Learning from History: What didn’t they know and when didn’t they know it?

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One of the big problems when we seek to learn the lessons of history is that we know how things turned out. That leads to what psychologists call “hindsight bias,” the tendency to think that what happened was inevitable or predictable. That’s almost never true. Consider Dwight Eisenhower in the hours leading up to D Day.

When he made the decision to proceed with the landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944, he didn’t know how it would come out. He even drafted the statement he would issue if the landings failed. In it, he took the full responsibility for the failure.

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

Why was he worried? The invasion had occupied some of the finest military minds in the world for more than two years. There had been loads of training and several deceptive actions. Eisenhower was a confident man, but he was also worried. He had good reasons.

The excellent German army was just across the Channel in well prepared fortifications. They were led by one of Germany’s legendary military leaders, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

The great mass of US troops was still untried. The amphibious landing was incredibly complex and the largest amphibious assault in history, involving more than 5000 ships and landing craft and 11000 aircraft. Twenty-nine divisions would land along 50 miles of Normandy beach.

There was only a narrow window of time when the invasion could take place. The tides had to be right and there had to be a full moon to properly illuminate obstacles and landing sites. And the weather had to be good. Bad weather could cause the whole thing to fail.

The meteorologists predicted storms for the originally-planned D-Day. And they were split on whether there would be a lull in the storms on June 6. Eisenhower had to decide 24 hours in advance which group he should believe. Nothing was certain.

The fact is that for Ike there were huge gaps in information, complex operations that could break down and a determined foe whose actions affected the outcome of the day.

The best way to learn from history like this is to step back and try to figure out what was unknown and what was precarious.

Remember that’s it’s never as easy or obvious as it looks in retrospect. Ask where the gaps in information were. Ask what catastrophic things might have gone wrong. It will help you understand the issues as the decision makers saw them.

Dwight Eisenhower was not a great man who easily and naturally made a great decision that turned the tide of a World War. We see him as great because he made far-reaching decisions and then worked hard to implement them, and we know that they came out right.

We can understand him and other great leaders best if we make the effort to understand how difficult and dangerous their decisions were and how easily the outcome might have been different.

Bottom Line

When you study the decisions people made in the past, do the hard thinking to try understand how the decision-maker viewed the situation. Ask yourself: “What didn’t they know and when didn’t they know it.”


Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers by Richard E. Neustadt Ernest R. May

Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan

Crusade in Europe by Dwight D. Eisenhower

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