The Power of the Past: History and Tradecraft

  • Published

The Power of the Past: History and Tradecraft ed. Hal Brands and Jeremi Suri. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2016, 327 pp.


When trying to set the course for foreign policy, American leaders will often turn to history as a guide, looking for inspiration as to what course of action to take and what course of action to avoid. The perspectives and actions of those leaders will vary with their experiences, as well as the experiences and outlooks of their advisors. In The Power of the Past, this compilation of essays offers multiple perspectives on how American political leaders, mainly from the executive branch of government, used history as a guide to help determine the decisions they made in regards to foreign policy.

Divided into 12 separate essays, this book explores variations in interpretations of history in the implementation of statecraft. The scope of the history involved primarily remains in the twentieth century, with the main emphasis on policies enacted during the later quarter of the twentieth century and into the first decade and a half of the twenty-first century. The 12 essays are broken up into three sections within the book: “How History Does Influence Policy,” “How History Can and Should Influence Policy,” and “Policymakers’ Insights.” The last section is of note in that former US government policy makers, who had to take historical perspectives and convert them into actual policy, write the essays. The rest of the essays come from noted historians, who offer their expert insights into the role of history and its use in the creation of statecraft.

Outside the main theme of how history is or is not used in the creation of foreign policy, the topics of the essays make a wide swath, even within the themed sections. While most of the essays focus on the actions of recent history, there is an outlier essay, “The Ambiguities of Humanitarian Intervention,” by Michael Cotey Morgan. In this particular work, Morgan attempts to describe the perils and difficulties of US policy makers intervening for humanitarian matters. His historical example of how England and the US attempted to counter the illegality of importing slaves from Africa after 1808, while informative about an understudied part of history, does not seem to fit in with the timing of the other essays, which all have a distinctly twentieth- / twenty-first-century focus to their analysis. Important lessons, but a reader might wonder if there is a more modern example of humanitarian intervention that could or should have made the cut for this book.

The vast majority of the essays focus on how the White House and the president used history to make their decisions, each taking different lessons from different times of history. American leaders in this work cite the well-known failures of Munich and Vietnam often, mostly as they sought to avoid repeating those mistakes. Yet, even in this work, different leaders took different lessons from those failures. For some, Munich (the infamous “appeasement” actions where Britain and France allowed Nazi Germany to occupy the rest of Czechoslovakia, setting the stage for the start of World War II) and Vietnam reflected the wisdom of decisive action at the right time, but for others, caution and discretion were the key takeaways. As the policy makers recount from personal experience, there is no one way that an administration views foreign policy. There are even accounts of how personalities and petty squabbles drove how leaders came to view and make foreign policy, as is recounted in William Inboden’s “Grand Strategy and Petty Squabbles.”

One significant positive aspect of this work is the quality of the writing. A number of the authors in this work, along with being highly regarded experts in their respective fields, are also strong writers. Readers might recognize such names as H. W. Brands, who has a series of best-selling presidential biographies about some of our more recent presidents. The material lends itself to academic style writing, which trends toward dry and not engaging reading. However, this work does not suffer from that problem. Historical facts and academic themes are blended together in concise, engaging writing, which can feel more like an oral story than academic treatise.

Overall, this work is a worth the time for students of history, political science, and international relations. The military reader can glean insights into how various leaders use history to guide policy decisions, offering examples for emulation or avoidance. The readability of the articles helps reinforce the main points the authors hope to convey. This is a book that could easily be read for academic reasons and for pleasure.

Lt Col Scott C. Martin, USAF

Fort Meade, MD



"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."