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Alistair Horne: My discussions on war (and peace) with George Bush

Last Sunday, to my considerable surprise, I was invited to a dinner at No. 10 in honour of President George W Bush, making his valedictory visit to Europe. I say surprise, because, under Socialist rule, Downing Street has been beyond my reach. On this occasion, the initiative manifestly came from the White House, with the President suggesting that he might like to meet a group of us Brit historians. Present were experts on subjects ranging from the French Revolution to Winston Churchill.

It may have been Whitehall's most expensive banquet ever – given that security precautions are said to have cost us taxpayers £1m – but I have no inhibitions in declaring that I enjoyed the evening quite enormously.

For all his current headaches, our host, the PM, was charmingly courteous – and with a considerable interest in history. I had the honour of being seated on the right of the President. I had first met him, just a year ago, having been invited to the White House, following his reading of my book, A Savage War of Peace; Algeria 1954-1962, which had been recommended to him by Henry Kissinger.

Then – as last Sunday – far from being the wooden, robotic figure as seen on the television screen, I found him relaxed, humorous, and considerably interested in contemporary history. (It seems to have surprised the US media when he declared that he went to bed at 9pm so that he could have time to read. I think I believe that.)

In the Oval Office last year, I was questioned intently on how de Gaulle got out of Algeria; I had to reply, "Mr President, very badly; he lost his shirt." Though it was clearly a disappointing response, Mr Bush replied, with emphasis: "Well, we're not going to get out of Iraq like that." That was shortly after the launch of the "surge". This Sunday we talked almost entirely about the Second World War – its turning-points and "what-ifs" – and the "special relationship", which both leaders toasted reciprocally in generous terms. The President was well-informed, and a flatteringly good listener.

We kept off the Middle East.

Of course, as a critic of Iraq, and current US policy towards Israel and Palestine, I could have wished that the White House had studied the lessons of the Algerian War before rushing in in 2003. One day history itself will doubtless inform us as to whether Bush might have acted more cautiously, had he had the lessons of history at his elbow, rather than the impetuous rashness of hawkish advisors like Vice President Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz.

It all leads one to reflect whether history has its uses to political leaders; and whether denizens of the Oval Office, in general, are more conscious and respectful of historians than their opposite numbers in No. 10. (Were a similar question asked in Paris, whence I have just returned, there would be no doubt about the answer: Frenchmen have always been more aware of history, and culture generally, than their Anglo-saxon counterparts.) Whereas Gordon Brown, given a little peace, might well set a new standard, I have no evidence that Tony Blair (or his consort) ever read anything – except possibly Hansard. John Major had the instinct, but was too beset by troubles to find the time. Margaret Thatcher's interests were focused, but patchy. Winston Churchill, obviously, was the most steeped in history of any recent British PM; had he achieved nothing in politics, he would retain a place as one of our foremost historians.

But probably the best read of any, not only in history, was Harold Macmillan. To fight the "Black Dog" of depression, he would regularly lock himself away for hours at a time to read. He claimed to have re-read the whole of George Eliot during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Critics may claim that, as Chancellor, he should have been doing other things; but his response was "Dear boy, if I hadn't been able to get away and read, I would have been driven stark, staring bonkers...!"

Over in Washington, the ill-starred Richard Nixon was an avid reader of history; and he had at his shoulder the Harvard-trained professional, Dr Henry Kissinger. Its lessons doubtless informed his mould-breaking opening to China.

JFK in his first two years in office committed grievous errors of foreign policy. But by the time of his greatest test, the Cuban Missiles Crisis of October 1962, he was evidently reading Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, with its gripping account of how Europe blundered disastrously into war in 1914. One would like to think it might have helped him in handling Khrushchev, potentially as rashly explosive a non-thinker as Kaiser Wilhelm II.

If only. If only the Kaiser could have studied the Napoleonic Wars, he could well have paused before letting the Schlieffen Plan march him across neutral Belgium – thereby bringing in Britain and its Empire. Had Hitler known more of history than a corporal on the Western Front, he would surely have trembled before engaging with Anglo-American sea-power. He listened too much to crazy pseudo-historians like the geopolitician, Professor Haushofer.

But then Napoleon himself never learned from the lessons of the limited warfare of the previous century; had he done so, he would have consolidated peace with Russia on the Niemen in 1807. And we would all be speaking French, and sending our children to better schools...

Of course, if we historians urge our leaders to study history more intently, that must be special pleading. We all want to sell books. But if last Sunday's experience at No. 10 is any guide, it was a thoroughly beneficial two-way flow. I certainly learned a lot.

Alistair Horne has just finished an authorised biography of Henry Kissinger in the year 1973 and is the author of a series of books on French history