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Perils of Reasoning by Historical Analogy: Munich, Vietnam, and American Use of Force Since 1945

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Occasional paper no. 4

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Reasoning by historical analogy has played a significant role in the formulation and implementation of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II, especially on matters involving consideration of or actual use of force. States, like individuals, make decisions based at least in part on past experience, or, more specifically, what they believe past experience teaches. But reasoning by historical analogy can be dangerous, especially if such reasoning is untempered by the recognition that no two historical events are identical and that the future is more than a linear extension of the past. The instructiveness of historical events tends to diminish the greater their distance in time and space from the day and place they occurred. historical analogies can helpfully inform policy. Many policy makers, are historically illiterate, and most who are well read make policy decisions, just like their untutored brethren, primarily on the basis of considerations having nothing to do with the perceived lessons of past experience. For example, the Johnson administrations very reluctant decision to fight in Vietnam was driven as much by perceived domestic political imperatives notably fear that abandoning South Vietnam would provoke a presidency-destroying soft-on-communism political backlash as by any other factor. Two historical events in particular have influenced U.S. use-of-force decisions since 1945 the infamous Munich Conference of 1938, and the lost American war in Vietnam. Decision makers have regarded Munich and Vietnam as disastrous events whose repetition on any scale is to be avoided at any cost. This monograph addresses four questions What happened at Munich and in Vietnam, and what lessons did they present How have Munich and Vietnam influenced National Security policy How much have Munich and Vietnam usefully guide decision makers in dealing with matter of war and peace since 1945 and Does reasoning by historical analogy help or hinder

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  • Government and Political Science
  • Humanities and History
  • Military Operations, Strategy and Tactics

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