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Practicing History Selected Essays

Synopsis Celebrated for bringing a personal touch to history in her Pulitzer Prize winning epic The Guns of August and other classic books Barbara W Tuchman reflects on world events and the historian's craft in these perceptive essential essays From thoughtful pieces on the h. Listened to this but it was probably better suited to reading in print Barbara Tuchman was perhaps the David McCullough of the past generation a self trained historian who wrote excellent best selling histories twice won Pulitzer I vaguely remember reading The Guns of August and A Distant Mirror back in the late 1970s She compiled this collection late in her career almost all the pieces had been published previously The first section The Craft of History is top notch I of course particularly enjoyed the essay on The Houses of Research She emphasizes the use of primary sources staying focused on the narrative and how publishing is changing as self help and business books take over the non fiction best seller lists I still found the second two sections interesting but they were rather dated as she looks at the events from the era she has lived through and is living in such as Vietnam her perspective shows her to be very much a woman of her times I am thinking of revisiting A Distant Mirror somehow it seems suited for this moment in time

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Istorian's role to striking insights into America's past and present to trenchant observations on the international scene Barbara W Tuchman looks at history in a uniue way and draws lessons from what she sees Spanning than four decades of writing in The New York Times Magazin. I ran across an old audio cassette version of this book not long ago and although it didn t have all the essays included in the book it was enough to get me started I also had a copy on my shelves and so I read the remainder about as much cut from the audio as it included and felt that the best may have been left off the cassettesThe book is divided into thirds The Craft The Yield and Learning From History The Craft was included in its entirety in the audio edition which makes sense as it seems to encapsulate the idea behind Practicing History I enjoyed it for Tuchman s reflections on how she understands the historian s role and comments about her own past work but it didn t have that same attraction for me as her work itself None of The Yield was included in the audio version though here is where I felt were the best essays Not all of them but there were three that I felt were particularly enjoyable and were Tuchman doing what she did best making a historical event feel immediate and even suspenseful Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead was the best of these I thought and though I can t be absolutely sure I believe this incident with a lot of alterations was the basis for the film The Wind and the Lion edit a uick check of Wikipedia confirms it How We Entered World War I was also excellent and better than its title Lastly If Mao Had Come to Washington is than just a what if scenario and an interesting examination of America s China policy in the closing years of WWIIThe last section Learning From History is somewhat meta ironic now reading it now we see how someone from fifty years ago applied the knowledge gained in her previous fifty years to judge then current situations that we see as historical fodder useful perhaps for learning how to assess our times If I say it s dated I mean it in the sense that Vietnam and Watergate do not have the pressing concerns for us that they did for Tuchman at the time of writing but the larger point is about drawing lessons from the past to guide the present which is something that within reason shouldn t go out of style On the other hand reading then current opinion pieces on Nixon and Vietnam can be somewhat tedious today Or not I suppose depending on your outlook If you don t find that sort of thing tedious then I think that would swing this collection of essays to a definite to read position for you For me I m almost of a mind to keep the collection for the three pieces I mentioned in the middle of the book but I m afraid my shelf space is too valuable real estate Her Guns of August will always have a place though Red Tail (Travis Trilogy years of WWIIThe last section Learning From History is somewhat meta ironic now reading it now we see how someone from fifty Promises in Tumble Creek years ago applied the knowledge gained in her previous fifty Mischief and Marriage years to judge then current situations that we see as historical fodder useful perhaps for learning how to assess our times If I say it s dated I mean it in the sense that Vietnam and Watergate do not have the pressing concerns for us that they did for Tuchman at the time of writing but the larger point is about drawing lessons from the past to guide the present which is something that within reason shouldn t go out of style On the other hand reading then current opinion pieces on Nixon and Vietnam can be somewhat tedious today Or not I suppose depending on Blackmailed Into the Greek Tycoons Bed (International Billionaires, you don t find that sort of thing tedious then I think that would swing this collection of essays to a definite to read position for Her Husbands Christmas Bargain you For me I m almost of a mind to keep the collection for the three pieces I mentioned in the middle of the book but I m afraid my shelf space is too valuable real estate Her Guns of August will always have a place though

Barbara W. Tuchman ´ 5 characters

E The Atlantic Foreign Affairs Harper's The Nation and The Saturday Evening Post Tuchman weighs in on a range of eclectic topics from Israel and Mao Tse tung to a Freudian reading of Woodrow Wilson This is a splendid body of work the story of a lifetime spent practicing histo. Her 1981 book of essays Most interesting to me were her Watergate era thoughts on the Presidency how it s become too powerful too much for one person The Bush years would have blown her mind Thinking there s an essay in there I died inside a little when I saw her uoted in Natl Review on Google I suppose she s well worth stealing as Orwell said of Dickens Don t look up so much material a newspaper editor said You can turn out the job much faster if you don t know too much If they wanted to control the officer corps I suggested they should join the ROTC and then strike Distributed by a newspaper syndicate this speech was widely reprinted besides as I later learned causing an irate alumnus of Williams to file a complaint about me with the FBICatherine Drinker Bowen has said that she writes her books with a sign pinned up over her desk asking Will the reader turn the page The nearest anyone has come to explaining history is I think Leon Trotsky who both made history and wrote it Cause in history he said refracts itself through a natural selection of accidents The one ponders that statement the truth one findsOf all the historian s instruments belief in the grandeur of his theme is the most compelling Parkman in his preface to Montcalm and Wolfe describes his subject the Seven Years War in the American theater as the most momentous and far reaching uestion ever brought to issue on this continent Its outcome determined that there would be an American Revolution With it began a new chapter in the annals of the world That is the way an author should feel about his subject It ensures that no reader can put the book downWhat writing history reuires is simply the courage and self confidence to make choices and above all to leave things outThis is a freuent problem in military history One always knows the result of a battle the difficulty is in reconstructing the course of events during it It is only when the time comes to write the narrative that you discover that you really don t know what went on I had that problem with the loss of Alsace in August 1914 In that case I never did find out enough to make it clear in my own mind I faked it but nobody noticedthe press might do well never to publish anything its reporters have not personally witnessedCommuniu s have about as much relation to what actually happens as astrology has to the real science of the starsAs Robert Frost said The artist needs only a sample A portraitist does not achieve a likeness by giving sleeve buttons and shoelaces eual value to mouth and eyesI like this vacuum this miracle this great floating monument of work that has no explanation at all about Shakespeare Ah Mr President why have such a beautiful action marred by any taint of legality TR Attorney General Philander C Knox It is curious how a precise impropriety hits the public John Hay TR secretary of stateSuch was his zeal that he Eichmann learned Hebrew and Yiddish the better to deal with the victimsEichmann was an extraordinary not an ordinary man whose record is hardly one of the banality of evil For the author of that ineffable phrase as applied to the murder of six million to have been so taken in by Eichmann s version of himself as just a routine civil servant obeying orders is one of the puzzles of modern journalism From a presumed historian it is inexplicable Any historian with even the most elementary training knows enough to approach his source on the watch for concealment distortion or the outright lie To transfer this caution to live history that is to journalism should be instinctive That he was just an ordinary man a banal figure was of course precisely Eichmann s defense his assumed pose desperately maintained throughout his interrogation and trial It was the crux of his lawyer s plea Hannah Arendt s acceptance of it at face value suggests either a remarkable na vet or else a conscious desire to support Eichmann s defense which is even remarkable Since simple caution warns against ascribing na vet to the formidable Miss Arendt one is left with the unhappy alternativeThe Jews became in the process a reminder of Arab failingsTerritory lost through the fortunes of war is a commonplace of history What is Texas but 267339 suare miles of Mexico settled by Americans and then forcibly declared independentIsrael is not an affluent society it is hard working with the six day week still in force Until last March Israel had no television This circumstance grew from the strong puritan strain of the early settlers who were founders of Histadrut the labor federation and of the kibbutzim Although the kibbutz system of communal ownership is neither predominant nor spreading the influence of its people is out of proportion to their numbers because they came early were self motivated and to survive at all had to have vigor and grit Kibbutz members in government took the view violently disputed that TV would distract from work disrupt family life and intensify economic and class differences between settled residents and the newcomers who could not afford to buy television sets Besides it would cost money and the government had none to spare on a luxury The awkward result is that anyone who buys a TV set and that includes a large number of Arab citizens tunes in Cairo or Beirut Since last March educational television is being triedScandinavian refugees from too much welfareTimna Copper Mines the former mines of King Solomon unexploited under the Turks or the British Mandate and now restored to production by Solomon s descendantsIf Mao Had Come to Washington He Chou wanted to in 1945 while WW2 was still going on Chiang was in powerWith prestige and power enhanced by an American connection the Communists rise and the Kuomintang s demise both by then inevitable would have been accelerated Three years of civil war in a country desperately weary of war and misgovernment might have been if not entirely averted certainly curtailed The United States guiltless of prolonging the civil war by consistently aiding the certain loser would not then have aroused the profound antagonism of the ultimate winner This antagonism would not then have been expressed in the arrest beating and in some cases imprisonment and deportation of American consular officials the seizure of our consulate in Mukden and other harassments and these acts in turn might not then have decided us in anger against recognition of the Communist government If in the absence of ill feeling we had established relations on some level with the People s Republic permitting communication in a crisis and if the Chinese had not been moved by hate and suspicion of us to make common cause with the Soviet Union it is conceivable that there might have been no Korean War with all its evil conseuences From that war arose the twin specters of an expansionist Chinese communism and in indivisible Sino Soviet partnership Without these two concepts to addle statesmen and nourish demagogues our history our present and our future would have been different We might not have come to VietnamThey knew that time was working in their favor that the mandate of heaven was slowly and irresistibly shiftinghistory is not law abiding and orderly and will often respond to a breeze as carelessly as a leaf upon a lake There is very little difference if any Ambassador Patrick J Hurley reported between the avowed principles of the Kuomintang and the Communists both are striving for democratic principles This may well be the least sophisticated statement ever made by an American ambassador It reflects the characteristic American refusal to recognize the existence of fundamental divergence hence the American assumption that there is nothing that cannot be negotiatedHurley grew increasingly erratic and disturbed and suddenly resigned in November 1945 with a famous blast the first salvo of McCarthyism His mission had been thwarted he claimed by a section of the State Department which was endeavoring to support Communism generally as well as specifically in China Fear of communism lay very close beneath the skin so close that in his final speech of the campaign of 1944 Governor Dewey the Republican candidate charged that Communists as a small disciplined minority acting through Sidney Hillman had seized control of the American labor movement and noware seizing control of the New Deal through which they aim to control the government of the United States Roosevelt said this disciplined and respectable lawyer had auctioned control of the Democratic Party to the highest bidder ie Hillman and Earl Browder in order to perpetuate himself in office Through him communism would destroy liberties religion and private property If a man like Dewey could resort to the tactics of the enormous lie and to a charge as reckless as any in the history of political campaigning Roosevelt was politician enough to know how little would be needed to revive itwe could have adopted the British attitude described by Sir John Keswick as one of slightly perplexed resignation I personally do not remember anything very significant about Zionist leader Stephen Wise except that he was rather frightening He wore an enormous black hat and I think a black cloak and when we met him on the way to school on Central Park West near his synagogue he used to sweep off the hat with a bow to a child of about eight and say in his booming voice Good morning Miss Wertheem a way in which no one else pronounced the nameKissinger Self Portrait Seems to be a review of his first volume of memoirs though no title or other publishing info is given 1979For example out of the blue in August 1969 a Soviet Embassy official asked a State Department official at lunch what would be the United States reaction to to a Soviet attack on Chinese nuclear facilities Mr Nixon s speechwriting staff had a specialist for every tone the President wished to adopt In 1969 China had only one ambassador serving abroad in Cairo Through names presented privately by Kissinger to Ambassador Anatoly I Dobrynin the release of 550 out of 800 hardship cases of Soviet Jews was obtained over a period of time On a presidential journey every member of the official party is given a little book listing every event and movement timed to the minute together with charts showing where everyone is to standthe papal audience during which smoke suddenly poured from the garments of Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird in response to Kissinger s suggestion that he dispose of his cigar he had concealed it alive in his suit pocketDean Acheson asked why a meeting of senior advisers lasted so long replied We are all old and we are all elouent Kissinger the sardonic gentleman who once on being thanked by an effusive well wisher for saving the world is reputed to have replied You re welcome Apropos of the low protocol rank of his office which seated him far below the salt at official dinners I spent much time calculating the distance separating me from the Presidential person and the odds on my reaching the car before the Presidential limousine pulled out Who can envy the life of officialdom weighed down by these concernsWe have come a long way from the election of 1888 when the British Ambassador to the United States advised a correspondent in a private letter to vote for Grover Cleveland and on this being leaked to the press the Ambassador s recall was demanded for interference in American politicsIn the end Christmas bombing and all after four years talk at a cost of nineteen thousand American lives and untold lives and destruction in Vietnam the terms obtained were no better than might have been obtained at the start The four years of additional death and devastation were a wasteKissinger complains that we faced a constant credibility gap at home and that he could have succeeded if the public had trusted our goals but he never traces any connection between the public s lack of trust and the acts and policies of the administration he represented He has no inkling of the concomitant damage that the cost of playing tough may come too high that a foreign policy that alienates one s countrymen and causes dislike and distrust of government is not worth what it might gain against the adversary that a nation s strength lies ultimately in its self esteem and confidence in what is right and that whatever damages these damages the nationMankind s Better MomentsI remembered this essay from 1980 and the main reason I bought the book was to reread it I need a hit of optimism every now and thenConsider how the Dutch accomplished the miracle of making land out of sea By progressive enclosure of the Zuider Zee over the last sixty years they have added half a million acres to their country enlarging its area by eight percent and providing homes farms and towns for close to a uarter of a million people The will to do the impossible the spirit of can do that overtakes our species every now and then was never manifest than in this earth altering act by the smallest of the major European nationsToday the Afsluitdijk or Zuider Zee road is a normal thoroughfare To drive across it between the sullen ocean on one side and new land on the other is for that moment to feel optimism for the human raceGreat endeavor reuires vision and some kind of compelling impulse not necessarily practical as in the case of the Dutch but sometimes less definable exalted as is the case of the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages The architectural explosion that produced this multitude of soaring vaults arched ribbed pierced with jeweled light studded with thousands of figures of the stone carver s art represents in size splendor and numbers one of the great permanent artistic achievements of human hands What accounts for it Not religious fervor alone but the zeal of a dynamic age a desire to outdo an ambition for the biggest and the best Only the general will shared by nobles merchants guilds artisans and commoners could command the resources and labor to sustain so great an undertaking Each group contributed donations especially the magnates of commerce who felt relieved thereby from the guilt of money making Voluntary work programs involved all classes Who has ever seen or heard tell in times past wrote an observer that powerful princes of the world that men brought up in honors and wealth that nobles men and women have bent their haughty necks to the harness of carts and like beasts of burden have dragged to the abode of Christ these wagons loaded with wines grains oil stones timber and all that is necessary for the construction of the church A grand vision but as I type it I feel my skepticism kick in about that voluntary The placing of Greek temples like the Temple of Poseidon on the promontory at Sunion outlined against the piercing blue of the Aegean Sea Poseidon s home the majesty of Michelangelo s sculptured figures in stone Shakespeare s command of language and knowledge of the human soul the intricate order of Bach the enchantment of Mozart the purity of Chinese monochrome pottery with its lovely names celadon oxblood peach blossom clair de lune the exuberance of Tiepolo s ceilings where without picture frames to limit movement a whole world in exuisitely beautiful colors lives and moves in the sky the prose and poetry of all the writers from Homer to Cervantes to Jane Austen and John Keats to Dostoevski and Chekhov who made all these things We our species didThere was a springtime in the eighteenth century when through knowledge and reason everything seemed possible when reason was expected to break through fog and man armed with knowledge and reason would be able at last to control his own fate and construct a good societyTo me it is comforting rather than otherwise to feel that history is determined by the illogical human record and not by large immutable scientific laws beyond our power to deflectHad Cleopatra s nose been shorter said Pascal the whole aspect of the world would have been changedI do not know of an original idea to have importantly affected the modern world which has come from Asia or Africa except perhaps for Gandhi s concept of non violent resistance or civil disobedience and after all Thoreau had the same idea earlier She s writing in 1966 here it is your moment of Zen Vietnam When Why and How to Get Out1968On February 23 the Wall Street Journal which is not committed to any position except one of hardheaded realism acknowledged that the logic of the battlefield suggests that the US could be forced out of an untenable position and that this country should be prepared for the bitter taste of a defeat beyond America s power to prevent If China has not become the tool of Russia why should North Vietnam become the tool of ChinaCoalition in Vietnam Not Worth One More Life1972in one moment of transitory agreement Chiang and Mao were photographed across a table raising their glasses to each other with cordial smiles of an old hateTo walk out of Vietnam might still be done with dignity Let us forgo for a little while further talk of honorThe Citizen Versus the MilitaryPerhaps if there had been college bastards instead of Calleys there might have been mutinies or sitdowns instead of My Lais certainly a preferable alternativeProbably if we had a woman in the White House and a majority of females in Congress we could be out of Vietnam yesterdayIf the college educated youths become the reserve officers upon whom the Army depends then they are in a position to exert influence That is the place to pull a strike If all reserve officers walked out the Army could not moveTo serve the state is what the Constitution meant not as the Gun Lobby pretends the right to keep a pistol under your pillow and shoot at whomever you want toWhen fighting reaches the classic formula recently voiced by a soldier in the act of setting fire to a hamlet in Vietnam We must destroy it in order to save it one must go further than duty and honor and ask Where is common sense


10 thoughts on “Practicing History Selected Essays

  1. says:

    I'm somewhat new to Tuchman having read only The Guns of August and this 1981 compilation of essays and speeches ranging from the 1930s to the 1970s By far the most interesting pieces are in the first section The Craft where she discusses her habits of research and writing Among her pointers use primary sources only; and edit ruthlessly Resist including some irresistible anecdote if it doesn't help or advance your narra

  2. says:

    I started out loving Barbara Tuchman's book of essays The first eight essays on the craft of writing history sent me over the moon My ardor went down just a degree or two in the next section which might be described as history in smal

  3. says:

    Listened to this but it was probably better suited to reading in print Barbara Tuchman was perhaps the David McCullough of the past generation

  4. says:

    They say you should never meet your heroes Also you probably should never read essays by your favorite historian at least if you care to maintain your high opinion of their insight This was a disillusioning read primarily because it so clear

  5. says:

    I ran across an old audio cassette version of this book not long ago and although it didn't have all the essays

  6. says:

    I very much enjoyed this book Tuchman is definitely from a different era and writes about looking back to refined language while grappling with issues of whether or not to include vulgarity if it's part of the character of an historical figure She also writes with the racism that was common to her class and era

  7. says:

    The first portion of the book is about the author's philosophy and methods for writing popular narrative histories It's well worth a read by anyone who has any interest in the subject The rest of the book is assorted articles All are at least 40 years old and didn't age well and in the light of hindsight didn't come true Tuchman was a product of the earlier 20th century and died before the end of the Cold War this is o

  8. says:

    One of the fun parts of Goodread is finding books that I have not read by authors I likeor in this case love If you are not a historian and wonder what all the fuss about the subject it I suggest you read one of her books If you are a historian than by all means read all of her books and find out how to write about the subject

  9. says:

    Her 1981 book of essays Most interesting to me were her Watergate era thoughts on the Presidency how it’s become too powerful too m

  10. says:

    I’ve appreciated Tuchman’s history writing and visiting these essays than 30 years after they were written is fascinating Some of them are just curmudgeonly and out of date Some of the discussion of how to write good history really stands up to time Her opinions on the Vietnam War and Nixon are primary sources of their own for the time Her discussion of the problems with the US presidency ring really true in the time of Trump

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