Aphenomenon 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?
Why, to begin at the beginning, did the Trojan rulers drag that suspicious-looking wooden horse inside their walls despite every reason to suspect a Greek trick? Why did successive ministries of George III insist on coercing rather than conciliating the American colonies though repeatedly advised by many counselors that the harm done must be greater than any possible gain? Why did Charles XII and Napoleon and successively Hitler invade Russia despite the disasters incurred by each predecessor? Why did Montezuma, master of fierce and eager armies and of a city of 300,000, succumb passively to a party of several hundred alien invaders even after they had shown themselves all too obviously human beings, not gods? Why did Chiang Kai-shek refuse to heed any voice of reform or alarm until he woke up to find his country had slid from under him? Why do the oil-importing nations engage in rivalry for the available supply when a firm united front vis-à-vis the exporters would gain them control of the situation? Why in recent times have British trade unions in a lunatic spectacle seemed periodically bent on dragging their country toward paralysis, apparently under the impression that they are separate from the whole? Why does American business insist on “growth” when it is demonstrably using up the three basics of life on our planet—land, water and unpolluted air? (While unions and business are not strictly government in the political sense, they represent governing situations.)
Elsewhere than in government man has accomplished marvels: invented the means in our lifetime to leave the earth and voyage to the moon; in the past, harnessed wind and electricity, raised earth-bound stones into soaring cathedrals, woven silk brocades out of the spinnings of a worm, constructed the instruments of music, derived motor power from steam, controlled or eliminated diseases, pushed back the North Sea and created land in its place, classified the forms of nature, penetrated the mysteries of the cosmos. “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.”
Misgovernment is of four kinds, often in combination. They are: 1) tyranny or oppression, of which history provides so many well-known examples that they do not need citing; 2) excessive ambition, such as Athens’ attempted conquest of Sicily in the Peloponnesian War, Philip II’s of England via the Armada, Germany’s twice-attempted rule of Europe by a self-conceived master race, Japan’s bid for an empire of Asia; 3) incompetence or decadence, as in the case of the late Roman empire, the last Romanovs and the last imperial dynasty of China; and finally 4) folly or perversity. This book is concerned with the last in a specific manifestation; that is, the pursuit of policy contrary 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.
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 by hindsight. This is important, because all policy is determined by the mores of its age. “Nothing is more unfair,” as an English historian has well 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.
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. Misgovernment by a single sovereign or tyrant is too frequent and too individual to be worth a generalized inquiry. Collective government or a succession of rulers in the same office, as in the case of the Renaissance popes, raises a more significant problem. (The Trojan Horse, to be examined shortly, is an exception to the time requirement, and Rehoboam to the group requirement, but each is such a classic example and occurs so early in the known history of government as to illustrate how deeply the phenomenon of folly is ingrained.)
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 determine the form it takes. It is unrelated to type of regime: monarchy, oligarchy and democracy produce it equally. Nor is it peculiar to nation or class. The working class as represented by Communist governments functions no more rationally or effectively in power than the middle class, as has been notably demonstrated in recent history. Mao Tse-tung may be admired for many things, but the Great Leap Forward, with a steel plant in every backyard, and the Cultural Revolution were exercises in unwisdom that greatly damaged China’s progress and stability, not to mention the Chairman’s reputation. The record of the Russian proletariat in power can hardly be called enlightened, although after sixty years of control it must be accorded a kind of brutal success. If the majority of Russians are materially better off than before, the cost in cruelty and tyranny has been no less and probably greater than under the czars.
The French Revolution, great prototype of populist government, reverted rapidly to crowned autocracy as soon as it acquired an able administrator. The revolutionary regimes of Jacobins and Directorate could muster the strength to exterminate internal foes and defeat foreign enemies, but they could not manage their own following sufficiently to maintain domestic order, install a competent administration or collect taxes. The new order was rescued only by Bonaparte’s military campaigns, which brought the spoils of foreign wars to fill the treasury, and subsequently by his competence as an executive. He chose officials on the principle of “la carrière ouverte aux talents”—the desired talents being intelligence, energy, industry and obedience. That worked for a while until he too, the classic victim of hubris, destroyed himself through overextension.
It may be asked why, since folly or perversity is inherent in individuals, should we expect anything else of government? The reason for concern is that folly in government has more, impact on more people than individual follies, and therefore governments have a greater duty to act according to reason. Just so, and since this has been known for a very long time, why has not our species taken precautions and erected safeguards against it? Some attempts have been made, beginning with Plato’s proposal of selecting a class to be trained as professionals in government. According to his scheme, the ruling class in a just society should be men apprenticed to the art of ruling, drawn from the rational and wise. Since he recognized that in natural distribution these are few, he believed they would have to be eugenically bred and nurtured. Government, he said, was a special art in which competence, as in any other profession, could be acquired only by study of the discipline and could not be acquired otherwise. His solution, beautiful and unattainable, was philosopher-kings. “The philosophers must become kings in our cities or those who are now kings and potentates must learn to seek wisdom like true philosophers, and so political power and intellectual wisdom will be joined in one.” Until that day, he acknowledged, “there can be no rest from the troubles for the cities, and I think for the whole human race.” And so it has been.
Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is 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.”
A classic case in action was Plan 17, the French war plan of 1914, conceived in a mood of total dedication to the offensive. It concentrated everything on a French advance to the Rhine, allowing the French left to remain virtually unguarded, a strategy that could only be justified by the fixed belief that the Germans could not deploy enough manpower to extend their invasion around through western Belgium and the French coastal provinces. This assumption was based on the equally fixed belief that the Germans would never use reserves in the front line. Evidence to the contrary which began seeping through to the French General Staff in 1913 had to be, and was, resolutely ignored in order that no concern about a possible German invasion on the west should be allowed to divert strength from a direct French offensive eastward to the Rhine. When war came, the Germans could and did use reserves in the front line and did come the long way around on the west with results that determined a protracted war and its fearful consequences for our century.
Wooden-headedness is also the refusal to benefit from experience, a characteristic in which medieval rulers of the 14th century were supreme. No matter how often and obviously devaluation of the currency disrupted the economy and angered the people, the Valois monarchs of France resorted to it whenever they were desperate for cash until they provoked insurrection by the bourgeoisie. In warfare, the métier of the governing class, wooden-headedness was conspicuous. No matter how often a campaign that depended on living off a hostile country ran into want and even starvation, as in the English invasions of France in the Hundred Years’ War, campaigns for which this fate was inevitable were regularly undertaken.
There was another King of Spain at the beginning of the 17th century, Philip III, who is said to have died of a fever he contracted from sitting too long near a hot brazier, helplessly overheating himself because the functionary whose duty it was to remove the brazier, when summoned, could not be found. In the late 20th century it begins to appear as if mankind may be approaching a similar stage of suicidal folly. Cases come so thick and fast that one can select only the overriding one: 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 superiority 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?
For 2500 years, political philosophers from Plato and Aristotle through Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton, Nietzsche and Marx, have devoted their thinking to the major issues of ethics, sovereignty, the social contract, the rights of man, the corruption of power, the balance between freedom and order. Few, except Machiavelli, who was concerned with government as it is, not as it should be, bothered with mere folly, although folly has been a chronic and pervasive problem. Count Axel Oxenstierna, Chancellor of Sweden during the turmoil of the Thirty Years’ War under the hyperactive Gustavus Adolphus, and actual ruler of the country under his daughter, Christina, had ample experience on which to base his dying conclusion, “Know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed.”
Because individual sovereignty was government’s normal form for so long, it exhibits the human characteristics that have caused folly in government as far back as we have records. Rehoboam, King of Israel, son of King Solomon, succeeded his father at the age of 41 in approximately 930 B.C., about a century before Homer composed the national epic of his people. Without loss of time, the new King committed the act of folly that was to divide his nation and lose forever its ten northern tribes, collectively called Israel. Among them were many who were disaffected by heavy taxation in the form of forced labor imposed under King Solomon, and had already in his reign made an effort to secede. They had gathered around one of Solomon’s generals, Jeroboam, “a mighty man of valor,” who undertook to lead them into revolt upon a prophecy that he would inherit rule of the ten tribes afterward. The Lord, speaking through the voice of a certain Ahijah the Shilonite, played a part in this affair, but his role then and later is obscure and seems to have been inserted by narrators who felt the Almighty’s hand had to be present. When the revolt failed, Jeroboam fled to Egypt where Shishak, the King of that country, gave him shelter.
Acknowledged King without question by the two southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin, Rehoboam, clearly aware of unrest in Israel, traveled at once to Shechem, center of the north, to obtain the people’s allegiance. He was met instead by a delegation of Israel’s representatives who demanded that he lighten the heavy yoke of labor put upon them by his father and said that if he did so they would serve him as loyal subjects. Among the delegates was Jeroboam who had hurriedly been sent for from Egypt as soon as King Solomon died, and whose presence must certainly have warned Rehoboam that he faced a critical situation.
Temporizing, Rehoboam asked the delegation to depart and return after three days for his reply. Meanwhile he consulted with the old men of his father’s council, who advised him to accede to the people’s demand, and told him that if he would act graciously and “speak good words to them they will be thy servants forever.” With the first sensation of sovereignty heating his blood, Rehoboam found this advice too tame and turned to the “young men that were grown up with him.” They knew his disposition and, like counselors of any time who wish to consolidate their position in the “Oval Office,” gave advice they knew would be palatable. He should make no concessions but tell the people outright that his rule would be not lighter but heavier than his father’s. They composed for him the famous words that could be any despot’s slogan: “And thus shalt thou say to them: ‘Whereas my father laid upon you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. Whereas my father chastised you with whips, I shall chastise you with scorpions.’ ” Delighted with this ferocious formula, Rehoboam faced the delegation when it returned on the third day and addressed them “roughly,” word for word as the young men had suggested.
That his subjects might not be prepared to accept this reply meekly seems not to have occurred to Rehoboam beforehand. Not without reason he earned in Hebrew history the designation “ample in folly.” Instantly—so instantly as to suggest that they had previously decided upon their course of action in case of a negative reply—the men of Israel announced their secession from the House of David with the battle cry “To thy tents, O Israel! See to thine own house, David!”
With as little wisdom as would have astonished even Count Oxenstierna, Rehoboam took the most provocative action possible in the circumstances. Calling upon the very man who represented the hated yoke, Adoram, the commander or overseer of the forced labor tribute, he ordered him, apparently without providing supporting forces, to establish his authority. The people stoned Adoram to death, upon which the rash and foolish King speedily summoned his chariot and fled to Jerusalem, where he summoned all the warriors of Judah and Benjamin for war to reunite the nation. At the same time, the people of Israel appointed Jeroboam their King. He reigned for twenty-two years and Rehoboam for seventeen, “and there was war between them all their days.”
The protracted struggle weakened both states, encouraged the vassal lands conquered by David east of the Jordan—Moab, Edom, Ammon and others—to regain their independence and opened the way to invasion by Egypt. King Shishak “with a large army” captured fortified border posts and approached Jerusalem, which Rehoboam saved from conquest only by paying tribute to the enemy in the form of golden treasure from the Temple and royal palace. Shishak penetrated also into the territory of his former ally Jeroboam as far as Megiddo but, evidently lacking the resources necessary to establish control, faded back into Egypt.
The twelve tribes were never reunited. Torn by their conflict, the two states could not maintain the proud empire established by David and Solomon, which had extended from northern Syria to the borders of Egypt with dominion over the international caravan routes and access to foreign trade through the Red Sea. Reduced and divided, they were less able to withstand aggression by their neighbors. After two hundred years of separate existence, the ten tribes of Israel were conquered by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. and, in accordance with Assyrian policy toward conquered peoples, were driven from their land and forcibly dispersed, to vanish into one of the great unknowns and perennial speculations of history.
The kingdom of Judah, containing Jerusalem, lived on as the land of the Jewish people. Though regaining at different times much of the northern territory, it suffered conquest, too, and exile by the waters of Babylon, then revival, civil strife, foreign sovereignty, rebellion, another conquest, another farther exile and dispersion, oppression, ghetto and massacre—but not disappearance. The alternative course that Rehoboam might have taken, advised by the elders and so lightly rejected, exacted a long revenge that has left its mark for 2800 years.
Equal in ruin but opposite in cause was the folly that brought about the conquest of Mexico. While Rehoboam is not difficult to understand, the case of Montezuma serves to remind us that folly is not always explicable. The Aztec state of which he was Emperor from 1502 to 1520 was rich, sophisticated and predatory. Surrounded by mountains on a plateau in the interior (now the site of Mexico City), its capital was a city of 60,000 households built upon the piles, causeways and islets of a lake, with stucco houses, streets and temples, brilliant in pomp and ornament, strong in arms. With colonies extending east to the Gulf coast and west to the Pacific, the empire included an estimated five million people. The Aztec rulers were advanced in the arts and sciences and agriculture in contrast to their ferocious religion, whose rituals of human sacrifice were unsurpassed in blood and cruelty. Aztec armies conducted annual campaigns to capture slave labor and victims for sacrifice from neighboring tribes, and food supplies, of which they were always short, and to bring new areas into subjection or punish revolts. In the early years of his reign, Montezuma led such campaigns in person, greatly extending his boundaries.
Aztec culture was in thrall to the gods—to bird gods, serpent gods, jaguar gods, to the rain god Tlaloc and the sun god Tezcatlipoc, who was lord of the earth’s surface, the “Tempter,” who “whispered ideas of savagery into the human mind.” The founding god of the state, Quetzalcoatl, had fallen from glory and departed into the eastern sea, whence his return to earth was expected, to be foreshadowed by omens and apparitions and to portend the downfall of the empire.
In 1519 a party of Spanish conquistadors coming from Cuba under the command of Hernán Cortés landed on the Mexican Gulf coast at Vera Cruz. In the twenty-five years since Columbus had discovered the Caribbean islands, Spanish invaders had established a rule that rapidly devastated the native people. If their bodies could not survive Spanish labor, their souls, in Christian terms, were saved. In their mail and helmets, the Spaniards were not settlers with patience to clear forests and plant crops, but restless ruthless adventurers greedy for slaves and gold, and Cortés was their epitome. More or less at odds with the Governor of Cuba, he set forth on an expedition with 600 men, seventeen horses and ten artillery pieces, ostensibly for exploration and trade but more truly, as his conduct was to make plain, for glory and an independent domain under the Crown. His first act on landing was to burn his ships so that there could be no retreat.
Informed by the local inhabitants, who hated the Aztec overlords, of the riches and power of the capital, Cortés with the larger part of his force boldly set out to conquer the great city of the interior. Though reckless and daring, he was not foolhardy and made alliances along the way with tribes hostile to the Aztecs, especially with Tlaxcala, their chief rival. He sent word ahead representing himself as the ambassador of a foreign prince but made no effort to pose as a reincarnated Quetzalcoatl, which for the Spaniards would have been out of the question. They marched with their own priests in very visible presence carrying crucifixes and banners of the Virgin and with the proclaimed goal of winning souls for Christ.
On report of the advance, Montezuma summoned his council, some of whom strongly urged resisting the strangers by force or fraud, while others argued that if they were indeed ambassadors of a foreign prince, a friendly welcome would be advisable, and if they were supernatural beings, as their wondrous attributes suggested, resistance would be useless. Their “gray” faces, their “stone” garments, their arrival at the coast in waterborne houses with white wings, their magic fire that burst from tubes to kill at a distance, their strange beasts that carried the leaders on their backs, suggested the supernatural to a people for whom the gods were everywhere. The idea that their leader might be Quetzalcoatl seems, however, to have been Montezuma’s own peculiar dread.
Uncertain and apprehensive, he did the worst thing he could have done in the circumstances: he sent splendid gifts that displayed his wealth, and letters urging the visitors to turn back that indicated his weakness. Borne by a hundred slaves, the gifts of jewels, textiles, gorgeous featherwork and two huge plates of gold and silver “as large as cart wheels” excited the Spaniards’ greed, while the letters forbidding further approach to his capital and almost pleading with them to return to their homeland and couched in soft language designed to provoke neither gods nor ambassadors were not very formidable. The Spaniards marched on.
Montezuma made no move to stop them or bar their way when they reached the city. Instead, they were greeted with ceremonial welcome and escorted to quarters in the palace and elsewhere. The Aztec army waiting in the hills for the signal to attack was never called, although it could have annihilated the invaders, cut off escape over the causeways or isolated and starved them into surrender. Just such plans had in fact been prepared, but were betrayed to Cortés by his interpreter. Alerted, he put Montezuma under house arrest in his own palace as a hostage against attack. The sovereign of a warlike people outnumbering their captors by a thousand to one, submitted. Through an excess of mysticism or superstition, he had apparently convinced himself that the Spaniards were indeed the party of Quetzalcoatl come to register the break-up of his empire and, believing himself doomed, made no effort to avert his fate.
Nevertheless it was plain enough from the visitors’ ceaseless demands for gold and provisions that they were all too human, and from their constant rituals in worship of a naked man pinned to crossed sticks of wood and of a woman with a child, that they were not connected with Quetzalcoatl, to whose cult they showed themselves distinctly hostile. When, in a spasm of regret or at someone’s persuasion, Montezuma ordered an ambush of the garrison that Cortés had left behind at Vera Cruz, his men killed two Spaniards and sent the head of one of them to the capital as evidence. Asking no parley or explanation, Cortés instantly put the Emperor in chains and forced him to yield the perpetrators whom he burned alive at the palace gates, not forgetting to exact an immense punitive tribute in gold and jewels. Any remaining illusion of a relationship to the gods vanished with the severed Spanish head.
Montezuma’s nephew Cacama denounced Cortés as a murderer and thief and threatened to raise a revolt, but the Emperor remained silent and passive. So confident was Cortés that, on learning that a force from Cuba had arrived at the coast to apprehend him, he went back to deal with it, leaving a small occupying force which further angered the inhabitants by smashing altars and seizing food. The spirit of revolt rose. Having lost authority, Montezuma could neither take command nor suppress the people’s anger. On Cortés’ return, the Aztecs, under the Emperor’s brother, rebelled. The Spaniards, who never had more than thirteen muskets among them, fought back with sword, pike and crossbow, and torches to set fire to houses. Hard pressed, though they had the advantage of steel, they brought out Montezuma to call for a halt in the fighting, but on his appearance his people stoned him as a coward and traitor. Carried back into the palace by the Spaniards, he died three days later and was refused funeral honors by his subjects. The Spaniards evacuated the city during the night with a loss of a third of their force and their loot.
Rallying his Mexican allies, Cortés defeated a superior Aztec army in battle outside the city. With the aid of the Tlaxcalans, he organized a siege, cut off the city’s supply of fresh water and food and gradually penetrated it, shoveling the rubble of destroyed buildings into the lake as he advanced. On 13 August 1521, the remnant of the inhabitants, starving and leaderless, surrendered. The conquerors filled in the lake, built their own city on the debris and stamped their rule upon Mexico, Aztecs and allies alike, for the next three hundred years.
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. It has never wrought a greater damage.
Follies need not have negative consequences for all parties concerned. The Reformation, brought on by the folly of the Renaissance Papacy, would not generally be declared a misfortune by Protestants. Americans on the whole would not consider their independence, provoked by the folly of the English, to be regrettable. Whether the Moorish conquest of Spain, which endured over the greater part of the country for three hundred years and over lesser parts for eight hundred, was positive or negative in its results may be arguable, depending on the position of the viewer, but that it was brought on by the folly of Spain’s rulers at the time is clear.
These rulers were the Visigoths, who had invaded the Roman empire in the 4th century and by the end of the 5th century had established themselves in control of most of the Iberian peninsula over the numerically superior Hispano-Roman inhabitants. For two hundred years they remained at odds and often in armed contention with their subjects. Through the unrestrained self-interest normal for sovereigns of the time, they created only hostility and in the end became its victims. Hostility was sharpened by animosity in religion, the local inhabitants being Catholics of the Roman rite while the Visigoths belonged to the Arian sect. Further contention arose over the method of selecting the sovereign. The native nobility tried to maintain the customary elective principle, while the kings, afflicted by dynastic longings, were determined to make and keep the process hereditary. They used every means of exile or execution, confiscation of property, unequal taxation and unequal land distribution to eliminate rivals and weaken the local opposition. These procedures naturally caused the nobles to foment insurrection and hatreds to flourish.
Meanwhile, through the stronger organization and more active intolerance of the Roman Church and its bishops in Spain, Catholic influence was gaining, and in the late 6th century, it succeeded in converting two heirs to the throne. The first was put to death by his father, but the second, called Recared, reigned, at last a ruler conscious of the need for unity. He was the first of the Goths to recognize that for a ruler opposed by two inimical groups, it is folly to continue antagonizing both at once. Convinced that union could never be achieved under Arianism, Recared acted energetically against his former associates and proclaimed Catholicism the official religion. Several of his successors, too, made efforts to placate former adversaries, recalling the banished and restoring property, but divisions and cross-currents were too strong for them and they had lost influence to the Church, in which they had created their own Wooden Horse.
Confirmed in power, the Catholic episcopate lunged into secular government, proclaiming its laws, arrogating its powers, holding decisive Councils, legitimizing favored usurpers and fatefully promoting a relentless campaign of discrimination and punitive rules against anyone “not a Christian”—namely the Jews. Beneath the surface, Arian loyalties persisted; decadence and debauchery afflicted the court. Hastened by cabals and plots, usurpations, assassinations and uprisings, the turnover in kings during the 7th century was rapid, none holding the throne for more than ten years.
During this century, the Moslems, animated by a new religion, exploded in a wild career of conquest that extended from Persia to Egypt and, by the year 700, reached Morocco across the narrow straits from Spain. Their ships raided the Spanish coast and though beaten back, the new power on the opposite shore offered to every disaffected group under the Goths 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 in the Turks against domestic enemies: the invited power stays and takes over control.
For Spain’s Jews, the time had come. A once tolerated minority who had arrived with the Romans and prospered as merchants, they were now shunned, persecuted, subjected to forced conversion, deprived of rights, property, occupation, even of children forcibly taken from them and given to Christian slave owners. Threatened with extinction, they made contact with and provided intelligence to the Moors through their co-religionists in North Africa. For them anything would be better than Christian rule.
The precipitating act came, however, from the central flaw of disunity in the society. In 710, a conspiracy of nobles refused to acknowledge as King the son of the last sovereign, defeated and deposed him and elected to the throne one of their own number, Duke Rodrigo, throwing the country into dispute and confusion. The ousted King and his adherents crossed the straits and, on the theory that the Moors would obligingly regain their throne for them, invited their assistance.
The Moorish invasion of 711 smashed through a country at odds with itself. Rodrigo’s army offered ineffective resistance and the Moors won control with a force of 12,000. Capturing city after city, they took the capital, established surrogates—in one case handing a city over to the Jews—and moved on. Within seven years their conquest of the peninsula was complete. The Gothic monarchy, having failed to develop a workable principle of government or to achieve fusion with its subjects, collapsed under assault because it had put down no roots.
In those dark ages between the fall of Rome and the medieval revival, government had no recognized theory or structure or instrumentality beyond arbitrary force. Since disorder is the least tolerable of social conditions, government began to take shape in the Middle Ages and afterward as a recognized function with recognized principles, methods, agencies, parliaments, bureaucracies. It acquired authority, mandates, improved means and capacity, but not a noticeable increase in wisdom or immunity from folly. This is not to say that crowned heads and ministries are incapable of governing wisely and well. Periodically the exception appears in strong and effective, occasionally even benign, rulership, even more occasionally wise. Like folly, these appearances exhibit no correlation with time and place. Solon of Athens, perhaps the wisest, was among the earliest. He is worth a glance.
Chosen archon, or chief magistrate, in the 6th century B.C., at a time of economic distress and social unrest, Solon was asked to save the state and compose its differences. Harsh debt laws permitting creditors to seize lands pledged as security, or even the debtor himself for slave labor, had impoverished and angered the plebeians and created a rising mood of insurrection. Having neither participated in the oppressions by the rich nor supported the cause of the poor, Solon enjoyed the unusual distinction of being acceptable to both; by the rich, according to Plutarch, because he was a man of wealth and substance, and by the poor because he was honest. In the body of laws he proclaimed, Solon’s concern was not partisanship, but justice, fair dealing between strong and weak, and stable government. He abolished enslavement for debt, freed the enslaved, extended suffrage to the plebeians, reformed the currency to encourage trade, regulated weights and measures, established legal codes governing inherited property, civil rights of citizens, penalties for crime and finally, taking no chances, exacted an oath from the Athenian Council to maintain his reforms for ten years.
Then he did an extraordinary thing, possibly unique among heads of state: purchasing a ship on the pretext of traveling to see the world, he sailed into voluntary exile for ten years. Fair and just as a statesman, Solon was no less wise as a man. He could have retained supreme control, enlarging his authority to that of tyrant, and was indeed reproached because he did not, but knowing that endless petitions and proposals to modify this or that law would only gain him ill-will if he did not comply, he determined to leave, in order to keep his laws intact because the Athenians could not repeal them without his sanction. His decision suggests that an absence of overriding personal ambition together with shrewd common sense are among the essential components of wisdom. In the notes of his life, writing of himself in the third person, Solon put it differently: “Each day he grew older and learned something new.”
Strong and effective rulers, if lacking the complete qualities of Solon, rise from time to time in heroic size above the rest, visible towers down the centuries. Pericles presided over Athens’ greatest century with sound judgment, moderation and high renown. Rome had Julius Caesar, a man of remarkable governing talents, although a ruler who arouses opponents to assassination is probably not as wise as he might be. Later, under the four “good emperors” of the Antonine dynasty—Trajan and Hadrian, the organizers and builders; Antoninus Pius, the benevolent; Marcus Aurelius, the revered philosopher—Roman citizens enjoyed good government, prosperity and respect for about a century. In England, Alfred the Great repelled the invaders and fathered the unity of his countrymen. Charlemagne was able to impose order on a mass of contending elements. He fostered the arts of civilization no less than those of war and earned a prestige supreme in the Middle Ages, not equalled until four centuries later by Frederick II, called Stupor Mundi, or Wonder of the World. Frederick took a hand in everything: arts, sciences, laws, poetry, universities, crusades, parliaments, wars, politics and contention with the Papacy, which in the end, for all his remarkable talents, frustrated him. Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Magnificent, promoted the glory of Florence but through his dynastic ambitions undermined the republic. Two queens, Elizabeth I of England and Maria Theresa of Austria, were both able and sagacious rulers who raised their countries to the highest estate.
The product of a new nation, George Washington, was a leader who shines among the best. While Jefferson was more learned, more cultivated, a more extraordinary mind, an unsurpassed intelligence, a truly universal man, Washington had a character of rock and a kind of nobility that exerted a natural dominion over others, together with the inner strength and perseverance that enabled him to prevail over a flood of obstacles. He made possible both the physical victory of American independence and the survival of the fractious and tottering young republic in its beginning years.
Around him in extraordinary fertility political talent bloomed as if touched by some tropical sun. For all their flaws and quarrels, the Founding Fathers have rightfully been called by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., “the most remarkable generation of public men in the history of the United States or perhaps of any other nation.” It is worth noting the qualities this historian ascribes to them: they were fearless, high-principled, deeply versed in ancient and modern political thought, astute and pragmatic, unafraid of experiment, and—this is significant—“convinced of man’s power to improve his condition through the use of intelligence.” That was the mark of the Age of Reason that formed them, and although the 18th century had a tendency to regard men as more rational than in fact they were, it evoked the best in government from these men.
It would be invaluable if we could know what produced this burst of talent from a base of only two and a half million inhabitants. Schlesinger suggests some contributing factors: wide diffusion of education, challenging economic opportunities, social mobility, training in self-government—all these encouraged citizens to cultivate their political aptitudes to the utmost. With the Church declining in prestige, and business, science and art not yet offering competing fields of endeavor, statecraft remained almost the only outlet for men of energy and purpose. Perhaps above all the need of the moment was what evoked the response, the opportunity to create a new political system. What could be more exciting, more likely to summon into action men of energy and purpose?
Not before or since has so much careful and reasonable thinking been invested in the formation of a governmental system. In the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions, too much class hatred and bloodshed were involved to allow for fair results or permanent constitutions. For two centuries, the American arrangement has always managed to right itself under pressure without discarding the system and trying another after every crisis, as have Italy and Germany, France and Spain. Under accelerating incompetence in America, this may change. Social systems can survive a good deal of folly when circumstances are historically favorable, or when bungling is cushioned by large resources or absorbed by sheer size as in the United States during its period of expansion. Today, when there are no more cushions, folly is less affordable. Yet the Founders remain a phenomenon to keep in mind to encourage our estimate of human possibilities, even if their example is too rare to be a basis of normal expectations.
In between flashes of good government, folly has its day. In the Bourbons of France, it burst into brilliant flower.
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’être. 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.”
By general agreement of historians, the most condemned act and worst error of Louis’ career was his Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, cancelling his grandfather’s decree of toleration and reopening persecution of the Huguenots. It lacks one qualification of complete folly in that, far from being reproved or admonished at the time, it was greeted with the greatest enthusiasm and still lauded thirty years later at the King’s funeral as one of his most praiseworthy acts. This very fact, however, reinforces another criterion—that the policy must be the product of a group rather than of an individual. Recognition as folly was not long delayed. Within decades, Voltaire called it “one of the greatest calamities of France,” with consequences “wholly contrary to the purpose in view.”
Like all follies, it was conditioned by the attitudes and beliefs and politics of the time, and like some, if not all, it was unnecessary, an activist policy when doing nothing would have served as well. The force of the old religious schism and of Calvinist doctrinal ferocity was fading; the Huguenots, who numbered fewer than two million or about one-tenth of the population, were loyal hard-working citizens, too hard-working for Catholic comfort. That was the rub. Since Huguenots kept only the Sabbath as against more than a hundred saints’ days and holy days kept by the Catholics, they were more productive and more successful in commerce. Their stores and workshops took away business, a consideration that operated behind the Catholic demand for their suppression. The demand was justified on the higher ground that religious dissidence was treason to the King and that abolition of freedom of conscience—“this deadly freedom”—would serve the nation as well as serve God.
The advice appealed to the King as he grew more autocratic after shedding the early tutelage of Cardinal Mazarin. The greater his autocracy, the more the existence of a dissident sect appeared to him an unacceptable rift in submission to the royal will. “One law, one King, one God” was his concept of the state, and after twenty-five years at its head, his political arteries had hardened and his capacity for tolerating differences atrophied. He had acquired the disease of divine mission so often disastrous to rulers, convincing himself that it was the Almighty’s will “that I should be His instrument in bringing back to His ways all those who are subject to me.” In addition, he had political motives. Given the Catholic leanings of James II in England, Louis believed that the balance of Europe was swinging back to Catholic supremacy and that he could assist it by a dramatic gesture against the Protestants. Further, because of quarrels with the Pope over other issues, he wished to show himself the champion of orthodoxy, reaffirming the ancient French title of “Most Christian King.”
Persecution began in 1681 before the actual Revocation. Protestant services were banned, schools and churches closed, Catholic baptism enforced, children separated from their families at age seven to be brought up as Catholics, professions and occupations gradually restricted until prohibited, Huguenot officials ordered to resign, clerical conversion squads organized and monetary bounty offered to each convert. Decree followed decree separating and uprooting the Huguenots from their own community and from national life.
Persecution engenders its own brutality, and resort to violent measures was soon adopted, of which the most atrocious—and effective—were the dragonnades, or billeting of dragoons on Huguenot families with encouragement to behave as viciously as they wished. Notoriously rough and undisciplined, the enlisted troops of the dragoons spread carnage, beating and robbing the householders, raping the women, smashing and wrecking and leaving filth while the authorities offered exemption from the horror of billeting as inducement to convert. Mass conversions under these circumstances could hardly be regarded as genuine and caused resentment among Catholics because they involved the Church in perjury and sacrilege. Unwilling communicants were sometimes driven to Mass, among them resisters who spat and trampled on the Eucharist and were burned at the stake for profaning the sacrament.
Emigration of the Huguenots began in defiance of edicts forbidding them to leave under penalty, if caught, of sentence to the galleys. Their pastors on the other hand, if they refused to abjure, were forced into exile for fear they would preach in secret, encouraging converts to relapse. Obdurate pastors who continued to hold services were broken on the wheel, creating martyrs and stimulating the resistance of their following.
When mass conversions were reported to the King, as many as 60,000 in one region in three days, he took the decision to revoke the Edict of Nantes on the ground that it was no longer needed because there were no more Huguenots. Some doubts of the advisability of the policy by this time were rising. At a Council held on the eve of the Revocation, the Dauphin, probably expressing concerns privately conveyed to him, cautioned that revoking the Edict might cause revolts and mass emigration harmful to French commerce, but he seems to have raised the only contrary voice, doubtless because he was safe from reprisal. A week later, on 18 October 1685, Revocation was formally decreed and the act hailed as “the miracle of our times.”
“Never had there been such a triumph of joy,” wrote the caustic Saint-Simon, who held his fire until after the King was dead, “never such a profusion of praise.… All the King heard was praise.”
The ill effects were soon felt. Huguenot textile workers, paper makers and other artisans, whose techniques had been a monopoly of France, took their skills abroad to England and the German states; bankers and merchants took their capital; printers, bookmakers, ship-builders, lawyers, doctors and many pastors escaped. Within four years, 8000–9000 men of the Navy, and 10,000–12,000 of the Army, plus 500–600 officers, made their way to the Netherlands to add their strength to the forces of Louis’ enemy William III, soon a double enemy when he became King of England three years later in place of the ousted James II. The silk industry of Tours and Lyons is said to have been ruined and some important towns like Reims and Rouen to have lost half their workers.
Exaggeration, beginning with Saint-Simon’s virulent censure claiming “depopulation” of the realm by as much as a quarter, was inevitable as it usually is when disadvantages are discovered after the event. The total number of émigrés is now estimated rather elastically at anywhere from 100,000 to 250,000. Whatever their number, their value to France’s opponents was immediately recognized by Protestant states. Holland granted them rights of citizenship at once and exemption from taxes for three years. Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg (the future Prussia), issued a decree within a week of the Revocation inviting the Huguenots into his territory where their industrial enterprise contributed greatly to the rise of Berlin.
Recent studies have concluded that the economic damage done to France by the Huguenot emigration has been overrated, it being only one element in the larger damage caused by the wars. Of the political damage, however, there is no question. The flood of anti-French pamphlets and satires issued by Huguenot printers and their friends in all the cities where they settled aroused antagonism to France to new heat. The Protestant coalition against France was strengthened when Brandenburg entered into alliance with Holland, and the smaller German principalities joined. In France itself the Protestant faith was reinvigorated by persecution and the feud with Catholics revived. A prolonged revolt of the Camisard Huguenots in the Cévennes, a mountainous region of the south, brought on a cruel war of repression, weakening the state. Here and among other Huguenot communities which remained in France, a receptive base was created for the Revolution to come.
More profound was the discredit left upon the concept of absolute monarchy. By the dissenters’ rejection of the King’s right to impose religious unity, the divine right of royal authority everywhere was laid open to question and stimulus given to the constitutional challenge that the next century held in store. When Louis XIV, outliving son and grandson, died in 1715 after a reign of 72 years, he bequeathed, not the national unity that had been his objective, but an enlivened and embittered dissent, not national aggrandizement in wealth and power, but a weakened, disordered and impoverished state. Never had so self-centered a ruler so effectively despoiled self-interest.
The feasible alternative would have been to leave the Huguenots alone or at most satisfy the cry against them by civil decrees rather than by force and atrocity. Although ministers, clergy and people thoroughly approved of the persecution, none of the reasons for it was exigent. The peculiarity of the whole affair was its needlessness, and this underlines two characteristics of folly: it often does not spring from a great design, and its consequences are frequently a surprise. The folly lies in persisting thereafter. With acute if unwitting significance, a French historian wrote of the Revocation that “Great designs are rare in politics; the King proceeded empirically and sometimes impulsively.” His point is reinforced from an unexpected source in a perceptive comment by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who cautioned, “In analyzing history do not be too profound, for often the causes are quite superficial.” This is a factor usually overlooked by political scientists who, in discussing the nature of power, always treat it, even when negatively, with immense respect. They fail to see it as sometimes a matter of ordinary men walking into water over their heads, acting unwisely or foolishly or perversely as people in ordinary circumstances frequently do. The trappings and impact of power deceive us, endowing the possessors with a quality larger than life. Shorn of his tremendous curled peruke, high heels and ermine, the Sun King was a man subject to misjudgment, error and impulse—like you and me.
The last French Bourbon to reign, Charles X, brother of the guillotined Louis XVI and of his brief successor, Louis XVIII, displayed a recurring type of folly best described as the Humpty-Dumpty type: that is to say, the effort to reinstate a fallen and shattered structure, turning back history. In the process, called reaction or counterrevolution, the reactionary right is bent on restoring the privileges and property of the old regime and somehow retrieving a strength it did not have before.
When Charles X at age 67 ascended the throne in 1824, France had passed through 35 years of the most radical changes in history up to that point, from complete revolution to Napoleonic empire to Waterloo and restoration of the Bourbons. Since it was then impossible to cancel all the rights and liberties and legal reforms incorporated in government since the Revolution, Louis XVIII accepted a constitution, though he could never accustom himself to the idea of a constitutional monarchy, and it was beyond the comprehension of his brother Charles. Having seen the process at work during exile in England, Charles said he would sooner earn his living as a woodcutter than be King of England. Not surprisingly, he was the hope of the émigrés who had returned with the Bourbons and who wanted the old regime put back together again, complete with rank, titles and especially their confiscated property.
In the National Assembly they were represented by the Ultras of the right, who, together with a splinter group of extreme Ultras, formed the strongest party. This had been accomplished by restricting the franchise to the wealthiest class by the interesting method of reducing the taxes of known opponents so they could not meet the tax qualification of 300 francs required for voters. Government office was similarly restricted. Ultras held all the ministerial posts, including a religious extremist as Minister of Justice whose political ideas, it was said, were formed by regular reading of the Apocalypse. His colleagues imposed strict laws of censorship and elastic laws of search and arrest and, as their primary achievement, created a fund to compensate approximately 70,000 émigrés or their heirs at an annual rate of 1377 francs. This was too little to satisfy them but enough to outrage the bourgeois whose taxes were paying for it.
The beneficiaries of the Revolution and of Napoleon’s court were not prepared to make way for the émigrés and clergy of the old regime, and discontent was rising although still subdued. Surrounded by his Ultras, the King could probably have more or less comfortably completed his reign if he had not by aggravated unwisdom brought about its downfall. Charles was determined to rule and, while lightly endowed for the task intellectually, was rich in the Bourbon capacity to learn nothing and forget nothing. When opposition in the Assembly grew troublesome, he took the advice of his ministers to dissolve the session and, by bribes, threats and other pressures, to manipulate an acceptable election. Instead, the royalists lost by almost two to one. Refusing to acquiesce in the result like some helpless King of England, Charles decreed another dissolution and under a new and narrower franchise and sterner censorship, another election.
The opposition press called for resistance. While the King went hunting, not expecting overt conflict and having summoned no military support, the people of Paris, as so many times before and since, put up barricades and enthusiastically engaged in three days of street fighting known to the French as les trois glorieuses. Opposition deputies organized a provisional government. Charles abdicated and fled to the despised haven of limited monarchy across the Channel. No great tragedy, the episode was historically significant only in moving France a step forward from counter-revolution to the “bourgeois” monarchy of Louis-Philippe. More significant in the history of folly, it illustrates the futility of the recurrent attempt, not confined to Bourbons, to reconstruct a broken egg.
Throughout history cases of military folly have been innumerable, but they are outside the scope of this inquiry. Two of the most eventful, however, both involving war with the United States, represent policy decisions at the government level. They were the German decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare in 1916 and the Japanese decision to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941. In both cases, contrary voices warned against the course taken, urgently and despairingly in Germany, discreetly but with profound doubt in Japan, unsuccessfully in both. The folly in both cases belongs to the category of self-imprisonment in the “we-have-no-alternative” argument and in the most frequent and fatal of self-delusions—underestimation of the opponent.
“Unrestricted” submarine warfare meant the sinking without warning of merchant ships found in a declared blockade zone, whether belligerent or neutral, armed or unarmed. Sternly protested by the United States on the dearly held principle of the neutral’s right to freedom of the seas, the practice had been halted in 1915 after the frenzy over the Lusitania, less because of American outrage and threat to break relations, and the antagonizing of other neutrals, than because Germany did not have enough U-boats on hand to give assurance of decisive effect if she forced the issue.
By this time, indeed by the end of 1914 after the failure of the opening offensive to knock out either Russia or France, Germany’s rulers recognized that they could not win the war against the three combined Allies if they held together, but rather, as the Chief of Staff told the Chancellor, that “It was more likely that we ourselves should become exhausted.”
Political action to gain a separate peace with Russia was required, but this failed as did numerous other feelers and overtures made to or by Germany with regard to Belgium, France and even Britain during the next two years. All failed for the same reason—that Germany’s terms in each case were punitive, as if by a victor, providing for the other party to leave the war while yielding annexations and indemnities. It was always the stick, never the carrot, and none of Germany’s opponents was tempted to betray its allies on that basis.
By the end of 1916 both sides were approaching exhaustion in resources as well as military ideas, spending literally millions of lives at Verdun and the Somme for gains or losses measured in yards. Germany was living on a diet of potatoes and conscripting fifteen-year-olds for the Army. The Allies were holding on meagerly with no means of victory in sight unless the great fresh untapped strength of America were added to their side.
During these two years, while Kiel’s shipyards were furiously turning out submarines toward a goal of 200, the Supreme High Command battled in high-level conferences over renewal of the torpedo campaign against the strongly negative advice of civilian ministers. To resume unrestricted sinkings, the civilians insisted, would, in the words of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, “inevitably cause America to join our enemies.” The High Command did not deny but discounted this possibility. Because it was plain that Germany could not win the war on land alone, their object had become to defeat Britain, already staggering under shortages, by cutting off her supplies by sea before the United States could mobilize, train and transport troops to Europe in any number sufficient to affect the outcome. They claimed this could be accomplished within three or four months. Admirals unrolled charts and graphs proving how many tons the U-boats could send to the bottom in a given time until they should have Britain “gasping in the reeds like a fish.”
The contrary voices, beginning with the Chancellor’s, countered that American belligerency would give the Allies enormous financial aid and a lift in morale encouraging them to hold out until aid in troops should arrive, besides giving them use of all the German tonnage interned in American ports and very likely bringing in other neutrals as well. Vice-Chancellor Karl Helfferich believed that releasing the U-boats would “lead to ruin.” Foreign Office officials directly concerned with American affairs were equally opposed. Two leading bankers returned from a mission to the United States to warn against underestimating the potential energies of the American people, who, they said, if aroused and convinced of a good cause, could mobilize forces and resources on an unimagined scale.
Of all the dissuaders, the most urgent was the German Ambassador to Washington, Count von Bernstorff, whose non-Prussian birth and upbringing spared him many of the delusions of his peers. Well acquainted with America, Bernstorff repeatedly warned his government that American belligerency was certain to follow the U-boats and would lose Germany the war. As the military’s insistence grew intense, he was straining in every message home to swerve his country from the course he believed would be fatal. He had become convinced that the only way to avert that outcome would be to stop the war itself through mediation for a compromise peace which President Wilson was preparing to offer. Bethmann too was anxious for it on the theory that if the Allies rejected such a peace, as expected, while Germany accepted, she could then be justified in resuming unrestricted submarine warfare without provoking American belligerency.
The war party clamoring for the U-boats included the Junkers and court circle, the expansionist war-aims associations, the right-wing parties and a majority of the public, which had been taught to pin its faith on the submarine as the means to break England’s food blockade of Germany and vanquish the enemy. A few despised voices of Social Democrats in the Reichstag shouted, “The people don’t want submarine warfare but bread and peace!” but little attention was paid to them because German citizens, no matter how hungry, remained obedient. Kaiser Wilhelm II, assailed by uncertainties but unwilling to appear any less bold than his commanders, added his voice to theirs.
Wilson’s offer of December 1916 to bring together the belligerents for negotiation of a “peace without victory” was rejected by both sides. Neither was prepared to accept a settlement without some gain to justify its suffering and sacrifice in lives, and to pay for the war. Germany was not fighting for the status quo but for German hegemony of Europe and a greater empire overseas. She wanted not a mediated but a dictated peace and had no wish, as the Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann, wrote to Bernstorff, “to risk being cheated of what we hope to gain from the war” by a neutral mediator. Any settlement requiring renunciations and indemnities by Germany—the only settlement the Allies would accept—would mean the end of the Hohenzollerns and the governing class. They also had to make someone pay for the war or go bankrupt. A peace without victory would not only terminate dreams of mastery but require enormous taxes to pay for years of fighting that had grown profitless. It would mean revolution. To the throne, the military caste, the landowners, industrialists and barons of business, only a war of gain offered any hope of their survival in power.
The decision was taken at a conference of the Kaiser and Chancellor and Supreme Command on 9 January 1917. Admiral von Holtzendorff, Naval Chief of Staff, presented a 200-page compilation of statistics on tonnage entering British ports, freight rates, cargo space, rationing systems, food prices, comparisons with last year’s harvest and everything down to the calorie content of the British breakfast, and swore that his U-boats could sink 600,000 tons a month, forcing England to capitulate before the next harvest. He said this was Germany’s last opportunity and he could see no other way to win the war “so as to guarantee our future as a world power.”
Bethmann spoke for an hour in reply, marshaling all the arguments of the advisers who warned that American belligerency would mean Germany’s defeat. Frowns and restless mutterings around the table confronted him. He knew that the Navy, deciding for itself, had already despatched the submarines. Slowly he knuckled under. True, the increased number of U-boats offered a better chance of success than before. Yes, the last harvest had been poor for the Allies. On the other hand, America … Field Marshal von Hindenburg interrupted to affirm that the Army could “take care of America,” while von Holtzendorff offered his “guarantee” that “no American will set foot on the Continent!” The melancholy Chancellor gave way. “Of course,” he said, “if success beckons, we must follow.”
He did not resign. An official who found him later slumped in his chair, looking stricken, asked in alarm if there had been bad news from the front. “No,” answered Bethmann, “but finis Germaniae.”
Nine months earlier, in a previous crisis over the U-boats, Kurt Riezler, Bethmann’s assistant assigned to the General Staff, had reached a similar verdict when he wrote in his diary for 24 April 1916, “Germany is like a person staggering along an abyss, wishing for nothing more fervently than to throw himself into it.”
So it proved. Although the sinkings took a terrible toll of Allied shipping before the convoy system took effect, the British, upheld by the American declaration of war, did not capitulate. Despite von Holtzendorff’s guarantee, two million American troops eventually reached Europe and within eight months of the first major American offensive, the surrender that came was Germany’s.
Was there an alternative? Given insistence on victory and refusal to admit reality, probably not. But a better outcome could have been won by accepting Wilson’s proposal, knowing it would be a dead end, thus preventing or certainly postponing the addition of American strength to the enemy. Without America, the Allies could not have held out for victory, and as victory was probably beyond Germany’s power too, both sides would have slogged to an exhausted but more or less equal peace. For the world the consequences of that unused alternative would have changed history; no victory, no reparations, no war guilt, no Hitler, possibly no Second World War.
Like many alternatives, however, it was psychologically impossible. Character is fate, as the Greeks believed. Germans were schooled in winning objectives by force, unschooled in adjustment. They could not bring themselves to forgo aggrandizement even at the risk of defeat. Riezler’s abyss summoned them.
In 1941 Japan faced a similar decision. Her plan of empire, called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, with the subjugation of China at its core, was a vision of Japanese rule stretching from Manchuria through the Philippines, Netherlands Indies, Malaya, Siam, Burma to (and sometimes including, depending on the discretion of the spokesman) Australia, New Zealand and India. Japan’s appetite was in inverse proportion to her size, though not to her will. To move the forces necessary for this enterprise, access was essential to iron, oil, rubber, rice and other raw materials far beyond her own possession. The moment for accomplishment came when war broke out in Europe and the Western colonial powers, Japan’s major opponents in the region, were fighting for survival or already helpless—France defeated, the Netherlands occupied though retaining a government in exile, Britain battered by the Luftwaffe and having little to spare for action on the other side of the world.
The obstacle in Japan’s way was the United States, which persistently refused to recognize her progressive conquests in China and was increasingly disinclined to make available the materials to fuel further Japanese adventure. Atrocities in China, attack on the United States gunboat Panay and other provocations were factors in American opinion. In 1940 Japan concluded the Tripartite Treaty making herself a partner of the Axis powers and moved into French Indochina when France succumbed in Europe. The United States, in response, froze Japanese assets and embargoed the sale of scrap iron, oil and aviation gasoline. Prolonged diplomatic exchanges through 1940 and 1941 in the effort to reach a ground of agreement proved futile. Despite isolationist sentiment, America would not acquiesce in Japanese control of China while Japan would accept no limitations there or restraints on her freedom of movement elsewhere in Asia.
Responsible Japanese leaders, as distinct from the military extremists and political hotheads, did not want war with the United States. What they wanted was to keep America quiescent while they moved forward to gain the empire of Asia. They believed this could be managed by sheer insistence, augmented by bluster, fierce and pretentious demands, and intimidation implicit in partnership with the Axis. When these methods seemed only to stiffen American non-acquiescence, the Japanese became convinced, on too little examination, that if they moved to gain their first objective, the vital resources of the Netherlands Indies, the United States would go to war against them. How to achieve one without provoking the other was the problem that tortured them through 1940–41.
Strategy demanded that in order to seize the Indies and transport its raw materials to Japan, it was necessary to protect the Japanese flank from any threat of United States naval action in the Southwest Pacific. Admiral Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Navy and architect of the Pearl Harbor strike, knew that Japan had no hope of ultimate victory over the United States. As he told Premier Konoye, “I have utterly no confidence for the second or third year.” Since he believed that operations against the Netherlands Indies “will lead to an early commencement of war with America,” his plan was to force the issue and knock the United States out by a “fatal blow.” Then, by conquering Southeast Asia, Japan could acquire the resources necessary for a protracted war to establish her hegemony over the Co-Prosperity Sphere. And so he proposed that Japan should “fiercely attack and destroy the United States main fleet at the outset of the war so that the morale of the United States Navy and her people [would] sink to an extent that it could not be recovered.” This curious estimate came from a man who was not unacquainted with America, having attended Harvard and served as naval attaché in Washington.
Planning for the supremely audacious blow to smash the United States Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor began in January 1941 while the ultimate decision continued to be the subject of intense maneuvering between the government and armed services throughout the year. Advocates of the preemptive strike promised, none too confidently, that it would remove the United States from all possibility of interference and, it was hoped, from further hostilities altogether. And if it did not, asked the doubtful, what then? They argued that Japan could not win a prolonged war against the United States, that the life of their nation was being staked on a gamble. At no time during the discussions were warning voices silent. The Prime Minister, Prince Konoye, resigned, commanders were at odds, advisers hesitant and reluctant, the Emperor glum. When he asked if the surprise attack would win as great a victory as the surprise attack on Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese War, Admiral Nagano, Chief of Naval General Staff, replied that it was doubtful that Japan would win at all. (It is possible that in speaking to the Emperor, this could have been a ritual bow of oriental self-disparagement, but at so serious a moment that would seem uncalled for.)
In this atmosphere of doubt why was the extreme risk approved? Partly because exasperation at the failure of all her efforts at intimidation had led to an all-or-nothing state of mind and a helpless yielding like Bethmann’s by the civilians to the military. Further, the grandiose mood of the fascist powers in which no conquest seemed impossible, must be taken into account. Japan had mobilized a military will of terrible force which was in fact to accomplish extraordinary triumphs, among them the capture of Singapore and the blow on Pearl Harbor itself, which brought the United States close to panic. Fundamentally the reason Japan took the risk was that she had either to go forward or content herself with the status quo, which no one was willing or could politically afford to suggest. Over a generation, pressure from the aggressive army in China and from its partisans at home had fused Japan to the goal of an impossible empire from which she could not now retreat. She had become a prisoner of her oversize ambitions.
An alternative strategy would have been to proceed against the Netherlands Indies while leaving the United States untouched. While this would have left an unknown quantity in Japan’s rear, an unknown quantity would have been preferable to a certain enemy, especially one of potential vastly superior to her own.
Here was a strange miscalculation. At a time when at least half the United States was strongly isolationist, the Japanese did the one thing that could have united the American people and motivated the whole nation for war. So deep was the division in America in the months before Pearl Harbor that renewal of the one-year draft law was enacted in Congress by a majority of only one vote—a single vote. The fact is that Japan could have seized the Indies without any risk of American belligerency; no attack on Dutch, British or French colonial territory would have brought the United States into the war. Attack on American territory was just the thing—and the only thing—that could. Japan seems never to have considered that the effect of an attack on Pearl Harbor might be not to crush morale but to unite the nation for combat. This curious vacuum of understanding came from what might be called cultural ignorance, a frequent component of folly. (Although present on both sides, in Japan’s case it was critical.) Judging America by themselves, the Japanese assumed that the American government could take the nation into war whenever it wished, as Japan would have done and indeed did. Whether from ignorance, miscalculation or pure recklessness, Japan gave her opponent the one blow necessary to bring her to purposeful and determined belligerency.
Although Japan was starting a war, not already deeply caught in one, her circumstances otherwise were strikingly similar to Germany’s in 1916–17. Both sets of rulers staked the life of the nation and lives of the people on a gamble that, in the long run, as many of them were aware, was almost sure to be lost. The impulse came from the compelling lure of dominion, from pretensions of grandeur, from greed.
A principle that emerges in the cases so far mentioned is that folly is a child of power. We all know, from unending repetitions of Lord Acton’s dictum, that power corrupts. We are less aware that it breeds folly; that the power to command frequently causes failure to think; that the responsibility of power often fades as its exercise augments. The overall responsibility of power is to govern as reasonably as possible in the interest of the state and its citizens. A duty in that process is to keep well-informed, to heed information, to keep mind and judgment open and to resist the insidious spell of wooden-headedness. If the mind is open enough to perceive that a given policy is harming rather than serving self-interest, and self-confident enough to acknowledge it, and wise enough to reverse it, that is a summit in the art of government.
The policy of the victors after World War II in contrast to the Treaty of Versailles and the reparations exacted after World War I is an actual case of learning from experience and putting what was learned into practice—an opportunity that does not often present itself. The occupation of Japan according to a post-surrender policy drafted in Washington, approved by the Allies and largely carried out by Americans, was a remarkable exercise in conqueror’s restraint, political intelligence, reconstruction and creative change. Keeping the Emperor at the head of the Japanese state prevented political chaos and supplied a footing for obedience through him to the army of occupation and an acceptance that proved amazingly docile. Apart from disarmament, demilitarization and trials of war criminals to establish blame, the goal was democratization politically and economically through constitutional and representative government and through the breaking up of cartels and land reform. The power of the huge Japanese industrial enterprises proved in the end intransigent, but political democracy, which ordinarily should be impossible to achieve by fiat and only gained by inches through the slow struggle of centuries, was successfully transferred and on the whole adopted. The army of occupation ruled through offices of liaison with Japanese ministries rather than directly. The purge of former officials brought in juniors not perhaps essentially different from their predecessors but willing to accept change. Education and textbooks were revised and the status of the Emperor modified to that of symbol “deriving from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.”
Mistakes were made, especially in military policy. The authoritarian nature of Japanese society seeped back. Yet the result on the whole was beneficial, rather than vindictive, and may be taken as an encouraging reminder that wisdom in government is still an arrow that remains, however rarely used, in the human quiver.
The rarest kind of reversal—that of a ruler recognizing that a policy was not serving self-interest and daring the dangers of reversing it by 180 degrees—occurred only yesterday, historically speaking. It was President Sadat’s abandonment of a sterile enmity with Israel and his search, in defiance of outrage and threats by his neighbors, for a more useful relationship. Both in risk and potential gain, it was a major act, and in substituting common sense and courage for mindless continuance in negation, it ranks high and lonely in history, undiminished by the subsequent tragedy of assassination.
The pages that follow will tell a more familiar and—unhappily for mankind—a more persistent story. The ultimate outcome of a policy is not what determines its qualification as folly. All misgovernment is contrary to self-interest in the long run, but may actually strengthen a regime temporarily. It qualifies as folly when it is a perverse persistence in a policy demonstrably unworkable or counter-productive. It seems almost superfluous to say that the present study stems from the ubiquity of this problem in our time.