Recalling Guns of August and Israel

Looking Back at Barbara Tuchman's (Mostly) Stellar Work

By Robert Zaretsky

Published January 17, 2012, issue of January 20, 2012.
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Born 100 years ago on the Olympian heights of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, her uncle, Henry Morgenthau, served as Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of the Treasury, while her father, Maurice Wertheim, a successful investment banker, was on the War Production Board. Barbara Tuchman’s professional destiny seemed tied even as a toddler to the event that launched her professional reputation.

Barbara Tuchman
nyu press
Barbara Tuchman

In August 1914, at the ripe age of 2, she witnessed one of the opening shots of World War I. Tuchman was traveling with her parents on a passenger ship bound for Constantinople to visit her grandfather, Henry Morgenthau Sr., the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. From the deck, her family suddenly glimpsed the smoke of gunshots fired by British cruisers in pursuit of the German warship Goeben. Outrunning the British navy, the warship arrived safely in the Dardanelles and was instrumental in leading the Turks to join Germany in the war. “Never,” wrote Winston Churchill, looking back on the event, had “more slaughter, more misery and more ruin… before been borne within the compass of a ship.”

Tuchman quotes this line in “The Guns of August,” her account of the first month of World War I, which the Library of America will reissue in March. The book won critical and popular acclaim, climaxing with the Pulitzer Prize for best nonfiction work in 1962. Though fame came relatively late to this 50-year-old mother of three, it never strayed from her. Over the next 20 years, Tuchman published half a dozen books on subjects that varied widely — ranging from an intellectual history of fin-de-siècle Europe in “The Proud Tower” (also to be re-released) to a sweeping account of life and death (and yet more plague-induced death) in 14th-century Europe in “A Distant Mirror.”

Her later work could be speculative, such as “The March of Folly” in 1984, in which Tuchman looked to past events in order to discern certain characteristics she believed remained constant in man. But she would win another Pulitzer a mere 10 years after her first, this time for “Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911–45.” Most intriguing, though, is the book Tuchman never wrote — or, rather, the one she did write, but without the ending she had planned.

In 1956, still an unknown writer with a bachelor of arts degree from Radcliffe College as her sole professional credential, Tuchman published “Bible and Sword.” Several commercial presses had turned down Tuchman’s manuscript before New York University Press gambled on the book. It received polite but limited attention from the critics, and it was only two years later, with “The Zimmerman Telegram” and then “The Guns of August,” that Tuchman made a name for herself.

“Bible and Sword” traces the rich and contradictory relationship between Britain and Palestine. Already surfacing in these pages are the sardonic observations and clipped cadence that would form Tuchman’s signature style. Of the British pilgrims in late antiquity who traveled to the Holy Land, she writes: “Who they were we do not know, but how they went we can be sure. They walked.” But there are also passages where clichés cluster thickly. Nations emerge “out of the fog of prehistory” while voices “crack out like pistol shots,” and individuals “gallop with the bit in their teeth” as anti-Semitism rises “like a black phoenix from the ashes of Napoleonic conquests.”

Tuchman nevertheless skillfully choreographs the movements of the usual suspects — Disraeli, Rothschild, Balfour and Weizmann — while bringing onstage more obscure figures. Most striking are the British missionaries and ministers whose attitude toward a Jewish homeland rehearses the chorus now heard among American evangelicals. They believed, like Lord Shaftesbury, that the Second Advent would be preceded by the return of Jews to the Holy Land. Not only did Shaftesbury envisage, as Tuchman smartly writes, “an Anglican Israel restored by Protestant England, at one stroke confounding popery, fulfilling prophecy, redeeming mankind,” but he also welcomed, with unsettling optimism, the end of time.


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