History and Military Policy: Are We Asking the Right Questions?

tags: foreign policy, military history, international relations

Francis J. Gavin is the chair of the editorial board of the Texas National Security Review. He is the Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor and the inaugural director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University. His writings include Gold, Dollars, and Power: The Politics of International Monetary Relations, 1958-1971 (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) and Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (Cornell University Press, 2012) and Covid-19 and World Order (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020) co-edited with Hal Brands. His latest book is Nuclear Weapons and American Grand Strategy (Brookings Institution Press, 2020). 

Editor’s Note: This is the introductory essay for Volume 4, Issue 3 of the Texas National Security Review, WOTR's sister publication. Be sure to read the entire issue.


I recently re-read historian Ernest May’s slim classic, Lessons” of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy. Published in 1973, the year the United States left Vietnam in defeat and disgrace, the book possesses a dark, gloomy feel. “Lessons,” is in quotes, emphasizing May’s belief that, while statesmen naturally mine the past for answers, more often than not they do so poorly. Makers of “foreign policy are often influenced by beliefs about what history teaches or portends” but “ordinarily use history badly.” Their primary sin is to fight the last war and draw linear analogies in a simplistic manner, usually based on the more recent events. With the sting of the Vietnam fiasco all too fresh, perhaps it is not surprising that May largely saw America’s Cold War policies as erratic, shaped by bureaucratic in-fighting and often faulty logic. Even Franklin Roosevelt, the president who successfully guided the nation through a global depression and world war, was not immune from misunderstanding history. He is charged with an obsession with avoiding the mistakes Woodrow Wilson made after the previous world war, leading Roosevelt to overemphasize the danger of a German and Japanese resurgence while underestimating the risk of postwar Soviet belligerence.

Reading this compelling issue, I was struck not only by how often we get things wrong, but how our judgments change over time. In their penetrating article, Dan Reiter and Paul Poast argue that the difference between deterrence success and failure in Korea between 1949 and 1950 turned upon a visible, meaningful U.S. military presence. When America reduced its forces to a mere token presence on the peninsula, deterrence weakened and North Korea invaded. For May, the surprise was not so much the failure of deterrence as the decision to fight at all. “It was the policy of the United States in June 1950 to avoid using American military forces in Korea.” Relying on overly simplistic comparisons to world politics in the 1930s, Harry Truman and his advisers “discarded previous calculations because of a presumed historical maxim” in order to expend “life and large sums of money and some risk of precipitating general war” to defend territory that had, only months earlier, appeared to lie outside of America’s declared area of interest. Historical judgment changes with time. In 2021, the mistake the United States made was to have relied on tripwire forces to deter an adversary, whereas in 1973, in the shadow of Vietnam, the mistake was to have even considered fighting at all.

Other articles in this issue highlight how hard it is to get things right: Russia’s surprising aggression in the Donbas, according to Brendan Chrzanowski, appears irrational when assessed through our standard materialist or ideological theories and lenses. When the Cold War ended, few would have expected the erosion of civil-military norms warned of by Polina Beliakova. Paul Scharre pushes back against the widespread use of an arms race frame to understand the future of artificial intelligence, which highlights the troubling implications of articles by Herbert Lin and Guy Schleffer/Benjamin Miller about the dangers presented by cyber technology and social media. A decade and a half ago, the consensus was that digital technologies and platforms that connected citizens from around the globe and made all the world’s knowledge available to anyone, immediately and for free, would be a revolutionary force benefiting the world. Today, these technologies threaten not only America’s military stability, but the very fabric of democracy.

Scholars and analysts appear to fare no better than decision-makers when it comes to getting things right. As the recent Texas National Security Review roundtable on Brendan Green’s important new book, The Revolution that Failed, reveals, the best national and international security analysts and scholars misunderstood the nature and consequences of the strategic nuclear competition between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. Academics from the security studies community believed that the Strategic Arms Limitation and Antiballistic Missile Treaties captured the natural and inescapable state of mutual vulnerability, enshrining a nuclear revolution that they hoped would end arms races, prevent war, and dampen geopolitical competition. Green joins an emerging group of scholars who demonstrate how misguided this analysis was. American and Soviet decision-makers continued to compete ruthlessly to achieve nuclear advantage, going to great lengths and taking some risk to escape mutual vulnerability. Strategic arms control limited the number of weapons, but not their quality. The superpowers engaged in an intense counterforce arms race to make their weapons more accurate, stealthier, mobile, and fast, with important consequences for the course — and the end — of the Cold War.

Using History More Wisely

Can we be sure that we are any better now at using the past to make sense of contemporary and future challenges? Today’s conventional wisdom, for example, proclaims a return to the kinds of great-power rivalry and geopolitical competition that dominated world politics in earlier eras. Perhaps this is right. But should we have much confidence in this assessment, when less than a generation ago, many believed that great-power politics was a thing of the past and that increased interdependence would make China, if not a partner, than at least not an adversary to the United States? The track record of predicting future national security challenges — both inside and outside of government — is not stellar. Few scholars were thinking about terrorism or counterterrorism in 2000, an issue that would dominate American national security policy in the years following the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Nor was there a lot of debate in the policy or academic world in 1985 about what the United States should do in a post-Cold War world without the Soviet Union, because few imagined such a world was possible.

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