Many times throughout history governments have pursued policies that go directly against their own self-interest. Barbara Tuchman defines such pursuits as folly, hence the title of her book The March of Folly. It is not that such policies appeared to be folly only in retrospect. To qualify as folly they had to be obvious folly to those living in the time. And it is not just that the governmental policies went against their own self-interest, but other, better, options had to be available.
Tuchman begins with a brief chapter on the Trojans taking the horse inside their city walls. In spite of the warnings of people that it may be a Greek trap and the call to investigate the horse more closely, the Trojans chose folly and brought downfall on themselves. As the oldest story this one sets the tone for later instances of folly. Tuchman’s later examples, more recent and thus with much more historical data, all receive much longer treatments. She tells of how the Renaissance Popes blundered and ended up losing a large chunk of their power to the Protestant Reformation. Then she talks of the British folly leading up to the outbreak of the American Revolution. Finally, we see how the Americans emulated the British folly in the policies surrounding the Vietnam war.
As I read this book other, more recent, examples of governmental folly came to mind, but I’ll allow you to think of some for yourself. Tuchman could have included myriads more. As a sidenote, after reading the book I listened to the most recent Hardcore History podcast on the Spanish-American war and the subsequent American involvement in the Philippines in the early 1900s. Another case of folly.
Some of the chapters got a bit lengthy and I think Tuchman could have made the point with a bit more brevity. Perhaps shortening the existing chapters could have allowed a few more examples. That said, for the fan of history it is still a fantastic book. It is not Tuchman’s best, that prize goes to the fantastic Guns of August. But it is a worthy read.