Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of the Well-Read Investor, the podcast that profits your mind and your money.
Today we are thrilled to have Pulitzer Prize winning Historian Professor John Lewis Gaddis to discuss his most recent book, On Grand Strategy, and much else over his prolific career.
Before we begin I just want to say from all of us on the Well-Read team a HUGE thank you for making this podcast such a great initial success—the response has been tremendous and we’re so pleased to bring these wonderful authors to you. We’re starting to figure all this out and are even more excited for what the future holds, so expect many more episodes like these.
John Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University, where he teaches courses on the Cold War, grand strategy, biography, and historical methods with particular interest in the classics – like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which is has his Freshman class read every semester.
He’s probably best known though for his work on the Cold War, and has been hailed as the "Dean of Cold War Historians" by The New York Times. Which is maybe an understatement if you ask me. Professor Gaddis has received multiple awards for his teaching, as well as the National Humanities Medal, and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his biography of George Kennan.
Frankly that’s just the start, John’s amazing body of work is too much to list. But pay particular attention to our discussion of his 2004 book, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past. It’s a book that for years has framed my thinking about the use of history in investing, how narratives are built around data and facts, and so on…it’s a book that’s always near my desk.
This interview was conducted via Skype in July of this year with Professor Gaddis in New Haven. Enjoy!
Michael Hanson 00:00
Well professor, thank you again so much for being here. You are of course one of the most lauded historians in the academic world, and I've been following your career for a very long time. This podcast, of course, has to do with investing, but geopolitics history has in my view so much to do with investing. And, just by way of example, your recent book On Grand Strategy, investors have to cope with things like China's five-year plans, all sorts of grand strategies and think those things through all across the world, but whether it's an investor or a regular person, why did you write this book? And why do you think that the lessons of grand strategy and so forth, apply and why should people want to know about those?
John Gaddis (03:00):
I certainly had not set out to write it for investors Mike, because I certainly do not consider myself at all qualified in this regard. It's a book that was written for students because I, with a couple of other colleagues have been teaching grand strategy here at Yale, but we all three taught the class together for 20 years, which is pretty amazing. And we had a ball doing it. And part of the premise of the class was a very broad-minded definition of grand strategy. So, we never regarded it as applicable, only to military affairs. For example, we always saw it as a part of a much larger sphere. It never quite occurred to us that it would be useful to investors. But we did try to make the argument to our students that whatever feels like they eventually go into they're going to find it useful because they're going to be certain basic problems, which are endemic to all of grand strategy. And, I think that's the common thread that, so many different professions and fields still have, at their most fundamental elements, issues that are grand strategic in their nature.
For so much of your career, of course, has been about the cold war you're considered really the world's expert on that in so many ways, but this is about the classics. Something, that's a little bit of a departure for you. I've heard you speak on it before, why the classics and why keep coming back to them?
Well, first of all, I got bored with the cold war. I'm tired of it. I need to do something else. But also - the way we had organized the course we always relied on the classics in that, in that course. And that's part of that goes back to the experience that I had was a very, a young professor in the mid 1970s at the Naval war college in Newport. I spent two years there and got thrown into teaching, um, a class of, um, uh, Naval officers, all of whom were older than I was, and the task was to teach them through Saturdays, Clausewitz and Mackie, none of whom I had read at that point, you know, so there was a lot of fast scrambling to gear myself up for that, but I learned an enormous amount from it that I never would have gotten in graduate school. So, I was always, after that experience sensitive to the relationship between the classics and, grand strategy. And I think the fundamental reason for that is that is: why don't we call them classics? Well, it’s because people come back and keep reading them over the centuries. So, they apply across time and space and cultures and whatnot. So, there's bound to be something in them. That's useful if people keep coming back to them. So that was simply the premise of the class that we would, rely on classical texts, but we would try to extract from them concepts that might be useful in the modern world, in particularly concepts that might be useful to our students after they go out into that world.
Michael Hanson (06:46):
Now, this book began with the idea of Isaiah Berlin and his notion about foxes and hedgehogs. I wonder if you would tell a little bit of that story, the importance of Isaiah Berlin to you, how you sort of came upon all this and how that was a little bit of a catalyst for this book?
John Gaddis (07:06):
Well, discovering Isaiah Berlin is for me, something that took place much later. I did a biography of George Kennan, which came out about 10 years ago and, uh, had spent a year at Oxford, uh, and got to know sir, Isaiah at that point, but only as an acquaintance of Kennan, you know, so it was not until long after his death. That I began to grapple with actually what he had said. And one of the first things, of course, that I looked at his famous article on the Fox and the hedgehog and what Berlin did was to go back to an ancient Greek poet, Artilicus who left us with this fragment. “The Fox knows many things that hedgehog knows one big thing” and that's it, there was no further elaboration on it. So, this has been the source of endless speculation. You see, what did it mean? And Berlin very creatively used it as a way of talking about literary figures. And from that, we got interested in just applying it more widely than literary figures to political leaders and all of this. And I think it is relevant to the world of investing because there are some people, who go through life focusing on one big idea. They are hedgehogs, in this sense. And there is some evidence that they rise pretty fast in organizations because they're good at soundbites because they can dominate meetings. But they're also people who are foxes in the sense that they're aware simultaneously of many different things, and they have their eyes on a bunch of balls, not just one. Quite often, they are shrewd and they are perceptive, but they don't rise quite as fast in organizations because in meetings, they tend to ramble. They tend to qualify, they tend to hedge. So, they say on one hand this on the other hand, that and so on and never quite get to the point. So, they get left behind by the hedgehogs that advance within organizations. But there's another problem, which is, it has been demonstrated by psychologists that the foxes are more often right than the hedgehogs, as hedgehogs tend to rise higher in organizations, they are also more often wrong. And so, this led me to my proposition, which I talk about in the book, which has to do with common sense. Common sense is like oxygen, the higher you go, the thinner it gets.
Michael Hanson (10:57):
The question of foxes and hedgehogs in our industry, is it an important one. Because the question is always one of relevance and what is relevant in the current moment, and you need kind of a Fox sensibility to do that. Your book, the landscape of history, which is going back a little bit, was something that really shaped my thinking because we use a lot of history in our work for no other reason than to see what's precedence and unprecedented, but you speak a lot about maps and territories zooming in and out, getting context. And a lot of this book is about that. How does that work in studying history? When is it appropriate to zoom in and out? And I know you've got so many examples with Tolstoy in that vein as well.
John Gaddis (11:48):
Yeah, well, landscape of history, came out now two decades ago, and that was as a result of another year that I spent at Oxford and part of the obligation at Oxford, probably the most important obligation is simply to dine at high table. But part of the obligation also is to give a set of lectures. And, so having lectured on the cold war the first time I was there, I thought I had to do something different the second time I would say I was thinking about another seminar that I had done here at Yale with undergrads, just on the nature of history. And one thing that we would get into arguments about constantly was, is history of science are not. But I had one kid in the seminar who, uh, um, just raised his hand one day and said, I think we ought to worry less about the question of whether history is a science and focus on the issue of which sciences are historical and talk about your light bulb moments. That was a great one for me, because I suddenly realized that yes, there are sciences that seek to come up with timeless observations, propositions that are always true, physics, chemistry. It's the kinds of sciences for experiments can be rerun and verified. But that's about only half of the world of science. if you think about geology and paleontology and evolutionary biology and astronomy, even medicine- they are historical in nature because they worked by pricing narratives because the fields they deal with are far too big to cram within laboratories. So, they're totally different, but they're still sciences. So I got very interested in how they work and what their characteristic are and from that what the characteristics of a science might be. So, I got particularly interested in thinking about history, not just as a matter of time and space, but also scale and scale means the importance of little things to big things, how tiny perturbations somewhere can have enormous effects. The whole world can change. And so, I came to the conclusion, yes, history is, it is a science and it should be proud of this And so I tried to convince my political science colleagues of this, and they all stopped speaking to me.
Michael Hanson (16:06):
Well, you know, it happens in economics. I mean, as we speak one of the central issues in economics that, uh, people like Robert Shiller are dealing with is the notion of narrative.
But you mentioned the Santa Fe Institute and we've had several guests from the Santa Fe Institute on this program. We're very big on complexity or at least I am. You know, you spoke about how COVID started and so forth. You, you speak, frequently on the topic of criticality and how that can change history. Would you, would you say a little more about that?
John Gaddis (16:45):
Sure. Yes, this is something that comes out of a kind of sub branch of physics, which is sensitive to these issues. It started with experiments in meteorology trying to quantify meteorology and finding it, not capable of being quantified because the causes can be reduced to such an infinitesimal level that they are beyond our capability to measure. So, the point is similar to meteorology. When you get down to a certain level micro level, you are below the capability to measure things. And so, the best you can do is just to say, it cannot be measured. We cannot predict beyond a certain level. I think that's a hugely useful insight, uh, and it's humbling in some ways, but it seems to me, it comes very close to how the world works and certainly it comes close to how historians think.
Michael Hanson (18:23):
You know, the meteorology concept is one that I've spoken with both our clients and our employees about, but with this concept of criticality and so forth, why do grand strategy? I mean, if the world can be so chaotic, how do you, how do you balance the need for strategy with the need for let's just say adaptation and reaction?
John Gaddis (18:45):
Well, this is for you come back to Isaiah. Berlin is what Isaiah Berlin, said in several of his great essays was that, humanity benefits best from not trying to reconcile contradictions. And he went on to make the argument that the great reconcilers of contradictions in history, particularly in 20th century history or the great authoritarians, these were linen and Hitler and Stalin and Mao and Swan. And they tried to smooth over all contradictions and produced tyrannies as a result of that.
John Gaddis (20:08):
And, so this notion of tolerating contradictions, I think is the answer to your question. You have to accept that there is a direction in history. You have to accept that there is the possibility of leaders to lead. But you also have to accept the possibility. In fact, the inevitability of, they're dealing with contradictions with, surprises with things that don't go as planned and they developed a capacity to recover. So, Berlin's great. Hero was Franklin Roosevelt who was a master of rationalizing dealing with contradictions and still pointing us in a very distinct direction to recovery from the war, recovery from the depression, and then winning the war and winning it economically, and building national power.
I got an interested in how great leaders can do this kind of thing. And this is where Clausewitz, but Clausewitz, what's writing in the 1820s, and drawing on his lessons from the Napoleonic invasion of Russia in 1812, because he was there. He came up with a theory of grand strategy, which accommodates the notion of the unpredictable. At the same time these theoretical insights that are extremely powerful and that's been influential in the military, but I think it could well be influential in other areas. I try to explain it to my students. What is his theory on Friction? We come around to the metaphor of coaching, I said, what do you do any afternoon? You go out and you get yelled at, by some coach. And the coach is trying to teach you what the rules of the game are enforced, you to adhere to the rules and force you into the discipline of training, all of this, trying to mold you, but when you get out on the playing field and the other team is out there, you don't have time to consult the coach before you make every move. You have to do some things on your own. But who would say that you will do things on your own more scale, more skillfully if you've never had a coach. And this is what Clausewitz was saying about military training, military training is extraordinarily important, but the first thing you do when you get into combat is throw out the plan, whatever that was, because the battle will never go according to the plan. So, all of this integrates into, I think something that is useful in a lot of different ways, that should make us comfortable with dealing with contradictions and at the same time, be able to retain some kind of a sense of direction.
Michael Hanson (27:44):
Now, in so many of your books, but especially the landscape of history, you talk about how historians have the ability to sort of change the perspective, take a wider view, do you see today's turmoil, whether it be COVID or social unrest as changing the landscape of history, fundamentally from, from its trajectories that it was on?
John Gaddis (28:19):
I do for sure. it seems to me that this is something, COVID, that we are going to be studying for a very long time, because it's one of these rare events, that affected everybody. it's ecological, it's environmental. So, the effects of this are going to be global. There's no doubt about this, and yet who could have foreseen it. People were saying, yes, a pandemic can come, one did in 1918, 19, 19, but we don't know when it's going to come. And then suddenly on our watch, one did come, and we're living with the consequences and the world will not be the same. So, this is a beautiful illustration of precisely this point, the importance of infinite decimals and the limitations of prediction. And so, it’s immense, and people are going to be debating the consequences for decades. I think.
Michael Hanson (30:01):
So, I always ask folks, especially from a historian, economists will tell you that in some ways the world is completely deterministic.
John Gaddis (30:35):
Yup. And that's where something else is very interesting. That was influential to me. I got really interested in the writings of, Stephen Jay Gould, the late evolutionary paleontologist at Harvard, wrote beautifully, but Gould and talking about ancient fossils was documenting an entire world of organisms, that looked like something that came from outer space. They don't look terrestrial, at all, they looked like vacuum cleaners, they look like typewriters or whatnot. And these are paths not taken in the evolutionary progression. So, evolutionary history is full of these things. It tells you that it's not just trial and error, it’s not really survival of the fittest. It's more related just to accident. So, I had Steve Gould out to my then university, and he told me the story of the optimal fish, which flourished in its environment, perfectly attuned to its environment for millions and millions of years until the pond dried up. And that has always stuck with me as, as something that's always a possibility. I thought about it a lot when after the COVID crisis began.
Michael Hanson (32:32):
So, I've heard you say you don't really have any more books planned at the moment. I wonder if that's true, but I also wonder just if you might say a few words about what the writing process is like for you and how that comes together?
John Gaddis (32:53):
Well, the writing process for me is one of rediscovery each time. I have to learn how to do it each time, because each book is different. It's very important to find the right voice, the right tone, the right degree of formality or informality or whatnot. And so, it's quite normal for me to spend as much time fretting over the first chapter as it is the next six or eight. So, I don't have a formula for doing this. It just goes back to each one being distinctive. And I think they're better for not trying to fit some kind of a template or something like that. There is the next book in the works and is going to be about my hometown in South Texas. It's going to be called hometown and my hometown and in Texas, which is Cotulla, about halfway between Laredo and San Antonio. It was created in the 1880s and very quickly became the most violent town in all of Texas. It's completely wild West with shootouts in the streets and lanes when lynching and assassinations and all of this, you know, in this tiny little town of no more than 500 or a thousand of people. And we had always been told as kids that it had been a very rough town, but we were never given details, so I'd always been curious about that. And I happen to run across digital 19th century newspapers, So, you get every page, but with instant search capability. And this is just absolutely wonderful. The other thing that was happening in that period Telegraph had just been invented. And so that made possible wire services. And so, the newspapers were fascinated by these and they would publish it and they would be published in little snippets, So, it looked like tweets, they are late 19th century tweets, and It's an immensely valuable, historical resource. So, I just set out to reconstruct my town’s history, and that has been huge fun.
Michael Hanson (39:17):
Well we look forward to that. Whenever I tout your books, especially On Grand Strategy, I always like to say the amount of work that has to go in to make everything sound clear and easy. One last question as we’ll wrap things up, given today’s climate, On Grand Strategy and the breadth of your career, what's the one thing you wish people would know or keep in mind the lessons of history for today that would really, just help, help understanding and help us get through this time?
John Gaddis (40:02):
Well, I think it's the question of really, how do you accumulate experience, and maybe this goes back to coaching. So, part of that is knowing the rules obviously, but part of it is just the experience of what actually happens on the playing field, where the rules apply only in the most general sense. So how you, apply the rules to, the unpredictable events that are happening becomes, it seems to me very critical. And the more experience you have, it seems to me the better you're likely to be at this. But what if we could expand the database beyond our own immediate experience? What if we could expand the database and projected back 2,500 years or so, so that a there's such a thing as vicarious experience, and that's where history comes in. That's what can you can do by reading the history? And I don't think it should be read looking for immediate, application or relevance. I don't think it should be read with any sense that it's going to repeat, because I think it mostly doesn't, but I do think that there are just certain continuing problems. How do you, potentially infinite objectives to necessarily limited capabilities, everybody has got that problem, and looking at how people have done this over that length of time and that many different cultures I think can be immensely helpful.
You know, the way you described that is so pointed, because it really is the fundamental question of economics. How does one deal with potential and scarcity? Um, this has been such a great conversation, professor, thank you so much for doing this. It's really is quite an honor for us.
Thank you, Mike, I enjoyed it
Well, that was our conversation with John Gaddis. Of all the insights, we gained from speaking with John, I keep coming back to this idea of paying attention to the “resolution” or “focus” and how much that matters—historians can focus in on the smallest minutiae in one sentence and expand out to the most abstract ideas in the next. That concept is so important in investing: many focus on company specifics when it’s the macro that matters more, and sometimes vice versa. Think about the resolution you’re using when you think about the world.
Don’t miss our next episode, airing August 26th, when we have the great Amity Shlaes talking about her great and most recent bestseller: Great Society: A New History. Among much else, we’ll explore the many ways the late 60s are comparable to today’s turmoil, and the ways today is different, too. Don’t miss it.
Until then, here’s hoping all your reading profits your mind and your money. Take care.