Best known as a skillful popularizer of history, Barbara Wertheim Tuchman (TUHK-muhn) was a member of a distinguished family. Her maternal grandfather, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., was ambassador to Turkey and later Mexico under President Woodrow Wilson. Her uncle, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., served as secretary of the Treasury under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Her father, Maurice Wertheim, was an international banker, philanthropist, art collector, and sportsman.
In the 1920’s Tuchman spent many summers traveling with her parents in Europe. In 1929 she entered Radcliffe College. Following graduation, she accompanied her grandfather, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., to the World Economic Conference in London. Tuchman began working for the Institute of Pacific Relations in 1933. In 1935 she was sent by the institute to work in Tokyo and returned later in the same year to the United States, where she began working for The Nation. Tuchman traveled to Spain for The Nation in 1937 as a correspondent covering the Spanish Civil War. In 1940 she married Lester R. Tuchman, a physician. During World War II she worked as an editor for the Office of War Information preparing material on the Far East for broadcast in Europe.
As a homemaker and mother of three girls, Tuchman put her career on hold for many years. Joking with a journalist, she referred to herself as a “Park Avenue matron.” She mentioned that it was difficult to find the time and place to write, a problem that she later solved by working in a cabin without a telephone at her country home at Cos Cob in southern Connecticut. Tuchman often said that she was glad she was unencumbered by the Ph.D. She believed that if she had continued in academic work her talents for narrative history would have been “stifled.” Despite the lack of a graduate degree, Tuchman served as president of the Society of American Historians from 1970 to 1973.
Tuchman’s first three best-sellers focus on the World War I era. The first, The Zimmermann Telegram, is a detailed account of the American discovery of the German telegram that offered Mexico the return of territories it lost to the United States if it would enter World War I on the side of Germany. Tuchman’s next book, The Guns of August, concentrates on the opening encounters of World War I and suggests that they foreshadowed the long, drawn-out, and bloody war that followed; a film adaptation of the book was made in 1964. Tuchman followed The Guns of August with The Proud Tower, a portrait of society in Western Europe and America prior to World War I. Aristocrats, anarchists, and artists are depicted in Tuchman’s evocative exploration of a world that has disappeared.
In Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945 Tuchman presents a biography of the American general in charge of advising the Chinese government before and during World War II. Tuchman’s use of Stilwell’s diaries reveals that “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell had both to fight the inertia of Chiang Kai-shek and to keep the Nationalists and Communists fighting the Japanese instead of each other.
Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century shows the effects of the Hundred Years’ War and the bubonic plague on Western Europe. The narrative also traces the life of Enguerrand de Coucy VII, subject...
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