Student Insight: John Lewis Gaddis, June 2018

By Julia Stout, SECWAC Intern

On June 4, SECWAC hosted Yale Professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, John Lewis Gaddis, at Connecticut College for a talk on his new book: On Grand Strategy.

To begin his presentation, Mr. Gaddis spoke about social science. He recounted an experiment conducted in the 1980’s by Philip Tetlock about prediction and the accuracy of prediction. He said that this experiment was one of the factors that inspired him to write On Grand Strategy.

In the study, about 280 people were recruited and their predictions on domestic and foreign issues were tracked for 15-20 years. Philip Tetlock generated that there were around 27,000 instances of prediction, with some being successful and others not. Surprisingly, he found that none of the predictable variables that he had considered — political identity, gender, etc.— seemed to have any significant impact on the accuracy of predictions. The single variable that did have an effect on the accuracy of predictions was whether the participants self-identified as a fox or a hedgehog. The fox is a being that knows many things, while the hedgehog knows one big thing. It was shown that the foxes were drastically more accurate at predicting the future as opposed to the hedgehogs.

This study made Mr. Gaddis wonder what the critical difference was between foxes and hedgehogs and how historians could interpret this knowledge. Mr. Gaddis said that On Grand Strategy was written as “an effort to actually test this distinction between foxes and hedgehogs,” but to do it by looking through the past for the great foxes and hedgehogs.

Mr. Gaddis summarized the disaster of Xerxes I in 480 BC, the fourth king of kings of the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia, and his failed invasion of Greece, saying that his army’s downfall was their own unconscious impact on their environment: drinking rivers dry and outrunning their own supply lines. He said that Xerxes — a hedgehog — was unable to communicate well with his uncle and advisor — a fox.

He then shared a quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  Mr. Gaddis decided to entertain the possibility that the fox and the hedgehog might be the kind of opposing ideas such as the ones mentioned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Mr. Gaddis used a scene from Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” as an example. In the scene, President Lincoln explains that while fighting to pass the 13th Amendment, he used many ignoble actions. He defended himself by saying that he had learned that one must look at the long-term objective, be situationally aware of what is happening, and, if necessary, depart from the plan for a period before getting back on course.

In On Grand Strategy, Mr. Gaddis analyzed several historical figures who managed to maintain both a fox and a hedgehog mindset and those who did not. He gave several examples of powerful figures and rulers who had succeeded and failed, and how their varying perspectives led to the growth or downfall of nations.

He spoke of how difficult choices are “often between competing good things” and that much of politics is making tragic choices to further things in the big picture. Speaking of contradictions, Mr. Gaddis said that in the pursuit of great principles, the Fitzgerald principle is essential in most, if not all, successful people.

Mr. Gaddis then briefed the end of his book, where he described a famous conversation between Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After their discussion, Holmes described the President as having “a second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament.”  As referred to in Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, Mr. Gaddis stated that this combination of intelligence and personality is key in grand strategy.

To conclude his presentation, Mr. Gaddis summarized his view of grand strategy with a quote from On Grand Strategy: “the alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities.”

Interested in being our 2018-19 SECWAC intern? Responsibilities include: social media content creation, blogging, and attending most presentations September through June. Photography and videography skills a plus. This is a great resume-builder for high school or local college students! Inquire today by emailing Board Communications Chair Kayla Hedman at


Mission Statement

The mission of the Southeast Connecticut World Affairs Council (SECWAC) is to foster an understanding of issues of foreign policy and international affairs by study, debate, and educational programming, primarily through a Speakers Series of 8 to 10 monthly meetings.