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

At the outset, I must admit that Tuchman’s work was the first substantive history of the American Revolution that I ever had read. I had, of course, the minimal required exposure to the subject in high school, but as an undergraduate I took world civilization surveys to fulfill my history requirements, and my natural curiosity had not led me to explore the topic any further. Without a deeper background in the subject, therefore, tackling Tuchman was a little intimidating, since her approach seemed to presuppose more knowledge of the war than I possessed. However, I enjoyed her writing a great deal, at least in terms of the information she provided, and found that she fit much of that information into a context that was easy to follow and understand.

I was particularly impressed with Tuchman’s thorough description of the British ruling class and its idiosyncrasies, and how those peculiarities contributed to an oftentimes paralyzing dysfunction in British governance. Again recalling my limited knowledge of the subject, I was fully invested in the simplistic American mythology of the Revolution, and had imagined that an insane King George III single-handedly repressed the colonists and drove them to war. Tuchman corrected my misconceptions by providing a comprehensive account of the colorful personalities that moved through the revolving door of the British government between the ends of the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution. She did so in a style that was very easy for me to read and understand, and which I found to be playful and charming in many instances. Discussing the predilections of the British aristocracy, for example, Tuchman described how these young noblemen “could become restless and bored under difficulties and usually retreated for half the year to the charms of their country homes, their racing stables, hunting fields and adventures in landscaping.”[1] Those final whimsical words, and others like them sprinkled throughout the book, had me laughing out loud as I read. The primary difficulty I had throughout this section of Tuchman’s work was keeping track of the ever-expanding cast of characters, though this was most likely an unavoidable problem given the sheer number of personalities involved.

While I found Tuchman’s narrative very readable for the most part, one area I took issue with was the format of her source citation. I much prefer footnotes to endnotes, although I realize that editors (if not the authors themselves) may not like the way that footnotes clutter the pages of a manuscript. I have resigned myself, when reading most scholarly monographs, to flipping back and forth between the text and the endnotes, but Tuchman’s endnotes were not so easy to follow. Since the reference endnotes were not numbered in any way, and instead merely contained a page reference and a snippet of the relevant quote, I quickly tired of the back-and-forth game and simply consumed the narrative without referring to any of the notes as I read.

The overall theme of Tuchman’s book was fascinating to me, and the approach she took was equally interesting. I found very insightful her argument that “folly…that is, the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved,”[2] was detectable and comparable in historical events as diverse as the siege of Troy, the American Revolution, and the Vietnam War. She further clarified her position by stating that “[s]elf-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.”[3] I originally thought that Tuchman had done a poor job of proving her thesis; I read the section on the American Revolution before I turned back to the first chapter of her book, so I did not fully understand or appreciate what Tuchman was trying to achieve. In other words, I originally thought she meant that it was folly for the British government not to act in its own self-interest, when in fact she was making the case that British policy toward the colonies was folly because it was not conducive to the interests of the colonists. This distinction was very important, since my failure to grasp it colored my interpretation of Tuchman’s success at achieving her objectives.

Tuchman, in fact, did a very good job of showing how the British government antagonized the colonists time and again, often despite the protests of reasonable men in both Britain and the colonies. Proving that the Crown was working against the interests of the American colonies was a relatively simple achievement, given the litany of abuses. For each outrage committed against the colonists, Tuchman discussed alternative proposals that were made by those within and without the government, policy suggestions that may have led to a different outcome for all involved. The fact that these reasonable alternatives were consistently ignored by the British government was cited by Tuchman as proof that the Crown engaged in a persistent pattern of folly in its relationship with the American colonies. But this was folly only as clearly defined by Tuchman in the first chapter (a definition I completely missed in my original reading); namely, that the British did not enact policies conducive to the colonists’ interests.

Even after fully understanding Tuchman’s intent, I still felt like she was missing something. What about the interests of the British government itself? What if the interests of the governing body and the governed constituency were diametrically opposed? Did Tuchman believe it was folly for the Crown to unilaterally ignore its own interests in favor of those of the colonists? Parliament had a clear and necessary interest in asserting its sovereignty over the American colonies. The British were certainly incompetent in the way they handled many of the particulars, as Tuchman clearly illustrated, but in an expanding empire, Parliament could not afford to appear weak in the face of resistance to its policies. Tuchman claimed that British “[s]elf-interest lay in retaining the colonies in goodwill, and if this was considered the hinge of British prosperity and yet incompatible with legislative supremacy, then supremacy should have remained, as so many advised, unexercised.”[4] The question Tuchman left unanswered for me was how that would have been possible if the interests of the British government involved expanding its influence and empire.

[1] Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984), 135.

[2] Tuchman, The March of Folly, 5.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Tuchman, The March of Folly, 230.

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