The Use and Abuse of Historical Analogs

As an example of analogy from 2003, would Iraq be more like Vietnam or World War II?

There is a long history of the use and abuse of historical analogs, comparisons of different incidents in history to presumably learn from the past. Analogs do offer useful perspectives that may be applied to current challenges, of course, but there are also many instances of poorly understood analysis based on analogy.

The most successful analog studies use approaches developed in Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May’s classic text, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (1986). The methods employed were the fruit of several years’ worth of classes taught by the authors at Harvard University. They offered a structure that called for analysis of each analog along three dimensions: (1) What are the similarities with the present situation? (2) What are the differences? (3) What are the implications of these similarities and differences? This framework can be productive in analyzing innovation and strategic surprise.

Political scientist Francis Gavin has refined this approach, offered here, laying out five key concepts that promise more effective historical analysis and their application to current situations. These include understanding and investigating the applicability of (1) vertical history, (2) horizontal history, (3) chronological proportionality, (4) unintended consequences, and (5) policy insignificance. Gavin says:

  • Vertical history focuses on understanding why events occurred in the past. This is a very standard task of historical investigation and the best work published in the field all effectively present the whys of history and not just the hows.
  • Horizontal history explores the linkage of events across space, either geographical or cultural or economic or political, etc.
  • Chronological proportionality emphasizes the long term consequences of events; as an example understanding and applying which scraps of history concerning the Spanish experience in America that will be helpful in analog to the issue of space colonization. Instances universally hailed as significant may prove over time to be less important that initially thought.
  • Unintended consequences presents the challenge of applying an analog seen as useful but in reality turns out to be a negative in the long run, or vice versa.
  • Policy insignificance is the challenge of applying analogies without full appreciation that the analogs may be less useful than envisioned in the policy making process.

These ideas, coupled with formal analog studies and historical perspectives from Neustadt and May, offer key methodological perspectives on any analog relating to both the past and the present.

Of course, this discussion suggests that historical analogies have an appropriate and an inappropriate use. Too often, advocates deploy analogies that support their basic position. For instance, as the U.S. embarked on an invasion of Iraq in 2003 advocates and opponents alike used dueling analogies to predict the future. Would it become like Vietnam, or would it be like western Europe in World War II? Would the United States become mired in a quagmire or be greeted as liberators? Depending on the perspective, one could argue either analogy. As it turned out, and I believe few would disagree, Iraq proved a quagmire. It was more like Vietnam than World War II, but the linkages were never direct and easily understood. Even without the political gamesmanship that was so much a part of this particular example, it is not an easy task in applying analogs to current situations.

Explicit use of historical tools can benefit person and organization by assisting in effective decision-making. Argument based on fact is convincing, and I wish there were more of it in all of civilization. Argument based on historical data or analogy can be overwhelming, but only if used effectively.

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2 Responses to The Use and Abuse of Historical Analogs

  1. Patrick McCray says:

    Surprised you didn’t mention Bruce Mazlish’s edited book which compares the 19th c railroad experience to the US space program of the 1960s. It’s worth a look…


    • launiusr says:

      Yes, thanks. I could have mentioned the Mazlish book, perhaps I should have. I recently reread it for a project I am working on and it was quite helpful.


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