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The Dramatist

Barbara Tuchman saw history as a grand tragedy

By Meredith Hindley | HUMANITIES, September/October 2012 | Volume 33, Number 5

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.

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 Times best-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 Chiefs was 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.

While she was pleased to be recognized by her more scholarly colleagues, she never regretted skipping graduate school. “I don’t belong to the academic world at all,” she told an interviewer. "I never took a Ph.D. It’s what saved me. If I had taken a doctoral degree, it would have stifled any writing capacity.” Instead, she was content to be a storyteller. "Macaulay describes himself as half poet, half philosopher. I do not aspire to either of those heights. I think of myself as a storyteller, a narrator, who deals in true stories, not fiction.”

Meredith Hindley is senior writer for HUMANITIES.

Barbara Tuchman delivered the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities in 1980. The Library of America, which keeps classic works of American literature in print, was started in 1978 with a then-unprecedented NEH grant of $1 million.