Barbara Tuchman - History

Barbara Tuchman - History

Barbara Tuchman

1912-1989

Historian/Author

Barbara Tuchman was born Barbara Wertheim in New York on Juanuary 30, 1912. Her Father was a wealthy banker and Publisher of the Nation Magazine, her mother was the daughter of Henry Morgenthau, who was US Ambassador to Turkey. Tuchman went to Walden High School in Manhattan and then to Radicliff. She traveled the world and wrote for the Nation until her father sold it. In 1940 she married and over the next few years had three daughters. During World War II she worked for the Office of War Information. In 1956 she published Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour.

Barbara Tuchman was acclaimed for her prize-winning books on war. From The Guns of August (1962) to Stillwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945 (1971) -- both winners of the Pulitzer Prize -- to A Distant Mirror (1978) and The First Salute (1988), Tuchman managed to produce books that appealed to both academics and the public. Though there was sometimes quibbling about her accuracy on minor points, all agreed that Tuchman possessed a unique ability to bring history to life and make it accessible to all.

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Barbara Tuchman and History

My approach to history is not overly theorized. I believe that there is such a thing as evidence, and that we can use that evidence to discover what actually happened in the past. Nevertheless there are some things that you want to avoid when going about this activity. You generally should not assume that things that turned out badly were necessarily the result of bad decision-making, as though it were apparent from the get-go what the result would be.* I write this in reference to Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984), of which RU has “multiple holdings available.” Tuchman was a popular historian of some repute. I saw in Barnes & Noble recently that her Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century is still in print, almost forty years since it was first published. This book annoyed a lot of medievalists, both on account of its manifold errors of fact and for its wild success its dim view of the Middle Ages, like that of Thomas Manchester’s World Lit Only by Fire, didn’t help either.

I read DM once and can’t remember much of it. I don’t remember being turned off by it (unlike WLOBF, which is a terrible book), and I didn’t catch any of the errors. As for her success, well more power to her. But I don’t think much of this sort of thing, from the preface to March of Folly:

Why… did the Trojan rulers drag that suspicious-looking wooden horse inside their walls despite every reason to suspect a Greek trick? Why did successive ministries of George III insist on coercing rather than conciliating the American colonies though repeatedly advised by many counselors that the harm done must be greater than any possible gain? Why did Charles XII and Napoleon and successively Hitler invade Russia despite the disasters incurred by each predecessor?… Why did Chaing Kai-Shek refuse to heed any voice of reform or alarm until he woke up to find his country had slid from under him?… etc. etc.

And why did Hitler invade France in 1940, when he was well aware that the last German effort to do so got hopelessly bogged down and never took Paris? Why did Churchill foolishly insist on fighting the Nazis and not accepting the peace that they offered him? Why did the Zionists, surrounded by enemies, declare their own country in 1948? Why did the US, despite not having the technology to do so, attempt to put a man on the moon in the 1960s? You get the picture. You can’t take some “disaster” and credit “folly” to the decisions that led up to it, with dissent assuming the mantle of “wisdom.” Sometimes an idea really seems good, and sometimes it succeeds against all odds, or at least against conventional wisdom. To say “bad result, therefore bad decision” is condescending to the past, and example of so-called whiggish history and something to avoid. (And in a game of tit-for-tat, who commits the “folly”? Was it folly for the US to freeze Japanese assets and restrict the export of scrap metal and aviation gasoline to Japan, thereby provoking Pearl Harbor? Or was it folly for Japan to attack Pearl Harbor, thereby drawing the US into war? Both sides are moral actors both sides have choices.) The best rhetorical question Tuchman asks, and one that exposes her own methodological folly:

Why do we invest all our skills and resources in a contest for armed superiority which can never be attained for long enough to make it worth having, rather than in an effort to find a modus vivendi with our antagonist – that is to say, a way of living, not dying?

Boy, does that take me back, to the world of The Day After and Mr. Those-Americans-Sure-Are-Stupid Johnson’s grade-ten Social Studies unit on the Cold War. But the world did not end as portrayed in The Day After. As we now know, the answer to Tuchman’s question is: in order to bankrupt their corrupt system, forcing them to seek a modus vivendi with us!

* To say nothing about the possibility of moral judgment over what’s “good” and “bad” – all things have positive and negative consequences, of course.


In Search of History

In January 1962, when Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August was released. The New Yorker noted that it was one of the few books ever heralded by three consecutive full-page ads in the same issue of the Sunday Times Books Review. The book itself was no anticlimax quickly greeted with critical acclaim, it eventually won the Pulitzer Prize. But Tuchman's dramatic account of the opening weeks of the First World War achieved an even more astonishing feat for a history book-in eight months it sold over 270,000 copies, and by October, The New Yorker could report that the book had already seen 33 weeks of best-sellerdom Tuchman appeared to have done the impossible she had made pure history sell.

Tuchman has always been an anomaly in the field of historical scholarship. Although she never earned a Ph.D and did not write her first book until she was nearly 45, the historian has received two Pulitzer prizes as well as plaudits from scholars around the world. Unlike most historians who generally publish variations on a theme, the subjects of her books have ranged from ancient Palestine to medieval Europe and 20th-century China. Finally, her books have been uniformly successful--and several have been massive best sellers.

One frequently proffered explanation for the Tuchman magic is her unique style. In a time when history as a discipline is becoming increasingly quantified and scientific, Tuchman has led a single-handed crusade for a humanistic approach "Prefabricated systems make me suspicious and science applied to history makes me wince, "Tuchman told the Radcliffe chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in 1963. Quoting Leon Trotsky, she added "Cause in history refracts itself through a natural selection of accidents."

Rebelling against the "systematizes," Tuchman has instead spread a vision of the historian as artist, and advocated history for its own sake. "Is it necessary to insist on a purpose" Tuchman wrote in 1965.

No one asks the novelist why he writes novels or the poet what is his purpose in writing poems. The lilies of the field, as I remember were not required to have a demonstrable purpose. Why cannot history be studied and written and read for its own sake as the record of human behavior, the most fascinating subject of all? Insistence on a purpose turns the historian into a prophet--and that is another profession.

In an interview conducted last week when Tuchman was in Cambridge to deliver the Atherton lecture, the historian suggested a second reason for her runaway success--an explanation which reveals another dimension to Tuchman's histories, as well as the evolution her work has undergone. That explanation is her use of history as a "distant mirror"--a historic parallel of 20-th century problems.

On August 10, 1914, at the age of two, Tuchman stood on the deck on an Italian liner, and watched two German warships exchange shots with the British cruiser Gloucester on the horizon. The ships soon disappeared, but, as Emerson wrote on another historic occasion, the shots echoed round the world. Although neither Tuchman nor the other passengers knew it at the time, they had just witnessed the opening battle of World War I.

This sea skirmish eventually reappeared in Tuchman's The Guns of August. The scene is perhaps the closest she ever comes to merging her personal experiences and her writing, and the convergence is strangely appropriate. For though Tuchman scarcely remembers the event, those shots--and others fired later that day--fundamentally shaped her life and work. As Tuchman her self observes. "That's when the 20th century really began."

And, though history is Tuchman's medium, the current century is her philosophic obsession. Born into a world of hope and self-confidence, she watched the idealism of the 19th century dissolve in war and recongeal into the recrimination and self doubt of the 20th. In contrast to the proud and noble self-image of the Victorian man, "our self-image looks more like Woody Allen or a character from Samuel Beckett," Tuchman declared in her 1980 Jefferson lecture. "It is a paradox of our time in the West that never have so many people been so relatively well off and never has society been more troubled."

On a personal level, Tuchman's early years gave her a first-hand view of this 20th-century disillusionment by bringing her time and time again into contact with the forces and events that shaped the century.

Graduating from Radcliffe in 1933, Tuchman went to work at the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR), a liberal organization which included members from all the countries rimming the Pacific. After a one-year stint in New York, Tuchman transferred to the organization's Tokyo branch, where she helped prepare an economic handbook of the Pacific. "The Japanese militarist/fascist movement was getting very hot and IPR wanted to encourage the liberal Japanese who were still holding on," the historian recalls. The situation looked bleak, however, and in 1935. Tuchman came home--via the trans-Siberian rail-road.

Taking the trans-Siberian across Stalin's Russia in 1935 was a tense and dreary experience. Thousands were dying of famine and purges and the country was wracked by economic and social chaos. Anxious to hide as much as possible from their foreign travelers. Soviet officials stopped the train at Baiku on the excuse that a log had fallen across the tracks--and held it there for 12 hours. "The result," Tuchman recalls, "was that we hit every station thereafter in the middle of the night--and didn't see anything."

Tuchman got her only sense of the country from a fierce argument with a Siberian schoolteacher she met on the train. The woman had taught her self English, the two got into a "terrific argument" about "who was better known, Stalin or FDR." As Tuchman recalls, "She thought the Soviets had invented everything--including neon lights."

Returning to New York, Tuchman worked for The Nation for two years, then in 1937 left for Spain to do several stories on the Spanish Civil War. On the trip, Tuchman travelled with Hemingway, his female companion and another male journalist. Tuchman grins slightly as she recalls that Hemingway's companion was very annoyed at her because "there were only two staterooms--and it wasn't proper for me to stay in the same room with either of the men!"

Although she only spent one and a half months in Spain, Tuchman observes those six weeks were perhaps the most inspiring of her early years. "[The war] was the great cause of young people in those days--everyone left of center," Tuchman recalls. "You felt that you were engaged in something--you were fighting fascism. When you have a movement like this, life takes on new meaning."

After leaving Spain, Tuchman stayed on in Paris, writing for United Editorial--a U.S.-sponsored publishing outfit that issued a weekly report on the war--and working against non--intervention and appeasement. As she later wrote, "It was a somber, exciting, believing, betraying time, with heroes, hopes, and illusions. I have always felt that the year and decade of reaching one's majority, rather than of one's birth, is the stamp one bears. I think of myself as a child of the '30s. I was a believed then, as I suppose people in their 20s must be (or, were, in my generation). I believed that the right and rational would win in the end."

After the Munich appeasement, Tuchman's worried father urged her to come home. Returning to New York, she worked with journalist Jay Allen, compiling a chronological record of the Spanish Civil War. The defeat of the Spanish Republic later that year, she wrote, was "the event that cracked my heart, politically speaking, and replaced my illusions with recognition of Real-politick it was the beginning of adulthood."

On June 18, 1940--the day Hitler entered Paris--Tuchman got married. She spent the morning of her wedding day drafting a letter to the President, urging him to take action. One year later, the U.S. too was at war.

The war and her marriage brought Tuchman's journalistic career to a close, and it was nearly a decade before she again began thinking about writing. "I always thought that to write a book was the greatest thing in the world," Tuchman says, "but I never really had the confidence. Then, in 1948, when the state of Israel was created, it gave me a push."

The result was Bible and Sword, a history of the relations between Britain and Palestine from the Phoenicians to the close of World War I. Although the book took "six or seven years of very interrupted effort" and significantly longer to find a publisher, it eventually appeared in 1956. The experience taught Tuchman two things: that she could write history well, and that "I could not write contemporary history if I tried."

Originally, Tuchman was intended to carry the story through 1943--through the years of the British mandate, the Arab-Israel war, and the final re-establishment of Israel. She spent six months of research on the history of these bitter last 30 years but, as she later explained. "When I tried to write this as history, I could not do it. Anger, disgust, and a sense of injustice can make some write eloquent and evoke brilliant polemic, but the emotions stunted and twisted my pen." This lesson has remained with her throughout her work.

But if she scrupulously avoids writing about contemporary events. Tuchman admits that she often looks for mirrors of the present in the past and frequently chooses her subjects because of their current significance. The Guns of August, she says, arose because "I felt I had to do something on 1914, since that's when the 20th century really began." Finishing that, she turned to The Proud Tower because "I realized that the cause of World War I was not really in the diplomatic correspondence of 1913 and 1914, but the social forces of the decades before that "Stilwell and the American Experience in China, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971, sprang from her frustrations over the Vietnam War. "I had worked on the Far Eastern desk of the Office of War Information, during the war, and knew that Americans really knew very little about Asia. The Stilwell and Vietnam experiences seemed to be very similar.

But it is perhaps in her most recent history, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, that Tuchman's parallel is most explicit. "The Bomb is very much a factor in everyone's mind," she says, "and I wanted to find out what was the effect on society of a massive destructive force." Tuchman had originally intended to focus the book on the Black Death," the most lethal disaster in recorded history" which ---between 1308 and 1350--killed an estimated one-third of the population living between India and Ireland. The book eventually expanded to cover the entire century, a period when "assumptions were cracking institutions were breaking up, and everything people believed in was being destroyed. "Pausing for a moment, Tuchman adds quietly. "That's very much what's happened in my own time. To me, that's the mirror.

In 1966, in an address to the Chicago Historical Society, Tuchman observed.

I visualize the "large organizing idea as one of those iron chain mats pulled behind by a tractor to smooth over a plowed field. I see the professor climbing up on the tractor seat and away he goes pulling behind his large organizing idea over the bumps and furrows and history until he has smoothed it out to a nice, neat, organized surface, in other words, into a system.

Since Tuchman, the humanist, spoke these words, her philosophy, of history has gradually evolved to a place more and more emphasis on the second dimension of her theory. Half a century ago she saw institutions destroyed in Japan and Stalinist Russia, and watched idealism self-distract in the country side of Civil War-torn Spain. In the last 15 years--she has seen the Vietnam War. Watergate and the atom bomb trigger the same reactions in the United States, she has with increasing frequency turned to history for answers. Although she still retains her humanistic vision, she has gradually focused more attention on dredging history for clues.

Folly and Government, Tuchman's forthcoming book which she described at the Atherton Lecture, appears to carry this evolution to its logical extreme. Where Tuchman once proclaimed that "I am a disciple of the once because I mistrust history in gallon jugs," her new book will span 4000 years of legend and fact. Where Tuchman once wrote that "insistence on purpose turns the historian into a prophet" her new book is defined by purpose, its conclusions implicitly prophetic. And the 12 case studies, Tuchman uses to explore her question were explicitly chosen because of their conformance to strict criteria. Stated or not, Folly and Government employs a "large organizing idea" to transform at least one small branch of history into a system.

In the book, Tuchman says she will explore the reasons that governments, "pursue a policy contrary to their own self-interests." "Mankind makes a poorer performance of government than any other human activity." Tuchman said in her lecture. "The ubiquity of the problem today is almost a disease."

Both chronologically and geographically, the cases she will consider are widespread: the Trojan decision to knock down their walls to admit the wooden horse. Montezuma's refusal to send his vast armies against Cortes. Napoleon's fated invasion of Russia, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the American involvement in Vietnam.

But while Tuchman's approach reveals a shift in her philosophy, her conclusions reflect her unwavering belief that "history is people--bizarre is not inexplicable." She finds the answers to her quest, not in institutions or social forces, but if the failings and foibles of the individual. Her final conclusion reflects both a cynical understanding of human nature, and an ultimate faith in the tenacity of mankind. "I don't think we're going to improve, but we're going to muddle through."

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Contents

A funeral Edit

In May 1910 the funeral of Edward VII of the United Kingdom drew the presence of nine kings, one being Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Wilhelm, or William, was Edward's nephew. The opening chapter begins and ends with a description of the royal funeral and in between provides a discussion of the continent's political alliances and the diplomacy of royalty, all amidst the national rivalries, imperialism, and social Darwinism in the years leading up to the Great War (1914–1918).

Plans Edit

Chapters 2 to 5 are grouped into a section called "Plans". Addressed is prewar military planning, as done by the major powers in Europe. Included are the German Schlieffen plan, France's offensive Plan XVII, joint British and French arrangements, and Russia's approach to a future European war.

Outbreak Edit

"Outbreak" starts with a short introduction, which briefly mentions the event that triggered World War I. On June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, assassinated the heir apparent to the throne of Austria-Hungary, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg. European-wide diplomacy and military preparations during July are then referenced.

Chapters 6 to 9 commence with August 1914. Discussed and probed are maneuvers by leading politicians, diplomatic affairs, and actions undertaken by various armies, during the opening days of the war, August 1 to August 4. Covered are the Kaiser's hesitation, the struggle by Russia to ensure that its ally, France, would join in the war, France's attempts to win a guarantee from Britain of her involvement, and Germany's ultimatum to Belgium.

Battle Edit

The bulk of the remainder of the book, chapters 10 to 22, is essentially devoted to the battles and tactical planning on two fronts, the Western (chapters 11 to 14, 17, and 19 to 22) and the Eastern (chapters 15 and 16). However, Austria, and the Balkans, are omitted. [Notes 1] Chapters 10 and 18 are devoted to the war at sea.

Intertwined in the narration are the adverse effects of the vanity of the various leaders and insubordination. Also addressed are some perceptions made among those in the rest of the world, including a critical interpretation of events that cemented various political views (such as chapter 17). The short "Afterword" then reflects on events of August 1914.

Mediterranean Edit

Tuchman starts the "Battle" section by covering the search by Allied naval forces for the German battlecruiser Goeben in the Mediterranean (chapter 10). The Goeben finally took refuge in the Dardanelles, waters of the then neutral Ottoman Empire. Such naval actions set off diplomatic maneuvers, but the event precipitated Turkey's entry into the war on the side of Germany. The development worked to block Russian import/export via its year-round ports on the Black Sea. That, in turn, led to the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign.

Western Front Edit

Chapters 11 to 14 cover the war in western Europe. First discussed are the German invasion northeast of Belgium and the general Western Front, especially the situation in Alsace. Next, Tuchman describes the arrival in France of the British Expeditionary Force (chapter 12).

As they crossed the Belgian frontier, the German armies were engaged by the Belgian army in front of Liège, and in the east of France, by five French armies, and in the south of Belgium, by four British divisions (known as the British Expeditionary Force). The French were said to be labouring under the delusion that Gallic élan would be crucial in countering German attacks while the British fought hard at the Battle of Mons. In August, each side deployed its armed forces in order to effect its own strategies developed in advance of the war (discussed in "Plans").

The French High Command had made incomplete allowances for dealing with the large massed attack by the German army, which now came quickly bearing down on them. It was perhaps through the decisions of Charles Lanrezac, the French Fifth Army commander,who acted in a timely fashion before getting permission from Joseph Joffre, that the entire French line was eventually saved from envelopment and general collapse. Although his pleas were ignored, Lanrezac withdrew his forces at Charleroi from an untenable position and probable destruction, and he redeployed them more favorably. He was later relieved of command.

The Battle of the Frontiers was brutal. The Belgian army was rushed against the German army, but the Allies were forced to retreat slowly under the German onslaught until the Germans were within 40 miles (64 km) of Paris. The city was saved through the courage and verve of a semiretired territorial general, Joseph Gallieni, who marshalled his limited resources and saved the day. The city was preparing for siege and possible complete destruction, and the government had fled south, when two divisions of reserves suddenly arrived and were rushed to the front by the city's fleet of 600 taxi cabs. Tuchman cynically notes that Joffre later took complete credit for saving Paris and the French army after having the commander who ordered the tactical retreat, Lanrezac, relieved of duty and the old commander and his former superior, Gallieni, pushed back into obscurity.

Tuchman is also careful to point out that although many of Joffre's actions were shameful, when he was finally pushed into action, he showed great skill in guiding the hastily improvised counterblow that crashed into the invader's flank. The Germans greatly contributed to their own undoing by outrunning their supply lines, pushing their infantry to the point of physical collapse and deviating from the original invasion plan, which called for the right flank to be protected from counterattack. At that stage of its offensive, the German army lacked the troops used by the siege of the fortress of Antwerp, held by the Belgian army. Both sides were plagued by poor communication and general staffs that were heavily invested with politics and sycophancy. Dire warnings from commanders in the field were ignored when they did not fit preconceived notions of quick victory at low cost.

Tuchman introduces all of the key players, both the Allied (French, British, Belgian and Russian) and the German commanders. Their personalities, strengths, and weaknesses are discussed.

    , French General, Chief of Staff of the Grand Quartier Général , the British Secretary of State for War , Chief of the German General Staff , commander of the German far right wing , German Emperor and King of Prussia (aka "The Kaiser") , King of the Belgians
  • French President Raymond Poincaré, Britain's First Lord of the AdmiraltyWinston Churchill, and a young soldier named Charles de Gaulle, who fought for France

Russia and Germany Edit

Only chapters 15 and 16 are devoted to the Eastern Front, and center on the Russian invasion of East Prussia and the German reaction to it, culminating in the Battle of Tannenberg, where the Russian advance was stopped, decisively.

In the chapters, Tuchman covers the series of errors, faulty plans, poor communications, and poor logistics, which, among other things, decidedly helped the French in the west. For example, the Germans mistakenly transferred, from the west, two corps to defend against what the book refers to as the 'Russian Steam Roller'. The great misery that developed on the Eastern Front is noted.

Flames of Louvain Edit

Woven into the text about the battles in Belgium are threads of fact that Allied governments would employ in the formation of the West's eventual opinion that Germany had been the aggressor nation against Belgium. Such facts and conclusions would be repeated for the duration of the war and greatly affect the future involvement of the United States.

Also here in chapter 17 The Flames of Louvain, Tuchman places a selection of German views from a variety of sources as to the aims and desires of Germany. She cites Thomas Mann as saying the goal was "the establishment of the German idea in history, the enthronement of Kultur, the fulfillment of Germany's historical mission". She then conveys American reporter Irvin S. Cobb's account of an interview with a 'German scientist': "Germany [is] for progress. German Kultur will enlighten the world and after this war there will never be another." Yet further, a 'German businessman' opines that the war will give Europe "a new map, and Germany will be at the center of it" (aims similar to the Septemberprogramm). [3] Such outspoken menace worked to solidify opposition to Germany, caused George Bernard Shaw to become "fed up" at Prussian Militarism, and H.G. Wells to condemn the German "war god" and hope for an end to all armed conflict.

Chapter 17's main focus is the German army's atrocities in Belgium, in particular against the historic university city of Louvain. Tuchman frames her remarks by describing the Schrecklichkeit, the German military's "theory of terror". Accordingly, in a failed attempt to suppress the "illegal" franc-tireur (civilians shooting at German troops), hundreds of nearby citizens at several Belgium towns had been executed. Her accounts of the ferocity of such German army reprisals against the general population and of the willful burning of Louvain, such as its university library make it obvious why the Western Allies might feel themselves justified to condemn Germany and Germans wholesale.

War at sea Edit

Chapter 18 describes the British fear that since their island nation was dependent on overseas imports, the German navy could manage to disrupt their international trade. Although Britain's navy was superior in ships and experience, perhaps the German navy's "best opportunity for a successful battle was in the first two or three weeks of the war." However, the German High Seas Fleet remained in port and was ordered not to challenge the British warships watching the North Sea. Thus, a substantial control over the world's seaways was then exerted by the British Royal Navy.

Surrounding the neutral role of the United States, diplomatic politicking quickly intensified. On August 6, Washington formally requested the Europeans to agree to follow the 1908 Declaration of London, which "favored the neutrals' right to trade as against the belligerents' right to blockade." Germany agreed. Britain "said Yes and meant No" and supplemented an Order of Council on August 20 (the 100th anniversary of Britain's burning of Washington). Despite the equitable intent of international law, Britain sought to receive supplies from America while its naval blockade of Germany denied the supplies to Germany. Woodrow Wilson had already advised Americans on August 18 to be "neutral in fact as well as in name, impartial in thought as well as in action" so that America might become the "impartial mediator" that could then bring "standards of righteousness and humanity" to the belligerents in order to negotiate "a peace without victory" in Europe. Both wartime paper profits from a nearly fourfold increase in trade with Britain and France and "German folly" eventually would later work to cause American entry into World War I.

Paris defended Edit

The book's last four chapters (19–22) describe the fighting in France up to the beginning of the First Battle of the Marne. The French and British forces, united at last, fell on Alexander von Kluck's exposed right flank in what would be the first successful offensive by the Allies. In the subsequent attack, the Germans were forced back north, with both sides suffering terrible losses. While Paris had been saved, the war took on a new cast, with both sides settling into a defensive trench system, which cut across France and Belgium from the Channel to Switzerland. That became known as the Western Front, and over the next four years, it would consume a generation of young men.

Afterword Edit

Tuchman briefly offers reflections on the First Battle of the Marne and on the war in general. The war's opening "produced deadlock on the Western Front. Sucking up lives at the rate of 5,000 and sometimes 50,000 a day, absorbing munitions, energy, money, brains, and trained men," it ate up its contestants. "The nations were caught in a trap. "

With time, such a war would become intolerable. "Men could not sustain a war of such magnitude and pain without hope–the hope that its very enormity would ensure that it could never happen again."

Throughout the aforementioned narrative, Tuchman constantly brings up a theme: the numerous misconceptions, miscalculations, and mistakes that she believed resulted in the tragedy of trench warfare, such as:

  • Economic miscalculation: Tuchman says both European intellectuals and leaders overestimated the power of free trade. They believed that the interconnectedness of European nations through trade would stop a continent-wide war from breaking out, as the economic consequences would be too great. However, the assumption was incorrect. For example, Tuchman noted that Moltke, when warned of such consequences, refused to even consider them in his plans, arguing he was a "soldier," not an "economist."
  • Unfounded belief in quick warfare: except for a very few politicians (who were at the time ridiculed and excluded because of their views, with only Lord Kitchener having the authority to act on his anticipation of a long war), all the leaders of the major combatants believed the war would be concluded in a matter of weeks, certainly by the end of 1914. Tuchman recounted the story of a British statesman who, after he warned others that the war might last two or three years, was branded a "pessimist." That false assumption had disastrous effects, especially on logistics (see below).
  • Over-reliance on morale and the offensive: Tuchman details, in depth, how the leaders of the major powers, before the war, developed a philosophy of warfare based almost entirely on morale, a constant offensive, and retaining the initiative. Joffre, in particular, refused to consider going on the defensive/or even to slow the offensive, even when the realities of the battlefield demonstrated that his approach was not working.
  • Failure to consider political backlash: many war planners did not take into consideration the political and treaty-based consequences of their offensive actions. As Tuchman argues, the German leaders in particular refused to consider the consequences of moving their armies into Belgium despite that country's neutrality. Despite Moltke's concerns, German generals insisted on moving through Belgium because they needed to maneuver. They failed (or refused) to realize that by invading Belgium, they effectively forced Britain to declare war because of existing treaties and national honor.
  • Outdated forms of wartime etiquette: although the technology, aims, methods, and plans of World War I were significantly different from earlier wars, military leaders in occupied territories continued to have an expectation of a form of martial etiquette from civilians, regarding co-operation and obedience of instructions, as a reciprocal part of non-combatant status which increased resentment between the citizens of the opposing nations. To illustrate, Tuchman repeatedly uses quotes from the diaries of German generals who commandeered the homes and supplies of civilians. One recurrent theme in their diary entries was that they simply could not understand why the property owners refused full co-operation, in line with traditional wartime courtesy. In a somewhat comical passage, Tuchman even quotes from a general who criticized the master of a Belgian house for failing to sit with him at dinner and observe proper mealtime etiquette despite the fact that the Germans had violated his country's neutrality, taken over his house, and stolen or destroyed much of his property. Similar problems occurred in the practical application of submarine, and later aerial, warfare.

Overall, Tuchman argues that while some of the war's major combatants looked forward to a war, specifically Germany and Austria-Hungary, all of them expected it to be a short one, and none of them desired or anticipated a prolonged war. Likewise, she argues that even successes, such as the First Battle of the Marne, a French victory, were to some extent accidental victories that were won despite, and not because of, military leadership or strategy.

The book was an immediate bestseller and was on the bestseller list of The New York Times for 42 consecutive weeks. [4] The Pulitzer Prize nomination committee was unable to award it the prize for outstanding history because Joseph Pulitzer's will specifically stated that the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for History must be a book on American history. Instead, Tuchman was given the prize for general nonfiction.

Military historian Max Hastings has written that "my generation of students eagerly devoured" Tuchman's book, although it came as a "shock" to them when they heard an academic historian describe it as "hopelessly unscholarly". [5]

According to the cover notes of an audio version of The Guns of August, "[President John F. Kennedy] was so impressed by the book, he gave copies to his cabinet and principal military advisers, and commanded them to read it." [6] In his book One Minute to Midnight about the Cuban Missile Crisis, Michael Dobbs notes the deep impression Guns had on Kennedy. He often quoted from it and wanted "every officer in the Army" to read it as well. Subsequently, "[t]he secretary of the Army sent copies to every U.S. military base in the world. [4] Kennedy drew from The Guns of August to help in dealing with the crisis in Cuba, including the profound and unpredictable implications a rapid escalation of the situation could have. [7] [8] Robert S. McNamara, United States Secretary of Defense during Kennedy's presidency, recalled that "[e]arly in his administration, President Kennedy asked his cabinet officials and members of the National Security Council" to read The Guns of August. [9] McNamara related that Kennedy said The Guns of August graphically portrayed how Europe's leaders had bungled into the debacle of World War I, and that Kennedy told later his cabinet officials that "We are not going to bungle into war." [9]

The British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who had served on the Western Front during the First World War, was also profoundly affected by the book. [10] In his diary for Monday, 22 October 1962, he wrote:

Washington, in a rather panicky way, have been urging a NATO 'alert' with all that this implies (in our case, a Royal Proclamation and the call up of Reservists). I told him that we do not repeat not agree at this stage. N. [General Norstad] agreed with this and said he thought NATO powers would take the same view. I said that 'mobilization' had sometimes caused war. Here it was absurd since the additional forces made available by 'Alert' had no military significance.

Graham Allison, a political scientist who covered the Cuban Missile Crisis in Essence of Decision, noted the effect of the Tuchman's book on Kennedy, but also its implications for the proper study of decision-making and warfare. Allison created an entire model of decision-making, which he called the Organizational Process Model, based on such issues as those covered by Tuchman, a model that directly countered game theory and other rationalistic means of explaining events.

After Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, representatives from over 90 countries attended the state funeral on November 25. They included 19 presidents, prime ministers, and members of royal families, including French President Charles de Gaulle, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, Belgium's King Baudouin, West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard, Britain's Prince Philip, and Greece's Queen Frederika. NBC News producer Reuven Frank recounted in his autobiography that everybody in the control room had read the book and gasped when seeing the many heads of state marching on foot. [11] The funeral saw the largest gathering of presidents, prime ministers, and royalty at a state funeral since that of King Edward VII. [12] In all, 220 foreign dignitaries from 92 countries, five international agencies, and the papacy attended the funeral. [13] [14]

While she did not explicitly mention it in The Guns of August, Tuchman was present for one of the pivotal events of the book: the pursuit of the German battle cruiser Goeben and light cruiser Breslau. In her account of the pursuit she wrote, "That morning [August 10, 1914] there arrived in Constantinople the small Italian passenger steamer which had witnessed the Gloucester's action against Goeben and Breslau. Among its passengers were the daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren of the American ambassador Mr. Henry Morgenthau." [15] As she was a grandchild of Henry Morgenthau, she is referring to herself, which is confirmed in her later book Practicing History, [16] in which she tells the story of her father, Maurice Wertheim, traveling from Constantinople to Jerusalem on August 29, 1914 to deliver funds to the Jewish community there. Thus, at age two, Tuchman was present during the pursuit of Goeben and Breslau, which she documented 48 years later.

The book was the basis for a 1964 documentary film, also titled The Guns of August. [17] The 99-minute film, which premiered in New York City on December 24, 1964, was produced and directed by Nathan Kroll and narrated by Fritz Weaver, with the narration written by Arthur B. Tourtellot. It used film footage found in government archives in Paris, London, Brussels, Berlin, and Washington, DC. [18]


Selected writings:

Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour (NYU Press, 1956) The Zimmerman Telegram (Viking, 1958) The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War: 1890–1914 (Macmillan, 1962) The Guns of August(Macmillan, 1962) Stillwell and the American Experience in China, 1911–45 (Macmillan, 1970) Practicing History: Selected Essays by Barbara W. Tuchman (Knopf, 1981) The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (Knopf, 1984) A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (Knopf, 1984) The First Salute (Knopf, 1988).

Barbara Tuchman's reputation as a writer rests upon her ability to envelop the reader in vivid imagery and amazing detail. All of her works, produced between 1956 and 1988, became popular bestsellers two of them, The Guns of August and Stillwell and the American Experience in China, were awarded the Pulitzer Prize. All rely on detailed research in primary sources. Throughout her career, Tuchman exemplified a philosophical school of history which has been all but eclipsed in the 20th century—a philosophy based upon the innate value of history for its own sake, which advocates the practice of history as an artistic, literary form. Her approach to writing history was idealistic and Olympian, yet rigorous and scholarly.

Tuchman's work bears the stamp of her earliest experiences in journalism. She received a bachelor's degree from Radcliffe in history and literature in 1933, but she never pursued a graduate degree. Instead, she developed her unique style through experience, beginning as a writer for the Office of War Information during World War II. Not content with the shallow nature of her journalistic assignments, she invested a great amount of time in doing background reading for her stories. In fact, she did so much historical research that her superior criticized her for clouding her judgment with too much knowledge.

When the war was over, Tuchman turned her attention to writing a full-blown historical monograph based on her research of relations between England and Palestine from ancient times to 1914. The result, entitled Bible and Sword, was published in 1956. She continued to write history for the rest of her career, and her books range in scope from Europe to the Middle East to America, examining events from ancient times to the mid-20th century. Her widest acclaim came from her work on recent European and American diplomacy.

Tuchman's first intention was always to produce objective, vivid, detailed accounts. She insisted that a historian should avoid expressing specific ideologies when writing history, and she proudly claimed that her "philosophy of history" was to rid herself of all "philosophies." She insisted that "the material must precede the thesis." When the facts have been accurately reconstructed, according to Tuchman, truth will become evident both to the author and to the reader.

At the core of Tuchman's philosophy was a determination to portray "what really happened." She described the historian as a traveler who "gropes his way trying to recapture the truth of past events." Adhering to this goal is essential because it forces the historian to remain true to his sources. Even though the goal of relating "what really happened" will always remain just beyond our grasp, we must resist the urge to speculate, to fill in gaps, to use hindsight and put intentions that may not have been there to the actions of historical figures. She went so far as to define the first duty of the historian to be staying within the evidence.

Tuchman published on a wide variety of topics and dealt with many different ages in history. She considered it necessary to avoid judging past cultures through the perspective of hindsight. Her goal was to examine past events "in terms of what was known and believed at the time." Her treatment of the Middle Ages in A Distant Mirror is a clear example of her historical sympathy. She traced the chaotic 14th century through the vehicle of an actual medieval life, that of a Frenchman of the Second Estate, Enguerrand de Coucy VII (1340–1397). The view of the 14th century through the eyes of a typical representative of the period, she explained, required her to exercise "enforced obedience to reality," producing in the end "a truer version of the period than if I had imposed my own plan." The era, which she admits was perceived by many contemporaries as "a time … of Satan triumphant" was filled with contradictions that fly in the face of easy generalizations. "No age is tidy or made of whole cloth," she pointed out in her introduction, "and none is a more checkered fabric than the Middle Ages."

Tuchman can be compared to historians of the 19th-century Romantic period in her inclusive attitude towards historical evidence. In her introduction to The Proud Tower, she explained, "To probe for underlying causes and deeper forces one must operate within the framework of a whole society and try to discover what moved the people in it. I have tried to concentrate on society rather than the state." In Bible and Sword, Tuchman identified twin motives for man's actions: a cultural-moral motive and an imperial-material motive. The latter, which she also termed a "power motive," she described as the easiest to decipher, using "hard facts" like geography, dates, battles, and treaties. The other motive is more elusive, but just as important. It can be found only by a deeper examination of such evidence as myths, legends, traditions and ideas.

Writing is hard work…. But it brings a sense of excitement, almost of rapture a moment on Olympus. In short, it is an act of creation.

—Barbara Tuchman

To Tuchman, history was primarily storytelling, the narration of true stories. For that reason, she placed prime importance on the selection and use of sources. She relied exclusively on primary sources in her own work, and mistrusted secondary sources, which she described as "helpful but pernicious." While secondary sources often contain helpful background information, she explained, the material in them has already been pre-selected, so the researcher cannot rely upon them when writing. She dealt with this quandary by reading secondary sources for background at the beginning of a project but never taking notes from them. Instead, she dedicated her research time to a careful examination of private letters, diaries, and the reports, orders and messages in government archives. She believed that important historical understanding could also come from researching the actual location of an event, so she traveled widely to the scene of the historical events she portrayed. All of these techniques allowed her to produce history with a vivid, intimate tone that draws the reader into the story with all the magnetism of a great novel.

Tuchman's secret for writing exciting, readable history was the use of corroborative detail. Any historical generalization, she insisted, should be supported by illustration. Narrative without fact is both dull and unconvincing, and is often inaccurate. Tuchman's great genius lay in her ability to weave detail with historical narrative in such a way as to make it both exciting and believable.

Tuchman's use of sources mirrored her intent to be open and sympathetic to all periods and all individuals. She examined all primary records, no matter how biased or inaccurate, insisting that by reading several versions of an event, the historian can correct for bias and extract the truth. Even a biased source, she noted, is valuable for its insight into the personality of the author. Even in A Distant Mirror, she relied heavily on contemporary chroniclers, using them to gain "a sense of the period and its attitudes."

Tuchman made a clear distinction between the historian and the contemporary chronicler. While contemporaries are the source of the raw material of history—letters, diaries, memoirs, newspapers and other documents—Tuchman believed that these eyewitness "compilers" cannot bring understanding or a balanced perspective to their accounts. She compared contemporary reports to "wine when the first pressing of the grapes is in hand…. [I]t has not fermented, and it has not aged." What these contemporaries lack, according to Tuchman, is perspective: "What he gains in intimacy through personal acquaintance … he sacrifices in detachment."

Tuchman defined history as an art, not a science. In doing so, she rebelled against the trend towards scientific history which has been ascendant since the mid-19th century. According to Tuchman, the historian should work in the same manner as the poet or novelist to create a work of art: "What his imagination is to the poet, facts are to the historian. His exercise of judgment comes in their selection, his art in their arrangement. His method is narrative. His subject is the story of man's past. His function is to make it known."

Tuchman also echoed George Trevelyan in her belief that history should be written for the general reader, not just for the specialist, and therefore, it must be both clear and interesting. She always considered herself to stand somewhere outside the professional "discipline" of history. To be an effective historian, according to Tuchman, one must first distill for the reader—"assemble the information, make sense of it, select the essential, discard the irrelevant"—and bring the material together into a dramatic narrative. In her opinion, to be a good historian, one must first be a good writer. A good writer will present his story using suspense. Therefore, the historian should always write "as of the time," without relying on hindsight or referring to events that lie ahead. Good writing also demands a high level of enthusiasm on the part of the author: "Belief in the grandeur of his theme" is essential to the creation of exciting history that will be worth reading.

Tuchman's suspicion of prefabricated systems placed her in direct conflict with the "systematizers" who dominated the field of history in academic circles through most of the 20th century. Tuchman criticized them for being "obsessed and oppressed by the need to find an explanation for history." She also took them to task for attempting to force historical events into a neat, prefabricated pattern. Their great mistake,

she claimed, was trying to deduce the "why" of history before examining the evidence:

I believe it is safer to leave the "why" alone until after one has not only gathered the facts but arranged them in sequence to be exact, in sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. The very process of transforming a collection of personalities, dates, gun calibers, letters, and speeches into a narrative eventually forces the "why" to the surface.

Too much influence on historical systems, Tuchman asserted, quickly leads to misuse of sources. The historian with a system in mind will use sources selectively, preferring the facts that suit his model best and glossing over or explaining away anomalies. She countered this system by insisting that "evidence is more important than interpretation." Tuchman believed strongly that historical events have intrinsic value independent of historical interpretation: "I mistrust history in gallon jugs whose purveyors are more concerned with establishing the meaning and purpose of history than with what really happened," she explained:

Is it necessary to insist on a purpose? No one asks the novelist why he writes novels or the poet what is his purpose in writing poems. The lilies of the field, as I remember, were not required to have a purpose. Why cannot history be studied and written and read for its own sake, as the record of human behavior, the most fascinating subject of all? Insistence on a purpose turns the historian into a prophet—and that is another profession.

Tuchman also criticized professional historians for becoming too distanced from their subject matter. Because their efforts lack corroborative detail, they are too theoretical—not only dull, but inaccurate as well. In good history, Tuchman insisted, the writer allows the reader to become intimately acquainted with the characters of the narrative. She claimed that the reader of a historical work should be given opportunity to draw some of his own conclusions, saying that "the best book is a collaboration between author and reader."

Tuchman insisted that history must be readable by the wider public—research in and of itself is of little use if not communicated successfully. She warned professional historians against falling into elitist jargon and thus losing their audience among the wider public. She pointed to the disciplines of psychology and sociology, which she claimed had become unintelligible to all but the members of the disciplines themselves: "They know what they mean, but no one else does…. Their condition might be pitied if one did not suspect it was deliberate. Their retreat into the arcane is meant to set them apart from the great unlearned, to mark their possession of some unshared, unsharable expertise." Because of their exclusivity, Tuchman asserted, their greatest discoveries are useless to the world around them. It is because of this kind of elitism that non-academic historians produced more bestsellers in the 20th century than did academic historians. She claimed that the commercial success of non-academic historians comes from their emphasis on communication, on capturing and holding the attention of their audience. Academic historians, she claimed, are becoming alienated from the reading public at large, primarily because the academic, who has a captive audience as a student then as a professor, seldom concerns himself with "keeping the reader turning the page."

Making history available to the public was a great concern to Tuchman because she had a definite idea of the ultimate purpose of history—to provide reassuring evidence to a troubled society, that mankind has experienced and survived dark ages before. In A Distant Mirror, Tuchman claimed that amidst the troubled years at the end of the 20th century, "it is reassuring to know that the human species has lived through worse before."

Despite her insistence on a greater purpose for history, Tuchman differed from the Romantics by defining history as cyclical rather than progressive. Whereas Romantic historians viewed the history of mankind as a single process of development from a beginning in savagery to an end in a perfectly rational and civilized society, Tuchman depicts the history of mankind as an unending process of muddling through. She agreed with John Adams' 18th-century assessment that government "is little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago," and expressed small hope for improvement. The lot of man, according to Tuchman, is to make the best of the march through "patches of brilliance and decline, great endeavors and shadow." She depicted history as largely accidental and filled with contradictions and changing circumstances. Every era, as well as every individual, she claimed, contains certain amounts of both good and evil, crosscurrents and countercurrents.

Tuchman recognized the overwhelming unpredictability of history. No particular circumstances, she insisted, can predicate a particular outcome. For Tuchman, history was exciting and elusive, resisting confinement to any particular mold or pattern.

Although Tuchman achieved universal acclaim for her imaginative and dramatic prose, she also faced consistent criticism from the literary and scholarly community on various points. Many reviewers questioned her choice of material, and criticized her for making crucial omissions in her quest for dramatic effect. Another frequent criticism of her work was her lack of an organizing principle or ruling vision. Her work was too random, too narrative for many readers, who expressed the opinion that Tuchman's work did not portray a true and complete portrait. She was criticized for refusing to express a coherent theme in her works or to answer the significant questions raised by her research.

Tuchman's own principles seem occasionally contradictory. Throughout her career, she insisted upon avoiding preconceived ideas that skew the perspective of history. But she also admitted that no historian is completely free of bias. In fact, she insisted that a historian should make his opinions clear, claiming that the work of a "purely objective" historian would be unreadable—"like eating sawdust." In spite of her philosophy of simple narration, Tuchman made historical selections and judgments throughout her works, and used narrative to show cause and effect.

Tuchman's works have contributed greatly to the historical profession. Without exception, her books are thoroughly researched and vividly written. Her philosophy of history centered around producing history in its truest, most useful, and least contrived form. The result of her endeavors was a wide-ranging group of historical monographs that contain within them the spark of life.


The Surprising Reaction I Got When I Assigned Barbara Tuchman’s Popular History of World War 1 to College Students

B. C. Knowlton teaches History, English, and Latin at Assumption College in Worcester, MA.

A few years ago I was asked to teach a short but intensive summer course to a group of incoming first-year college students, who had come a few weeks early to get a leg up on college-level work. They had been identified by Admissions as likely to need some extra help in developing their literate abilities and industrious habits. I was to teach a History course that could fulfill a core requirement. My field is Modern European History, but the topic of the course could be almost anything.

As I began to ponder the possibilities, it occurred to me that the world would soon observe the one-hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. There would no doubt be a great deal of coverage and commemoration of that event, and it was satisfying to imagine my students knowing the facts and understanding the discussions about the pre-war world, the assassination of the Archduke, and the experience and significance of the trenches.

I knew that most of the commemoration would play out in other media, but thought that having read whatever book I would assign (we could really only read one), my students would see the difference between what can be taken on in critical literacy and what can be taken in on the History channel. There would be plenty of new books published as well, and maybe my students might then read one or more of them.

As I considered what we might read, I recalled that about fifty years earlier, there was published what has probably been, for the post-Second World War world, the most influential and compelling account of the diplomatic crises and military battles that took place in the late summer of 1914. It would cover the topic very well, and would give us a chance to consider, in anticipation of the next big anniversary, how the history of the war was told on the occasion of the last big anniversary. That sort of reading is just the sort of thing reading can do.

When it came out, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August was a best seller and a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. It won a Pulitzer Prize, and has been in print ever since. There has, to be sure, been controversy for as long about its historical merits but I decided that for my pedagogical purposes, I would at least at the outset take the view that the only thing that has been said against it is that it is popular rather than academic history. By now, I thought, that should rather argue for than against reading it.

I was even able to point out to my students that when the book was first published, President John F. Kennedy had read it and that his reading of it influenced his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Robert F. Kennedy reported that in the midst of the crisis his brother “talked about the miscalculations of the Germans, the Russians, the Austrians, the French, and the British. They somehow seemed to tumble into war, he said, through stupidity, individual idiosyncrasies, misunderstandings, and personal complexes of inferiority and grandeur.” President Kennedy determined to avoid taking the same sort of tumble, and fifty years later we are still here to read about that, too, if the moment had not passed in which the book was still readable and in which reading it would mean something.

Another reason why I thought The Guns of August would be suitable for my incoming college freshmen was that I had used the book a few years previously in a course for high school sophomores. I was then teaching at a small but not very selective private school. There The Guns supplemented a standard textbook in Modern World History, but lent itself to the sort of text-bookish reading that high school students often deplore but then demand. It is, after all, easier to memorize historical facts than to think historical thoughts.

In reading The Guns of August, my high school sophomores plotted the chronology of events they identified the English King, the German Kaiser, the Russian Czar, and the rest of the cast of characters they distinguished the Triple Alliance from the Triple Entente they analyzed Germany’s Schlieffen Plan and criticized France’s élan they colored maps and captioned photographs. They were quizzed and tested. In all this, the mere readability of the book was never an issue.

So now, ten years later (as I recall it more precisely), my college freshmen took up The Guns of August. I assumed that these students, with my help, would be able to do the high school reading of the book, and then do something with it to take it to the college level. That was, after all, precisely what we were there to do.

We might consider the constitutional roles of the European rulers the diplomatic history and theory involved in the making and maintaining of an alliance or entente the question of whether the German plan that went into effect was still Schlieffen’s and whether France could have been better prepared and deployed to meet it. We might look at Belgian neutrality from all sides, and focus on both what led to and what followed from its violation. We might look for Alsace and Lorraine on 17th, 18th, and 19th century maps. And we might see the naval sideshow Tuchman herself saw as she sailed through the Mediterranean, in all its portentous significance.

But my students had barely begun to read the book, when they began to complain that it was too hard to read. They couldn’t say what about it was not readable but that seemed to them to prove their point. I met with the Dean of General Education, who had approved of my choice of this text, and we agreed that we could not, at least not yet, admit that this long-popular history was now unreadable by college freshmen.

So I stuck to The Guns and, with my guidance and encouragement, the students were able to do a reading of the text that served the purposes of the course. It had seemed unreadable because it was not easily and immediately readable but it was not too hard to show them that it was not too hard to get something out of the reading. To do the reading, I told them, was to do a reading the question was, what reading were they going to do?

That first chapter, for example, which described the funeral of Edward VI, was intended by Tuchman to represent a world that had passed away. The fantastical, funereal strangeness of the account is not an obstacle to comprehension, but rather the point to be comprehended. And then, in the midst of the funeral procession, we recognize a familiar device – a “flashback” to Edward’s European diplomacy, which will help to explain the passing away of the pre-war world. When Tuchman returns to the funeral, having already described the kings who had kept the peace, she then describes the generals who would fight the war.

The second chapter, which introduces readers to the Schlieffen Plan, also begins to anticipate its failure. Just in case they didn’t know, I told my students that the war started but did not end in August of 1914 and that when it did end the Germans lost. The little reading students do these days tends to be fiction this is why they tend to call all books “novels.” One reads a novel not knowing how it ends, and only to find out. A good narrative history can read like a novel but what can it mean to read a story when we know how it ends? There must be some other reason for reading it. This is how I tried to teach these students to read and I would say that it worked rather than that it didn’t.

When that year’s fall semester started, I taught a version of the Great War course as a writing-intensive first-year seminar. Where the summer course was for the low end of the incoming class, this was for the high end. Admissions had determined that these kids could hit the ground running. Here The Guns of August was supplementing a slim volume of primary source documents (we would work on these on Mondays) and a more current, slightly more analytical than narrative history of the outbreak of the war, with short chapters that made it convenient for us to see how, as a secondary source, it made use of the sorts of primary sources we had seen (this book we worked through during our Wednesday class meetings). In this way we could also take up the historiographical controversy about Tuchman’s history.

After such a deliberately disciplined approach to the outbreak of the Great War, I thought that on Fridays we could be a little more informal. We could read The Guns more for fun, and discuss it not so much as a secondary source making use of primary sources but as the sort of engaging narrative readers have always found it. I called these classes “Book Club Fridays,” and the students liked the idea of it.

But, though no one said that this eminently book-clubbable bookwas too hard to read (the historical background, the cast of characters, and the sequence of events, of course, were familiar to them from the other readings), most had very little to say about the reading they had done of it. They did their work with the other texts, and wrote decent papers (they were, after all, good students) but when given a book to read just for discussion, they didn’t really know what to do with that. It was not something they were used to doing, and it didn’t seem to be anything they really wanted or needed to do. What they liked about the more informal approach was that it was a break from the “real” work of the course.

I knew what I had to do with the students who found the book difficult to read, but I found it difficult to deal with the reading of it by these better students. Some of them suggested that The Guns of August was outdated it was, after all, fifty years old. They were not, however, thinking of the more recent scholarship – they certainly had not read that. It was rather that Tuchman’s kind of writing was not the kind of thing anyone read anymore. And yet as recently as ten years ago her history was still readable, and by readers younger than these. Fifty or a hundred years seems long enough for the world to have changed how much can happen in ten?

Students who come to college unable to read very well can be taught to read better can students who can already read be encouraged to really become readers? More particularly, can those who take required History courses as college freshmen become and remain literate and critical students of History? Once there are no more papers to write, will they see any reason to read? How, as they head into the future, will they engage with the past? When historic anniversaries approach, will they pay historical attention to them, or just watch the documentaries?

At the end of The Guns of August, the Great War has only just begun and when college students have only just been “blooded” in the study of its history, or in the history of anything that might be covered in a core course, we still have almost four years in which to work with them in developing their literate and critical abilities. We can’t know how these struggles will turn out, but we must be determined to undertake them.


The Dramatist

On the morning of October 16, 1962, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy arrived in President John F. Kennedy’s bedroom bearing bad news. Photographs taken by a U-2, a high-flying reconnaissance plane, showed evidence that the Soviet Union was building launch sites for medium-range missiles in Cuba. When complete, Soviet nuclear weapons would be 280 miles from Miami.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy

Courtesy Library of Congress

The parade of kings at the funeral of King Edward VII of England on May 20, 1910.

Grant, Thomas E. & Horace Grant (20th century) / private collection / The Bridgeman Art Library

For the next six days, Kennedy and his advisers debated how to respond. Should the United States issue an ultimatum demanding their removal? Should it blockade Cuba? Should it launch an air strike to disable missiles already en route to Cuba? As the clock ticked, a bland seventh-floor conference room at the State Department became a cauldron of coffee and cigarettes as intelligence updates fueled the debate. In their wide-ranging discussions, Kennedy and his brain trust invoked historical analogies—Pearl Harbor, the Suez Crisis, and Hungary 1956—looking for clues to outcomes and actions to avoid.

On October 22, when he could no longer keep the crisis a secret, Kennedy informed the world of Soviet plans for Cuba and declared a quarantine. Soviet missiles, en route to Cuba, would not be allowed to reach their destination. The announcement started another countdown as the world watched to see if the Soviet ships would turn back or engage the U.S. Navy—and possibly start World War III.

The evening of October 26, the president fell into conversation with his brother Robert, Kenny O’Donnell, and Ted Sorensen about World War I. A few months earlier, President Kennedy had read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, which detailed the miscalculations and misunderstandings that had led to the war. Kennedy told his cohorts, “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time. The Missiles of October. If anybody is around to write after this, they are going to understand that we made every effort to find peace and every effort to give our adversary room to move.”

From Tuchman’s book, Kennedy gleaned that giving both yourself and your opponent options could prevent a crisis from escalating into all-out war. The president would ultimately offer the Soviets a deal to end the crisis: In exchange for the Soviet Union not putting missiles in Cuba, the United States would remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

Kennedy wasn’t the only one who had read The Guns of August in the spring of 1962. After debuting to rave reviews in February 1962, the book shot onto the New York Timesbest-seller list, making Tuchman a household name. A Pulitzer Prize followed in 1963.

For the past five decades, The Guns of August has been part of the pantheon of World War I history, and part of history itself. Just in time for the book’s fiftieth anniversary, Library of America has published an edition of The Guns of August and Tuchman’s follow-up, The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890–1914. Tuchman now finds herself in rarefied company, joining Henry Adams, W. E. B. Du Bois, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Francis Parkman as the only historians to have been given the LOA treatment. She is also the only woman in the bunch. It’s not the first time Tuchman, who transformed herself from housewife into popular historian, blazed a trail.

Working Behind a Closed Door

President Kennedy didn’t pop down to his local bookstore and buy a copy of Tuchman’s book. He was given a copy by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, one of Tuchman’s skiing buddies. From an early age, Tuchman, who grew up on the Upper East Side and Park Avenue, rubbed shoulders with the nation’s cultural and political elite. Her mother was part of the Morgenthau clan, making Tuchman the granddaughter of Henry Sr., ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during World War I, and niece to Henry Jr., secretary of the treasury under Franklin Roosevelt. Robert Morgenthau, Manhattan’s legendary district attorney, was her cousin.

Tuchman was born Barbara Wertheim on January 30, 1912, in New York City, the second of three daughters to parents Maurice and Alma. Using an inheritance from his father, Maurice Wertheim founded Wertheim and Company, a boutique Wall Street investment firm. He was also an avid chess player and philanthropist, and served as the president of the American Jewish Committee. A serious art collector, Wertheim acquired works by Cézanne, Degas, Manet, Matisse, Picasso, and van Gogh, many of which now make up the Fogg Museum’s Maurice Wertheim Collection.

In a speech she gave at Radcliffe, Tuchman said that she became enchanted with history around age six, when she read Lucy Fitch Perkins’s books about twins who live through different periods in history. After that it was on to the adventure novels of G. A. Henty and what she called “a prolonged Dumas period” that led to encyclopedic knowledge about the House of Valois and the French monarchy. Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefswas another treasured favorite. At age twelve, Tuchman donned a kilt to attend a masquerade party dressed as William Wallace.

After attending the private and progressive Walden School, Tuchman headed to Radcliffe in 1929 to study history and literature. Her favorite courses were Comp Lit, English, and the constitutional history of England, but she positively fell in love with Harvard’s Widener Library, which let her have a private carrel in the British history section to work on her undergraduate thesis. “I could roam at liberty through the rich stacks, taking whatever I wanted,” writes Tuchman. “The experience was marvelous, a word I use in its exact sense, meaning full of marvels.” From her time in the stacks, she emerged with “The Moral Justification of the British Empire.” While she loved doing the research, she despaired at her inability to bring to life the men and women who populated its pages. “The characters, who were so vivid inside my head, seemed so stilted when I got them on paper.” Her reviewers concurred, declaring its style “undistinguished.”

Despite having been bitten by the research bug, she didn’t pursue graduate studies after earning her degree in 1933. “I was dying to get out of the cloister,” she said in an interview. “I didn’t even stay for my graduation. You see it was 1933—the year both Hitler and Roosevelt came to power. The world was in such turmoil, the natural thing to do was to go out and be in it.” Tuchman’s privileged background meant that she didn’t need a job to put food on the table, but she wanted an occupation that was more than decorative. Family connections helped her secure an unpaid job with the American Council of the Institute of Pacific Relations as a researcher and editorial assistant. The following year, the institute sent her to Tokyo to work on assembling a handbook about the Pacific region. While there, she began her writing career, placing pieces with Far Eastern Survey and Pacific Affairs.

Upon returning to New York in 1936, Tuchman began a stint with The Nation. Her father may have bought the magazine to save it from bankruptcy, but the owner’s daughter still had to pay her dues. Tuchman’s first job consisted of clipping newspaper articles. She soon graduated to writing features, including covering Roosevelt’s 1936 presidential campaign. In 1937, she headed to Spain to cover Franco and the civil war, filing reports from Valencia and Madrid. In one piece, “What Madrid Reads,” she finds fairy tales rewritten with Marxist endings and paperback covers rampant with wartime iconography. “The paper is sleazy, the ink smells, the print comes through the wrong side, but the writing is vigorous,” she wrote of the thin weekly papers that covered books and culture.

After her Spanish tour, Tuchman traveled around Europe and devoted time to writing The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain Since 1700. A more mature Tuchman characterized the book, published in Britain in 1938, as a “respectable piece of research,” but frequently left it off her résumé. Back in New York, Tuchman helped raise money for the Spanish Republicans and wrote for the New Statesman about American attitudes toward what was happening in Europe.

She also became engaged to the man who would be the love of her life: Lester R. Tuchman. The notice of their engagement appeared in the New York Times in May 1940, along with a glamorous picture of Tuchman sporting elegantly coiffed hair, perfectly drawn lipstick, and a serious strand of pearls. The headline, however, had a decidedly modern tone: “Miss Barbara Wertheim, Writer, Engaged To Dr. Lester R. Tuchman, Physician Here.” Dr. Tuchman, who was born in the Bronx and graduated from Columbia, practiced internal medicine at City Hospital and Mount Sinai. Over the next four decades, he made a name for himself as a medical researcher and professor of medicine, developing a diagnostic test for Gaucher’s disease.

Tuchman claims that one of their first arguments was over whether to have children, given the state of the world in 1940. “Sensible for once, I argued that if we waited for the outlook to improve, we might wait forever, and that if we wanted a child at all we should have it now, regardless of Hitler,” she recounted. Nine months later, they welcomed a daughter named Lucy. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Dr. Tuchman was posted to North Africa, where he used his medical training to tend wounded soldiers. Tuchman herself stayed in New York, where she put eighteen-month-old Lucy in day care, and went to work for the Office of War Information’s Far Eastern news desk. “I was restless,” she told an interviewer. “I could not go to the park with the baby all day in the middle of a war.”

After the war, the reunited Tuchmans added two more daughters to their family, Jessica and Alma. Tuchman also began working on a book in between school runs and other maternal duties. “When the children were very small, I worked in the morning only and then gradually, as they spent full days at school, I could spend full days at work. I could never have done any of this work if I hadn’t been able to afford domestic help.”

In addition to acknowledging that she had help, a frequently taboo subject for successful women, Tuchman was forthcoming over the years about how being a woman with children influenced the development of her career. In 1978, she told the New York Times: “My obligation was primarily toward my three children. . . . When the children came home from school or had the measles, I had to drop everything. If a man is a writer, everybody tiptoes around past the locked door of the breadwinner. But if you’re an ordinary female housewife, people say, ‘This is just something Barbara wanted to do it’s not professional.’ For a woman, it’s very difficult to work behind a closed door.”

It took Tuchman six years to write The Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour. Published in 1956, the book explored Britain’s role in the creation of the state of Israel. It didn’t make a big splash, but notices were favorable. Foreign Affairs called it “an interesting appraisal of the various religious and political interests which historically have influenced the British attitude toward Palestine.”

Two years later, Tuchman had a hit on her hands with The Zimmermann Telegram, a slim volume that chronicled the complex diplomatic maneuvers behind American entry into the First World War. After Britain intercepted a telegram sent by Germany to Mexico suggesting that Mexico join forces with Japan to invade the United States, the game was on. Samuel Flagg Bemis, Yale’s eminent diplomatic historian, gushed in the New York Times that “for vivid writing and etching of character, her little book of large and scholarly labors should take a place near the top of a mountainous accumulation of such studies concerning the entrance of the United States into World War I. The value and importance of her book lies in her brilliant use of well-known materials, her sureness of insight and her competent grasp of a complicated chapter of diplomatic history.”

For her next project, The Guns of August, Tuchman returned to the Great War, but took as her subject the run-up to and opening weeks of the war. While writing the book, she refused invitations to lunch and declined to be in clubs or on committees. Gardening and cooking also got short shrift, but there came a point when regular hours at the New York Public Library, her preferred place to write, weren’t enough. She shipped Lucy off to Harvard Summer School. Dr. Tuchman took Alma, a budding doctor, on a seven-week trip to Africa to follow in the footsteps of Albert Schweitzer. Jessica, however, was horse-crazy and refused to be separated from her horse, so Tuchman and her daughter retreated to their house in Cos Cob, Connecticut. With Jessica happily spending her days riding, Tuchman wrote at four times her usual speed.

The Guns of August

Published in February 1962, The Guns of August finds Tuchman at the height of her storytelling powers. “Its virtues are almost Thucydidean: intelligence, concision, weight, detachment,” declared Book-of-the-Month-Club News. Tuchman, said Time, had managed to “knit all the personalities and plans of the opening battles of World War I into a colorful, fact-filled narrative.”

The Guns of August is in some ways an unusual World War I book. Most classroom lectures and more than a few history books begin the story of the cataclysm with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Serbian nationalist on June 28, 1914. Tuchman, however, opens her book with the funeral of Edward VII. It’s worth quoting the first paragraph in full, because it showcases in five sentences what made The Guns of August a best-seller:

“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back the gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens—four dowager and three regnant—and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together, they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, the sun of the old world setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”

Tuchman’s writing is almost cinematic as it cuts back and forth between a wide lens shot and a close up, lingering just long enough to convey a telling detail. She contrasts the rainbow of uniforms worn by the kings with the sea of black-attired spectators. Instead of a weather report, the reader learns that it was a sunny day from the way the jewels gleamed. Then there are the sounds: the quiet crowd, gasps of delight, and Big Ben chiming in the background. Rather than highlight two or three sovereigns from the morass of royalty assembled, she offers a pileup of numbers, mindboggling in their scope and variety, to illustrate the significance of the occasion and indicate precedence. When the scene is firmly lodged in readers’ minds, making them feel as if they are part of the crowd, their sore feet forgotten by the delight of the spectacle before them, she drops a hint of foreshadowing—“the muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine”—to suggest this surreal fairytale moment is set for destruction. This is not just the funeral of Edward VII, but a funeral for the generation that would fight World War I and for the end of the long nineteenth century.

For Tuchman, the funeral and events surrounding it—dinners, presentations at court, promenades—serve as a device to illustrate the cultural differences and soon-to-be shattered relations between the various European powers. It also makes her decision to downplay the assassination of the Archduke of Austria, “the future source of tragedy, tall, corpulent, and corseted, with green plumes waving from his helmet,” more stark. That event and the demand for satisfaction triggered a series of mutual defense pacts resulting in the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungry, and the Ottoman Empire) squaring off against the Allies (Britain, France, and Russia) beginning in August 1914.

Tuchman isn’t so much interested in the trigger, but rather its impact. In the book’s foreword, she explains that eliminating Austria-Hungary’s entanglement with Serbia and Russia was a deliberate choice. “The inexhaustible problem of the Balkans divides itself naturally from the rest of the war,” she writes. Narrowing the historical scope also allows her to focus her story and concentrate its impact.

Tuchman’s flair for description continues as she walks the reader through how the war unfolded. To anchor her discussions about armaments, diplomatic maneuvers, and logistics, she uses mini biographies of the men (and they are all men) who weighed and made the decisions. This allows her to breathe life into what can easily devolve into a deadening catalog of meetings and memoranda. It also makes a frequently complex policy-making process accessible. Her aim is never to intimidate, but to elucidate with just the right story or moment, allowing readers to feel as if they know and understand the players and game at hand. For Tuchman, there are no overarching systems or forces at work—just people chock-full of aspirations, foibles, and prejudices.

Tuchman’s discussion of war plans revolves around the men who provided their intellectual backbone. Count Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the German General Staff, “monocled and effete in appearance, cold and distant in manner,” was obsessed with achieving a quick and decisive victory, even if it meant violating Belgium’s neutrality. Joseph Joffre, the commander in chief of the French army—“massive and paunchy in his baggy uniform, with a fleshy face adorned by a heavy, nearly white mustache and bushy eyebrows to match, with a clear youthful skin, calm blue eyes and candid, tranquil gaze”—revised France’s military strategy to include a flexible response to a German attack. In Britain, General Henry Wilson, “a tall, bony, ebullient Anglo-Irishman with a face which he thought rather resembled that of a horse,” worked endlessly to make his colleagues understand that war with Germany was not a matter of if, but when.

With war plans debated and devised, Tuchman turns to the cascade of events that lead to the first shot. She condenses the assassination of the Austrian archduke on June 28, 1914, and the ultimatums that followed between Austria, Serbia, Germany, and Russia into one paragraph to arrive at August 1. From there she details the “pull of military schedules” that dragged Germany, Britain, and France into war, despite the efforts of their leaders to pull back. “General staffs, goaded by their relentless timetables, were pounding the table for the signal to move lest their opponents gain an hour’s head start,” writes Tuchman. Herein lies one of the lessons that Kennedy took from her book: Diplomats working to avert a war had little chance of achieving their goal when they had to compete with the mania of adhering to rigid mobilization plans and striking the first blow.

The last two-thirds of the book primarily focus on the troop call-ups, maneuvers, and fighting that culminates with the Battle of the Marne. To help understand the topography, Tuchman rented a Renault and spent an August following the path taken by the German army as it stomped through Luxembourg, Belgium, and France. “Besides obtaining a feeling of the geography, distances, and terrain involved in military movements, I saw the fields ripe with grain which the cavalry would have trampled, measured the great width of the Meuse at Liège, and saw how the lost territory of Alsace looked to the French soldiers who gazed down upon it from the heights of the Vosges.” After repeatedly getting lost trying to find the country house that served as British headquarters, Tuchman understood why it might have taken a dispatch rider three hours to cover twenty-five miles on a motorcycle.

When writing about Germany’s attack on its western neighbors, Tuchman doesn’t mince words. “The German march through Belgium, like the march of predator ants who periodically emerge from South American jungle to carve a swath of death across the land, was cutting its way across field, road, village, and town, like the ants unstopped by rivers or any obstacle.” After enduring a month of setbacks, the French and British armies made a unified stand along the Marne River east of Paris, dealing the German juggernaut one of the most famous military reversals in history. “So close had the Germans come to victory, so near the French to disaster, so great, in the preceding days, had been the astonished dismay of the world as it watched the relentless advance of the Germans and the retreat of the Allies on Paris, that the battle that turned the tide came known as the Miracle of the Marne,” writes Tuchman.

The Battle of the Marne, which lasted eight days beginning September 5, 1914, forced the Germans into retreat without the decisive victory that von Schlieffen had envisioned. The Germans, however, remained in control of Belgium and northern France. Tuchman regards the Battle of the Marne as one of the decisive battles of history. Afterwards, both sides dug in to defend their positions, creating the deadlock on the Western Front that resulted in four years of trench warfare. “Afterward there was no turning back,” she concludes. “The nations were caught in a trap, a trap made during the first thirty days out of battles that failed to be decisive, a trap from which there was, and has been, no exit.”

With The Guns of August, Tuchman made World War I, which was for many Americans a minor bump in the road between the Civil War and World War II, into an epic saga. Dead men with foreign names became flesh and blood. She also demystified the serpentine process by which Europe plunged into war, while slyly suggesting that the arrangement of the current Cold War chessboard owed much to the conflict.

The Guns of August stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for forty-two weeks, a feat for any book, let alone a history book. It shared the list with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, James Baldwin’s Another Country, and Frederic Morton’s The Rothschilds, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Herman Wouk’s Youngblood Hawke, and Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools.

As part of its end-of-the-year publishing roundup, the newspaper asked Tuchman what it was about her topic or the times that had fueled her book’s popularity. “Perhaps one reason for the public’s interest in ‘The Guns’ is that it was able to convey this sense of a moment that molded the fate of all of us,” she wrote. That the generation who didn’t live through the war knew little about the conflict might have helped as well. The book also had a healthy dose of tragedy on a grand scale, which Tuchman believed readers craved. “As Shakespeare and the Greeks knew, the great tragedy requires a great downfall: the death of a King Lear, not the death of a salesman.”

Tuchman also thought the book might hold some lessons, which readers were free to infer. (She had no inkling—unless her pals gossiped—that Kennedy had done precisely that.) “The subject matter also has, by implication, lessons for our time, but such lessons, if they are present and valid, emerge from the material not the writer. . . . The implications are what the thoughtful reader himself puts into, or rather takes out of the book, which is as it should be since the best book is a collaboration between author and reader.”

August and Beyond

In a speech given in 1963, the year after The Guns of August was published, Tuchman shared her research and writing process. When she started working on a book, Tuchman surveyed secondary sources, which she considered “helpful but pernicious," then dived headfirst into primary sources. “Even an untrustworthy source is valuable for what it reveals about the personality of the author,” she told the audience. Published volumes of letters and telegrams were wonderful, but the real thing was better. “Nothing can compare with the fascination of examining material in the very paper and ink of its original issue.”

She took notes on 4 x 6 index cards, never writing on the back. The small size forced her to boil down information to its essence. “Eventually, as the cards fall into groups according to subject or person or chronological sequence, the pattern of my story will emerge. Besides, they are convenient, as they can be filed in a shoebox and carried around in a pocketbook.” A stack of cards, representing a section or a chapter, allowed her to write anywhere, freeing her from having to be surrounded by a mountain of books.

As for the writing, Tuchman’s description will make even casual writers want to hug their computers for dear life. First drafts were written in long hand, with “everything messed up and x’d out and inserted.” A typewritten draft, done in triple space, followed. Next came the scissors, as she cut up pages to move sentences and paragraphs around before scotch-taping it all back together.

In 1966, Tuchman followed up The Guns of August with The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War, 1890–1918. Tuchman described the book as “an attempt to discover the quality of the world from which the Great War came.” The chapters focus on the disposition of a country—England, France, Germany, the United States, and Holland—and on the role of groups—anarchists, socialists, and Britain’s upper class.

The book’s structure means that it reads more like a collection of lively essays than a coherent narrative. While there’s no overarching argument, Tuchman concludes of the era that "its inhabitants lived, as compared to a later time, with more self-reliance, more confidence, more hope greater magnificence, extravagance, and elegance more careless ease, more gaiety, more pleasure in each other's company and conversation, more injustice and hypocrisy, more misery and want, more sentiment including false sentiment, less sufferance of mediocrity, more dignity in work, more delight in nature, more zest." There’s a breathless zeal to her list as she tries to convey her excitement about the period.

“The writer’s object is—or should be—to hold the reader’s attention. I want the reader to turn the page and keep on turning to the end," Tuchman said in a 1978 speech. The American public certainly kept turning the pages of her books. Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911–1945 (1971) was praised by John K. Fairbanks, the dean of American China scholars, as “brilliant." It also earned her a second Pulitzer Prize. For A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (1978), Tuchman explored the juxtaposition between the glamour of chivalry and the destruction wrought by the plague. Practicing History (1981) assembled speeches and essays. The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984) explored how and why governments pursued polices that were contrary to their interests. Tuchman closed out her writing career with The First Salute (1988), an international approach to the American Revolution.

There were other honors as well. In February 1979, Tuchman became the president of the America Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the first woman to hold the post in its then eighty-year existence. She was also named the 1980 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities.


SELECTED WORKS BY BARBARA W. TUCHMAN

Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour (1956).

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (1978).

The First Salute (1988).

The Guns of August (1962).

The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain since 1700 (1938).

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984).

Notes from China (1972).

Practicing History: Selected Essays (1981).

The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War, 1890–1914 (1966).


Barbara W. Tuchman, Folly and the Stream of History

The passage, from a book read three decades back, came to mind not long ago. A tweet-driven tumult was, as usual, roiling Washington. Surly and defiant, President Trump was ensconced in the White House, lashing out like King Lear with a cellphone. The issue of the hour was our policy toward a defiant North Korea, and the president had chosen that moment to boast that his nuclear button was bigger than Kim Jong-un’s — hardly an Achesonian diplomatic strategy.

Which doubtless would have pleased, rather than troubled, Trump, who, like Miranda in “The Tempest,” looks upon each day as a “brave new world” that offers him fresh opportunities to star in a global drama of his own direction. Shifting between cable news and my own Twitter feed, I recalled the historian Barbara W. Tuchman’s observation in her 1984 book “The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.” “Wooden-headedness” in statecraft, which she defined as “assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs,” has clearly become a prevailing factor in our politics. As Tuchman wrote, wooden-headedness was best captured in a remark about Philip II of Spain: “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.”

Why did the Trojans allow the Greek horse within the gates? How did the Renaissance papacy so badly misjudge the moment, accelerating the Protestant Reformation? What could the British ruling class have done differently to keep the American colonies within London’s reach? Who, if anyone, could have prevented Washington’s tragic misadventure in Vietnam? These were Tuchman’s topics, and now, in our own time, we are forced to ponder the why, the how, the what and the who about America in the Age of Trump. “A prince, says Machiavelli,” Tuchman wrote, “ought always to be a great asker and a patient hearer of truth about those things of which he has inquired, and he should be angry if he finds that anyone has scruples about telling him the truth. What government needs is great askers.” To put it mildly, though, the Trump White House seems more “Shark Tank” than Brain Trust.

Tuchman’s literary legacy is various and important. She wrote well about many things, including the coming of World War I (“The Guns of August,” a favorite of John F. Kennedy’s, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1963), the Black Plague (“A Distant Mirror”), the Far East (“Stilwell and the American Experience in China”) and the American Revolution (“The First Salute”). There is something notable, though, about “The March of Folly,” a collection of sketches about mature countries getting things woefully wrong.

To Tuchman, folly begins with the most fundamental of things: an outsize and self-destructive will to power. Both the governors and the governed can overreach, convinced of their own rectitude and righteousness. “Chief among the forces affecting political folly is lust for power, named by Tacitus as ‘the most flagrant of all the passions,’” Tuchman wrote. “Because it can only be satisfied by power over others, government is its favorite field of exercise,” or what she calls the “paramount area of folly because it is there that men seek power over others — only to lose it over themselves.” In this light, President Trump and his alt-right coterie are not something new under the sun but another chapter in the oldest of human dramas: the tension between appetite and the common good, between ambition and common sense.

There is a lesson here not only for the president but for the people — particularly the people who chose to support him in 2016 and who stand with him now, apparently come what may. “Persistence in error is the problem,” Tuchman wrote. One of the more troubling features of popular political life is blind tribal loyalty — the refusal to acknowledge that your chief or your kind could be wrong. A perennial issue, this reflexive defensiveness is especially pronounced at the moment. But the historically literate voter, like a historically literate decision maker, need not be captive to previously held opinions at all times and at any cost. “There is,” Tuchman wrote, “always freedom of choice to change or desist from a counterproductive course if the policy-maker” — or, in my view, the voter — “has the moral courage to exercise it. He is not a fated creature blown by the whims of Homeric gods. Yet to recognize error, to cut losses, to alter course, is the most repugnant option in government.” And in the mind and heart of a fervent voter who was determined to send a message to Washington that business as usual was not working. The question now, more than a year into business as unusual, is whether those who supported the populist insurgency of 2016 will honestly assess its effectiveness in 2018 and in 2020. “Wooden-headedness” in the Oval Office, alas, begins in the voting booth.

How do we stop marches of folly? Tuchman was thoughtful on the question, realizing that history was not a panacea. “Whole philosophies have evolved over the question whether the human species is predominately good or evil,” she wrote. “I only know that it is mixed, that you cannot separate good from bad, that wisdom, courage and benevolence exist alongside knavery, greed and stupidity heroism and fortitude alongside vainglory, cruelty and corruption.”

That observation appeared in a 1981 collection of her essays titled “Practicing History.” Perhaps her least known work, it is engaging and wise, and in it she took a proportionate view of the human condition. “Amid a mass of worldwide troubles and a poor record for the 20th century,” Tuchman wrote, “we see our species — with cause — as functioning very badly, as blunderers when not knaves, as violent, ignoble, corrupt, inept, incapable of mastering the forces that threaten us, weakly subject to our worst instincts in short, decadent.”

It was, she argued, an easy, if unhappy, case to make at the time. (As it is now.) “A century that took shape in the disillusion which followed the enormous effort and hopes of World War I,” Tuchman wrote, “that saw revolution in Russia congeal into the same tyranny it overthrew, saw a supposedly civilized nation revert under the Nazis into organized and unparalleled savagery, saw the craven appeasement by the democracies, is understandably marked by suspicion of human nature.”

And yet, and yet, there were grounds for hope. History had been, and still was, notable for human discoveries and inventions for battles to secure and spread liberty for majestic achievements in art and athletics and architecture. Reflecting on the Middle Ages’ zeal for cathedrals, she quoted an observer: “Who has ever seen or heard tell in times past that powerful princes of the world, that men brought up in honors and wealth, that nobles — men and women — have bent their haughty necks to the harness of carts and, like beasts of burden, have dragged to the abode of Christ these wagons loaded with wines, grains, oil, stones, timber and all that is necessary for the construction of the church?”

History, like humanity, defies clinical categorization. There were, she wrote, two ways in which that which came before could teach us lessons. “One is to enable us to avoid past mistakes and to manage better in similar circumstances next time the other is to enable us to anticipate a future course of events,” Tuchman wrote. Her verdict: “To manage better next time is within our means to anticipate does not seem to be.” That, at least, may be the beginning of wisdom.


Further Reading

The biography of Barbara Tuchman appears in the standard contemporary reference works. Further details can be found in the New Yorker (October 6, 1962). She discussed certain personal aspects of her life in the introduction to Practicing History (1981), which also contains segments on her historical methods and philosophy. A nice tribute to some of her views appears in Dudley Barlow's Lessons of History, published in Education Digest (March, 1996). □


Watch the video: Academic ReadingBarbara W. TuchmanGuns of August