Would World War II have taken a different course had Admiral Chester W. Nimitz been in charge at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese hammer blow fell? Almost assuredly. History may have followed a more positive trajectory had U.S. forces on Oahu been prepared for an aerial assault. Or it may have turned out worse—perhaps far, far worse.
That’s because individual leadership matters. It matters a great deal whether a Nimitz or an Admiral Husband Kimmel superintends grand endeavors such as naval warfare and postwar peacemaking.
Believe it or not, the claim that individuals count fuels an age-old argument within the ivory tower. Seventy years ago T. S. Eliot heralded the study of Greek history and political life because it deals with compact city-states for the most part. Writes Eliot, the classics have to do with “a small area, with men rather than masses, and with the human passions of individuals rather than with those vast impersonal forces which in our modern society are a necessary convenience of thought, and the study of which tends to obscure the study of human beings.”
The ancients accented the human factor—which helps explain their lasting allure. We see people like ourselves living in unfamiliar times and combating what often look like unendurable stresses. Perchance we learn from antiquity. Now, vast impersonal forces—geography, economics, demographics, and on and on—exist. And they’re important beyond a doubt. That’s why the masters of politics and strategy are so vehement about acquaintanceship with the surroundings. Florentine philosopher-statesman Niccolò Machiavelli, to name one, deems conforming to the times—and adapting to keep up with them—a cornerstone of republican or princely rule.