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Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989) - original surname Wertheim


American writer, noted for her popular histories. Tuchman was praised for her lucid style, narrative power, and portrayal of the protagonists in world dramas as believable human beings. Meaning, in Tuchman's view, emerges not from preconceived design but from the aggregation of details and events that fall into a pattern. Tuchman was a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Her subjects varied from the Trojan War to the Vietnam War, from description of medieval daily life to the portraits of world leaders of the First World War.

"A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit of governments of policies to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defended as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why does holders of high office so often contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggest? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?" (from The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, 1984)

Barbara Tuchman was born in New York City. Her grandfather, Henry Morgenthau Sr., was Woodrow Wilson's Ambassador to Turkey and her father, Maurice Wertheim, was a banker, who bought The Nation magazine from the Villards when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. Alma (Morgenthau) Wertheim (1887–1953), her mother, was a an accomplished vocalist and a music patron, who founded the Cos Cob Press to issue new scores; it later became Arrow Music Press. Aaron Copland dedicated the score of his Piano Concerto (1926) to her. Tuchman was educated at Radcliffe College and Cambridge, Mass. Her education at Radcliffe was in literature and history primarily, a combination which she later learned to be mutually benefical. From 1934 to 1935 she worked as a research assistant at the Institute of Pacific Relations in New York and Tokyo, and then started her career as a journalist contributing to several magazines. Tuchman was the editorial assistant of The Nation, a staff writer of War in Spain, and an American correspondent of New Statesman in London (1939). In 1943, she began working for the Office of War Information in New York.

Tuchman's first book, The Lost British Policy, came out in 1938, after the Loyalist had lost the Spanish Civil war, which she saw as the end of the liberal world. In 1939 she married Lester R. Tuchman, a physician; they had three children. Tuchman was a trustee at Radcliffe College (1960-72), a lecturer at Harvard University, University of California, U.S. Naval War College, and other institutions. In 1979 she was appointed the chairperson of American Academy of Arts and Letters. She also received a number honorary degrees. Tuchman died on February 6, 1989.

"Dead battles, like dead generals, hold the military mind in their dead grip and Germans, no less than other peoples, prepare for the last war." (from August 1914)

Tuchman did not agree, that it is a great disadvantage of not having been trained as a historian. Labelled as a popular historian, she received both popular and critical acclaim for her style and vision – "I have always felt like an artist when I work on a book," she once said, "I see no reason why the word should always be confined to writers of fiction and poetry". Tuchman became first known in the 1960s with the publication of The Guns of August (1962), a study of events leading up to World War I. It is generally considered to be her best work, although many historians have contested her thesis – that the outcome of the war was decided during the first month. "No more distressing moment can ever face a British government than that which requires it to come to a hard, fast and specific decision." The Guns of August traced the actions of statesmen and patriots alike in Berlin, London, St. Petersburg and Paris. "For one August in its history Paris was French – and silent." (from August 1914, 1962) The story of the first 30 days of the first global war won The Pulitzer Prize. The most famous reader of Tuchman's work was President John F. Kennedy, an amateur historian himself. Also member of his administation had read it just before the outbreak of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Copies of the book were placed in officers' day rooms around the world. Kennedy had telephoned Secretary of the Army Elvis Stahr Jr., saying, "I want you to read this. And I want every officer in the Army to read it." In Roger Donaldson's film Thirteen Days (2000), a truthful dramatization of crisis, Kennedy mentions Tuchmans' work, and compares the situation with the chain of misjudgments, that had led to tragedy nearly 50 years earlier.

Tuchman was also a keen observer of contemporary political life. Shortly after Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Democratic senatorial nomination in New York, Tuchman joined "a Democrats for Keating Committee", along with James Baldwin, Richard Hofstadter, Joseph Mankiewicz, Paul Newman and other prominent liberals. In the 1968 Presidential race, Tuchman supported Eugene McCarthy, who casted her in his presidential cabinet as secretary of state, because a historian would give better advice that lawyers. In the late 1960s, Tuchman and her friend Henry Steele Commanger were active in the National Committee for an Effective Congress. She did not like President Richard Nixon, as the revelations of the Watergate scandal began to accumulate, she first called for his voluntary resignation, but then supported Commanger's position, that Nixon should be dismissed from his office; it was up to Congress not to set "a precedent of acquiescence" that could destroy the political system. Immediately after the Six-Day War, Tuchman visited Israel for the second time. Her experiences and impressions she later collected in Practicing History (1981). Tuchman summarized in 'Israel's Swift Sword', an article written for The Atlantic Monthly (September 1967), that "essentially the war was a conflict of societies."

Tuchman's second Pulitzer Prize came from the biography of U.S. General Joseph Stilwell (1971), in which she explored the United States' relationship with 20th-century China as epitomized in the wartime experiences of General Stilwell. With regard to U.S. foreign policy in China it questions "how could America act so confidently when it knew it was wrong?"

Among her other works are A Distant Mirror (1978), which presented a vivid picture of the life in 14th-century France, paralleling its natural and man-made disasters to our own century. In The March of Folly (1984) Tuchman examined four conflicts and turning points in history: The Trojan War, The Protestant Secession, The American Revolution and The American War in Vietnam. "Character is fate," is one of Tuchman central themes – of course the Trojans suspected that the famous horse was full of Greeks or a cunning threat, but they did what their enemies wanted them to do. The Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon and men who surrounded were competent and did not lose the Vietnam War through ignorance, which is for Tuchman another example how fatally flawed is the psychology of a governing class. "The power to command frequently causes failure to think," concludes the author who sees that folly is a child of power. Later, in her essay 'Learning from History,' she stated that young people opposed to war shouldn't to turn their backs on military service and other Vietnams can be prevented only by the presence of the college-educated in the Army.

In The First Salute (1988) Tuchman analyzed the American Revolution. She placed the war in the historical context of centuries-long conflicts between England and both France and Holland, and painted a vivid portrait of General George Washington. The title of the book refers to a salute of gunfire on November 16, 1776, when St. Eustatius, a small island in the West Indies, acknowledged a ship flying the flag the red-and-white flag of the Continental Congress, recognizing American sovereignty.

Practicing History was a collection of essays, in which Tuchman presented the historian as a storyteller, who discovers a thesis only after the material is thoroughly studied and understood. Historians must know when to stop research and start writing it. ''It is laborious, slow, often painful, sometimes agony. It means rearrangement, revision, adding, cutting, rewriting. But it brings a sense of excitement, almost of rapture; a moment on Olympus. In short, it is an act of creation.''

For further reading: New Women in Social Sciences by Kathleen Bowman (1976); 'Barbara Tuchman', in Legacy of Wisdom: Great Thinkers and Journalism by John Calhoun Merrill (1994); Contemporary Popular Writers, ed. by Dave Mote (1997); A Global Encyclopedia of Historical Writing, ed. by D.R. Woolf (1998)

Selected works:

  • The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain Since 1700, 1938
  • Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour, 1956
  • The Zimmermann Telegram, 1958
  • The Guns of August, 1962 (Pulitzer Prize)
    - Elokuun tykit: ensimmäisen maailmansodan synty (suom. Antti Vahtera, 1964)
  • The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890–1914, 1966
  • Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45, 1970 (Pulitzer Prize)
  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, 1978
  • Practicing History: Selected essays, 1981
  • America's Security in the 1980s, 1983 (with Henry Kissinger, ed. by Christopher Bertram)
  • The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, 1984
  • The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution, 1988

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