Books by Barbara W. Tuchman

THE FIRST SALUTE by Barbara W. Tuchman
Released: Oct. 5, 1988

With her usual grace and sweep, the author of A Distant Mirror, The Proud Tower, and The Guns of August describes the American Revolution from the European point of view. Tuchman's great talent, the gift that distinguishes her from so many otherwise capable historians, is her ability to write history as intellectual narrative, to weave dense, interlocking facts into an ever-growing framework that is not necessarily chronological but which always ends up precisely where it is supposed to go. In this case, the goal is the Battle of Yorktown, which Tuchman considers the decisive conclusion of events rooted as deeply in international problems in Europe as in relations between Great Britain and her colonies: the Dutch and English trade wars, hostilities between England and France, political conflicts in England, the condition of the English nà vy in the 18th century. Concentrating in the first half of her book almost exclusively on the European side of things, Tuchman describes three non-Americans—English Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney, English General Lord Cornwallis, and French Admiral de Grasse—who were at least as influential on the final outcome of the Revolution as the Founding Fathers. The result, as she moves on to describe Washington's 500-mile march from New York to Virginia and the Battle of Yorktown, is American history seen from the outside in—a fresh and ultimately dazzling perspective whose skillful arrangement is matched only by the sure scholarship on which it is based. Another winner from Tuchman—superbly readable, thoroughly researched. Read full book review >
Released: March 19, 1984

At her best, popular historian Tuchman tells a good story. At her worst, she can be superficial and banal. An exercise in historical interpretation such as this, tracing a single idea through a set of examples, is structured toward her weaknesses; and they are only too apparent. Tuchman applies the concept of folly to historical "mistakes" with certain features in common: the policy taken was contrary to self-interest; it was not that of an individual (attributable to the individual's character), but that of a group; it was not the only policy available; and it was pursued despite forebodings that it was mistaken. The only way to account for such self-destructive policies, in Tuchman's view, is to label them follies; but that, as she seems unaware, puts them beyond rational explanation. Her three major examples are the aggressive actions of the Renaissance popes that resulted in the Reformation, Britain's loss of the American colonies, and the American debacle in Vietnam. (The Trojan Horse episode serves as an introductory prototype.) One of Tuchman's auxiliary categories is "wooden-headed," which is what she calls the popes who resisted pleas for reform, stuck to their doomed ways, and otherwise lived debauched lives. (On the other hand, "Kennedy was no wooden head," since he avoided making a decision on Vietnam; had he lived, he would presumably either have withdrawn from Vietnam or become another wooden head.) Disavowals notwithstanding, Tuchman cannot escape exercising hindsight. The appearance is inescapable that she has plumbed her cited sources not for their evocation of the mentality of an age but for some good quotes that support the contention of available alternatives. On the American Revolution, for example, her simple account of the Stamp Act and parliamentary debate on the colonies betrays no substantial knowledge of the recent, careful reconstruction of the political understandings of the time. While Tuchman's gaze is squarely fixed on ministers in London trying to implement an unenforceable tax, the real dynamics of colonial rebellion were being played out in America. If there was folly here it was the same as Tuchman's, lying in the ignored political transformation across the ocean. None of the sections work as straight narrative: they are too shallow, and the time covered is too long, for more than an outline of events. Unable to explain the courses of action taken, Tuchman cries folly. That principle of historical interpretation is likely to satisfy very few. Read full book review >
PRACTICING HISTORY by Barbara W. Tuchman
Released: Sept. 14, 1981

The title is apt: Tuchman does indeed practice history as a lawyer practices law, or a doctor medicine; that is, she applies it—to the writing of involving narratives, to the drawing of contemporary judgments. These selected essays are not, then, contributions to the advancement of knowledge—with two possible exceptions. The first section consists of discussions of craft; the second chiefly of occasional pieces and book reviews; the third of timely views—responses, mainly, to Vietnam and Watergate. In sum, a Tuchman retrospective, 1936-1980. Seven of the eight pieces on craft turn out, moreover, to be arguments for Tuchman's kind of history-writing (the eighth is a graceful bow to research libraries). "Primarily I think of the historian as a storyteller"—utilizing only primary sources, always supplying corroborative detail, featuring public figures ("with power to affect destiny"), arriving "at theory by way of the evidence": all this in distinction, variously, to "the way of the Ph.D.," the "professional historian," the theorist. But there are internal contradictions nonetheless—cracks in this let-the-facts-speak facade. At one point Tuchman pooh-poohs the proposition (of E. H. Carr) that "historical facts do not exist independently of the interpretations of historians"; two years later she is writing (in "The Historian's Opportunity"): "Events happen; but to become history they must be communicated and understood." What she fails to acknowledge is the extent to which selection of evidence—even the focus on prominent individuals—is ipso facto interpretation. Against these observations on method and technique, the second section becomes a display of Tuchman's craft as well as a record of her interests. Three post-college pieces, written for The Nation (which Tuchman's father owned), demonstrate that she was capable of writing as infectiously as others about an FDR campaign train and as foolishly about the "incomprehensible," illogical Japanese; and that she was incapable of writing a nuanced, Genêt-like evocation of Civil-War Madrid. A narrative involving a quasi-American kidnapped by the Berbers is good historical entertainment; but it also highlights Tuchman's stylistic excesses: the airless thicket of vivid detail, the string of curious particulars culminating—surprise!—in a crucial one. Two 1967 articles on Israel exactly reflect the then-prevailing euphoria; a related book review occasions conventional, uncomprehending criticism of Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" thesis. But Tuchman's American-Jewish Establishment roots are also the basis of one of the two stellar pieces: a profile of her grandfather Henry Morgen-thau, Sr.—first-generation achiever, friend of Palestinian settlement, foe of political Zionism—entitled "The Dilemma of the Assimilationist." The second standout, "If Mao Had Come to Washington," draws on what may be Tuchman's most lasting work—her researches into, and evaluation of, the putative American "loss" of China to the Communists (for, of course, her Stilwell book). Here, a tantalizing, obscure incident is not presented as a Great Lost Opportunity, and a salient, "quirky" figure—pro-Chiang Ambassador Hurley—is not seen as Destiny's operative. "Our course was destined," Tuchman writes, "by ourselves and our inclinations." There are pieces of passing merit (the review of Kissinger's memoirs, for one); some post-Vietnam and -Watergate policy recommendations (foremost: "some form of shared executive power"); some sidelights, of likely interest to Tuchman readers, on the writing of her histories. But only the Mao piece would hold its own in any context. Read full book review >
Released: Feb. 15, 1970

With accustomed adroitness Tuchman meshes details political and personal, major and minor, into a strong narrative of General Stilwell's career and thirty-five years of U.S. China policy. The result leans toward biographical rather than political history. Stilwell was an egalitarian, commonsensical, high-humored officer; his idiosyncrasies, hatred of pretense and incumbent loneliness are captured in particular through acute selections from his literate, rather ribald diaries. As staff officer to the American occupation force in Shanghai, head of road-building teams of famine-stricken laborers, but especially as roving intelligence officer from 1934 to 1940, Vinegar Joe is at his exuberant best. But Stilwell's orientation toward tactical military situations, rather than the international political climate in which American policy was formed and conducted, creates a hitch in Tuchman's effort to use him to illuminate these policies. After providing considerable pre-World War II background, she is not at her descriptive best during the 1942-1945 high points of Stilwell's career, as he tries to make the Chinese army capable of stopping the Japanese. Press hero of the China-Burma theater, Stilwell is afforded only meager logistical support from U.S. air and ground forces, denied enough political support to arm-twist Chiang, burdened with consistent British shirking, and then ignominiously canned. Never disposed to tune in the political emanations from Washington and other headquarters, he doesn't try to analyze his defeat, and Tuchman falls down here too. As epilogue she asks wanly "What would have happened in postwar China if Stilwell had succeeded in reorganizing Chiang's armies?" Yet the surpassingly readable style and sensibility mobilized in her earlier works sustain the misfit heroics and suffice for high demand. Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 11, 1965

In her most ambitious book to date, Barbara Tuchman (The Zimmerman Telegram — 1958, The Guns of August — 1962) profiles the world as it was in the years that led to WWI. In her Foreword, the author says of the era, "We have been misled by the people of the time themselves who in looking back across the gulf of the War, see that earlier half of their lives misted over by a lovely sunset haze of peace and security." Her research clearly shows that the seeds of hatred and violence were growing in the political realities which had not yet forced discomfort upon the most privileged classes. As in The Guns of August, her fascination for those who managed power is evident. No memoir or biography seems to have been overlooked for the most significant quotation or incident revealing the man behind the political or the social situation. Eight long sections take the reader around the world from England to Austria, to the United States, to France, to Germany, to the Hague and through the beginnings of socialism in England and on the Continent. The time span for each goes from the fermenting 1890's to the eve of the debacle in 1914. Readers familiar with her earlier books know how well the author writes and organizes her material. This, plus the continuing interest in WWI, will add to the ready readership for this book, which may not have quite the shotgun appeal of her biggest success. Read full book review >
THE GUNS OF AUGUST by Barbara W. Tuchman
Released: Jan. 29, 1961

It is seldom that a book combining at once such valuable historical material with such an excellent literary style comes along. This book, recounting the political events leading up to the first World War and the first horrible 30 days of that War, is such a work. Beginning with the pompous, colorful funeral of England's Edward VII in May of 1910—-which was to prove the end of the old European order—-the account reaches back into the growing competitive situation between England and Germany. It examines briefly but quite carefully the changes since Victoria's time—-the power intrigues, Germany's thirst for power, England's constant incircling of her. Thus, with the immortal assassination of Ferdinand at Sarajevo in 1914, the martial stage is set. What followed (and again it is reported with succinct, vivid accuracy) was the horrible carnage which is modern war. The author shows how Germany planned its Belgian campaign, how General Foch developed a whole new military "mystique" to meet it, how Turkey, Russia, and Japan became involved, and how men began to die on the Western Front between Germany and France by the tens of thousands. Through the pages too move the great figures—-Generals Molke, Joffre, Foch, and Hindenburg; Winston Churchill, Lord Kitchener, Admirals Jellico and von Tirpitz, and dozens more. Concluding with the great Battle of the Marne which saved Paris and turned the Germans back, the volume shows how European and then world history was forever changed by the terrible struggle. It is an exciting interpretation, and Book of the Month Club selection is the first salvo. Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 29, 1958

The essence of this exciting reconstruction is as follows:- The British had a verbatim copy of the German diplomatic code. The U.S.A. was still immovable on Wilson's paper fence of neutrality. The Germans, stymied on land, hoped to bring England to her knees by unrestricted submarine warfare, but were fearful that this might bring America into the fray on the British side. Germany's Foreign Secretary Zimmerman conceived the brilliant idea of having his own allies ready to meet the new enemy and made a formal proposal by telegram that Japan and Mexico join with Germany and in the postwar peace settlement that Mexico regain her lost territories- Texas, Arizona, New Mexico. The British intercepted and decoded the telegram, and used it with Wilson to demonstrate the perfidy of the Kaiser's schemes. It was probably largely because of this incident that America entered the war....The story is told fully, with all its cryptographic excitement, the agonizing of Wilson, the unrest and violence in Mexico, the intrigues and doubledealings of the Germans, the effect upon the Japanese of the discriminatory legislation passed in America... Every line is readable and tense and resonant of the climate of opinion in that period. Read full book review >
Released: March 1, 1956

Through full scale analysis of the political and cultural values which have shaped British policy toward a free Jewish state-beginning with anthropological affinities and ending in the Balfour Declaration- the author has achieved even more than her goal of explication. This book is outstanding for its historical grasp and originality, but it also synthesizes the countless forces of religious evolution, tradition, ethical belief, esthetic criteria, expansionist spirit, and quest for security, of which mass psychology and national character- at least in England- are compounded. The reader discovers in the 2000 year long struggle with the "Jewish question" the variety and complexity of motives which enter into all national destinies. The author is flexible but tireless in her method. She draws parallels between the resistance of Britain and Jude to Roman rule; she cites military tactics, and the historical role which merest accident plays in war; she places Britain's attitude toward Zionism in the context of foreign policy with all major powers; she interprets the effects of Disraeli's fiction, Byron's poetry, T. E. Lawrence's probe and she scotches such fairy tales as that the contribution of acetone led to the Balfour proposal.... A provocative piece of research and interpretation, for lasting if modest sales to libraries, students of history and the new country- Israel Read full book review >