- - Monday, April 30, 2018


By John Lewis Gaddis

Penguin Press, $26, 368 pages

John Lewis Gaddis, professor of History at Yale, is the author of “The United States and the Origins of the Cold War,” “Strategies of Containment,” “The Long Peace,” “The Landscape of History,” “Surprise, Security, and the American Experience” and “The Cold War: A New History.” His “George F. Kennan: An American Life” won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in biography.

At Yale he teaches courses in grand strategy, biography, historical methodology, and Cold War history, an area in which he is widely acknowledged to be the authority, although there are critics, especially Marxist historians, who find Mr. Gaddis to be too American in his overview.

But in the academy there will always be Marxists, for whom their creed provides a comfortable explanation for the inexplicable, especially that phenomenon that non-Marxists call human nature. And if it requires external pressure to reshape that phenomenon, so be it.

Mr. Gaddis quotes Lenin to that effect: “‘The masses were too stupid and too blind to be allowed to proceed in the direction of their own choosing. [T]hey could only be saved by being ruthlessly ordered by leaders who had acquired a capacity for knowing how to organize the liberated slaves into a rational planned system.’”

And speaking of Marx, in this highly readable compilation of what has been taught in Mr. Gaddis’ strategy course, we learn things we may not have known. For instance, in 1861, Karl Marx worked for Horace Greeley as the London correspondent for Greeley’s New York Tribune, predicting “the North would, though not easily, win a civil war, owing to its material assets but also the possibility of igniting, in the South, a slave revolt.”

Material assets could also mean problems for the North, with the threat of European powers returning to North America to further their interests in “the growing capitalism of cotton.” But although Lincoln professed to know nothing about diplomacy, he handled the British and French with aplomb.

He began to win battles and proclaimed emancipation, thereby, as the moral implications of an alliance with the South became clear to Europeans, simplifying his diplomacy. With Lincoln’s reelection in 1864, Gen. Grant wrote to him, “‘The election having passed off quietly is a victory worth more to the country than a battle won. Rebeldom and Europe will so construe it.’”

Again, there were words from Karl Marx, writing to Lincoln that “it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race. ” But Lincoln saw himself “not so much as a son of the working class, but of the Founders: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers. ” How aware Lincoln himself was of Marx, Mr. Gaddis doesn’t say.

The ground covered in the yearlong “great strategy” course taught by Mr. Gaddis, with Charles Hill and Paul Kennedy, ranges from the ancient world through World War II and the Cold War, assessing strategic theory and practice, through Herodotus, Thucydides, Octavian/Augustus, Saint Augustine, Machiavelli, Elizabeth I, Philip II, Clausewitz, Tolstoy, Lincoln, Wilson, FDR.

These and other historic figures populate this book, with some unexpected walk-ons, among them F. Scott Fitzgerald, who in 1936 described a first-rate intelligence as having “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Spider Man is another visitor: “‘With great power comes great responsibility,’ Spider-Man’s uncle Ben reminded him memorably — but also the danger of doing dumb things.”

“Which is what grand strategy is meant to prevent. I’ll define that term. as the alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities. If you seek ends beyond your means, then sooner or later you’ll have to scale back your ends to fit your means.”

Examples of strategic failures, people doing dumb things include Xerxes’ invasion of Greece, the Spanish Armada, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, a strategic mistake duplicated by Hitler, and our own Vietnam experience, which suffered from ill-defined aspirations, no coherent analysis of the required capabilities, and a dearth of common sense.

Finally, although only touched on, Mr. Gaddis is saddened by the current state of his discipline, which he divides into two camps. Academic historians increasingly specialize in narrow research, while theorists are eager to be seen as “social scientists.”

Both groups neglect relationships “between the general and the particular — between universal and local knowledge — that nurture strategic thinking. And both, as if to add opacity to this insufficiency, too often write badly.”

And that, as “On Grand Strategy” amply demonstrates, is a charge that will never be leveled at Mr. Gaddis.

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).”

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