The Real Lessons of History

In 1993, the preeminent historian of the Soviet Union Robert Conquest gave the lecture, “History, Humanities, and Truth” here at Stanford’s Hoover Institution on War and Peace. Conquest quoted Michael Howard, a British military historian and adviser to Margaret Thatcher, regarding the uses of history in foreign policy:

Yes, we must consider Soviet history, and with care, but we need a broad outlook on history as a whole. And above all we should avoid conciously or unconciously projecting onto other cultures the feelings, ideas, and motivations we feel natural, and refrain from applying analytical concepts developed in our own backyard to the wild deserts and steppes of the world outside.

And it cannot be urged enough too strongly that this is not merely an abstract intellectual matter. Michael Howard in 1980 remarked on “the real lessons of history” in his inagural lecture as Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, that these apply to  “people often of masterful intelligence, trained usually in law or economics or perhaps political science, who have led their government into disastrous miscalculations because they have no awareness whatever of the historical background, the cultural universe of the foreign societies with which they have to deal. It is an awareness for which no amount of strategic or economic analysis, no techniques of crisis management or conflict resolution . . . can provide a substitute.

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