Small Wars Journal

Book Review of Thinking Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers

Sun, 01/01/2023 - 11:34pm

Book Review of Thinking Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers

By Julio Garzon

One of the most spirited and lasting discussions among historians pits practitioners against their methods over the utility of the discipline in explaining human behavior. Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May make a compelling contribution to the above the debate. This review evaluates Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers by concentrating on the following areas: a primer on the authors’ background and their intended audience; the book’s general content; a brief overview of two previous reviews of the work that comment on its contributions and limitations; the main strengths of their arguments; and a set of concluding observations on the book’s general quality.

            Studies have abounded in the past half century regarding the utility of historical analysis across various disciplines. Controlled comparisons like those found in works such as James N. Rosnau’s The Scientific Study of Foreign Policy and Paul Gordon Lauren’s Diplomacy: New Approaches in History, Theory, and Practice sought to illustrate the nexus of diplomatic history and international relations.[1] These studies applied case-study methodology to probe new approaches that tried to bridge the gaping chasm between hypothetical paradigms and historical facts. Of equal salience, other scholars reoriented this case-study approach in a manner that sidestepped what historian Marc Bloch would call the “badly understood positivism” of abstraction by stressing the importance of historical continuity in any analysis and making these more accessible to those standing to benefit most from it.[2] Within this milieu, Neustadt and May package their arguments.

The topic and methods employed in this book are fitting given the background of the authors, both noted scholars and advisors. Neustadt, a political scientist at Harvard University, served as an advisor to presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson before teaching at Harvard for more than two decades. There, he authored Alliance Politics and The Swine Flu Affair, both referenced in this book when relating the Skybolt incident and the swine flu scare of 1976. May, for his part, taught at Harvard for 55 years until his death, expounding on subjects such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the decision to extend the Korean war north of the 38th parallel, both which are also considered in this book. Both scholars would ultimately serve on the faculty of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Thus, Thinking in Time traces some of the methods and illustrative case-studies utilized by Neustadt and May in their course at Kennedy School called “The Uses of History,” attended by experienced officials and administrators in mid-career.

            The book is intended as a manual for decision-makers and their staff to consider “practices which, if made routine, could at least protect against common mistakes.”[3] It is, in essence, a proposal for the sensible systematization of decision-making by means of comparison and scrutiny. Ultimately, subjecting various uses of history to analysis of its constituent elements seeks to reverse the usual uses and misuses of history in policy choices. The authors use various case studies – the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1983 Social Security Reform, the Korean War, the Swine Flu Scare of 1976, the Mayaguez Incident, the Vietnam War, the Skybolt missile controversy – to illustrate their thesis on the implications of historically informed, uninformed, and misinformed decision-making. The attendant stimulation to envision alternative courses is commissioned toward the modest end of marginal improvement in performance in the work of officials and their aids, taking each on its own terms.

            The purpose of this book is thus prescriptive. The use of case studies is designed to engender analysis on the benefits and limits of historical consideration. History can stimulate to produce marginal improvements but can be counterproductive if practiced in the “usual” manner. To attenuate this risk, the authors advise distinguishing things Known, Unclear and Presumed as a first step toward “clarifying concerns and objectives.”[4] Additionally, the natural proclivity toward historical comparison must be tempered by the associated procedure of identifying Likenesses and Differences to clarify the salience of powerful analogies. These procedures are examined through a helpful conduit – the Truman administration’s handling of the Korean War – to stress the value of sharpened recognition. The authors then devote ensuing chapters to defining the objective by use of issue history, the Goldberg Rule, time-lines, and journalists’ questions through the SALT and Social Security Act ratification processes.[5] The book concludes with the placement of individuals and organizations to ascertain how different leaders and organizations relate to issues and each other, placing their history on larger timelines to draw trends and convergence.

Thinking in Time’s relative novelty has not precluded the ability to consider other book reviews of note. Two in particular, Georgetown University’s Margaret Jane Wyszomirski and University of Kansas’s George N. Heller, advance compelling insights on the book’s value and its limitations. Though both share appreciation for the ordering of arguments and its pertinence to the purpose of informing leaders and their staff, they diverge in their appraisals of the inherent deficiencies of the work.

The basic premise of the work is laid out by Wyszomirski as the argument of history as a powerful analytical tool for policymakers, instructive in its ability to both “inform and misinform.”[6] Orienting these lessons toward the ambit of policy makers and their staff, the book seeks to provide examples of when these actors used, or misused, historical analogies to shape their decisions. Consequently, Wyszomirski proceeds to contour the limitations of this approach. While applauding the selection of case studies for being appropriate and informative in underscoring informed and misinformed decision-making, Wyszomirski nonetheless notes that “many of these have been analyzed elsewhere and in greater detail,” alluding to the cursory treatment given to these by the authors. Thinking in Time’s contribution is, thus, not “analytical originality” but rather an accessible synthesis for the limited mental bandwidth commonly associated with policymaking.[7] In the same vein, Wyszomirski perceives another drawback attendant to this approach in the book’s inability to draw systematic and explicit comparisons between these cases. Eschewing explicitly comparative analysis in favor of broad paired comparisons ultimately “diminishes the book’s value as well as its explanatory power for scholars.”[8] This critique is qualified, however, by an acknowledgment of the book’s intended audience and the peripheral priority given by these to precision and analytical rigor.

Heller, on the other hand, approaches his review from the broad parallels the book offers to music history. He draws continuity between the intended audience and music educators, especially those in leadership positions, highlighting how history can engender imagination and “envision alternative futures” when applied to practical problems in the field.[9] Departing from Wyszomirski review, Heller follows a similar path of laudatory exposition but is generally devoid of plaintive caveats. He extols the wellspring of readings, examples, and history from which the authors draw, spanning Thucydides to the dubious admonitions of McGeorge Bundy. Anticipating detractors, he observes the book’s polemic capacity while asserting the core of its argument: the use of history, when “penetrating superficial impressions of past situations,” undoubtedly lends fundamental value in human affairs.[10]

Above all, Neustadt and May’s book has one compelling strength. It draws on instructive parallels used by decisionmakers during the Cuban Missile Crisis, making a quite defensible case on the strengths of history when applied to decision-making. Examining the deliberations of the Executive Community of the National Security Council, or ExComm, the authors establish their case on the merits of history through analysis of the various analogies considered by President Kennedy and his advisers. To do this, they trace the council’s evolution from standard practice to the eventual departure from standard practice in the treatment of analogies. Standard practice, characterized by myopic concentration on the short- term, parallels many of the analogies used in the initial meetings. Examples of this would include allusions to the diversionary capacity of the Suez Crisis and the consequences of preemptive attack reminiscent of Pearl Harbor.[11] The departure from this approach is then marked by ExComm’s subjection of analogies to more probing analysis.

The committee’s proceedings were, therefore, distinguished by several observations: the extent “to which analogies were invoked sparingly and…subjected to scrutiny;” attention given to the issue’s history; the examination of key presumptions; demonstrating uncommon interest in the "history of the heads of their adversaries;” the attention paid to organizational histories; and, perhaps most importantly, considering issues as “part of a time sequence” spanning from before its onset and into an “increasingly indistinct future.”[12] The Suez and Pearl Harbor examples were promptly dismissed because they were outliers in this scrutinizing framework. Moreover, showing uncommon interest in the history of one’s adversaries allowed Kennedy and ExComm to practice what Harvard professors Roger Fisher and William Ury would later call “principled negotiation,” distinguishing position from interest and focusing on the latter.[13] Consequently, Kennedy would set great store in putting himself in Khrushchev’s position, assessing the current crisis in the context of the Soviet leader’s past actions and thinking.

Beyond personal history, ExComm also made use of Soviet organizational history to anticipate their behavior. When confronted with certain US responses such as quarantine, the committee was able to surmise Russian acquiescence due to Russian military’s penchant for secrecy and unwillingness to be boarded. What’s more, an explanatory capacity inhered in this knowledge, particularly for incidents that, were it not for chalking it up to procedural inertia, could have escalated tensions even more than they did (e.g., the shooting down of the U-2 spy plane over Cuba). Perhaps the most instructive of these peculiarities lies in ExComm’s decision to view the crisis in a continuum, shifting from the usual practice of “what to do now” to where the crisis and the decisions involved exists in the long dialogue of history.[14] As a result, the authors avail themselves of ExComm’s proceedings as an instructive case on the demonstrable contributions that reasoned and prudent thinking can make, with history to help produce it.

In conclusion, Thinking in Time proves remarkably valuable in helping readers develop a clearer understanding between the use and misuse of historical tools as well as the relative strengths of case-study methodology to inform policymakers and their staff.  The broad contours of Neustadt and May’s narrative provide an accessible entry to an audience beset by constraints to their time and attention but who stand to benefit most. Moreover, it weighs historian Michael Howard’s observation on the chimerical nature of reaching the Archimedean point outside events.[15] When extracting lessons learned from unique historical incidents, the authors stress various tools to differentiate variables between the past and present, ultimately considering issues as part of a time sequence. The signal contribution of their book, therefore, lies in its accessibility which does not compromise fundamental expectations of the discipline when applied to case-studies.






Bloch, Mark. The Historian's Craft. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992.


Fisher, Robert, William Ury, and Bruce Patton. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In. Penguin Books, 1986.


Heller, George N. “Book Review: Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers.” The Bulletin of Historical Research in Music Education 10, no. 1 (January 1989): 53-59.


Howard, Michael. “The Lessons of History.” The History Teacher 15, no. 4 (1982): 489–501.


Lauren, Paul Gordon. Diplomacy: New Approaches in History, Theory and Policy. The Free Press (Macmillan, New York), International Relations 6, no. 5 (May 1980): 854–55.


Neustadt, Richard E., and Ernest R. May. Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers. New York: Free Press, 1988.


Wyszomirski, Margaret Jane. The Journal of Politics 49, no. 2 (1987): 604–7.



[1] “Diplomacy: New Approaches in History, Theory and Policy. Edited by Paul Gordon Lauren. The Free Press (Macmillan, New York). £16.25.” International Relations 6, no. 5 (May 1980): 854–55.

[2] Bloch, Mark. The Historian's Craft. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992, 147.

[3] Neustadt, Richard E., and Ernest R. May. Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers. New York: Free Press, 1988, 2.

[4] Neustadt and May, 39-41.

[5] Ibid., 105.

[6] Wyszomirski, Margaret Jane. The Journal of Politics 49, no. 2 (1987): 604–7., 604.

[7] Wyszomirski, 606.

[8] Ibid., 605.

[9] Heller, George N. “Book Review: Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers.” The Bulletin of Historical Research in Music Education 10, no. 1 (January 1989): 59.

[10] Heller, 55.

[11] Neustadt and May, 6.

[12] Ibid., 8-14.

[13] Fisher, Robert, William Ury, and Bruce Patton. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In. Penguin Books, 1986.

[14] Neustadt and May, 15.

[15] Howard, Michael. “The Lessons of History.” The History Teacher 15, no. 4 (1982): 492.


About the Author(s)

Captain Julio Garzon is an Air Force U-28A Combat Systems Officer. He is a graduate of Yale University and Johns Hopkins University. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the United States Air Force or the Department of Defense.




Sat, 01/21/2023 - 12:21am

There is no one way to become a great architect, but there are some skills that all great architects share. If you are a student studying architecture, here are 10 tips to help you improve your architecture design skills. Constantly ask yourself why things are the way they are and how they can be improved. Pay attention to the details of the world around you as well as how they fit together. Give yourself permission to think outside the box and come up with new and innovative solutions to problems. Don't be afraid to question everything and really investigate all options before making a decision.