Barbara Tuchman was a journalist before becoming a history author, and despite The March of Folly being a book about certain historical incidents, it is more a work of journalism than history. It is an investigation into the process by which governments embark on self-destructive courses (‘folly’), despite recognition of the problem, and alternative courses being available. As such, it is more of a screed against certain practices, rather than a real attempt at balanced or impartial history.

The good news is that we’re not treated to the faint sound of axes grinding. Instead, we’re given front-row seats to the grinding wheel.

The book is split into four parts (with each one being longer than the last) on the Trojan Horse, the (start of) Reformation, the American Revolution, and Vietnam. Each is well written, but are effectively a completely separate work, since they just serve to try to illustrate her point, instead of having any inherent connection to each other.

The Trojan Horse section is purely illustrative of her point, since it’s a discussion of myth, with little idea of what really happened. But it is a powerful story, and not a bad way to bring up themes, though I don’t know that it’s overly successful here.

The Reformation is really about the ten major Popes in the run up to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. As such, it paints a picture of the excesses and temporal politics of the office while calls for ecclesiastical reform go unheeded. The main problem is that it ignores that high office was seen as a means of self- (or family-) aggrandizement. The idea of the point of office being something bigger than the self is a more modern idea (this is briefly addressed in the epilogue).

The American Revolution chapter mostly deals with events before the outbreak of fighting. Tuchman considers the end result of the conflict to be fairly inevitable (and right or wrong, this assumption helps keep her on-topic), and concentrates on how British policy ended up alienating people who wanted to be part of the empire into rebelling. As such, it is a very good Britain-centric analysis of British policy and government.

Similarly, the Vietnam chapter is at its best before American troops get directly involved there. Starting with the French, and the unresolved difference in goals between them and our aid to them, it traces through the entire tragedy to the American pullout. The fighting isn’t covered in any real sense, but the demands of rabid anti-communism with its fears of all communists everywhere working in concert with Moscow are well pointed out (though not as well developed as I’d like; though that’d probably be going off her topic).

An unaddressed theme that comes out of the last two parts is the fact that these crises often grow out of situations that just weren’t seen as very important at the time. They were low-priority, low-impact items that only increased in importance after missteps had caused the situation to blow up. The real ‘folly’ may belong more to being unable to prioritize correctly, but even that is an exercise in hindsight.