Barbara Tuchman

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 Revolutioncame 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.

Tuchman’s books:

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)

Stilwell and the American Experience in China (1971)

Notes from China (1972)*

A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)

Practicing History (1981)

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

The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution (1988)

  • – Not available in NC Cardinal



The Roosevelts II: Franklin and Eleanor

A wedding in which the President of United States gives away the bride who is not his daughter is rare.  That is what happened when Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt married in 1905.   The bride was President Theodore Roosevelt’s niece and the groom his fifth cousin.  Franklin and Eleanor were fifth cousins, once removed.   Franklin was raised by possessive mother, Sara.  This caused some problems when he chose his bride to be.  Sara didn’t like Eleanor and tried break up their relationship before the wedding.

Both Theodore and Franklin traveled similar political paths to the presidency. As young men each served in the state assembly of New York and later as  the governor of the state.   On the national level both occupied the post of Assistant Secretary of the Navy.  Franklin held that office during World War I.  It was after he returned from a fact finding trip to Europe that Eleanor found he had betrayed her by carrying an on an affair with  Lucy Mercer, who was Eleanor’s social secretary.

When Roosevelt was 39, while vacationing with his family on the Atlantic coast near the Canadian border, he became ill and suffered paralysis of his lower body.   After he became president, most Americans did not realize how incapacitated he was.  The press respected his condition and never took pictures of him in his wheelchair.    While he was in the White House, he vacationed at Warm Springs, Georgia, where he mingled with others in similar condition.

Franklin, becoming president in the midst of the most serious economic crisis the United States has ever faced, started programs such as New Deal to benefit the average citizen. When campaigning for president in the heart of the Great Depression, Franklin attacked President Herbert Hoover for his indecisive policies  during the economic panic that started with collapse of the stock market in 1929.   Then, in his inaugural speech, FDR told the American people, “The only we have to fear, is fear itself.” He then declared a Bank Holiday to  stop the run on the nation’s banks.

Likewise, when confronted by the crisis brought about by the growth of Japanese power in the western Pacific, Franklin Roosevelt dealt with it by decisive action.  He decided to  limit shipments of oil to Japan, especially when that nation invaded China in the mid-1930s.  Meanwhile in Europe, Hitler came to power and gradually expanded German territory before France and Great Britain supported Poland after the Germans invaded there in September, 1939.   Roosevelt used the example of lending his neighbor a hose if his neighbor’s house was on fire to justify sending help to Britain prior to the Japanese attack  on Pearl Harbor 1941.

Roosevelt and Winston Churchill became the leaders of the allied effort to defeat both Japan and Germany.  The Russians, under Stalin, who the victim of a double-cross by the German leader, kept advocating for a second front in Europe, but that was not to come until the spring of 1944. The war in the European theater ended less than a year later. Meanwhile, the Allies began to march across the Pacific, island by island, toward the Japanese home islands, where the war ended in August 1944, after two A-bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

President Roosevelt was not in good health when he ran for re-election in unprecedented third and fourth terms in the elections 0f 1940 and 1944, but he and his advisors kept his real condition from the public.  His health was not helped by the traveling he had to do to attend the many conferences held abroad to plan allied strategy. After he returned from the Yalta Conference early in 1945, his health had obviously deteriorated, as evidenced by the fact he had to sit while giving his report to Congress.  Within two months he was dead at 63.   Eleanor was shocked with the revelation that Franklin’s former mistress, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd,  had been with him at Warm Springs, Georgia, when he died.  FDR’s funeral train took his body to Washington and on to Hyde Park, New York, where he was buried.

Eleanor, who had been Franklin’s eyes and ears during the depression and the  war developed an active life of her own.  She continued to write her daily newspaper column  and was later appointed an envoy to the United Nations.  She lived a full life until she died in 1962 at the age of 78.


For further reading:

Conrad Black.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Blanche W. Cook.  Eleanor Roosevelt,  Volume 1, 1884-1932.         Volume 2, 1933-1938.

Doris Kearns Goodwin.  No Ordinary Time.

Robert Klara.  FDR’s Funeral Train.

Joseph Lash.  Eleanor and Franklin.

Joseph Persico.  Franklin and Lucy.

Jean Edward Smith.  FDR.

Lincoln’s Assassination and Other Presidential Murders

By Stephen

A few weeks my ago wife and I attended a matinée showing of the movie, “Lincoln”.  In his film, Steven Spielberg chose to focus on Lincoln’s effort to get Congress to approve the Thirteenth amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery.  Spielberg based his movie, in part, on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Lincoln’s relationship with the men he chose to be his cabinet, Team of Rivals.  The movie naturally ends with John Wilkes Booth murdering Lincoln, albeit off screen.

The film and the 150th anniversary of the American civil war has renewed interest in the 16th  president of the United States and his death.   For example, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln has been a New York Times best seller for 73 weeks at this writing.     The less than favorable reviews  (mostly   based on the accuracy of information) have not kept O’Reilly fans from clamoring for this book either in bookstores or libraries.   Truth be told, for readers who are not concerned about historical accuracy, the book should be an enjoyable read.

Two Lincoln scholars, James Swanson and Anthony Pitch, have researched the Lincoln assassination and produced a number of accurate yet readable books.  Swanson has been the most productive:   Manhunt:  The Twelve Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer and Bloody Crimes:  The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Pageant of Abraham Lincoln’s Corpse.   Pitch’s book is “They Have Killed Papa Dead!.  John Wilkes Booth’s successful murder of Abraham Lincoln was not the first time someone tried kill him; in fact, an assassination attempt was before Lincoln took the oath of office and the Civil War got underway, as described in Daniel Stashower’s The Hour of Peril

Of course Lincoln was not only the president of the United State to be murdered while in office.   The two other presidential assassinations, which took place within 36 years after the end of the Civil War,  had nothing to the after effects of that conflict; although both James A. Garfield and William McKinley had fought for the Union.

Garfield met his end in 1881 through a combination of  damage from a bullet, from a delusional, disgruntled government worker,  and what the author of Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard,  pictures as  an incompetent medical team that put the  president through hell, before being responsible for his death.  Millard suggests Garfield did not need to die. Had he been cared for by doctors following the proper medical protocols at the time, he would have survived.

Scott Miller sets the assassination of William McKinley, 30 years later, in the turbulent times at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In The President and the Assassin, Miller makes clear the killing of an American president was the result of a world-wide radical movement.   The murder of Mckinley was  politically motivated by a foreign born anarchist who thought he was supporting the global  anarchist cause.   Nine days after Leon Czolgosz shot the president, the bullet that tore through his stomach did its job;  an infection set in, despite the efforts his doctors, causing McKinley to die.

The United States had to wait over sixty years to witness another president struck down by an assassin’s bullet in 1963.   Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Kennedy is on the NY Times Best Seller list just ahead of Killing Lincoln.  Being 2013 is the fifty anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, I suspect new entries to the library  of volumes about JFK’s murder will be forthcoming.   The literary world has already gotten a picture of Kennedy’s death from LBJ’s point of view in  Robert Caro’s Passage of Power.