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Barbara W. Tuchman

Barbara W. Tuchman
Born Barbara Wertheim
(1912-01-30)January 30, 1912
New York City
Died February 6, 1989(1989-02-06) (aged 77)
Greenwich, Connecticut
Occupation Writer, journalist, historian
Nationality American
Period 1938–1988 (writer)
Genre History
Subject Middle Ages, Renaissance, American Revolution, 1900, World War I
Spouse Lester R. Tuchman
(b. 1904, d. 1997)
Children Three daughters
Relatives Maurice Wertheim (father)
Henry Morgenthau Sr.
(maternal grandfather)
Henry Morgenthau, Jr.
(maternal uncle)
Robert M. Morgenthau (cousin)
Jessica Mathews (daughter)

Barbara Wertheim Tuchman (/ˈtʌkmən/; January 30, 1912 – February 6, 1989) was an American historian and author. She won the Pulitzer Prize twice, for The Guns of August (later August 1914), a best-selling history of the prelude to and the first month of World War I, and Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911–45, a biography of General Joseph Stilwell.[1]

Tuchman focused on writing popular history.

Life and career

Tuchman was the daughter of the banker Maurice Wertheim and his first wife Alma Morgenthau. She was a first cousin of New York district attorney Robert M. Morgenthau, a niece of Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and granddaughter of Henry Morgenthau, Sr., Woodrow Wilson's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

In a 1963 lecture, Tuchman recalled,
History began to exert its fascination upon me when I was about six, through the medium of the Twins series by Lucy Fitch Perkins. I became absorbed in the fortunes of the Dutch Twins; the Twins of the American Revolution, who daringly painted the name 'Modeerf', or 'Freedom' spelled backwards, on their rowboat; and especially the Belgian Twins, who suffered under the German occupation in 1914. After the Twins, I went through a G.A. Henty period and bled with Wolfe in Canada. Then came a prolonged Dumas period, during which I became so acquainted with the Valois Kings, Queens, Royal Mistresses, and various Ducs de Guise that when we visited the French Chateaux I was able to point out to my family just who had stabbed whom in which room. Conan Doyle's The White Company, and, above all, Jane Porter's The Scottish Chiefs, were the definitive influence. As the noble Wallace, in tartan and velvet tam, I went to my first masquerade party, stalking in silent tragedy among the twelve-year-old Florence Nightingales and Juliets. In the book the treachery of the Countess of Mar, who betrayed Wallace, carried a footnote that left its mark on me. 'The crimes of this wicked woman,' it said darkly, 'are verified by history.'[2]

She attended the Walden School on Manhattan's Upper West Side.[3] She received her Bachelor of Arts from Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1933, leaving without a doctorate, for which she later claimed to be thankful because "it would have stifled my writing capacity".[4]

In 1934-1935 she worked as a research assistant at the Institute of Pacific Relations in New York and Tokyo, and then began a career as a journalist before turning to writing books. When John Loomis Sherman left as head of a Communist spy ring in Tokyo (second to that of Richard Sorge), Tuchman took over Sherman's cover (less espionage activities) as head of Tokyo offices for the American Feature Writers Syndicate (established in New York City by Sherman, literary agent Maxim Lieber, and fellow Soviet Underground spy Whittaker Chambers).[5]

As a journalist, she was the editorial assistant for The Nation, a newspaper her father had bought to save it from bankruptcy. In 1937, in the course of the Spanish Civil War, she went to Valencia and Madrid in 1937 to work as war correspondent for The Nation.[6] Tuchman was a trustee of Radcliffe College and a lecturer at Harvard University, the University of California, and the Naval War College. A tower of Currier House, a residential division first of Radcliffe College and now of Harvard College was named in her honor.


In 1939 she married Lester R. Tuchman, an internist, medical researcher and professor of clinical medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan. They had three daughters, including Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,[7] explaining the large time gap between her first book (1938) and second book (1956).

Tuchman's Law

Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening--on a lucky day--without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena. This has led me to formulate Tuchman's Law, as follows: "The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold" (or any figure the reader would care to supply).[8]

Tuchman's Law has been defined as a psychological principle of "perceptual readiness" or "subjective probability".[9]

Awards and criticism

In 1978, she was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[10] She won a U.S. National Book Award in History[a] for the first paperback edition of A Distant Mirror in 1980.[11]

Also in 1980 the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) selected Tuchman for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Tuchman's lecture was entitled "Mankind's Better Moments".[12] Tuchman twice won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, first for The Guns of August in 1963, and again for Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911–45 in 1972.[1]

Tuchman herself admitted that from an early age she was influenced by the Belgian Twins book, which advanced much of the Belgian atrocity propaganda about Germans that turned out to be largely fiction.[13] Academic historians have harshly noted Tuchman's unfair treatment of the Germans which they generally ascribe to the fact she was not a professional historian. As late as 2014 James A Warren, writing for the Daily Beast, noted with some sympathy: "Academic historians over the years have generally praised the elegance and incisiveness of Tuchman’s prose, but they have also taken her to task... for being too tough on the Germans, as well as for leaving developments on the Serbian-Austrian and Russian-Austrian fronts out of her narrative entirely." [14] Tuchman, it is also thought, allowed her own political views to impact her work. In revisiting Tuchman in 2009 Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post commented: "Though clear-eyed about the Anarchists in these pages, she waxes more than a trifle misty about the socialists." Yardley also notes that her "tendency to sermonize became more pronounced as Tuchman grew older and more disenchanted with her country's misadventures in foreign and domestic affairs."[15]

In reviewing The March to Folly in 1984 Paul Johnson, accused Tuchman of bias through omission. He noted that Tuchman's belief "that the Marxist form of nationalism pursued by Ho Chi Minh and his associates was bound to triumph, that it was in some metaphysical sense an irresistible force. This seems to me, Johnson wrote, a dangerous posture for a historian to adopt in general, and especially in this case, since she has considered only half the evidence." Johnson was also critical of Tuchman's consistently finding fault in Americans and Europeans based upon the fact they are white, and he argued her biases impacted her writing and facts Tuchman chose to present.[16]



  • The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain Since 1700 (1938)
  • Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour (1956)
  • The Zimmermann Telegram (1958) – The Zimmermann Telegram in early 1917 was a key incident involving Germany and Mexico that helped provoke the U.S. into entering World War I.
  • The Guns of August (1962) – details the military decisions and actions that occurred leading up to and during the first month of World War I. It is primarily what established her reputation. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy advised the EXCOMM to read this book. Reprinted several times in the 1980s as August 1914.
  • The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890–1914 (1966) – Covers the hesitant rise of U.S. imperialism, anarchist assassinations, socialism, communism, and the devolution of the 19th century order in Europe and North America
  • Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911–45 (1970) – Biography of Joseph Stilwell
  • Notes from China (1972) (about Tuchman's own visit there)
  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (1978) – Examines the era of 1340–1400 through political, military, and social lenses, taking nobleman Enguerrand VII de Coucy as its central figure; themes include the folly of chivalry and the tragedy of war
  • Practicing History (1981) – Selected essays, published between 1935 and 1981, on historical writing, political ambition, and the importance of reading history
  • The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984) – A meditation on the historical recurrence of governments pursuing policies evidently contrary to their own interests. In addition to the two historical events referenced in the title, discusses the Popes of the late Renaissance inciting the Protestant rebellion and Great Britain provoking the Americans to revolt
  • The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution (1988) – The title refers to the St. Eustatius "flag incident" of 16 November 1776

Other works

  • America's Security in the 1980s (1982) – Photographed with Laurence Martin for this Christopher Bertram book.[17]
  • The Book: A lecture sponsored by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress and the Authors’ League of America, presented at the Library of Congress October 17, 1979 (1980)[18]


  1. ^ This was the 1980 award for paperback History.
    From 1980 to 1983 in National Book Award history there were dual hardcover and paperback awards in most categories, and multiple nonfiction subcategories. Most of the paperback award-winners were reprints, including this one.


  1. ^ a b Ernest Becker. "The Pulitzer Prizes | General Nonfiction". Retrieved 2012-11-27. 
  2. ^ Tuchman, Practicing History: Selected Essays, page 13.
  3. ^ Douglas Martin, Walden School, At 73, Files for Bankruptcy, The New York Times, June 23, 1987
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Form No. 1: John Loomis Sherman, with aliases". Federal Bureau of Investigation. 17 February 1949. p. 12. Retrieved 2 September 2014. 
  6. ^ Barbara Tuchman Dead at 77; A Pulitzer-Winning Historian. The New York Times, 7 February 1989
  7. ^ "Lester Tuchman, Internist and Professor, 93". New York Times. 1997-12-19. Retrieved 2012-11-27. 
  8. ^ Tuchman, Barbara A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century Alfred A. Knopf New York 1978, p. xviii ISBN 0-394-40026-7
  9. ^ Texas Research Institute of Mental Sciences: Violence and the violent individual: proceedings of the twelfth annual symposium, Texas Research Institute of Mental Sciences, Houston, Texas, November 1–3, 1979. Spectrum Publications, p. 412
  10. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter T" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 25, 2014. 
  11. ^ "1980 National Book Awards Winners and Finalists, The National Book Foundation". Retrieved 2012-11-27. 
  12. ^ "Jefferson Lecture | National Endowment for the Humanities". Retrieved 2012-11-27. 
  13. ^ Tuchman, Practicing History: Selected Essays, page 13.
  14. ^ The Daily Beast, Barbara Tuchman’s ‘The Guns of August’ Is Still WWI’s Peerless Chronicle, James A. Warren, September 29, 2014
  15. ^ Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley Reviews 'The Proud Tower,' by Barbara Tuchman, Jonathan Yardley, March 16, 2009.
  16. ^ Johnson, Paul (May 1984). "Tuchman’s folly". The New Criterion. Retrieved March 25, 2015. 
  17. ^ listing, Alibris, retrieved 2012-11-27 
  18. ^ listing, Libraries Hawai’i, retrieved 2012-11-27 

External links

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