Barbara Tuchman

Barbara Tuchman

Historian and author

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989) was best known for her works on 20th-century wars although she also wrote on 14th-century France.

Barbara Tuchman was born in New York City on January 30, 1912, the daughter of Maurice and Alma (Morganthau) Wertheim. The Wertheim family was wealthy and had a tradition of interest in public affairs. Barbara's maternal grandfather was Henry Morganthau, Sr., a banker and American ambassador to Turkey during President Wilson's administration, and her uncle, Henry Morganthau, Jr., was Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of the treasury. Barbara's father was a banker and a publisher as well as having many outside interests, including founding the Theatre Guild and serving as president of the American Jewish Committee.

Barbara attended private schools in New York and graduated from Radcliffe College in 1933. Her early interest in history is shown by her honors thesis, "The Moral Justification of the British Empire." Although one of her professors at Radcliffe was a historian, he did not supervise her thesis. Instead, it was supervised by an English tutor who was little interested in the topic. Barbara did not pursue an advanced degree in history; her formal education in the topic ended in 1933.

Her informal education, however, continued. After graduation from Radcliffe she accompanied her grandfather to the World Economic Conference in London, where she observed economists and statesmen attempting to end the world-wide depression. When she returned from Europe she began her working career as an unpaid research assistant at the Institute of Pacific Relations in 1934. The following year she went to Tokyo for the institute as an editorial assistant, a raise in rank but not in pay. While working in Tokyo she sold her first article and embarked on a journalistic career.

Returning to the United States in 1936, she became an editorial assistant at The Nation, which her father had purchased from Oswald Garrison Villard. The following year she went to Spain to cover the civil war for the journal. Sympathetic to the Republican cause, she then became a staff writer for War in Spain, a publication subsidized by the Spanish government, in London from 1937 to 1938. During this same time she put together a very slim book entitled The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain Since 1700 (1938). The book, which was a rapid survey of relationships between the two nations, argued for British involvement in the current affairs of Spain. Next, Tuchman became the American correspondent for the New Statesmen and Nation for a year before returning to New York City.

On June 18, 1940, she married Lester R. Tuchman, a physician who was to become the president of the medical board of City Hospital in Queens. Barbara Tuchman began a domestic life and started a family which consisted of three daughters--Lucy, Jessica, and Alma. When World War II started and her husband enlisted in the Medical Corps, Tuchman followed him to Fort Rucker, Alabama. When he went overseas, she returned to work. From 1943 to 1945 she held a position on the Far East desk of the Office of War Information (OWI) utilizing her experiences with the Institute of Pacific Relations. When the war ended she returned to domestic life.

In 1948 she began work on her first major book, stimulated by events in the Middle East. Eight years later it appeared. The book, Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour (1956), took the position that the Balfour Declaration providing a homeland for the Jews was a logical extension of British tradition. The book, like her first one, was a survey showing much breadth but little depth. Her next book, The Zimmerman Telegram (1958), was quite different. It was an historical monograph which intensively analyzed the events and forces surrounding the cable which helped turn American public opinion against the German cause in World War I.

The following year Tuchman began research on the book that made her famous. In August she toured Belgium and France in order to learn the terrain where the first fighting of World War I had occurred. Her intensively researched The Guns of August (1962) won her a Pulitzer Prize and presented the events leading to World War I to a mass audience. She then wrote a description of the Belle Epoque (1900-1914), the period just prior to the war, which was published under the title The Proud Tower (1966). Her next major book switched locales from Europe to Asia and from World War I to World War II. Utilizing her experiences in the Orient and with OWI, she wrote Stilwell and the American Experience in China (1971). It, too, won a Pulitzer Prize.

Her later books did not cover the same ground. Her Notes on China (1972) was a slim, journalistic volume. It was followed by A Distant Mirror (1978), an historical account of events in 14th-century France. In 1981 she published a collection of lectures and articles given over the years under the title of Practicing History, and in 1984 she wrote The March of Folly (1984), which compared the errors in judgment made by the Pope in the Reformation, the British in the American Revolution, and the United States in Vietnam. At the time of her stroke and death in February, 1989 at the age of 77, her last book, The First Salute (about the American Revolution) had been on the New York Times best seller list for 17 weeks.

Along the way she accumulated many honors, including honorary doctorates in literature from Yale, Columbia, Bates, New York University, Williams, and Smith. She became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which elected her president in 1978-1980 and awarded her the Gold Medal for History in 1978. In addition, Belgium inducted her into the Order of Leopold first class.

Tuchman's writings are noted for attention to detail and colorful style. The author was most interested in the human element in history and, consequently, emphasized biographical data even in works devoted to the coming and waging of war. She practiced narrative history in the tradition of Ranke, whose motto--to tell history as it is--she took for her own.

Barbara Tuchman
Landon Lecture
Sept. 8, 1988