“One of the things that’s exciting about the study of history is you are trying to remind yourself again and again that what happened, that what we know happened, might have gone the other way. That the Cuban Missile Crisis ended in both sides essentially backing down was not predetermined. There was a moment when a Soviet submarine commander gave the order to fire a nuclear torpedo at US naval surface ships, so we came within a hair’s breadth of World War III. These alternate worlds, these histories that didn’t happen, have to be alive in your mind when you are writing history. The fatal mistake is to write history as if it were bound to happen the way it happened.”— Niall Ferguson
Niall Ferguson (@nfergus), MA, DPhil, FRSE, is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a senior faculty fellow of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. He is the author of 16 books, including The Pity of War, The House of Rothschild, Empire, Civilization, and Kissinger, 1923–1968: The Idealist, which won the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Prize.
He is an award-winning filmmaker, too, having won an International Emmy for his PBS series The Ascent of Money. His 2018 book, The Square and the Tower, was a New York Times bestseller and also adapted for television by PBS as Niall Ferguson’s Networld. In 2020 he joined Bloomberg Opinion as a columnist.
In addition, he is the founder and managing director of Greenmantle LLC, a New York-based advisory firm; a co-founder of Ualá, a Latin American financial technology company; and a trustee of the New York Historical Society, the London-based Centre for Policy Studies, and the newly founded University of Austin.
His latest book, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, was published last year by Penguin and was shortlisted for the Lionel Gelber Prize.
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Want to hear another episode about the geopolitical framework of current events? Have a listen to my most recent conversation with Noah Feldman, in which we discuss free speech in the age of social media, AR vs. VR, the dollar’s status as a reserve currency, and much more.
What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.
SCROLL BELOW FOR LINKS AND SHOW NOTES…
SELECTED LINKS FROM THE EPISODE
- Connect with Niall Ferguson:
- Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson | Amazon
- The Pity Of War: Explaining World War I by Niall Ferguson | Amazon
- The House of Rothschild: Money’s Prophets: 1798-1848 by Niall Ferguson | Amazon
- Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power by Niall Ferguson | Amazon
- Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson | Amazon
- Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist by Niall Ferguson | Amazon
- The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson | Amazon
- The Ascent of Money | PBS
- The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook by Niall Ferguson | Amazon
- Niall Ferguson’s Networld | Prime Video
- A Macroeconomic and Geopolitical Advisory Firm | Greenmantle
- The Good Side of your Money | Ualá
- The First World War: An Illustrated History by A.J.P. Taylor | Amazon
- Sex Pistols | The Official Website
- History of Punk: Ian Rubbish and the Bizzaros | SNL
- University of Oxford
- 1979: The Soviet Union Deploys Its SS20 Missiles and NATO Responds | NATO
- Punch (Magazine) | Wikipedia
- Daily Mail | Wikipedia
- Tory Nihilist: Maurice Cowling Debunked Liberalism With “Irony, Geniality, and Malice.” | The American Conservative
- High Table | Wikipedia
- Harry Potter Filming Locations | Experience Oxfordshire
- Comparing the Slums of 1970s Glasgow to the Buildings That Stand There Today | Vice
- Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance | Amazon
- The Masters (Strangers and Brothers) by C.P. Snow | Amazon
- Henry Kissinger | Wikiquote
- Christ’s College Cambridge
- Château Lafite Rothschild | Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite)
- Niall Ferguson on Why We Study History | Conversations with Tyler #128
- Revolutions of 1848 | Wikipedia
- The Course of German History: A Survey of the Development of German History since 1815 by A.J.P. Taylor | Amazon
- The Rothschild Archive
- Fidelio | Wikipedia
- The Origins of The Second World War by A.J.P. Taylor | Amazon
- Munich Agreement | United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- What Is Tweed? A Complete Guide to the History of Tweed, Plus 8 Different Types of Tweed | MasterClass
- Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals by Niall Ferguson | Amazon
- How The World Went To War In 1914 | Imperial War Museums
- Timeline of the 2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine | Wikipedia
- Video Collection | President of Ukraine
- The Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962 | Office of the Historian
- The Submarines of October | The National Security Archive
- The Struggle for Mastery in Europe: 1848-1918 by A.J.P. Taylor | Amazon
- Essays in English History by A.J.P. Taylor | Amazon
- Animal Farm by George Orwell | Amazon
- 1984 by George Orwell | Amazon
- The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell by George Orwell | Amazon
- Counterfactual History | Wikipedia
- Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History Podcast
- Engineering Victory with Elon | Hardcore History Addendum #17
- The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens | Amazon
- Mark Twain: “There Is No Such Thing as a New Idea…” | Goodreads
- Cold War | Wikipedia
- Are We Entering a Second Cold War? | Harvard Magazine
- Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? by Graham Allison | Amazon
- Kennan and Containment, 1947 | Office of the Historian
- Korean War | Wikipedia
- Taiwan Prepares to Be Invaded | The Atlantic
- Taiwan: World’s Semiconductor Factory | Global Economics
- Events in Iran since Mahsa Amini’s Arrest and Death in Custody | Reuters
- Seven Years into China’s Belt and Road | Brookings Institution
- Will China Control the Global Internet Via its Digital Silk Road? | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
- China’s Containment Conspiracy Theories Finally Come True | The Hill
- AUKUS: UK, US, and Australia Launch Pact to Counter China | BBC
- CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 | Investopedia
- China’s Huawei Is Winning the 5G Race. Here’s What the United States Should Do To Respond | Council on Foreign Relations
- The Soviet Union in Angola: Soviet and African Perspectives on the Failed Socialist Transformation | GeoHistory
- Trump’s Trade War Timeline: An Up-to-Date Guide | PIIE
- ‘One China’ Principle: What This Interesting Aspect of Diplomacy Means for China and Taiwan | The Conversation
- The Growing Danger of US Ambiguity on Taiwan | Foreign Affairs
- Chimerica | Wikipedia
- The Great Illusion: A Study of the Relation of Military Power to National Advantage by Norman Angell | Amazon
- China Wants To Insulate Itself Against Western Sanctions | The Economist
- Can the World Afford Russia-Style Sanctions on China? | Project Syndicate
- Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire by Niall Ferguson | Amazon
- Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology by Chris Miller | Amazon
- Austin Powers in Goldmember | Prime Video
- Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland | Amazon
- Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali | Amazon
- History of Fatwas, from Early Islam to Salman Rushdie to the Digital Age | The Washington Post
- [05:45] How Niall’s multi-faceted career has gone according to plan.
- [08:00] The license to be outrageous in academia ain’t what it used to be.
- [14:53] High table, dregs of Château Lafite, and hyperbolic references.
- [20:26] A.J.P. Taylor and the philosophy of history.
- [25:00] How does a historian find an “ear” for historical resonance?
- [29:48] What Niall would ask A.J.P. if they were Château Lafite drinking buddies.
- [34:30] An appetite for tweed.
- [36:40] Historical contingency.
- [43:40] A.J.P. Taylor reading for beginners and counterfactual history.
- [46:41] Dan Carlin, Elon Musk, and Gavrilo Princip.
- [48:39] What Niall gets out of digging deep into historical correspondence.
- [54:04] Cold War II — what can we do?
- [1:10:44] Keeping Cold War II from heating up into World War III.
- [1:16:37] Economic interdependence does not preclude conflict.
- [1:20:02] Ways Niall is using his grasp of history to change the world for the better.
- [1:26:11] How Niall’s toolkit for enacting change has evolved over the years.
- [1:28:55] Thoughts on fatherhood.
- [1:36:15] Why someone raised as an atheist takes his kids to church.
- [1:42:42] Has marriage to ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali changed Niall’s view of Western philosophy?
- [1:46:22] Life under fatwa.
- [1:51:00] Parting thoughts.
MORE NIALL FERGUSON QUOTES FROM THE INTERVIEW
“You have to talk about what didn’t happen to understand what did happen, obviously.”
— Niall Ferguson
” I used to call myself a punktory, because I had been a schoolboy when the Sex Pistols burst onto the scene in 1976. Three years later, Margaret Thatcher became prime minister and she was almost as infuriating to many people as Johnny Rotten.”
— Niall Ferguson
“Somebody threw a party to celebrate the deployment of cruise and Pershing missiles to Western Europe. And the invitation was the neck of a champagne bottle with a mushroom cloud coming out of it. That was one of the milder things that we did. At that time, there were very limited downside risks to being obnoxious.”
— Niall Ferguson
“The philosophy of history is barely studied or indeed taught. And yet you can’t really be an historian without a philosophy of history. You have to understand the nature of causation. These days, nobody bothers with that, which is why a lot of academic history is garbage.”
— Niall Ferguson
“History’s not a science. It can’t be a science because we can’t rerun events in laboratory and see if, consistently, war breaks out in 1939 with or without Hitler. … It’s quite obvious when one reads a book when a historian’s tone deaf and shouldn’t really have gone into the business, just as it would be obvious if they tried to conduct an orchestra or play a concerto. Yeah, I think it’s much closer to music than it is to science.”
— Niall Ferguson
“The best historians have that ability to bring the experiences of the dead alive, bring them back to life, make you empathize with them, despite the distance in time and in space and in experience.”
— Niall Ferguson
“One of the things that’s exciting about the study of history is you are trying to remind yourself again and again that what happened, that what we know happened, might have gone the other way. That the Cuban Missile Crisis ended in both sides essentially backing down was not predetermined. There was a moment when a Soviet submarine commander gave the order to fire a nuclear torpedo at US naval surface ships, so we came within a hair’s breadth of World War III. These alternate worlds, these histories that didn’t happen, have to be alive in your mind when you are writing history. The fatal mistake is to write history as if it were bound to happen the way it happened.”
— Niall Ferguson
“As a jazz fan, I think history has to have that kind of Thelonious Monk feel to it where you’re telling the reader, ‘This didn’t happen, but it nearly did, and people at the time thought about it.’ This is the key rule, by the way. You can’t just fantasize and devise counterfactuals that are entirely out of your imagination. You have to go with things that people at the time thought might happen. That’s a really important guardrail on counterfactual history.”
— Niall Ferguson
“Economic interdependence does not preclude conflict.”
— Niall Ferguson
- Noah Feldman
- A.J.P. Taylor
- Margaret Thatcher
- Johnny Rotten
- Andrew Sullivan
- Peter Thiel
- Maurice Cowling
- Norman Stone
- Albus Dumbledore
- J.D. Vance
- C.P. Snow
- Henry Kissinger
- Abraham Lincoln
- John H. Plumb
- Rothschild Family
- Simon Schama
- Linda Colley
- Edward Gibbon
- Adolf Hitler
- George Orwell
- Robin George Collingwood
- Fritz Kraemer
- Mordechai Zucker
- Ludwig van Beethoven
- Dr. Seuss
- David Lloyd George
- Herbert Henry Asquith
- Volodymyr Zelenskyy
- Vladimir Putin
- Vasily Arkhipov
- Lewis Namier
- Thelonious Monk
- Dan Carlin
- Franz Ferdinand
- Elon Musk
- Gavrilo Princip
- Richard M. Nixon
- Christopher Hitchens
- Mark Twain
- Graham Allison
- Winston Churchill
- Joseph Stalin
- George F. Kennan
- Joe Biden
- Xi Jinping
- Mao Zedong
- Donald Trump
- Richard Haass
- Nancy Pelosi
- Jake Sullivan
- H.R. McMaster
- Christopher C. Miller
- Eyck Freymann
- Austin Powers
- Tom Holland
- Charles Darwin
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali
- Salman Rushdie
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