Lessons about Politics from The Fall of the Inca

Is Russian interference in election the latest example of history repeating itself?

Fresno Bee, July 22, 2018


The story of the fall of the Incan empire is a cautionary tale, teaching that great empires can be destroyed by a small group of unscrupulous actors. It is worth considering this as we reflect upon the Russian hack of the American election of 2016.

Americans are at one another’s throats. Some have accused the president of treason. Others are in denial. With a few technological tricks, the hackers have succeeded in destabilizing our democracy.

History is full of sneak attacks, including Pearl Harbor and 9/11. But the attack on the Inca in 1532 by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro may be the most monumental.

Pizarro had only 180 men when he arranged to meet with the Inca emperor Atahualpa in the heart of Incan territory in the town of Cajamarca. Atahualpa arrived with a small entourage, leaving his army of 80,000 men outside the town. He expected a diplomatic exchange. Pizarro’s men were concealed in the town, waiting in ambush.

Pizarro and the Death of the Inca by Luis Montero

A Dominican priest presented the Inca with a Bible, demanding that he convert. Atahualpa threw the Bible to the ground. Pizarro’s men emerged from their hiding places. Spanish gunpowder and steel overwhelmed the Inca forces.

Pizzaro captured Atahualpa and held him for ransom. A large ransom of gold and silver was paid. But Pizarro murdered Atahualpa anyway. The empire soon fell.

I am writing this from Cuzco, Peru. This beautiful mountain town was the capital of the Incan empire. Ancient walls still exist as a forlorn testament to Incan power. The Incan empire was one of the largest in human history. It extended along the spine of South America, from Ecuador to Chile. Today only ruins remain.

From the standpoint of the Inca, the Spanish were foreign terrorists. They arrived uninvited on the shores of America. They brought new diseases. They demanded conversion to a strange religion. They stole vast quantities of gold and silver. And in the battle of Cajamarca, they violated the norms of diplomacy by ambushing and capturing the king. They even violated the ransom agreement.

Lesson to be learned

The lesson here is that devious and ruthless violence can decapitate a naïve power. The Inca seemed to be so sure of their power that they did not take the Spanish threat seriously. That is why Atahualpa walked into the ambush. Atahualpa’s demise is a warning against hubris.

The Inca failed to believe that the Spanish would have the audacity and immorality to do what they did. Nor were the Inca prepared for the new weapons and technologies that the Spanish possessed. The Spanish took advantage of Incan complacency.

History shows that all empires fall. Through the conquest of the Americas, Spain created one of the largest empires on earth. But the Spanish empire eventually fell. So too did the British Empire. And the Soviet Union. No power lasts forever, especially if it is not vigilant.

About that Russian interference

This brings us back to Russian interference in the U.S. election. The American democratic system depends upon the integrity of the electoral system. If citizens do not trust this system, it will fail.

But a small, technologically advanced group of foreign agents effectively ambushed our democracy. We are more divided than ever. And the biggest threat is that some are still in denial about the threat to our democracy.

The violence and weapons are different in the present case than in the fall of the Inca. But the common threads are the audacity of the attack, the use of new technology, and the strategy of assailing the heart of the empire. In the Inca case, you capture the king. In the current case, you undermine citizens faith in the electoral system and the integrity of our leaders.

History never repeats itself exactly. But there are lessons to be learned. The Spanish played dirty in Peru. They were sneaky and merciless. They broke their promises. And they won.

The solution is vigilance and overcoming hubris. Atahualpa should not have trusted Pizarro. If he were less assured of his power, he might have avoided the ambush. If he had avoided the trap or taken effective countermeasures, Pizarro would have failed. And in Cuzco today the walls might still support Inca temples instead of the Catholic churches built upon them.