What are some personal reflections on today's scene by an ''intuitive historian'' who has won two Pulitzer prizes (for ''The Guns of August'' and ''Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45'') and whose latest book, ''The March of Folly,'' ranges from ancient times to Vietnam? Here Barbara W. Tuchman looks at our age of teleprompters, computers, and arms races in the light of a 14th-century adventure in technology.
In the course of recent political oratory, one speaker (I don't remember who it was) assured us that his party's program would prevail because (I quote), ''Americans are a smart people.'' I wonder about that. Is it in fact true?
It had struck me during the campaign that the American people, rather than showing themselves smart, were in fact remarkably gullible and ready to accept almost any proposition that was offered from beneath a handsome head of hair. If the speaker was personable, friendly, and skilled in delivery, he could, through access to the mass media, build up a following and carry his followers to acceptance of, and vehement belief in, any empty set of platitudes. Viz. Gary Hart's platform of hearty if unspecified ''new ideas,'' which seemed to me the gauziest wings of political oratory heard in modern times and yet carried his public to warmest enthusiasm; see also Mr. Reagan's dizzy exercise in 180-degree turns which led him to say first one thing and then its opposite so smoothly that the public, following faithfully along, noticed no discrepancy.
The agent of these performances is a technological instrument developed to such wondrous perfection as to be actively harmful, because it can make a candidate for public office appear twice, no, 10 times, as intelligent as he really is and seemingly worthy to be entrusted with the complex and difficult decisions of national policy. As such, the teleprompter becomes as dangerous as a nuclear warhead. Through its means, an oaf becomes knowledgeable, a bore becomes interesting, an ignoramus becomes an expert, and the public swallows it all without for a moment asking itself how this person, so skillfully delivering the prefabricated sentences unrolling on the tape before him and invisible to us , would perform in the hard sessions of the Oval Office.
The public does not ask itself this question - it does not think about it, it forms a judgment and then votes on the basis of a mechanical trick and on the assumption that this nice fellow, so attractively packaged as if he were a product of the advertisers' art (which indeed he is), will do fine once he is given charge. To believe that is not smart. Rather it is on a par with the visitor to the coronation who saw the hawk-nosed Duke of Wellington, in coronet and robes of velvet and ermine, emerge from the Abbey and asked him politely, ''I beg pardon, Sir, are you Mr. Smith?'' ''If you believe that,'' replied the Duke, ''you will believe anything.''
I thought about the smartness question when I was visited by a group of behavioral scientists who wished to show me the results of an elaborate study they had made of the diplomatic telegrams that passed among the foreign offices of Paris, Vienna, Berlin, London, and Moscow, in July 1914. Each of the messages had been numerically rated down to decimal points, as I remember, according to degrees of expressed hostility and then fed into the computer. When assembled after months of meticulous work the output filled three mimeographed volumes which reached the conclusion that the likelihood of war rose in direct proportion to the rising degree of hostility. This astonishing discovery had not been hidden from a generation of ordinary historians who had studied the material without electronic assistance. We are being bemused by computers and their supposed omnipotence. In fact, they are like sociologists who after painstaking reduplicated research always produce a conclusion - for instance, that women are less likely to be mass-murderers than men, or that school truancy shows a correlation with fatherless homes - that everyone knows already from everyday observation.
I am not a sociologist, not even a behavioral scientist, that new breed, but only what has been designated an ''intuitive historian'' (a phrase I rather welcome); yet from this modest stand I would venture the proposition that computers, while enormously useful and informative, may be making us in a fundamental sense less smart, that is to say less able to exercise intuitive knowledge, than we have formerly been.
Here is where I see a danger - in that the greater the technologies we develop for purposes of general homicide or genetic control or space travel, the less wisdom we will have for managing them.
History has foreshadowed this problem before now. Discussing the origins of World War I, George Kennan in his book ''The Fateful Alliance,'' published this year, writes that ''one sees (in those years) the growth of military technological capabilities to levels that exceed man's capacity for making any logical and intelligent use of them.'' I jumped when I read that, because 10 years ago when writing my book ''A Distant Mirror,'' I had concluded the same thing from an incident in the 14th century.
In 1386, in the course of the Hundred Years' War, the French planned a massive invasion of England intended to achieve a second Norman Conquest. It was to be transported by an armada planned to be the greatest ''since God created the world.'' The armada was assembled in the wide bays at the mouth of the Scheldt on the Flemish coast. Ships of every kind from barges to galleons hired or purchased from all over the Continent from Prussia to Castile crowded the sea lanes converging on the meeting place, while on land an endless train of arms, men, equipment, and provisions filled the roads. Barrels of biscuits and wine, of salt fish and dried beans, hundreds of live beef cattle, sheep, and fowl, casks of olive oil, cases of cheeses, sugar and nuts, everything from hand-mills for grinding wheat to gangplanks for horses, from stone cannon balls to catapults and flamethrowers, from gunpowder to 200,000 arrows, from urinals to timber for making carts was thought of. The most stupendous of all the preparations was a portable town to protect and house the invaders upon landing. A huge camp enclosing a place for each captain and his company, it was virtually an artificial Calais to be towed across the Channel. Its dimensions epitomized the fantasy of omnipotence. It was to have a circumference of nine miles and an area of 1,000 acres surrounded by a wooden wall 20 feet high, reinforced by towers at intervals of 12 and 22 yards. Houses, barracks, stables, and markets where the companies would come for their provisions were to be laid out along prearranged streets and squares. Nothing so daring in concept and size as this had ever been attempted. Prefabricated in Normandy by the work of 5,000 woodcutters and carpenters, supervised by a team of architects, it was to be packed and shipped in numbered sections, so designed that assembly at the beachhead could allegedly be accomplished in an unbelievable three hours.
In the end this triumph of technology never served its purpose, for, owing to political division in the French camp between the peace party and the war party, the great armada never sailed. Preparation in spirit and will did not match the marvel of materiel. Decision for departure was postponed so often that the winter months came, foreclosing the expedition, while disaster smote the portable town. Loaded aboard 72 ships, it was on its way from Rouen to the Scheldt when the convoy was attacked by an English squadron and three of the French ships were captured along with the master carpenter in charge of construction. Two of the ships were towed to England and their sections of the amazing edifice intended for the beachhead were exhibited in London, to the awe and triumph of the English. In writing of the fate of this stillborn colossus, I was moved to comment, ''For belligerent purposes, the 14th century, like the 20 th, commanded a technology more sophisticated than the mental and moral capacity that guided its use.''
With respect to a nuclear arms race, that conclusion is now one we cannot escape.
At any high-powered conference today of planners and thinkers on nuclear strategy, one can hear the sharpest brains impressively discussing the capabilities of first strike, launch on warning, target fratricide, and every variety of lethal deployment, all in the name of deterrence. The intellectual powers expended are high, while the object, which presumably is to prevent war by increasing the amount of weapons and perfecting their use, is unintelligent, not to say futile. It only stimulates the opponent himself to increase and perfect his arms in a race for superiority - which, if gained, whoever the winner, would last about a week.
How can we turn aside this devotion of our best intelligence to sterile and fruitless ends? If the French of the 14th century put their best efforts into the largest conceivable instrument of war they could muster, its loss was a portent, for in the end France was invaded and occupied by the enemy. I am not suggesting that our concentration on materiel will end the same way, but I amsuggesting that it is not the way to achieve the desired end, namely the avoidance of war.
Why cannot the sharpest brains and most creative intellects be applied not to weaponry that can only be destructive, but to determining the cause of the quarrel and defusing it? What in fact is the cause for war with the Soviet Union? It is, as I see it, simply fear of each other, and when each of two parties fears attack the impulse is to knock the other fellow out before he can strike you.
It seems to me as obvious as daylight that we would be more usefully engaged in dismantling this fear than in devising ever more injurious means of arousing it. The Russians, with a long and painful experience of hostile invasion from the Mongols to Napoleon to the Germans in World War II, have a natural and understandable fear of enemy attack by the noncommunist world, whose focus they see in the United States, and not without reason, given the intemperate language and off-the-cuff weekend jokes of our chief of state. They think our technical science will someday produce the omnipotent weapon that will pierce their defenses. We fear that Communist subversion will gradually control neighboring and contiguous countries around our shores until we are encircled by a ring of revolutionary threat that can only be countered by making an end of the Soviet system at the center.
This phobia about red revolution is old and innate in a society of haves, and with far less reason than the Russians' fear of invasion. It does not take a historian to recognize that social revolution as shown in the three major cases of the modern era, the French, the Russian, and the Chinese, grew out of the intolerable misery and oppression of the great mass of working people and that, as regards this condition, the US is as far from revolution in the Marxist sense as chocolate cake from green cheese. Not 47 or 147, or however many Communists Joe McCarthy claimed were hiding in the State Department, could make it happen if the social condition is not present. Why people on the right are so afraid of it and shake in their shoes at the least sign of socialist agitation in Central America seems to me evidence that we are not really as smart as some of us like to think.
Rather than continuing to tramp forward with blind confidence in technological hardware, should we not instead be summoning the most intelligent political minds equipped with a sense of realities to force into the open, if possible, some honest examination in human terms with the Russians of our mutual fears which might render them inoperative? We might even allay the tension upon discovering that there was in fact no imminent cause for conflict and that neither do we intend to foment a general attack upon them nor do they seriously intend, in other than theory, to conquer the world. If the best efforts of the best minds were applied to this end, surely it would be a safer and less expensive way to prevent war than risky experiments in games of deterrence.
The experts say you cannot talk to the Russians in human terms because they are too mistrustful and too tied in knots of Politburo directives. Yet Americans must find a way to reach them, for endless haggling over details of so-called disarmament may succeed in discarding or restricting some weapons but not the intentions behind the weapons, which is all that matters. If we cannot subdue the quarrel, we are getting nowhere, while relying on grandeur and excess of materiel could lead us to the same sad futility of the 14th-century portable town.