Is the past prologue?
“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Unknown 
What is history?
Old reliable, the Merriam Webster dictionary, defines history as a chronological record of significant events (such as those affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes. 
Famous historian Edward Gibbon who chronicled [easyazon_link identifier=”B00AP2XWA8″ locale=”US” tag=”atrans20-20″]the rise and fall of the Roman Empire[/easyazon_link] in two mammoth volumes said the following:
“History . . . is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”
Perhaps the latter less charitable definition is more accurate.
For the average citizen who was bored stiff in [easyazon_link identifier=”0761160833″ locale=”US” tag=”atrans20-20″]high school American history[/easyazon_link] or [easyazon_link identifier=”0761160949″ locale=”US” tag=”atrans20-20″]world history[/easyazon_link] class, dusty dates and events about the dead may come to mind.
Sadly, test scores demonstrate that more US youth are sorely uninformed about the story of their own country.
As an international affairs analyst, I use my own informed experience and research in an examination of these matters.
I offer seven (7) lessons of history from years of research, study, and passionate analysis.
Read on to learn more about the significance of history in our daily lives.
Lamentable Level of History Knowledge Among US Population
Every four years the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) grades what America’s students know and can do in US history, geography, and civics.
In the latest report (as of this writing), across the US, eighth graders’ average scores on the NAEP U.S. history, geography, and civics tests showed no significant change in 2014, compared to 2010—the previous assessment year. 
That is, only eighteen percent (18%) of eighth-graders performed at or above the Proficient level in U.S. history, 27 percent performed at or above the Proficient level in geography, and 23 percent performed at or above the Proficient level in civics. 
[ctt template=”3″ link=”Lw5Ym” via=”yes” nofollow=”yes”]In a periodic survey, only eighteen percent (18%) of eighth-graders performed at or above the Proficient level in U.S. #history.[/ctt]
The bliss of not knowing is not confined to the youth, but even the college-educated.
The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) and The Atlantic, ideological opposites, both have published insights into just what the American public knows about its past.
ISI’s civic literacy tests span from 2007 to 2011 and consistently both high schoolers and the college educated flunked basic knowledge of American history and institutions. 
Incredibly, in The Atlantic survey first reported in 2011, more Americans were able to identify Michael Jackson as the composer of a number of songs than to know that the Bill of Rights was the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. 
On the 150th anniversary of the tragic night of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, a survey released by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni showed incredibly only about half of Americans had any idea when the Civil War occurred. 
The spotty knowledge of such a seminal moment in US history marks an interesting contrast with the movement in 2017 to fell any Confederate-linked statue across a country that knows little about the Civil War.
Only one-third of college students knew when the Civil War happened. 
That is quite interesting given that 56% of Americans told Pew Research that the Civil War was still relevant. 
The bliss of “un-knowledge” among such a large segment of the US population is worrisome given the premium on smarts and skills in our Knowledge Economy.
Let’s now turn to the usefulness of history to act as a guide to the future.
Does history predict the future?
If you are an investor, you may be aware of this line from the prospectus of mutual funds:
“Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”
While no one has a crystal ball, certainly the study of history reveals insights into human behavior.
History is replete with the good and the bad of humankind.
[ctt template=”3″ link=”1NTqH” via=”yes” ]A #survey by @TheAtlantic showed more Americans were able to identify Michael Jackson than to know that the Bill of Rights.[/ctt]
The past is challenging, frustrating, exciting, exhilarating, and depressing.
History teaches us valuable things about ourselves and others.
Here are some worrisome facts about past and present trends.
Totalitarianism has existed throughout human history.
In the 20th century alone, fascism, national socialism, and communism condemned approaching 80,000,000 people to death in a pre-meditated, organized slaughter for the ideals of an arguably failed ideology. 
In the 2016 Global Slavery Index, an estimated 45.8 million people lived in some form of modern slavery in 167 countries. 
[ctt template=”3″ link=”WIa4X” via=”yes” nofollow=”yes”]In the 2016 Global Slavery Index, an estimated 45.8 million people lived in some form of modern #slavery in 167 countries. [/ctt]
Freedom House reported that 2016 marked the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom with populist and nationalist forces making significant gains in democratic states. 
Horrors abound in a study of world history.
That a sizeable slice of the American public may be unaware – not of the exact figures or numbers, but the basics of the past and present – is even more concerning.
The [easyazon_link keywords=”study of history” locale=”US” tag=”atrans20-20″]study of history[/easyazon_link] is arguably more important now than ever to gain a fundamental understanding of the trajectory forward of humankind.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]That a sizeable slice of the American public may be unaware – not of the exact figures or numbers, but the basics of the past and present– is even more concerning.[/perfectpullquote]
History helps us understand the present
Historians use primary sources for their first line of research: original documents, photographs, film, and other evidence from the time being studied.
Sources are normally evaluated on the basis of three criteria: 
Observe—Identify and note details in the source.
Interpret—Develop and test ideas about the source.
Question—Ask questions that lead to more observations and interpretations. These questions may help you make important connections.
They often draw conclusions based on their analysis of these sources which inform them about our present world.
In the classroom, instructors could teach history backward, beginning with the present and how it connected to events in the past.
Thus, the world today is a product of the accumulation of events and decisions (and non-decisions!) from the past decades.
In other words, the present is the sum of all the events – good, ugly, and indifferent – that have happened to us.
In sum, understanding the link between past and present events is absolutely fundamental for a good understanding of the human condition.
The poor knowledge of history among significant segments of the US populace as indicated above in national surveys is even more worrisome because few people know about today because they know so little about yesterday.
7 Lessons from History
Another benefit of studying history is to avoid the mistakes of the past for a brighter future.
Therefore, the lessons of history are instructive to the current and coming generations who will manage social, economic, and political affairs of countries.
As a keen student of international affairs, and through my own research on various occasions, I offer my own seven (7) lessons from history.
In the grand sweep of human history, we have seen:
- a struggle of ideas,
- a contest between opposing forces, and
- the aggressive use of force to secure preeminence and to become dominant.
These seven (7) observations reflect those three currents coursing through our collective history.
1 – Weakness begets challenges
“All cruelty springs from weakness.” – Seneca, Roman Stoic philosopher 
Weak states have often fallen prey to stronger countries, usually sharing a common border.
A prime example is the division of Poland in 1939 between Nazi Germany and the then Soviet Union.
In the unpublished (at the time) secret codicils of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the two totalitarian states carved up spheres of influence of their bravely defiant, but hapless neighbor. 
Poland was an appetizing target of aggression for primarily one reason, its major weakness: the lack of a modernized military.
Poland was again in an impossible geographic position, a fact throughout its history given its nearly featureless terrain – perfect for invasion from many directions.
Germany knew Poland was unable to survive its blitzkrieg (lightning war) in a supposed search for delusional Lebensraum in the East.
Further, the secret pact with the Moscow only solidified the German advantage in its first step to conquer all of continental Europe.
Polish weakness meshed nicely with German aggression and with dire consequences – sparking the Second World War in twenty years.
Weakness invites chicanery on the international stage.
2 – There is no appeasement of aggressors.
Appeasement – giving an aggressor whatever is demanded for “peace” – became a dirty word writ large in international diplomacy after the 1938 Munich Agreement.
Great Britain and France, led by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, negotiated away the future of Czechoslovakia to the maniacal Adolf Hitler, in a futile attempt to avoid the eruption of the Second World War at any cost. The war started a year later.
Arguments contrary to appeasement are not persuasive despite the temptation to bite on the many excuses offered up.
Some historians cite the hangover from horrific World War I, US isolationism, feeling of guilt over the Versailles Treaty.
While hindsight gives us a distorted 20/20 view of events, the immutable fact is that Hitler was “unappeasable.” 
In the end, both France and Great Britain suffered German aggression eventually. The Wehrmacht effortlessly conquered France and Britain barely managed to fight off the once-vaunted Luftwaffe.
Plus, at Munich, the Germans sized up the two great European powers as “softies” to further dispense with down the road.
When London and Paris warned Berlin of war before the invasion of Poland a year later, their credibility was nil.
Curiously, the chorus of pro-appeasement policy in 1938 fails to mention the earlier Abyssinian Crisis between Italy and the hollow League of Nations. 
Collective security failed to halt Benito Mussolini’s blundering to glory in Africa, namely Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935.
Fascist Italy scored cheap territorial points seizing Abyssinia, but early on showed the steel will to defy the international community and to win.
Totalitarians brook no tolerance for mushy responses to challenges.
Good heart and goodwill are for the naïve in international diplomacy in the matters of war and peace.
3 – Allies need to coordinate actions or face defeat separately.
In the early years of World War II, the Axis powers had the upper hand until they overreached.
Thankfully, the Axis Powers – Germany, Italy, and Japan – did not strongly coordinate their moves on the global chessboard.
Italy and Japan did not add many benefits to Germany’s war effort.
First, after conquering the little country of Albania, in October 1940, Benito Mussolini of Italy declared war on Greece. The delusional dictator was convinced he was a modern-day Cesar.
A ferocious Greek defense shredded Italian forces and forced Germany to invade Greece to stave off disaster.
Italy’s Greek adventure delayed Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union and stopped Germany from solidifying its claim in North Africa.
Second, Germany was not informed of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor beforehand. 
While Hitler is said to have been delighted by the news, short-term gain would lead to long-term pain. 
The United States dropped its thin pretense of neutrality and joined the fight against the Axis Powers.
Its factories and economies of scale to equip a modern military force on three fronts – Europe, Africa, and Asia – would prove a decisive factor in the Allied defeat of the Axis.
Finally, in a related issue, Japan did not press its advantage to seize the Hawaiian Islands from the US after Pearl Harbor. 
The inestimable Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall warned in the memo entitled The Dangerous Strategic Situation in the Pacific Ocean two weeks after the Pearl attack that “without adequate defensive measures, other islands of the (Hawaiian) group could be taken easily.” 
Japan’s deadly embarrassing attack on Pearl Harbor served to shock the US population into action, but the military benefit seemed fleeting, especially after Tokyo’s loss at Midway.
Find out more about the [easyazon_link keywords=”Battle of Midway” locale=”US” tag=”atrans20-20″]Battle of Midway[/easyazon_link] by watching this video.
The early Japanese setback echoed throughout the remainder of the [easyazon_link keywords=”war in the Pacific Theater” locale=”US” tag=”atrans20-20″]war in the Pacific Theater[/easyazon_link].
Read more about World War II in Europe and Asia in [easyazon_link identifier=”1405840285″ locale=”US” tag=”atrans20-20″]The Origins of the Second World War[/easyazon_link] in Europe by P. M. H. Bell and Eri Hotta’s [easyazon_link identifier=”0307739740″ locale=”US” tag=”atrans20-20″]Japan: 1941[/easyazon_link].
4 – Freedom is not free.
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” – Wendell Phillips
The Freedom House Index indicates 2016 marked the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. 
Freedom is rare in world history.
Too many born in a free country could take for granted their freedoms and eschew the responsibilities of rights.
In just the instances cited above in World War II, three countries plunged the world into a six-year crisis in a clear moral choice between freedom and tyranny.
The poor state of historical knowledge among US youth and adults does not bode well for a free country to remain so.
Selective blockage of history is a faulty basis for decisions about war and peace and the survival of the country.
The multi-polar world after victory by the democracies over the Soviet Union in the Cold War is inherently unstable given the diffusion of power in different quarters of the globe.
Dictatorial regimes today are either nuclear-tipped or pursuing nuclear weapons.
The ante is higher than ever whether freedom-loving people have the courage to not fold when challenged by those bullies on the world stage.
5 – Absolute power has produced record carnage.
Democide – murder by government – is another ugly element of world history.
You learned about the victims of fascism, national socialism, and communism as stated above.
Regimes of absolute power cannot be appeased.
6 – Even superpowers can collapse.
World history tells a fascinating story about great civilizations that once dominated like [easyazon_link keywords=”Ancient Egypt” locale=”US” tag=”atrans20-20″]Ancient Egypt[/easyazon_link], [easyazon_link keywords=”Ancient Greece” locale=”US” tag=”atrans20-20″]Ancient Greece[/easyazon_link], the [easyazon_link keywords=”Roman Empire” locale=”US” tag=”atrans20-20″]Roman Empire[/easyazon_link], and the [easyazon_link keywords=”Ottoman Empire” locale=”US” tag=”atrans20-20″]Ottoman Empire[/easyazon_link].
No country has a lifetime guarantee of greatness.
Great Britain progressively passed the baton of global stewardship to the United States after World War II.
For decades, the Royal Navy prowled the seas for queen and empire.
Now, the United States suffers [easyazon_link identifier=”0691175802″ locale=”US” tag=”atrans20-20″]a slow decline[/easyazon_link] as the world grows more unstable.
While I cannot embrace his conclusions, Professor Paul Kennedy’s [easyazon_link identifier=”0679720197″ locale=”US” tag=”atrans20-20″]The Rise and Fall of Great Powers[/easyazon_link] gives a decent historical overview of countries that emerged triumphant to later sink into obscurity.
7 – Never underestimate your enemy
“There is no greater danger than underestimating your opponent.” ― Lao Tzu
The Vietnamese defeated the Mongols, China, France, the USA in countless battles for primacy.
Afghan history is full of expulsion of outsiders from the humble craggy country. Is NATO next?
From either arrogance or hubris or both, stronger countries have been humiliated by weaker ones throughout world history.
For more information about just how and why small countries are able to inflict such pain on stronger armies, check out [easyazon_link identifier=”1597970913″ locale=”US” tag=”atrans20-20″]Beating Goliath: Why Insurgencies Win[/easyazon_link].
Thank your for reading this entire post!
To answer the question, I would suggest the evidence of the historical record validates the maxim that the past is prologue.
I am glad you enjoy history as much as I do and care that our fellow citizens feel the same.
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