Master Plan

An Interview with John Lewis Gaddis

OR: Do you think Octavian had a grand strategy beyond putting himself in power?

Gaddis: I don't know and I don't think anybody knows. We know so little about him because he begins to be a significant figure so early and because he wrote almost nothing down himself. All we know about him is what other people wrote about him and it makes him both a fascinating and a frustrating character. But I certainly think that he had the desire for power, that's for sure, the ambition. It's partly because Julius Caesar had designated him son and heir, but I think it was also partly because Julius Caesar himself had a grand strategy which was to bring order to Rome, if necessary by turning the republic into an empire. I think Octavian probably shared that aspiration, but was clever enough, more clever than Julius, not to let that be known, not to let that become clear, to do that very gradually so that people don't even realize that it's happening. It was very skillfully pulled off.

OR: How did you first become interested in the concept and architecture of strategy?

Gaddis: I got an invitation about five years out of graduate school, in 1974, to come and lecture on my first book at the Naval War College in Newport. The book was on the origins of the Cold War. Stansfield Turner was at that time the president of the War College and to my astonishment he was there in the front row. He introduced me and when I finished my lecture, he got up and said, “Professor Gaddis has been right on the following issues and wrong on the following issues. But he was right on enough issues that he will be teaching here next year.”

That was all news to me, but he was an admiral and I figured out that's what you do to admirals — you just say yes sir. So I took a couple of years off from my own university and found myself teaching Thucydides and Machiavelli and Clausewitz to guys who were all older than I was at the time. All had military experience; I didn't. It was immediately post-Vietnam, so it was a traumatic time and I was staying just about thirty seconds ahead of the students while we were working through these very difficult texts. It was one of the best experiences of my life: getting thrown into that and forced to learn something new, forced to think differently from how I'd been educated in grad school.

That led to the interest in grand strategy, which first showed up in the book on containment that I did and then that led to several other things, including the Kennan biography and the development of the grand strategy course at Yale.

OR: Why do you think it's so difficult for people to properly develop strategies and to implement them?

Gaddis: Nobody ever said it was going to be easy to rise positions of responsibility, deal with those responsibilities, organize all the ducks that have to be organized in order to do that. I think just always is going to be extremely difficult. What I'm interested in is the question of whether grand strategies can exist across scale.

For example, we conventionally assume that statesmen and generals are going to have grand strategies. But can students have grand strategies? If they do — and to talk to them you certainly get the impression that they do — would they make use of the same kind of thinking that you would find on the part of statesmen and generals? That might lead to a way of training students and encouraging serious thinking about this at their level, with the thought that it might apply as they themselves rise to greater and greater responsibilities.

That's what we've experimented with here. We take the idea of grand strategy very seriously. We take our students very seriously and we operate from the presumption that there's not a great deal of difference in how you would think about important issues if you were a graduating senior at Yale or if you were president of the United States.

OR: Do you have a different view now on the role that luck or other extraneous factors play in someone's career? Can those be overcome by a good strategy?

Gaddis: One of the points Clausewitz makes — and it's one of his most effective — is that planning for any operation is extremely important. You learn a great deal from planning. But when the battle actually comes, the first thing you do is throw the plans out the window: the battle is never going to go according to the plan. That's because you're dealing with an opponent, or with circumstances, that cannot be foreseen. You don't know how the enemy is going to deploy forces. You don't know whether the horses are going to get sick. But you do know that there is going to be uncertainty and you're going to have to cope with it.

So the ability in the mind to plan and to benefit from the discipline of planning, but then at the same time to junk the plan and respond instantly and on the spot is I think what it's all about.

OR: Do you see any shining examples of grand strategic thinkers operating in the contemporary world?

Gaddis: I don't think the current environment is very conducive to the emergence of that at the moment for sure. I think that there's such a premium on fox-like thinking, on moving from moment to moment, that it's hard to see it. But looking at history I would say that this is not unprecedented. There have been a lot of cases in the past where someone was in power who seemed not to know what he was doing, seemed to be going from crisis to crisis, was revealed afterwards as having had a plan.