Guns and Distant Mirrors

The Library of America is a series of well-bound hardcover books, presently 222 volumes of writings – fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry, documents – by American authors. It started with a grant from the Ford Foundation in 1982 and has added an average of 7 volumes each year since. I suppose that inclusion of one’s works in the series is a recognition of their eminent or at least important status among American authors.
The latest addition contains Barbara W. Tuchman’s The Guns of August (1962) and The Proud Tower (1966). These works are histories, published in 1962 and 1966 respectively, of the beginning of the First World War and a portrait of the world – the major western powers – during the quarter century leading up to the war. I first read the Proud Tower during my undergraduate studies, and The Guns during my military service in the late ‘60s (I read a lot then, as there was not much else to in rural Korea during winter evenings – no shooting at that particular time).
Tuchman wrote a number of other books on various historical eras and events, before and after the two republished in the Library this month. All are interesting and illuminating, as well as quite readable historical studies. They include The Zimmermann Telegram, which tells the tale of the German government’s clumsy attempt in 1917 to secure an alliance with Mexico should the U. S. enter the war on the side of Britain and France, and thus ensuring that America would; A Distant Mirror (1978), a chronicle of Western Europe – mainly England and France during the turbulent and transitional 14th Century; The March of Folly (1984) in which she compares and relates the series of flawed policies and intractable mis-steps of governing powers to the paradigm myth of ancient Troy. That volume are analyses of the Renaissance Popes’ policies that precipitate the Reformation, the policies of the British Crown and Parliament that lost the North American colonies, and acts of our government those that embroiled the United States in the Vietnam War. Tuchman’s earlier works included Bible and Sword, concerning the Middle East and Palestine up to the late 1930s, a book of monographs Practicing History, which contain essays about her historical method, and includes a narrative of the interesting incident of an American’s kidnapping by Berber bandits in Morocco which prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to issue his ultimatum “Perdicaris alive or Rasuli dead.”
Tuchman graduated from Radcliffe College in 1933 where she majored in history and literature (as I did). She published her first historical work in 1938, but wrote very little history in the 20 or so years after college, and never pursued a graduate degree. She worked as a journalist for awhile in the 1930s, having an entree into that occupation in that her father owned The Nation during that time. That her grandfather and uncle were Henry Morgenthau Senior (ambassador to Turkey under Wilson) and Junior (Secretary of the Treasury under FDR) probably didn’t hurt her career.
Tuchman’s insisted that her research and writing method was to seek detail from which she could formulate broad historical theories, rather than pick a theory and then seek evidence to support it, a method popular among revisionists. Tuchman believed one should look mainly to primary sources, newspapers, correspondence, diaries, public records, and the like, and to concentrate on the point of view of those individuals who were at the center of events or important to the period. Additionally, she maintained that it was important to use examples from the period’s culture – social, artistic, etc.– to better provide context. Consulting contemporaneous fiction and drama is important, not to cite for facts, but for attitudes and for leads to obscure occurrences.
For example, in The Proud Tower, she profiles U.S. House Speaker Thomas Reed, Britain’s last peer Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, German composer Richard Strauss, French socialist Jean Jaures, French officer Alfred Dreyfus, and others. In The Guns of August, she does the same for the participants, some, like Winston Churchill, known to us all, some not.
What was called the “Great War,” which some historians, myself included, regard as but the first phase of a conflict that lasted for nearly the rest of the 20th Century, affected the world in ways that are still with us. This is especially true in the current clash between Islamic civilization and essentially the rest of the word. Tuchman’s Proud Tower and Guns of August both go a long way in explaining how that war came to be. Now that both works are available in a single volume, it would be a good value to anyone interested. There is also a fine review by Bruce Cole in Saturday’s WSJ Weekend  (3/10/12) which can be accessed at this link.
Here are a couple of Barbara Tuchman quotes I consider apropos to our present turbulent time:
“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).’” – From A Distant Mirror.
“Government remains the paramount area of folly because it is there that men seek power over others — only to lose it over themselves.” – From The March of Folly.

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