George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is a wise quote that people ignore at their peril. In “American History Revised,” Seymour Morris Jr. details 20 events, starting in the 1800s, that eventually repeated themselves in the late 1900s and early 2000s. He also quotes H.D.S. Greenway, who wrote in the International Herald Tribune:
Americans are notorious for ignoring historical precedents because they believe in American exceptionalism to such a degree that what befell other countries in the past can have no relevance to the present or the future. I once asked an American general in Vietnam if he had read anything about the French experience in Indochina, and he said there was no point because the French had lost and, therefore, had nothing to teach Americans.
Right. The only we could learn was, oh, not to repeat the same mistakes of the French. It seems like a no-brainer to me that in any diplomatic, engineering, military or other conflict that one of the first things you do is to read up on what others have tried before you. If X didn’t work because it was too costly or the design was flawed, move on to Y; don’t try to re-create X. As another famous quote goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
A few events that Morris presents:
- the failure of 40 percent of U.S. banks in 1837;
- the destruction of Galveston, Texas, by a hurricane in 1900, resulting in 6,000 deaths;
- the first simulated attack on Pearl Harbor in 1932, which was such a success the Japanese followed it exactly nine years later;
- the first (unsuccessful) terrorist attack on America in 1942 by eight German “saboteurs” who had a change of heart and turned themselves in, only to be denied habeus corpus by the Supreme Court, a precedent later used by President Bush to justify the detainees held in Guantanamo;
- the investigation and one-sided trial of atomic bomb scientist Robert Oppenheimer, which led to the revocation of his security clearance, in 1953 for expressing doubts about building a hydrogen bomb, which he said would lead to “mass genocide”;
- the claim by the Pentagon that the Russians possessed hundreds of missiles, a sticking point that helped JFK win election, only to find out there were only four Russian missiles to the United States’ 1,000;
- the destruction of the Challenger in 1981 due to ice build-up, even after a similar problem caused the submarine Thresher to implode in 1963, killing 163 people;
- the 2,749 deaths in the catastrophic collapse of the World Trade Center towers in 2001, partly due to inadequate safety regulations, even after 1,506 people died in the sinking of the Titanic because there weren’t enough lifeboats for all of the passengers.
As these examples make clear, history does repeat itself. The wisest leaders are the ones who are students of history and learn from the mistakes of their predecessors.