Michael KreponHistory Proves…. What?

Original Caption: “Professor Bernard Brodie conducting a class.” September 1946. Walter Sanders, photographer.

George Santayana managed to have it both ways. He once opined that, “History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.” And yet Santayana also said, quite famously, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There’s an important lesson here that has nothing to do with history: It helps when others forget your previous opinions.

When debating a person about arms control or deterrence who begins an argument with, “History proves,” the following quotes might come in handy. For this post, I’ve supplemented my shoe box files with material from brainyquote.com.

The phrase “history proves” usually signals poor logic and worse history.

— Bernard Brodie

What is history but a fable agreed upon?

— Napoleon Bonaparte

History tells us only what we want to know.

— Kenneth Waltz

History is more or less bunk.

— Henry Ford

History is at best an imperfect guide to the future, but when imperfectly understood and interpreted, it is a menace to sound judgment.

— Bernard Brodie

The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.

— Mark Twain

Historians that write about great powers have great power – if their version of events sticks. Which is why my favorite quote on this subject comes from Winston Churchill:

History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.


  1. Alan (History)

    Michael – “It helps when others forget your previous opinions”

    A concept encapsulated rather well by:

    “Consistency is the last refuge of fools”

    – Rob Muldoon (former Prime Minister of New Zealand).

  2. ZD

    History is merely a list of surprises. … It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.
    Kurt Vonnegut, Slapstick

  3. bradley laing (History)

    Writing about the French Revolution of 1848, Alexis de Tocqueville said that the French politicans “remembered the Revolution of 1830 too well” and made a bad decision by assuming the same thing would happen in 1848.

  4. Alex W. (History)

    There is a variation of the Santayana quote in Michael Herr’s Dispatches that I have long enjoyed: “Those who remember the past are condemned to repeat it too, that’s a little history joke.”

  5. So? (History)

    Russia’s great liberal hope opines:

  6. Azr@el (History)

    The first time I came upon the quote,“The world is a bridge: cross it, but build no house upon it” I was told it was the epitaph of Akbar the Great of the Mogul dynasty. Later on I was told it was a quote from Yeshua bat Maryām,aka The Christ, that Akbar borrowed. And the even later on I found it was a quote from Siddhārtha Gautama, aka the Buddha, which Christ borrowed.

    In the same spirit, I share that Napoleon’s quote: “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” is a borrowing from Voltaire’s : “All the ancient histories, as one of our wits say, are just fables that have been agreed upon” which in turn borrowed from elsewhere.

    I take my leave with a much better Voltaire quote, which better encapsulate’s the realities of arms control: “History in general is a collection of crimes, follies, and misfortunes among which we have now and then met with a few virtues, and some happy times.”

  7. Carl Vehse (History)

    “Historian: an unsuccessful novelist.” – H.L. Mencken

  8. Josh (History)

    What experience and history teach is this—that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.

    —G.F.W. Hegel

  9. Yale Simkin (History)

    Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all. The conscientious historian will correct these defects

    – Mark Twain

  10. Yale Simkin (History)

    “History is not another name for the past, as many people imply. It is the name for stories about the past.”
    — A. J. P. Taylor

    “The past is a kind of screen upon which we project our vision of the future, and it is indeed a moving picture, borrowing much of its form and color from our fears and aspirations.”
    — Carl Becker

    “Not all that is presented to us as history has really happened; and what really happened did not actually happen the way it is presented to us; moreover, what really happened is only a small part of all that happened. Everything in history remains uncertain, the largest events as well as the smallest occurrence.”
    — Goethe

    “To give an accurate description of what never happened is the proper occupation of the historian.”
    — Orson Wells

  11. MK (History)

    Great quotes. And to think, long ago, I was a History major.

  12. William James (History)

    I’m sorry that people citing history have annoyed you. However, disparaging historical argument per se seems like a bit of an over-reaction and I’m not sure that even citing Brodie provides enough real cover to do so. Most of Brodie’s arguments in Strategy in the Missile Age are based on history and historical analogy.

    It’s undoubtedly true that it’s possible to make specious arguments using historical examples. It is also true that because historical analogy is a tricky and unscientific tool that many people misuse it.

    Dismissing history out of hand, however, is particularly problematic when discussing nuclear weapons because it was a group of nuclear weapons scholars, after all, who tried claimed that nuclear weapons were so epochal that one could safely ignore all the lessons of history. Herman Kahn, for example, wrote, “Despite the fact that nuclear weapons have already been used twice, and the nuclear sword has been rattled many times, one can argue that for all practical purposes nuclear war is still (and hopefully will remain) so far from our experience that it is difficult to reason from, or illustrate arguments by, analogies from history.” The upshot of being able to ignore history? Game theorists and physicists turn out to be the only reliable experts. [How professionally fortuitous.]

    This sort of special pleading for nuclear weapons was never very persuasive, and it was impossible to justify on any other real grounds than intellectual arrogance.

    A physicist can tell you that nuclear weapons could kill millions of innocent civilians. Only a historian can tell you that no war has ever been won by killing civilians.

  13. Georges Santayana (History)

    I found this on another nuclear weapons website:

    “What right-minded person, when faced with a novel and difficult problem, wouldn’t willingly trade away a bucket of theory for just a thimble-full of real, practical experience?”

    History is practical experience.

  14. MK (History)

    Dear Mr. James:
    My favorite analyst about the Bomb, Brodie, cut his teeth as a naval historian. So I’ve got nothing against historians.
    You make very strong points. The absence of nuclear weapons’ use has indeed opened the field to game theorists and computer models. The results haven’t been pretty.

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