Do we know of any course of action chosen based on historical precedents which was successful?

Do we know of any course of action chosen based on historical precedents which was successful?


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Hegel famously held that we could not learn from history, since the particular circumstances are always too special. The German quote from his „Lectures on the Philosophy of History“ goes as follows:

Was die Erfahrung aber und die Geschichte lehren, ist dieses, daß Völker und Regierungen niemals etwas aus der Geschichte gelernt [… ] haben. Jede Zeit hat so eigentümliche Umstände, ist ein so individueller Zustand, daß in ihm aus ihm selbst entschieden werden muß und allein entschieden werden kann

I tentatively translate:

But, what experience and history teach us, is this: that peoples and governments have never learned from history. Each time has such peculiar circumstances, is such a peculiar state of affairs, that therein, decisions can only and have to be made based upon it.

Do we know, perhaps from the memoirs of politicians, of any momentous course of action, chosen based on historical precedents, which was nearly undisputedly successful?


For clarification of what I hope for: I don't care whether the person elected to do or not do something. As far as we have an account of the historical lesson they heeded and of a pretty undisputable good effect. For example, a lot of people saved from famine.


The design of the US's Federal government was indisputably based on lessons that the Founding Fathers took from the Roman Republic -- this comes up repeatedly in their writings. See, for example, this precis.

In general, though, I think it's hard to find cases where the historical precedent can be shown to have been the main driver of a decision. Except by zealots, real decisions are always made for complicated reasons!


The problem with your question is that history gets forgotten when it's not in living memory. As such, decisions tend to factor only lessons learned from recent history.

There are examples, mind you. For instance, compare the aftermaths of WW1 and WW2. A few things that happened after WW2, such as the UN, factored in some of the lessons learned from what had failed after WW1, such as the League of Nations.

In passing, Hegel lived through the French Revolution. Surely he'd have remembered that the mistake of being too lenient with France had not been repeated after the Hundred Days. Or for that matter, how the Revolution was in quite a few people's mind after the Restoration. Hegel gave his lectures after it was all over, so presumably he had a longer time scale in mind.

In which case indeed, if you let enough time elapse, collective memory chiefly remembers events that get rehashed on a regular basis (think Holocaust, or Latin classics during the Renaissance). But even then, judging by the re-emergence of fascism and anti-semitism, it's tempting to argue that collective memory isn't remembering much. Part of the reason might have to do with the fact that, in contrast with economists, historians aren't invited when making important decisions.


Yes - they are harder to recognize because it usually seems so natural to do the right thing that we can forget the historical precedents. From World War Two alone we see:

  • FDR started rearming the U.S. in early 1940 instead of waiting until Dec. 1941 - thus avoiding the very long buildup required by U.S. forces in WW1. He had served in Wilson's administration and seen the problems and challenges well. In consequence the U.S. military was in combat within 10-12 weeks, not months, of Pearly Harbour.

  • The lessons of the armstice at the end of WW1 were well learned by all the Allies in insisting on a very clearly enunciated "unconditional surrender" from both Germany and Japan.

  • The U.N., despite it's problems, is much better structured than the League of nations was, learning from the latter's failures in the 1930's.

  • The Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe following WW2 avoided the punitive elements of Versailles - and capitalized on the unconditional surrender lesson as well.

  • Germany's blitzkrieg warfare for avoiding the morass of trench warfare was a brilliant tactical lesson - yet at the same time Germany failed to learn any strategic lessons. They failed to develop the strategic partnerships and technologies that might have countered U.S. entry. Germany in the 1930's saw only what was already in action in Summer 1918 - u-boats, tanks and aircraft - while completely missing (in the 1930's) all the new possibilities inherent in those technologies: aircraft carriers replacing battleships; jet fighters; long-range fighters; four-engine (long-range) bombers; radar; and atomic weapons. By contrast while the U.K. and U.S. were slow to see the tactical innovations available they saw most of the strategic ones listed above.

    Note also that the key concepts of blitzkrieg - concentration of fire (from tanks and tactical aircraft) is just a repetition of Napoleon's innovative use of artillery 1796-1815. Just as Allied commanders dispersed their tanks amongst infantry formations, diluting their capability and effectiveness, traditional artillery doctrine in 1796 mandated the same for artillery. Napoleon's grand batteries changed that by making artillery a key component on offense as well as defense, presaging the massive bombardments of the WW1 Western Front. This tenet - concentration of fire - would seem to be as old as warfare itself, yet within the past few centuries alone has been ignored, unlearned on a vast scale, across multiple armies and nations, on at least these two obvious occasions.

Further back in history:

  • Napoleon's Battaillon Carre and Corps du Armee are lessons learned from the problems inherent in the prior method of delegating command based on preassigned route of march. Right into June 1815 Wellington's Anglo-Allied Army is employing delegation based on route of march, as did the Austrian Army of 1809 - while Blucher's Prussian army, apparently alone of the other Great Powers, has fully adopted a Corps du Armee system. The latter's resiliency after Ligny is the result.

  • Gribeauval System of artillery was a lesson learned from the logistical nightmare of supplying adequate shot, shell and cartridge to artillery in the field learned in the War of Austrian Succession and Seven Years War. It also standardized and lightened limbers, carriges and ammunition chests, increasing both mobility and speed on artillery on the battlefield - another Napoleonic innovation.

  • Observing the hoplite phalanxes of Greece, Philip's development of the sarissa (and the advanced training of a professional phalanx) for Macedonian infantry greatly decreased it's susceptiblity to archery fire while increasing it's melee power against standard phalanxes.

  • The steady evolution of the Roman Legion into the cohort system of the Late Republic is a steady succession of learning the lessons of the past (Cannae anyone?). The term Marius' Mules epitomizes one such lesson - which enabled Caesar's lightning campaigns in Gaul as well as his siegework at Alesia.

You may note that almost all the items above are strictly military. This is undoubtedly partially selection bias on my interest in history - but not totally. Battle and combat are brutal arbiters of decision, and vastly more so than a kriegspiel referee or a political theorist. Once war is underway those who have failed to learn the lessons of history are, with surprising accuracy and speed, promptly removed from history, most frequently and ideally always on a small scale, out of sight and out of mind.

The transition of one's military from peacetime bureaucracy to wartime brutality is always fraught with danger. Perhaps the most vital lesson to be observed, every time, is to learn the missed lesson on as small a scale as possible, so as to avoid another Cannae or (all lessons to be learned from) Dunkirk:

  • Don't chase your enemy into the only available corner that he can actually escape from.

  • Tactical bombing cannot hold ground.

  • if your enemy controls the sea - he can escape. See John Moore at Corunna.

  • if control of the airspace is still contested, your enemy's navy can (and will) still operate.

  • The English Channel trumps all land armies.