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1912-1989

Barbara Wertheim Tuchman

By Harrison E. Salisbury

From the proud tower of history the work of Barbara Wertheim Tuchman gleams like a beacon cutting the night sky of London during the blitz, picking out bombers in luminous glow and the Spitfires zeroing in on their target. Her pen is sure as a surgeon’s scalpel.

Nowhere lest it be Greece or Rome has the muse of history been better served than in America, and of her handmaidens none more skilled than Barbara Tuchman. She illumined the centuries, picked her way from continent to continent, from age to age, no prospect too daunting, no subject without understanding and, in a cynical time, no problem without its moral lesson.

The role of the historian is not mere technical accuracy. It is teacher and moralist. From the examples of the past it tears away the illusions of the day. In this Barbara Tuchman had no peer. Her standards were impeccable. The mirror she held up reflected reality.

There are two schools of history today, one which writes and one which is bemused by computer-generated statistics. Barbara Tuchman wrote. My God, how she wrote! Who could read the opening lines of The Proud Tower:

“The last government in the western world to possess all the attributes of aristocracy in working condition took office in England in June of 1895. Great Britain was at the zenith of empire…”

And not read swiftly 462 pages to the final words:

“Juares was buried on August 4, the day when the war became general. Overhead the bells he had invoked at Basle tolled for him and all the world: “I summon the living. I mourn the dead. ‘ ”

Perhaps the metaphor of the searchlight is not too apropos for Barbara Tuchman. True she flooded with her intelligence great problems, great crises, great figures of the world. But as Mao Zedong once said of Deng Xiaoping, she was like “a needle wrapped in cotton.” She painted with swift, deft strokes of the miniaturist as well as those of the master of the broad canvas.

Barbara Tuchman wrote history in the great American tradition of Parkman, Turner, Nevins, Commager, Schlesinger, and Woodward. She was of that company but she was more. She broke the bounds of continents and centuries. She caught the spirit of Stilwell in China so exactly that it was hard to believe she had not followed the Burma road over the hump to Kunming and on to Chongqing. She was two years old when Sir Edward Grey mused that the lights were going out all over Europe but she wrote of that terminal moment as if she had stood at his side.

The scope of Barbara Tuchman’s mind had no boundaries. Her first major work resembled a detective story. She pieced out the secret background of a forged diplomatic document in The Zimmerman telegram—a document which caused American diplomacy to stumble in World War I.

To Barbara Tuchman history was interplay of lights and shadows, tragedy and triumph. She presented gripping stories with meticulous scholarship. Twenty-five years after it was buried in the diplomatic files, Barbara Tuchman plucked out a plum—a wartime proposal by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai to come to Washington and talk about setting up a postwar relationship, something like what we had with the Philippines. It never got to Roosevelt before he died. Harry Truman was never told.

She wrote history in the grand manner in a time when clerks were trying to program Clio to a didactic meter. She was dedicated to finding out the truth, finding out why it was the truth and what it meant for the future. Nothing she treated was more dramatic than her study of the medieval plague. She saw the Black Death as a metaphor of the nuclear danger—a civilization living under peril of instant physical annihilation. How did people feel? How did it change their lives?

She studied the parallels between the minds of the decision maker in times past and compared them with the minds and decisions which lay behind the Vietnam War. The parallelity was founded, she felt certain, on ignorance and prejudice.

Barbara Tuchman was much more than a great historian. She was a warm, vibrant human being with a sense of responsibility to her age and society. She went out to the scene and looked. She shed her intelligence and her concern on causes to which she was dedicated—scholarship, the arts, writing, literature. She was a woman who possessed a quality which is more rare than we think—the quality of friendship. She made friends and kept them for life. Peoples’ eyes lighted up at the mention of her name, they were excited by her presence. She participated in the world. Stupid statesmen mad her angry in a quiet, almost choked way. She hesitated for words strong enough to express her feelings yet not too strong to offend her sense of propriety. She was a loving, responsible wife and mother.

She made a great contribution to this institution which she headed and to which she lent many hours of valuable time. She was thoughtful about preserving its traditions and enthusiastically open to innovation and improvement. She was not a passive person. In politics she cut through murky words and muddy thoughts with the precision of her historian’s professionalism. She knew bunk when she heard it. We will not see her like again.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters