- Hardcover: 208 pages
- Publisher: Viking (April 15 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 067006680X
- ISBN-13: 978-0670066803
- Product Dimensions: 14.6 x 2.2 x 22.2 cm
- Shipping Weight: 318 g
- Average Customer Review: 18 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #298,788 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Uses and Abuses of History Hardcover – Apr 15 2008
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About the Author
MARGARET MacMILLAN is the renowned author of Women of the Raj, Stephen Leacock (Extraordinary Canadians series), and the international bestsellers Nixon in China and Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, which won the 2003 Governor General’s Award and the 2002 Samuel Johnson Prize. She is also the author of The Uses and Abuses of History. The past provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, she is now the warden of St. Antony’s College at Oxford University.
Top customer reviews
Macmillan argues that while history cannot teach steadfast lessons per se, it provides useful analogies to help guide us in the present. She cautions, however, that the correct analogies must be chosen in order to avoid serious errors in judgment. A case in point, was the use of the appeasement analogy by the Johnson Administration in the mid-60's, when deciding to further involve the U.S. in the Vietnam War. The majority of policy- makers used the Munich analogy of 1938 to argue that communism had to be stopped in Vietnam, otherwise it would spread throughout the region, much like the appeasement of Hitler by Great Britain and France, led to his conquest of parts of Europe. As history shows, the American debacle in Vietnam proved that this was the wrong analogy because communism did not subsequently take hold everywhere in Southeast Asia. The correct analogy was the one put forward by policy advisor, George Ball, who contended that the French experience in Indochina, a decade earlier, was a far better guide. In retrospect, Ball's analogy proved to be the right one.
Analogies act as guides to help us narrow the field in times of crises. By looking at the past for similar situations, we can better choose the right course of action in the present, knowing that a certain action engendered a particular consequence. Macmillan reminds us that historical events are always unique, but similarities exist between them that are useful.
The abuses of history make up the better part of this book. Employing a wide range of historical and contemporary examples, Macmillan shows how certain governments use a selective telling of the past to further their own ends. China is a case in point when it deals with Tibet and harps on its century of humiliations. Serbia is another, when it recounts its fixation with the Battle of Kosovo. Macmillan cites many other examples, taking a negative view of ultra- nationalistic histories, which promoted one ethnic group over another. These misuses of history( history as weapon) often led to justifications for war and aggression. The Nazi use of history to justify their bald aggression in the east is put forward as a glaring example: the argument that Germany had a historic right to lands in Eastern Europe because the Teutonic Knights once roamed in those regions. Misusing history can be dangerous.
Macmillan warns that we must proceed cautiously when using the past. The study of history will clarify when it is done with due diligence and using the methods of science, based on evidence. History is more often complex ; the historian's role is to analyze and interpret that complexity to eliminate simplification, falsehood and myth. By doing so, we rub out the black and white, and see that the past is really shades of grey.
In the end, Macmillan suggests that we must approach the past with a sense of humility and patience in order to give the best possible explanation, with our starting point: What really happened? Like the individual who dwells on his or her own past to achieve understanding, historians assist us in explaining who we are as a collectivity in the present, and that explanation always changes over time because we ask different questions.
Macmillan is a thoughtful and lucid writer. The reader is reminded that this work is based on a series of lectures, and thus lacks the deep analysis of many books dealing with the study of history. The general reader will find this slim volume a delightful read.
At least four points really need to be underlined with regard to "The Uses and Abuses of History", as well as the author in more general terms. First, MacMillan writes beautifully. This is not a small compliment, as MacMillan is an academic and it would have been possible for her to get bogged down in technical terms or details that make it difficult for complex subject matter to be accessible to the non specialized reader.
Second, MacMillan obviously has a passion for the study of history and can draw on a wealth of knowledge to make points clear about how history can and has been misused in different contexts. It was a real education for me to read the different cases when history was referred to by different leaders to make decisions. The examples are taken from the traditional "bad guys" of recent history, such as NAZI Germany, the Soviet Union, Communist China, North Korea and others, but they also involve decisions made and agendas put forth in other countries, including the US, Canada, the UK, France, Israel, Australia and other western or westernized nations, as well as from more distant history. History has also been misused by religious leaders, captains of industry, as well as educators and politicians. The point is well made and reading through the different examples and ways in which history has been called on to justify courses of action is absolutely fascinating.
Third, one of the main points that are made concerns not only the misuse of history, but the difficulty involved in using history to chart a course of action, especially in difficult, national circumstances. Should Obama visit Iran to begin a peace process in the middle east, as Nixon visited China, perhaps beginning the thawing of relations between the west and China that is now present? Is it wise to always look at Chamberlain's actions of appeasement as a form of weakness and to use this as the only interpretation of those events to justify the use of quick, resolute and forceful action against problematic national leaders, as was the case in the lead up to the recent, 2003 Irak invasion by the US and other nations? Might it not be sometimes helpful for the development of a peace process not to act forcefully? How do you distinguish between something that would be a clear injustice now (e.g., internment of Ukrainians and Japanese during WWII) and what might have been a logical decision at the time the actions were made? Does history always allow us to judge the past correctly? The present with discernment? I especially appreciated the nuance and humility with which MacMillan wrote, giving us reason to ponder the present era in which we live with the different political, social, religious and economic challenges it presents. And, of course, MacMillan urges us to view history with prudence, as the events of history can be viewed from different angles.
Fourth, I appreciated the emphasis on "what actually happened". This, to me is the most important lesson learned from this book, although perhaps the most difficult. MacMillan gives many examples of how telling the stories of events in part can lead to biased understanding of situations. Telling the whole story requires more integrity, leaves situations less clear in terms of possible courses of action, but probably reflect something closer to "reality" than anything else. However, I cannot help but think that we cannot escape this problem. How do you know if the story has been correctly told? None of us were there when Napoleon lost at Waterloo and we depend on "experts" to recount the chain of events... do they agree as to the reasons? A reliance on "what actually happened" should leave one more humble in the manner in which they work with history.
The only down side I have regarding this book is that there is not enough mention of how values and contexts are part of how one thinks about history. At times, MacMillan argues that some uses of history are good or not so good, reflecting her particular set of values, her context, her time... it might have been helpful to read a few lines about how even those values and judgements are part and parcel of her specific understanding of humanity and the record of human activity that is history.