the same motifs already heard will not be sounding still -- in new relationships indeed, but ever the same motifs. They are all given here, in these volumes, with many clues, besides, suggesting ways in which they might be put to use by reasonable men to reasonable ends -- or by poets to poetic ends -- or by madmen to nonsense and disaster -- Joseph Campbell, Foreword to The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, 1969

Chapter One

“A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?” p. 4

“While all other sciences have advanced,” confessed our second President, John Adams, “government is at a stand; little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago.” p. 5

“Misgovernment is of four kinds, often in combination. They are: 1) tyranny or oppression …; 2) excessive ambition …; 3) incompetence or decadence …; and finally 4) folly or perversity.This book is concerned with the last in a specific manifestation; that ie, the pursuit of policy counter to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved. Self-interest is whatever conduces to the welfare or advantage of the body being governed; folly is a policy that in these terms is counter-productive.” p. 5

“To qualify as folly for this inquiry, the policy adopted must meet three criteria: it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely in hindsight. This is important, because all policy is determined by the mores of its age. 'Nothing is more unfair,' as an English historian has said, 'than to judge men of the past by the ideas of the present. Whatever may be said of morality, political wisdom is certainly ambulatory.' To avoid judging by present-day values, we must take the opinion of the time and investigate only those episodes whose injury to self-interest was recognized by contemporaries.” p. 5

“Secondly, a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. To remove the problem from personality, a third criterion must be that the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond any one political lifetime.” p. 5

“Folly's appearance is independent of era or locality; it is timeless and universal, although the habits and beliefs of a particular time and place determint the form it takes. It is unrelated to type of regime: monarchy, oligarchy and democracy poduce it equally. Nor is it peculiar to nation or class.” p. 6

“Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, if a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts. It is epitomized in a historian's statement about Philip II of Spain, the surpassing wooden-head of all sovereigns: 'No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.'” p. 7

“Wooden-headedness is also the refusal to benefit from experience.” p. 7

“... why do the superpowers not begin mutual divestment of the means of human suicide? Why do we invest all our skills and resources in a contest for armed supremacy which can never be attained for long enough to make it worth having, rather than in an effort to find a modus vivendi with our antagonist – that is to say, a way of living, not dying.” The March of Folly, p. 8

“One cannot quarrel with religious beliefs, especially of a strange, remote, half-understood culture. But when the beliefs become a delusion maintained against natural evidence to the point of losing the independence of a people, they may fairly be called folly. The category is once again wooden-headedness, in the special variety of religious mania.” p. 14

“... the ever-tempting prospect of foreign aid against the internal foe. No matter how often repeated in history, this ultimate resort ends in only one way, as the Byzantine emperors learned when they invited the Turks against domestic enemies: the invited power stays and takes over countrol.” p. 15

“Louis XIV is usually considered a master monarch, largely because people tend to accept a successfully dramatized self-estimation. In reality he exhausted France's economic and human resources by his ceaseless wars and their cost in national debt, casualties, famine and disease, and he propelled France toward the collapse that could only result, as it did two reigns later, in the overturn of absolute monarchy, the Bourbon raison d'etre. Seen in that light, Louis XIV is the prince of policy pursued contrary to ultimate self-interest. Not he, but the mistress of his successor, Mme de Pompadour, glimpsed the outcome: “After us the deluge.” p. 19

“The impulse came from the compelling lure of dominion, from pretensions of grandeur, from greed.” p. 32

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

“At about the time Columbus discovered America, the Renaissance – which is to say the period when the values of this world replaced those of the hereafter – was in full flower in Italy. Under its impulse the individual found in himself, rather than in God, the designer and captain of his fate. His needs, his ambitions and desires, his pleasures and possessions, his mind, his art, his power, his glory, were the house of life. His earthly passage was no longer, as in the medieval concept, a weary exile on the way to the spiritual destiny of his soul.” p. 52

“Arbitrary power, with its inducements to to self-indulgence and unrestraint and its chronic suspicions of rivals, tended to form eratic despots and to produce habits of senseless violence as often in the satellite rulers as in the great.” p. 60

1. Murder in a Cathedral:
Sixtus IV, 1471-84

“Until the election in 1471 of Cardinal Francesco della Rovere, former General of the Franciscan Order, who took the name Sixtus IV, the popes of the early Renaissance, if without zeal for spiritual renewal, had maintained on the whole nominal respect for the dignity of their office, Sixtus introduced the period of unabashed, unconcealed, relentless pursuit of personal gain and power politics.” p. 62

2. Host to the Infidel:
Innocent VIII, 1484-92

“Amiable, indecisive, subject to stronger-minded associates, Sixtus' successor was a contrast to him in every way except in equally damaging the pontificate, in this case by omission and weakness of character.” p. 67

3. Depravity:
Alexander VI, 1492-1503

“The man the cardinals elected to Saint Peter's chair proved as close to the prince of darkness as human beings are likely to come.” p. 74

“When Rodrigo Borgia was 62, after 35 years as Cardinal and Vice-Chancellor, his character, habits, principles or lack of them, uses of power, methods of enrichment, mistresses and seven children were well enough known to his colleagues in the College and Curia to evoke from a young Giovanni de Medici at his first conclave the comment on Borgia's elevation to the papacy, 'Flee, we are in the hands of a wolf.'” p. 75

4. The Warrior:
Julius II, 1503-13

"The cost of construction far exceeded papal revenues and had to be met by a device of fateful consequences, the public sale of indulgences. Extended to Germany in the next pontificate, it completed the disillusion of one angry cleric, precipitating the most divisive document in Church history." p.97

5. The Protestant Break:
Leo X, 1513-21

"... ("A tousand years from now," said the artist [Michelangelo] "who will care whether these were the real features?") p.107

"To prosecute the war on Urbino, the Pope imposed taxes throughout the Papal States on the ground that the Duke was a rebel. This shameless campaign turned opinion against him, but, like Julius or any other autocrat, Leo ignored the effect of his actions on the public." p. 109

"Elevated to the chair of Saint Peter, Holy Fathers to the faithful, they had a duty to their constituency to which they seem rarely to have given a thought." p. 111

"The abuse that precipitated the ultimate break was the commercialization of indulgences, and the place where the break came, as everyone knows, was at Wittenberg in northeastern Germany." p. 113

"The ring of these coins was a summons to Luther. Tetzel's creass equation of the mercenary and the spiritual was the ultimate expression of the message emanating from the Papacy over the past fifty years. It was not the cause, but the signal for the Protestant secession, whose causes were old and various and long-developing." p. 115

"Enclosed, like his predecessors, in the Italian drama, the Pope was unaware of the issues and incapable of understanding the protest that had been developing for the century and a half since Wycliffe had repudiated priesthood as necessary to salvation, as well as the sacraments and the Papacy itself." p. 115

6. The Sack of Rome:
Clement VII, 1523-34

“... those steeped in sin could no longer perceive the stench of their own iniquities.” pp. 118-119

"... Adrian found the system too entrenched for him to dislodge. 'How much,' he sorrowfully acknowledged, 'does a man's efforts depend on the age in which his work is cast!'"

“The folly of the popes was not pursuit of counter-productive policy so much as rejection of any steady or coherent policy either political or religious that would have improved their situation or arrested the rising discontent. Disregard of the movements and sentiments developing around them was a primary folly. They were deaf to disaffection, blind to the alternative ideas it gave rise to, blandly impervious to challenge, unconcerned with the dismay at their misconduct, and the rising wrath at their misgovernment, fixed in a refusal to change, almost stupidly stubborn in maintaining a corrupt existing system. They could not change it because they were part of it, grew out of it, depended upon it.” p. 125

“Their three outstanding attitudes – obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents, primacy of self-aggrandizement, illusion of invulnerable status – are persistent aspects of folly. While in the case of the Renaissance popes, these were bred in and exaggerated by the surrounding culture, all are independent of time and recurrent in governorship.” p. 126

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

1. In Embryo:

“Ignorance was not a factor in the American endeavor in Vietnam pursued through five successive presidencies, although it was to become an excuse. Ignorance of country and culture there may have been, but not ignorance of the contra-indications, even the barriers, to achieving the objectives of American policy. All the conditions and reasons precluding a successful outcome were recognized or foreseen at one time or another during the thirty years of our invlvement. American intervention was not a progress sucked step by step into an unsuspected quagmire. At no time were policy-makers unaware of the hazards, obstacles and negative developments. American intelligence was adquate, informed observation flowed readily from the field to the capital, special investigative missions were repeatedly sent out, independent reportage to balance professional optimism – when that prevailed – was never lacking. The folly consisted not in pursuit of a goal in ignorance of the obstacles but in persistence in the pursuit despite accumulating evidence that the goal was unattainable, and the effect disproportionate to the American interest and eventually damaging to American society, reputation, and disposable power in the world.”
    The question raised is why did the policy-makers close their minds to the evidence and its implications? This is the classic symptom of folly: refusal to draw conclusions from the evidence, addiction to the counter-productive. The “Why” of this refusal and this addiction may disclose itself in the course of retracing the tale of American policy-making in Vietnam.” p. 234

    “The beginning lay in the reversal during the last months of World War II of President Roosevelt's previous determination not to allow, and certainly not to assist, the restoration of French colonial rule in Indochina. The engine of reversal was the belief, in response to strident French demand and damaged French pride resulting from the German occupation, that it was essential to strengthen France as the linchpin in Western Europe against Soviet expansion, which, as vicory approached, had become the dominant concern in Washington. Until this time Roosevelt's disgust with colonialism and his intention to see it eliminated in Asia had been firm (and a cause of basic dispute with Britain). He believed French misrule of Indochina represented colonialism in its worst form. Indochina “should not go back to France” he told Secretary of State Cordell Hull in January of 1943; “the case is perfectly clear. France has had the country – thirty million inhabitants – for nearly and hundred years and the people are worse off than they were at the beginning. [They] are entitled to something better than that.” pp. 234-235.

“In the struggle of policies, the future of Asians could not weigh against the Soviet shadow looming over Europe. In August of 1944, at the Dunbarton Oaks Conference on post-war organization, the United States proposal for the colonies made no mention of independence and offered only a weak-kneed trusteeship to be arranged with the “voluntary” consent of the former colonial power.” p. 236

“With the way now clear, Secretary of State Stettinius told the French at San Fransisco twenty-six days after Roosevelt's death that the United States did not question French sovereignty over Indochina. He was responding to a tantrum staged by de Gaulle for the benefit of the American Ambassador in Paris in which the General had said that he had an expeditionary force ready go go to Indochina whose departure was prevented by the American refusal of transport, and that “if you are against us in Indochina” this would cause “terrific disappointment” in France, which could drive her into the Soviet orbit. “We do not want to become communist … but I hope you do not push us into it.” The blackmail was primitive but tailored to suit what the Europeanists of American diplomacy wished to report.” p. 237

“Ho Chi Minh warned that if the UN failed to fulfill the promise of its charter and failed to grant independence to Indochina, “we will keep fighting till we get it..” p. 240

“A moving message to de Gaulle composed in the name of the last Emperor, the flexible Bao Dai, who had first served the French, then the Japanese, and had now amiably abdicated in favor of the Democratic Republic, was no less phrophetic. “You would understand better if you could see what what is happening here, if you could feel this desire for independence which is in everyone's heart and which no human force can any longer restrain. Even if you come to re-establish a French administration here, it will no longer be obeyed: each village will be a nest of resistance, each former collaborator an enemy, and your officials and colonists will themselves ask to leave this atmosphere which they will be unable to breathe.”

“General LeClerc said to his political adviser, “It would take 500,000 men to do it and even then it could not be done.” In one sentence he had laid out the future, and his estimate would still be valid when 500,000 American soldiers were actually in the field two decades later.” p. 244

2. Self-Hypnosis:

“The event that shook the balance of forces was the Communist victory in China in October 1949, a shock as stunning as Pearl Harbor. Hysteria over the “loss” of China took hold of America and rabid spokesmen of the China Lobby in Congress and the business world became the loudest voices in political life. The shock was the more dismaying because only a few weeks earlier, in September, Russia had successfully exploded an atomic bomb. As 1950 opened, Senator Joseph McCarthy announced that he had a list of 205 “card-carrying” Communists in the employ of the State Department, and for the next four years Americans joined in more than they opposed his vilification of fellow citizens as Communist infiltrators of American society.” p. 247

“These were the components of the cold war that shaped the course of events in Indochina. Its central belief was that every movement bearing the label Communist represented a single conspiracy for world conquest under Soviet aegis.” p. 247

“Policy statements about the vital importance of Southeast Asia began to pour from the government.” p. 249

[Note the use of the superlative “vital” – meaning “a matter of life or death” – used as a mere descriptive adjective of the noun “importance.”]

“... the envisaged aggression against Indochina of 1950 was a self-induced state of mind in the observers.” p. 249

“That the Communist system threatened American security through Indochina, however, was an extrapolation leading to folly.” p. 250

“The chiefs added a warning that would echo through the years to come: “Once United States forces and prestige have been committed, disengagement will not be possible short of victory.” p. 255

“Having invented Indochina as the main target of a coordinated Communist aggression, and having in every policy advice and public pronouncement repeated the operating assumption that its preservation from Communism was vital to American security, the United States was lodged in a trap of its own propaganda. The exaggerated rhetoric of the cold war had bewitched its formulators.” p. 258

“Eisenhower was deeply concerned about the prospect of deficit budgets, as was his Secretary of the Treasury George Humphrey, who said flatly that not defense but disaster would result from a “military program that scorned the resources and problems of our economy – erecting defenses and battlements for the protection of a country that was bankrupt.” pp. 259-260

“What level of perception, what fiction or fantasy, enters into policy-making? What degree of conviction or, on the contrary, conscious exaggeration is at work? Is the argument believed or is it inventive rhetoric employed to enforce a desired course of action?” p. 261

“The hypnosis, in short, had to be extended and war's “true meaning” conveyed by outsiders to a people on whose soil it had been fought for seven years. The need for so much explaining and justifying suggested an inherent flaw which, as time went on, was to widen.” p. 262

“The Geneva Accord declared a cease-fire, confirmed under international auspicies the independence of Laos and Cambodia and partitioned Vietnam into separate North and South zones, under the specific provision that “the military demarcation is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary.” The March of p. 267

“These results left little impression [on Dulles]; he was not prepared to infer from them any reason to re-examine policy. As in the case of Phillip II, “no experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.” … The refrain was the same as before. He adduced one lesson, however, from the experience: “that resistance to Communism needs popular support … and that the people should feel that they are defending their own national institutions.” That was indeed the lesson and it could not have been better stated, but as events were to show, it had only been stated, not learned.” p. 268

3. Creating the Client:

“The American government reacted not to the Chinese upheaval or to Vietnamese nationalism per se, but to intimidation by the rabid right at home and to the public dread of Communism that this played on and reflected. [In the] social and psychological sources of this dread … lie the roots of American policy in Vietnam.” p. 269

4. Married to Failure:

"As far as the record shows [the new Kennedy Administration] held no session devoted re-examination of the engagement they had inherited in Vietnam, nor did they ask themselves to what extent the United States the United States was committed or what was the degree of national interest involved. Nor, so far as appears in the mountains of memoranda, discussions and options flowing over the destks, was any long-range look taken at long-range strategy. Rather, policy developed in ad hoc spurts from month to month. . . . The given was that we had to stop the advance of Communism wherever it appeared and Vietnam was then the place of confrontation. If not stopped there, it would be stronger the next time." p. 283

5. Executive War:

"Hard decisions, Lodge told [President Johnson] squarely, had to be faced. Johnson's reaction was instant and personal: "I am not going to be the first President of the United States to lose a war," alternatively reported as "I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to the the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way that China went."" p. 311

"Johnson was affected in his conduct of Vietnam policy by three elements in his character: an ego that was insatiable and never secure; a bottomless capacity to use and impose the powers of office without ihibition; a profound aversion, once fixed upon a course of action, to any contra-indications." p. 311

6. Exit:

" Use if mustard gas in World War I had to be abandoned because it had a tendency to blow back on the user. The war in Vietnam in its final period turned back upon the United States, deepening disesteem and distrust of government and, in reverse, breeding a hostility in government toward the people that was to have serious consequences. Although the lesson of Lyndon Johnson was plain, the legacy of folly gripped his successor. No better able to make the enemy come to terms acceptable to the United States, the new Administration, like the old, could find no other way than to resort to military coercion, with the result that a war already rejected by a large portion of the American people was prolonged, with all its potential for domestic damage, throughout another presidential term." p. 357

"... From being a fiction about the security of the United States, the point of the war had now been transformed into a test of the prestige and reputation of the United States -- and, as he was bound to see it, of the President personally. Nixon too had no wish to preside over a defeat."

"He [Nixon] did have a plan and it did involve a radical reversal of Johnson's course -- up to a point. The intention as to disolve domestic protest by ending the draft and bringing home American ground combat forces. This did not mean relinquishing the war aim. The American air war in Vietnam would be intensified and if necessary extended further against the North's supply lines and bases in Cambodia. To compensate for American troop withdrawal, a program of vastly increased aid, arming, training, and indoctrinating would enable South Vietnam's forces to take over the war, with continued American air support. Known as "Vietnamization," this effort was perhaps belated in what had always been supposed to be "their" war. The theory was that floods of materiel would somehow accomplish what had not been accomplished over the past 25 years -- the creeation of a motivated fighting force able to preserve a viable non-Communist state, at least for an "acceptable interval"" p. 359 “Freed of concern about public protest, Nixon responded with a ferocious blow, the notorious Christmas bombing, heaviest American action of the war. In twleve days of December the Air Force pounded North Vietnam with a greater tonnage of bombs than the total of the past three years, reducing areas of Hanoi and Haiphong to rubble, destroying Hanoi's airport, factories and power plants. One effect blew back. Plane losses owed to North Vietnam's strong concentrations of SAM missile defenses cost America 95 to 100 new prisoners of war and the worrisome price of 15 heavy bombers. The purpose of the Christmas bombing was twofold: to bring about a sufficient weakening of North Vietnam to permit the survival of Saigon for long enough to allow the United States to be gone and, by this proof of America's determination., to overcome Thieu's resistance or else to provide the excuse to proceed without him. 'We had walked the last mile with him,' according to a later explanation, 'and as a consequence we could settle.'” p. 372

"... What was left standing by the treaty was a temporary screen behind which America, clutching a tattered "peace with honor" could escape." p. 373

“Congressional refusal to allow the United States to re-intervene represented the functioning, not, as Kissinger lamented, “the breakdown of our democratic political process.” Rather than weakness of American will to see the task through, it was belated recognition of a process clearly contrary and damaging to self-interest, and the summoning of political responsibility to terminate it.” p. 374

“The absence of intelligent thought on this issue was astonishing for, as General [Matthew] Ridgeway wrote in 1971, “It should not have taken a great vision to perceive … that no truly vital United States interest was present … and that the commitment to a major effort was a monumental blunder.” p. 375


Chief among the forces affecting political folly is lust for power, named by Tacitus as 'the most flagrant of all the passions.' Because it can only be satisfied by power over others, government is its favorite field of exercise. Business offers a kind of power, but only to the very successful at the very top, and without the dominion and titles and the red carpets and motorcycle escorts of public office. Other occupations – sports, sciences, the professions and the creative and performing arts – offer various satisfactions but not the opportunity for power. They may appeal to status-seekers and, in the form of celebrity, offer crowd worship and limousines and prizes, but these are the trappings of power, not the essence. Government remains the paramount area of folly because because it is there that men seek power over others – only to lose it over themselves.” pp 381-382

“Thomas Jefferson, who held more and higher offices than most men, took the sourest view of it. 'Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on [office],' he wrote to a friend, 'a rottenness begins in his conduct.'” p. 382

“A greater inducement to folly is excess of power. ... Too much power given to anything, like too large a sail upon a vessel, is dangererous; moderation is overthrown. Excess leads on the one hand to disorder and on the other to injustice. No soul of man is able to resist the temptation of arbitrary power, and there is [quoting Plato] 'No on who will not under such circumstances become filled with folly, the worst of diseases.' His kingdom will wll be undermined and 'all his power will vanish from him.'...” p. 382

"Mental standstill or stagnation -- the mainenance intact by rulers and policy-makers of the ideas they started with -- is fertile ground for folly. . . . Learning from experience is a faculty almost never practiced. Why did American experience of supporting the unpopular party in China supply no analogy to Vietnam? And the experience of Vietnam none for Iran?" p. 383

"In the first stage, mental standstill fixes the principles and boundaries governing a political problem. In the second stage, when dissonances and failing function begin to appear, the initial principles rigidify. This is the period when, if wisdom were operative, re-examination and rethinking and a change of course are possible, but they are rare as rubies in a backyard. Rigidifying leads to increase of investment and the need to protect egos; policy founded upon error multiplies, never retreats. The greater the investment and the more involved in it the sponsor's ego, the more unacceptable is disengagement. In the third stage, pursuit of failure enlarges the damages until it causes the fall of Troy, the defection from the Papacy, the loss of a trans-Atlantic empire, the classic humiliation in Vietnam." p. 383

“Persistence in error is the problem … no matter how equal two alternatives appear, there is always freedom of choice to change or desist from a counter-productive course if the policy-maker has the moral courage to exercise it. He is not a fated creature blown by the whims of Homeric gods. … Rulers will justify a bad or wrong decision on the ground … that 'He had no choice,' but no matter how equal two alternatives may appear, there is always freedom of choice to change or desist from a counter-productive course if the policy-maker has the moral courage to exercise it. He is not a fated creature blown by the whims of Homeric gods. Yet to recognize error, to cut losses, to alter course, is the most repugnant option in government.” p. 383