||Liddell Hart and the Weight of History,
by John J. Mearsheimer. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.
Professional soldiers and military historians owe a great intellectual debt to the writings and theories of Captain Sir Basil H. Liddell Hart. The general military leader is also beholden to the British author for making military history much more relevant and readable in contemporary society.
Liddell Hart, considered by many to be the foremost military theorist and historian of the twentieth century, was born in 1895. After a “typical upper-middle-class Edwardian” upbringing, he attended Cambridge and read history. When the Great War erupted, Liddell Hart enthusiastically volunteered to serve in the British Army and became a lieutenant in December 1914.
He was ordered to France in 1915, served in the trenches at Ypres, and became a gas casualty at the Somme the following year. After convalescing, Liddell Hart became adjutant of a Volunteer Force battalion, and devoted himself to the training of his unit. He developed a multi-echelon battle drill which was published in 1918 as New Methods in Infantry Training. Liddell Hart continued to write Army manuals until he was placed on half pay in 1924 and retired three years later due to war injuries. Shortly thereafter, he became military correspondent to successive newspapers, and wrote prolifically and influentially on infantry tactics, armored warfare, and strategy until his death in 1970. Liddell Hart left behind the reputation he had earned as “the most formidable military thinker of the age.”
Mearsheimer (USMA 1970), a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of books on contemporary military strategy, has not written merely a biography of Liddell Hart. Instead, in an impressive work of intellectual history, the author recounts and reexamines the evolution of Liddell Hart’s military thought. Through scrupulous research, including an incisive analysis of personal correspondence, the author convincingly demonstrates that Liddell Hart manipulated facts and distorted history to resurrect a reputation tarnished by World War ll.
The chapter on “Grand Strategy and the Indirect Approach” is especially interesting and thought-provoking, and Mearsheimer ably fills a void left by earlier historians. This topic was inadequately explored by Jay Luvaas in his admirable, albeit hagiographic, chapter on Liddell Hart in The Education of an Army (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964). Liddell Hart’s strategic thought was later more clearly elucidated through insightful analysis and restrained criticism in Brian Bond’s Liddell Hart: A Study of His Military Thought ((New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1977).
Liddell Hart, perhaps typical of one of his generation and experience, was convinced that in the event of another war on the Continent, Britain’s dogmatic, amateurish generals would repeat the stultifying experience of the
Western Front. Hart questioned and opposed British plans to commit ground forces to fight on the Continent. He argued that Britain should “place greater emphasis on economic and diplomatic instruments” (p.84), and if those measures failed, Britain should employ “an indirect approach to defeat a Continental foe” (p. 84). It was, in essence, a reversion to Britain’s traditional “blue-water” strategy that emphasized sea power and minimized the role of ground forces.
Even though Liddell Hart, on the eve of war, had been an ardent supporter of mechanization and armored warfare, the fall of France in 1940 badly damaged Liddell Hart’s reputation. After the war, he consciously used a number of methods, to include what Mearsheimer characterizes as “selfish manipulation of the historical record” (p. 179) to regain his lost prestige. Perhaps the most indicating of Mearsheimer’s revelations is that Liddell Hart “used” the German generals to his personal advantage. Liddell hart befriended many of them after World War ll, campaigned for better prison conditions and against their being tried as war criminals, and helped the former Wehrmacht generals to restore their own reputations. The German Generals Talk (1948) is but one noted example of Liddell Hart and the German generals “polishing up each other’s soiled reputations for mutual benefit” (p. 201, footnote 71).
The Liddell Hart legend was further solidified in the 1950’s and 1960’s when he developed close ties with a number of younger military and diplomatic historians, to include Peter Paret, Jay Luvaas, Ronald Lewin, and Paul Kennedy. These historians generally did not challenge Hart’s account of his activities, his role in British policy making, or his influence on the German generals and others -- and they frequently helped to perpetuate it. The capstone of Liddell Hart’s effort to resurrect his tainted reputation was the highly-lauded and well-received publication in 1965 of his Memoirs, which appeared to legitimize his version of history.
Mearsheimer’s well-documented, myth-shattering and enthralling book cannot be recommended too highly, not only to soldiers and historians, but also to those who want to learn how history has been manipulated in the past. Liddell Hart and the Weight of History will be, deservedly, controversial. Nonetheless, a critical reassessment of Liddell hart legacy is long overdue.
Book Review, Liddell Hart and the Weight of History, by John J. Mearsheimer,
Assembly, West Point Association of Graduates 48 (October 1989): 44-45.