Barbara Tuchman

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Barbara Tuchman with William L. Shirer (left) und John Eisenhower (right) in 1971

Barbara Wertheim Tuchman (January 30, 1912February 6, 1989) was an award-winning American historian and author.


The Guns of August (1962)[edit]

  • Nothing so comforts the military mind as the maxim of a great but dead general.
  • No more distressing moment can ever face a British government than that which requires it to come to a hard and fast and specific decision.
  • Clausewitz, a dead Prussian, and Norman Angell, a living if misunderstood professor, had combined to fasten the short-war concept upon the European mind. Quick, decisive victory was the German orthodoxy;
  • To be right and overruled is not forgiven to persons in responsible positions, and Michel duly paid for his clairvoyance.
  • The impetus of existing plans is always stronger than the impulse to change. The Kaiser could not change Moltke’s plan nor could Kitchener alter Henry Wilson’s nor Lanrezac alter Joffre’s.
  • The British minister, making his own inquiries, was told that if British troops landed before a German invasion or without a formal Belgian request, the Belgians would open fire.
  • Schlieffen’s plan was maintained and Moltke consoled himself with the thought, as he said in 1913, that “We must put aside all commonplaces as to the responsibility of the aggressor.… Success alone justifies war.
  • What made the Schlieffen plan was not Clausewitz and the Battle of Cannae, but the body of accumulated egoism which suckled the German people and created a nation fed on “the desperate delusion of the will that deems itself absolute.
  • I need no Chief,” said the Kaiser; “I can do this for myself.
  • Moltke was aghast. This was the result of leaving that fat idiot in command of the Eighth Army, and of his own ill-considered last words to him.
  • The German obsession had two parts: that Belgian resistance was illegal and that it was organized from “above” by the Belgian government or by burgomasters, priests, and other persons who could be classified as “above.”
  • Officers from St. Cyr went into battle wearing white-plumed shakos and white gloves; it was considered “chic” to die in white gloves.
  • Envy of the older nations gnawed at him. He complained to Theodore Roosevelt that the English nobility on continental tours never visited Berlin but always went to Paris.
  • As early as August 24 Sukhomlinov, the War Minister who had not bothered to build arms factories because he did not believe in firepower, wrote General Yanushkevitch, the beardless Chief of Staff: “In God’s name, issue orders for gathering up the rifles. We have sent 150,000 to the Serbs, our reserves are nearly used up and factory production is feeble.
  • On the same day, the British chiefs were hurrying the BEF southward with such urgency that the soldiers were deprived of the rest they needed far more than they needed distance from the enemy. On that day, August 28, a day when von Kluck’s columns gave them no trouble, Sir John French and Wilson were in such anxiety to hasten the retreat that they ordered transport wagons to “throw overboard all ammunition and other impediments not absolutely required” and carry men instead. Discarding ammunition meant abandoning further battle. As the BEF was not fighting on British soil, its Commander was prepared to pull his forces out of the line regardless of the effect of withdrawal upon his ally. The French Army had lost the opening battle and was in a serious, even desperate, situation in which every division counted to prevent defeat. But it was neither broken through nor enveloped by the enemy; it was fighting hard, and Joffre was exhibiting every intention of fighting further. Nevertheless, Sir John French, succumbing to the belief that the danger was mortal, had determined that the BEF must be preserved from being involved in a French defeat.
  • For a hundred years the Ottoman Empire, called the “Sick Man” of Europe, had been considered moribund by the hovering European powers who were waiting to fall upon the carcass.
  • The cutting off of Russia with all its consequences, the vain and sanguinary tragedy of Gallipoli, the diversion of Allied strength in the campaigns of Mesopotamia, Suez, and Palestine, the ultimate breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the subsequent history of the Middle East, followed from the voyage of the Goeben.
  • At the age of twenty-one, as a second lieutenant just out of St. Cyr, Gallieni had fought at Sedan and been held prisoner for some time in Germany, where he learned the language. He chose to make his further military career in the colonies where France was "growing soldiers."

Stilwell and the American Experience in China (1970)[edit]

  • History is the unfolding of miscalculations.
    • p. 132
  • Whatever the fiasco, aplomb is unbroken. Mistakes, failures, stupidities and other causes of disaster mysteriously vanish. Disasters are recorded with care and pride and become transmuted into things of beauty. Official histories record every move in monumental and infinite detail but the details serve to obscure.
    • Tuchman, on British accounts of Second World War in Burma.
  • Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. UK: Oxford University Press, 1975. p.175
  • on the Bengal Famine Inquiry Commission 1943 in Stevenson, Richard. Bengal Tiger and British Lion: An Account of the Bengal Famine of 1943. United States: iUniverse, 2005.

A Distant Mirror (1978)[edit]

  • 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).

  • Economic man and sensual man are not suppressible.
    • p. xix
  • That conflict between the reach for the divine and the lure of earthly things was to be the central problem of the Middle Ages.
    • p. 6
  • Money was the crux. Raising money to pay the cost of war was to cause more damage to 14th century society than the physical destruction of war itself.
    • p. 81
  • Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut. Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.
    • p. 123
  • Left to face a hungry winter robbed of their hard-earned harvests, the people experienced their own warrior class not as protectors but ravagers.
    • p. 141
  • The system was aided by the Church, whose natural interests allied it more to the great than to the meek.
    • p. 173
  • When commerce with Moslems flourished, zeal for their massacre declined.
    • p. 202
  • In individuals as in nations, contentment is silent, which tends to unbalance the historical record.
    • p. 210
  • Doctrine tied itself into infinite knots over the realities of sex.
    • p. 213
  • When reproached for spending too much time with books and clerks, Charles answered, “As long as knowledge is honored in this country, so long will it prosper.”
    • p. 239
  • Against men habituated to lawless force, violent punishment failed to bring the violence under control.
    • p. 273
  • What counts is not so much the fact as what the public perceives to be the fact.
    • p. 291
  • For most people reform meant relief from ecclesiastical extortions.
    • p. 327
  • Perhaps by this time the 14th century was not quite sane. If enlightened self-interest is the criterion of sanity, in the verdict of Michelet, “no epoch was more naturally mad.”
    • p. 332
  • If all were equalized by death, as the medieval idea constantly emphasized, was it not possible that inequalities on earth were contrary to the will of God?
    • p. 375
  • Business, like a jackal, trotted on the heels of war.
    • p. 389
  • To put on the garment of legitimacy is the first aim of every coup.
    • p. 399
  • The social damage was not in the failure but in the undertaking, which was expensive. The cost of war was the poison running through the 14th century.
    • p. 412
  • For belligerent purposes, the 14th century, like the 20th, commanded a technology more sophisticated than the mental and moral capacity that guided its use.
    • p. 426
  • His (Deschamps’) complaint of court life was the same as is made of government at the top in any age: it was composed of hypocrisy, flattery, lying, paying and betraying; it was where calumny and cupidity reigned, common sense lacked, truth dared not appear, and where to survive one had to be deaf, blind, and dumb.
    • p. 450
  • In the midst of events there is no perspective.
    • p. 454
  • What is government but an arrangement by which the many accept the authority of the few?
    • p. 455
  • To admit error and cut losses is rare among individuals, unknown among states.
    • p. 459
  • Whatever solace the Christian faith could give was balanced by the anxiety it generated.
    • p. 469
  • Voluntary self-directed religion was more dangerous to the Church than any number of infidels.
    • p. 487
  • The real reason for his attitude lay deeper. Essentially, Gloucester and the barons of his party were opposed to peace because they felt war to be their occupation. Behind them were the poorer knights and squires and archers of England, who, unconcerned with rights or wrongs, were “inclined to war such as had been their livelihood.”
    • p. 490
  • If it is not profitable for the common good that authority should be retained, it ought to be relinquished.
    • Jean Gerson, quoted on p. 520
  • Governments do not like to face radical remedies; it is easier to let politics predominate.
    • p. 523
  • Modern historians have suggested that in his last years he (Richard II) was overtaken by mental disease, but that is only a modern view of the malfunction common to 14th century rulers: inability to inhibit impulse.
    • p. 534
  • On being shown a relic said to be a bone of St. Elizabeth, he (Sigismund) turned it over and remarked that it could just as well be that of a dead cobbler.
    • p. 542
  • Chroniclers habitually matched numbers to the awesomeness of the event.
    • p. 554
  • Vainglory, however, no matter how much medieval Christianity insisted it was a sin, is a motor of mankind, no more eradicable than sex. As long as combat was desirable as the source of honor and glory, the knight had no wish to share it with the commoner, even for the sake of success.
    • p. 577
  • The ills and disorders of the 14th century could not be without consequence. Times were to grow worse over the next fifty-odd years until at some imperceptible moment, by the some mysterious chemistry, energies were refreshed, ideas broke out of the mold of the Middle Ages into new realms, and humanity found itself redirected.
    • p. 581
  • As the era of the sword was ending, that of firearms began, in time to allow no lapse in man’s belligerent capacity.
    • p. 585
  • The emphasis on sorcery reflected accusations by the authorities more than it did actual practice. Being threatened, the Church responded by virulent persecution.
    • p. 590
  • The Hundred Years' War, like the crises of the Church in the same period, broke apart medieval unity.
    • p. 594

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