Why don't we learn from history?

B. H. Liddell Hart (1895-1970)


by Adrian J. Liddell Hart

At the time of his death in 1970 my father had been preparing a revised and expanded edition of a short book of historical reflections which he had published in 1944.

During the last twenty-five years of his life and until the end, he had continued to be both prolific in the writing of history and influential in the making of it. Besides numerous articles on current international and military affairs, he wrote, edited, or prefaced a number of works on subjects that had by then become part of history. He published his own memoirs in 1965–1966, covering in two volumes his career up to the outbreak of World War II. Finally he completed his history of that war and was, in fact, correcting the proofs of this long-awaited work at the time of his death.

He was, too, the unofficial adviser to an ever-widening circle of political and military leaders throughout the world. He had a vast correspondence. He traveled incessantly, often at the invitation of foreign governments and services, as a lecturer and consultant. In his seventieth year he went to be Visiting Professor of Military History at the University of California. To his country house in England came a constant flow of visitors seeking his advice and assistance and availing themselves of the facilities for research which with the support of London University he had built up in his unique library there.

To a whole generation of new historians he became a mentor, just as many of their contemporaries in the services of many countries, now often in high command, regarded themselves as his disciples. Having himself become prominent at a remarkably early age, at the end of World War I, he was personally linked with events and figures which had already passed into history: the friend as well as the biographer of Lawrence of Arabia, the collaborator of Lloyd George in his own memoirs of World War I and in ensuing controversies, the ally as well as the critic of Winston Churchill during the interwar years.

Over half a century of public life problems and personalities changed, but in his approach to them, as to life, he never grew old.

It is against this background and in this personal perspective that his contribution to history—and his reflections on it—should be rightly assessed. Immensely thorough, he was not an academic historian as the term is usually understood. His first degree was an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. Although he had studied and published books on remoter periods, from the Roman wars to the American civil war, he was predominantly concerned with events which could be checked through firsthand sources. He was a meticulous recorder of such events in his own notes of discussions. Wherever possible he visited the scenes of the campaigns which he was to describe, or revisited them; he had fought on the Western Front himself. He was a professional journalist, even a popular journalist, who continued to use the press not only as a means of influence and communication but as filed material for historical study. Moreover he remained actively interested in many aspects of history, from religion to fashion, which were outside the specialized military sphere with which his reputation was identified.

He was a historian who strove for rigorous objectivity and maintained intellectual detachment throughout the crises of his life and despite the official, commercial or personal pressures to which he was inevitably exposed. He valued and to a remarkable extent succeeded in preserving his independence of inquiry, judgment and expression, even in time of war. He was, too, a resolute defender of other people's rights in this respect and under different regimes. He was not indifferent or neutral. On many contemporary and even historical issues he felt strongly, even passionately. He would always turn aside from his studies and planned writing, often to his cost, to combat injustice or misrepresentation, as he saw it, in any form. He was involved.

He rejected, too, a determinant view of history—and of human behavior. Aware of the influence of social, economic and physical forces, interested in human psychology, scientific in his approach to causes, and critical of claims to inspiration, he was nevertheless convinced both of the uncertainties and imponderables in history and of personal influences in decisions. He himself remained an individualist and, on the whole, an optimist. We could learn before it was too late.

This book embodies the essentials of his historical philosophy. That he did not live to elaborate the principles which he had long expounded, to systematize the notes and comments which he had made and to illustrate further the conclusions which he had reached is to be regretted. Many of the views are, indeed, expressed or implicit in one way or another throughout his published works, as well as his correspondence, and especially The Revolution in Warfare (1946), The Defense of the West (1950), Deterrent or Defense (1960), and in successively revised editions of The Strategy of Indirect Approach (1948, 1954, 1962).

These essentials changed little over the years. He believed in the importance of the truth that man could, by rational process discover the truth about himself—and about life; that this discovery was without value unless it was expressed and unless its expression resulted in action as well as education. To this end he valued accuracy and lucidity. He valued, perhaps even more, the moral courage to pursue and propagate truths which might be unpopular or detrimental to one's own or other people's immediate interests. He recognized that this discovery could best be fostered under certain political and social conditions—which therefore became to him of paramount importance. He was, in the widest sense, a liberal—while recognizing the limitations, from some points of view, of liberalism.

To what end? He had no faith in blueprints for progress and he sustained the conviction that the end could never justify the means. He was a humane man who believed that human beings, in possession of the facts and undistorted by prejudice, could work out fair solutions for their common problems, based on moderation. Pre-eminently, he applied this philosophy in seeking to understand the causes and restrict the ravages of war.

Other historians have, perhaps, elaborated more impressively comprehensive philosophies. None more fully worked out in his own life, indissolubly merging action and reflection, influence and study, the principles for which he stood.

Next: Foreword
Table of contents

Copyright (c) 1971 by Lady Kathleen Sullivan Liddell Hart

URL: http://www.nmt.edu/~shipman/reading/liddell/preface.html