To Learn Strategy, Know History
Generally, we learn skills by trying something, failing, and trying again until we get it right. That's a conundrum for strategic decision-makers, because the opportunity to make strategic decisions comes around rarely, and failure at the strategic level can be devastating. The realm of strategy, more than any other discipline must be learned by watching and learning from the decisions of others.
in 1962, John F. Kennedy was confronted with the greatest decision or his era. Intelligence-gathering aircraft over Cuba confirmed the presence of missiles there that meant Cuba would soon have capability for launching a nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland.
Kennedy turned to his interest in history for wisdom. As it happened, JFK had recently read Barbara Tuchman's Pulitzer prize winning book on the antecedents and beginning of World War I called The Guns of August.
A particularly compelling passage in Tuchman's book describes how the critical moment arrived for Kaiser Wilhelm as he was to give the go-ahead for Germany's well-planned attack on France through the neutral country of Belgium. In the middle of a sleepless night, the Kaiser had a change of heart... second thoughts.. cold feet. After all, pulling the trigger on what was called the Schlieffen plan would mean an attack on a country protected by alliances. It would also set into motion, in domino fashion, a series of promises that most of the European countries had made to one or more of its allies that each would go to war to protect the other in certain carefully defined circumstance that would lead to inflexible, almost automatic response.
"I have changed my mind!" the Kaiser told his generals, suggesting that they stick to a one-front war with Russia. But it was too late.
“I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [called] ‘The Missiles of October’,” Kennedy told his brother Robert Kennedy. "If anyone is around to write after this, they are going to understand that we made every effort to find peace and every effort to give our adversary room to move."
He wanted to “send a copy of that book to every Navy officer,” he said. JFK made his aides read “The Guns of August” and had copies distributed to every US military base in the world.
“It had a huge impact on his thinking, becoming the dominant metaphor for JFK on the crisis,” says Graham Allison, a Harvard political scientist and the author of “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
Neustadt and May assure us that "Vicarious experience acquired from the past, even the remote past, gives such guidance to the present that history becomes more than its own reward. Knowledge conveys wisdom; ignorance courts trouble."
N and M: "Thucydides, the exiled Athenian, argued that his history of the Peloponnesian Wars could arm future decision-makers to do better when comparable choices came around again on time's enduring track (he saw it as a circle)."
"Robert Kennedy found a way around the dilemma. In private conversations with Dobrynin, he promised that the U.S. missiles would be out of Turkey in four or five months. He also said that he would deny ever making such a promise --- when the deal happened, all that was announced to the world was that the soviet missiles would be withdrawn from Cuba in return for assurances that the US would not invade Cuba. Five months later the missiles were withdrawn.