THINKING IN TIME: The Uses of History for Decision Makers by Richard E. and Ernest R. May Neustadt
Kirkus Star

THINKING IN TIME: The Uses of History for Decision Makers

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This work by two Harvard professors wins the award for most audacious book of the year: explicitly addressed to ""those who govern"" and their staffs, it teaches policy makers how to employ the lessons of history to avoid costly blunders. Ronald Reagan and his successors, as well as the town manager of Bumpsville, would do well to heed their advice. The authors structure their course around a few successes and a bundle of ""horror stories."" Kennedy's Bay of Pigs invasion, Ford's plan to inoculate the nation against a nonexistent swine flu epidemic, Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War figure are among the fiascos that come under scrutiny. Both the authors' second-guessing and our behind-the-scenes eavesdropping as decisions are hammered out (too often by men ignorant of crucial political facts and the personal histories of their adversaries) prove hugely enjoyable; the discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis alone stands as a model of tautly composed historical reenactment. The advice proffered is clear and concise: policy makers should pause before they strike; question their presumptions; avoid leaning on fuzzy analogies (would a failure to fight in Korea really have been the equivalent, as Truman believed, of Chamberlain's capitulation at Munich?); ask journalist's questions--where, why, who, what, when, how; and (following the suggestion of a New England supermarket executive) demand not ""what's the problem"" but rather ""What's the story,"" thus obtaining the relevant background information to place any given crisis in historical perspective. Although it's difficult to imagine White House staffers beefing up their library skills, the authors even provide a list of useful reference works (The Reader's Guide) and historical studies (Thucydide's The Peloponnesian Wars, Teddy Roosevelt's Winning of the West). Following the professors' advice will not, they say, produce any new Ted Williamses among policy makers, but it might raise a president's batting average from .250 to .265, not a negligible goal. If the White House doesn't order a copy of this wise, engrossing book, a concerned citizen should airmail it there--and to the Kremlin--as a gift from all rational beings. First-rate.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1986
ISBN: 0029227917
Publisher: Free Press/Macmillan