A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from December 26, 2010
“Generals always fight the last war” ("Economists fight the last depression")

’Generals always fight the last war” means that military strategy often focuses on what has happened rather than what will happen. “There is a tendency in many armies to spend the peace time studying how to fight the last war” was cited in 1929 and “peacetime generals are always fighting the last war” has been cited in print in 1937. During World War II in the early 1940s, the saying was quite frequently used.

An economics version of the military saying—“economists fight the last depression”—also became common in the 1940s. The “fight the last war’ saying has been used in government and in business.

[This entry was prepared with research assistance of the Quote Investigator.]


29 January 1923, Rockford (IL) Register-Gazette, “On the Spur of the Moment,” pg. 13, col. 1:
The trouble with statesmen who come over here from Europe is that they all come over to fight the last war and we don’t mind saying that the last war is a very tender and embarrassing subject in this neck of the woods.

Google Books
January-February 1929, The Military Engineer, “Some Notes on the World War” by J. L. Schley (Lieutenant Colonel, Corps of Engineers), pg. 55, col. 1L
It has been said critically that there is a tendency in many armies to spend the peace time studying how to fight the last war.

Google Books
The American Marketing Journal
Volumes 1-3
American Marketing Society
1934
Pg. 12:
There is a saying that is rather common among the critics of the military profession that “soldiers are always preparing to fight the last war.”

20 November 1937, Dallas (TX) Morning News, “Infantry Division,” sec. 2, pg. 2:
There is a partly justified criticism that peacetime generals are always fighting the last war instead of the next one.

Google Books
World of Action
By Valentine Williams
London: Hamish Hamilton
1938
Pg. 208:
If Clemenceau was right when he observed that the military always fight the last war over again, I do not anticipate that in the next war it will be found that matters in this respect have changed much, unless it be that, under conscription for all classes of the population, the civilian control of forces in the field will extend also to the nominations in the upper hierarchy.

Google Books
Modern Socialism
Issue 1
1941
Pg. 14:
Just as it is the generic failing of the military profession to fight the last war all over again, so it is the habit of revolutionaries to fight the last revolution.

Google Books
The Bankers Magazine
Volume 142
1941
Pg. 148:
The author feels that, like armies always training to fight the last war, our banking system is always merely setting up protection against past experiences.

Google Books
Miracles of Military Medicine
By Albert Q. Maisel
New York, NY: Duell, Sloan & Pearce
1943
Pg. 320:
There may be some justification for the old saw about generals always preparing to fight the last war over again.

Google Books
The Chemical Front
By Williams Haynes
New York, Ny: A.A. Knopf
1945, ©1943
Pg. 8:
It has been said bitterly that the generals are always preparing again to fight the last war.

12 January 1945, Christian Science Monitor, “Now the Big Three Can Meet: Down the Middle of the Road” by Erwin D. Canham, pg. 16:
It is often said that the military men are always preparing to fight the last war rather than the next one.

Google Books
The Rand Paper Series, Page 7229
Rand Corporation.
Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corp.
1946
Pg. 5:
Leaders in war enter the battle assuming a pace of war. In each case, the participants are sometimes right. When they are wrong, the results are often catastrophic. It has been stated that “everyone tries to fight the last war.”

Google Books
Airborne Warfare
By James M. Gavin
Washington, DC: Infantry Journal Press
1947
Pg. 175:
Organizations created to fight the last war better are not going to win the next.

Google Books
Ordnance
Volumes 32-33
American Defense Preparedness Association
1948
Pg. 167:
ONE of the most quoted cliches is, “the military is always preparing to fight the last war.”

Google Books
Money in a Maelstrom
By Johan Willem Beyen
New York, NY: Macmillan Co.
1949
Pg. 47:
It has become almost a platitude to say that, just as generals have a tendency to fight the last war all over again, economists try to avoid the last crisis.

13 June 1949, Christian Science Monitor, “Stocks Near So-Called 1947 Critical Nadir” by Harold Fleming, pg. 13:
It is a military truism that generals always fight the last war.

Google Books
The Journal of Politics
Volume 11
Southern Political Science Association, University of Florida
1949
Pg. 737:
In truth, it may be no exaggeration to remark that even as generals often prepare to fight the last war, our economists and others have given considerable attention today to preparing measures for combatting the last depression.

Breitbart
Obama warns against ‘fighting the last war’
Jul 16 2008 12:47 PM US/Eastern
By GLEN JOHNSON
Associated Press Writer
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) - Democrat Barack Obama warned Wednesday about the danger of “fighting the last war” as he pledged to focus on emerging nuclear, biological and cyber threats if elected president.

Wall Street Journal
THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW OCTOBER 18, 2008
Anna Schwartz
Bernanke Is Fighting the Last War
‘Everything works much better when wrong decisions are punished and good decisions make you rich.’

By BRIAN M. CARNEY
New York
On Aug. 9, 2007, central banks around the world first intervened to stanch what has become a massive credit crunch.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityGovernment/Law/Politics/Military • (0) Comments • Sunday, December 26, 2010 • Permalink