Home The Washington Diplomat November 2009 Historian Says Traversing the Past Offers Clarity, But No Roadmap

Historian Says Traversing the Past Offers Clarity, But No Roadmap


It comes as no surprise that Margaret MacMillan, one of the world’s most popular and respected historians, believes that policymakers and diplomats can benefit from a broad and deep understanding of history. But MacMillan cautions that even a disciplined study of history does not offer a clear roadmap to confront contemporary challenges or prevent future crises.

In an interview with The Washington Diplomat, MacMillan said history should be read, enjoyed, and even savored. But it should be used cautiously as a tool to guide public policy. Examining the past is useful and often edifying, but it is not a prescription for the present or the future.

“I think history can help policymakers understand whom they are dealing with, to help them realize that not everyone is just like them. History can also help open up possibilities. Oftentimes, when you face a crisis, there are several options and history can help you think these through. It can also help instruct you that if you try a certain course of action you might run into trouble, because others have tried a similar course of action in the past,” she explained.

“History, by giving context and examples, helps you think about the present world. It helps in formulating questions and without good questions, it’s difficult to think coherently. History can help us to make sense of a complicated world, but also warn of the dangers of assuming that there is only one possible way of looking at things or only one course of action,” she added.

The engaging, modest and unpretentious MacMillan is a native of Toronto and holds a doctorate from Oxford University, where her studies focused on the British Empire in the 19th and 20th centuries and on international relations in the 20th century. The great granddaughter of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George (1916-22), MacMillan is a historian and professor at Oxford University, where she is warden of St. Antony’s College. She is a former provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, where she was also a professor of history.

MacMillan is the author of a number of books, including “Women of the Raj: The Mothers, Wives, and Daughters of the British Empire in India” (1988), “Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World” (2002), “Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World” (2006), and “Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History” (2008).

“Paris 1919,” the best known and most celebrated of her books, dissects the Versailles Peace Conference held in Paris shortly after World War I. MacMillan chronicles the dramatic struggle to dismantle crumbling empires and the jockeying to create new nations in a riveting account that won her a slew of awards, including the Duff Cooper Prize, the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction, the Hessell-Tiltman Prize for history, and a silver medal in the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Book Award.

Her most recent book, “Dangerous Games” is based on a series of lectures that consider the state of her profession and how history can be used, and abused, by policymakers.

MacMillan believes that history is popular today because people are thirsty for information and entertainment. And nothing can provide so much of both as a good work of history that describes the lives of compelling people involved in momentous struggles. “How could a novelist invent someone like Augustus Caesar or Catherine the Great or Florence Nightingale?” she asks.

MacMillan believes history illustrates that most disputes are complex and need to be examined with rigor and discipline to come up with an accurate account of what occurred. “Studying history forces you to keep asking questions, to keep looking for facts that might be relevant, to maintain a certain skepticism. History encourages you to keep asking questions, to make sure the picture is as complete as possible,” she said.

“History is not like science. Every situation is different,” she added. “The combination of factors will never be the same. And the fact that something has happened before will change things. History can at least give you a range of possibilities. It can help you think things through. Knowing history can help you avoid lazy generalizations.”

MacMillan notes that many of the 20th century’s most influential leaders were diligent students of history, including Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman. “It’s interesting how many leading statesmen had a pretty good sense of history. This suggests they found something in it that was helpful for them. It helped them acquire wisdom and think through things,” she said.

But MacMillan warns that history should make policymakers humble, for it is replete with examples of intelligent people who tried mightily to do good things, but often fell short.

One of the central insights she drew during her decade of research for “Paris 1919” is how difficult it is to design successful public policies. After the horrors of World War I, a group of experienced and committed leaders from more than 30 countries convened in Paris and tried to construct a peaceful and prosperous world after “the war to end all wars.” But, in the view of many, they failed miserably.

MacMillan said that when she began researching her book, she was inclined to be critical of leaders such as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. But the more deeply she examined the record, the more sympathetic she became, offering a powerful argument to debunk the notion that the treaty was primarily responsible for World War II. And although the final peace accord was deeply flawed, she says these leaders took their challenge seriously and did their best under daunting circumstances.

“When I started ‘Paris 1919,’ I was pretty clear what it all meant — that the people in Paris made a mess of things. But by the time I finished writing, I concluded that not many people would have done better. I changed my views a lot on the way through,” she said.

“These were talented people who tried very hard to make a better world. They did make assumptions. They did make mistakes. They tried very hard and things didn’t really work out. The world has a way of working out very differently from what we often expect. The study of history is useful if it does nothing more than teach us humility.”

And just as the Treaty of Versailles carved up and created countries such as Iraq, Yugoslavia and Israel, whose troubles continue to haunt us today, MacMillan argues that delving into the historical record has many practical applications beyond assessing boundary disputes and land claims. It can be used to explain antagonisms between peoples and communities. It can explain the background of issues and controversies. It can be used to mobilize people, drawing on a sense of nationalist pride or grievance. And it can be used for guidance or inspiration.

But a critical error that policymakers often make is comparing episodes from the past to contemporary situations, as people instinctively try to understand the world by looking back at history and searching for analogies.

“Analogies from history should be treated with care,” MacMillan warns. “Using the wrong analogy not only presents an oversimplified picture of a complex situation in the present, but can lead to wrong decisions. When you use analogies you have to be very clear on the how situations are similar and how they are different.”

For instance, recent generations of policymakers tend to depict struggles between nations and leaders through the prism of Neville Chamberlain’s concessions to Adolf Hitler in Munich 1938, often describing any accommodation as a capitulation. “What is appeasement and what is not is not usually clear cut,” she said.

MacMillan remains critical of President George W. Bush for responding to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, by comparing the situation to World War II and designing a so-called “war on terror” that was ultimately harmful to the United States. “Wars are made on enemies. They are not made on ideas,” she said.

She also argues that Bush was wrong to compare Saddam Hussein with Hitler and to liken the American occupation of Iraq with U.S. efforts to occupy and then rebuild Germany and Japan after World War II. A more apt analogy, she notes, would be France’s costly and failed military campaign in Algeria in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Another historical parallel that has cropped up in the past year is the attempt to understand the recent global financial crisis by comparing it to the Great Depression of the 1930s. “Studying the depression gave people some insights on what not to do — become too fixated on balancing budgets, putting up protectionist walls, cutting back on trade,” MacMillan said. But she added that a careful study would show the many differences between the current economic turmoil and what took place more than 70 years ago.

Today, MacMillan’s life is a busy blend of writing, teaching and academic administration. She is working on a history of World War I that she hopes to publish in 2014 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the start of the war. “World War I is one of those big subjects that everyone does. Perhaps it’s presumptuous to think I can find something new to say, but I will give it a try,” she said.

She also enjoys working with young historians and urges them to tackle broad topics in a rigorous, balanced yet evocative way. A good historian, she tells her students, is more like a fair-minded judge than an advocate. A successful historian is also a gadfly, challenging conventional wisdom with discovery and a careful presentation of compelling evidence.

MacMillan said she finds real joy in discovering a new world when she undertakes research, but there is also a serious responsibility to convey what she learns accurately. She hopes that her colleagues and those who read her books also relish the experience, but never stop asking questions.

“I urge people to read history, enjoy it, but always handle it with care. The study of history is useful if it does nothing more than teach us humility, skepticism, and the need to test assumptions and look carefully for evidence,” she said.

“If you do not know the history of another people, you will not understand their values, their fears, and their hopes or how they are likely to react to something you do. There is another way of getting things wrong and that is to assume that other peoples are just like you.”

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.