Recently, when I was reorganizing my personal library, I noticed I had a number of books by the American writer Barbara Wertheim Tuchman, including one I used in my last blog, The Zimmerman Telegram. Her topics ranged time wise and geographically from ancient history to the twentieth century and from the Far East to the Americas. Like David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ms Tuchman wrote history for the lay reader, not the academic.
Barbara Wertheim was born in New York, educated in a private school there and went to college at Radcliffe, a private women’s college in Massachusetts. Two years after graduating from Radcliffe in 1933, she went to work for Nation Magazine, which was published by her father. She published her first book, The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain Since 1700, in 1938. Her second book, Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour, came out in 1956. In 1958, she delved into the United States’ involvement in World War I with The Zimmermann Telegram. Two years later came The Guns of August, her take on the opening months of the Great War and her first Pulitzer Prize. After that, in 1966, Tuchman investigated the world in the years leading up to World War I in The Proud Tower. Next, she used her experience in the Far East as background for her book about the American experience in China, Stilwell and the American Experience in China, centered around General Joseph Stilwell, who was the ranking American general in the China-Burma theater in World War II. That book, published in 1971, earned Tuchman her second Pulitzer Prize.
Before her death in 1989, Tuchman wrote five more books. Notes from China was her view of China during a six-week trip she took in 1972. Nine years later, she published Practicing History, a combination of essays on the writing of history and reprints of articles she wrote in the 1930s and thereafter.
Tuchman’s book about 14th century Europe, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, concerned Enguerrand de Coucy, a french nobleman who lived through a turbulent time fraught with wars, disease, and a little Ice age. Why do governments develop policies that go against their best interests? This is the question Barbara Tuchman tries to answer in The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. Her last book, The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution, came in 1988, the year before she died from a stroke at the age of 77. I’ll have more to say about this book and Stilwell and the American Experience in China below.
Tuchman’s interest in China stemmed from her stint as a volunteer researcher at the Institute of Pacific Relations immediately after graduation. As such, she spent an extended period in the Far East, include a month in China in the mid-1930s. Her book Stilwell and the American Experience in China, is not really a biography of General Joseph Stilwell, who spent most of his military career in that part of the world, but rather she uses Stilwell as symbol of the American experience in the country through the first half of the 20th century.
When Stilwell first arrived in China in 1911, it was a long way from being a modern country. But rather, it was broken up into regions governed by warlords. At the end of World War I, the Japanese took over German concessions in China and gradually strengthened their hold on Chinese territory. Stilwell was in and out of China during the 1920s, during which Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Chinese Revolution (Kuomintang) died, and his place was taken as the leader of the Kuomintang by Chiang Kai-Shek. “Vinegar Joe” was Stilwell’s nickname he earned stationed at Fort Benning, where he had a reputation of not suffering fools gladly. By the end of the 1930’s Stilwell had been promoted to Colonel. The Sino-Japanese War started in 1938, but Stilwell stayed in China until May 1939. On his way home, Stilwell found he had been promoted to Brigadier General.
In World War II, Stilwell rose among the general officer ranks to become a four star general in command of the China-Burma-India theater. He attended the Cairo Conference in 1943 along with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, representing the Free Chinese. His first order of business was to open a road from China into Burma, which was under Japanese control and posing a threat to India. But, as usual, Stilwell had a hard time getting individuals and allies he could work with. He didn’t trust his allies (the Chinese and the British), and most of all, he didn’t get along with Chiang Kai-Shek. He was recalled to the states in October 1944 and worked there until his death in 1946,
Tuchman addresses the American Revolution, partially in the The March of Folly and to a greater extent in The First Salute. She doesn’t attempt to cover the whole war, instead sets the Revolutionary War in the conflict between Great Britain and Holland and France. The book opens on November 16, 1776, when an American ship, Andrew Doria, flying the flag of the Continental Congress from her mast, sails into the harbor of St. Eustatius on the Dutch West Indies, her cannon saluting Fort Orange. Then the fort returned the salute, making it the first time an American flag was recognized by a foreign power.
When Winston Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty at the start of World War I, he found the Royal Navy had changed very little since end of the 18th century, the period Barbara Tuchman writes about. Tuchman finds a lot to criticize both the British government and its military leaders for. Neither those who ruled nor those who commanded took the trouble to find out about the geography of America or about cost or what it took to transport soldiers and/or materiel from Great Britain to there. What they did realize was the importance of keeping control of the West Indies which was a depot for Dutch merchants to export critical supplies to the colonies. Admiral George Rodney was given the task of capturing St. Eustatius.
Rodney, according Tuchman, was a class above his Royal Navy colleagues. “Thinking outside the box” would be the modern phrase that would suit the admiral well. However, when giving the assignment to keep the French fleet from reaching Yorktown and trapping Cornwallis and British army, he failed. To find why, you will have to read the book.
The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain Since 1700 (1938)*
Bible and the Sword (1956)
The Zimmermann Telegram (1958)
The Guns of August (1960)
The Proud Tower (1966)
Notes from China (1972)*
Practicing History (1981)
- – Not available in NC Cardinal