Practicing History, by Barbara W. Tuchman

>> Sunday, March 07, 2010

TITLE: Practicing History
AUTHOR: Barbara W. Tuchman

PAGES: 306
PUBLISHER: Macmillan

TYPE: Non Fiction

REASON FOR READING: I've enjoyed many of Tuchman's books, ever since I randomly picked up The Zimmerman Telegram in my high school library.

Practising History is a collection of essays Tuchman published over the years. There's a bit of everything here, from commencement addresses to newspaper articles and editorials, public speeches to book reviews. While some were more interesting than others, and the degree to which they felt dated varied, on the whole, I found the whole collection an excellent, very enjoyable read.

The book is divided into three sections. The first one was the one I found most interesting, called "The Craft". That's Tuchman thinking about how she goes about writing history, what the techniques are, that sort of thing. All essays here were excellent, but I especially liked three. History by the Ounce explored the usefulness of the corroborative detail and the difficulties in choosing exactly what was the most appropriate detail to use in this manner. The Historian as Artist had me nodding all the way through, because it's the very reason I read Tuchman. She's scholarly but beautiful to read. Biography as a Prism of History, meanwhile, was similar in a way to History by the Ounce. In it, she describes how when she's done a biography, it's hasn't been really out of interest in the subject himself, but as a way of saying something about the times he lived in.

"The Yield" was the second section, and contained a selection of articles on either current or very recent affairs, on a host of different subjects. Some were more relevant today than others , but having been written a minimum of 35 years ago, they all very clearly showed the difference between what's considered important at the time and what is destilled by time as key. The ones I liked best here were:

Woodrow Wilson on Freud's Couch, in which Tuchman slices to ribbons a Freudian analysis of the motivations behind some of Wilson's actions. It's easy to forget now, when a Freudian way of looking at things has been pretty much absorbed into our outlook, but the excesses have been rejected, how frustrating it must have been to see everything explained by an absurd reduction to one extremely simplistic cause.

How We Entered World War I: "We" here is the US, and this one was quite illuminating to me. Maybe Americans study this more in detail, but although I knew there had been much resistance there to entering the war, I didn't know the nitty-gritty. Who was for, who was against, and what the arguments were.

Israel's Swift Sword was a celebration of the Israeli Defence Force and its performance in the Six-Days War. I found myself caught up in the worshipful, very passionate mood of the article, and it actually brought a tear to my normally cynical eye. It's easy to forget now that Israel is perceived as the strong one in the area just how precarious and scary their situation must have felt to the early Israelis.

The Assimilationist's Dilemma: Ambassador Morgenthau's Story. A subject I knew nothing about: why some very influential Jews were very definitely not Zionists. As Tuchman describes in an early essay, this says a lot about the spririt of their age.

If Mao Had Come To Washington was something else I knew nothing about, the US's actions in China right before Mao came to power, the missed opportunities and the ways in which one particular man who's the wrong one for his position can have disastrous consequences. This one really clarifies what an essay in the next section (Why Policy-Makers Don't Listen) refers to.

Kissinger: Self-Portrait is a book review of Kissinger's autobiography, and it gave me great pleasure to have her tear down this man I despise. Not very objective, but there you go.

Finally, "Learning From History" was probably the least interesting of the three parts. Some very detailed analysis over the course of the Vietnam war lost me a bit, because it assumed knowledge that her readers would have had at the time, but that I definitely don't.

On the Vietnam area, I thought the most thought-provoking was a commencement address delivered in 1972, The Citizen Versus the Military, in which, in clear frustration, Tuchman castigates liberals for leaving the field in a huff and holding themselves aloft from "them", the military, giving them free rein to do what they want. At one point she basically tells them that rather than chase the ROTC off campus they should all join and then strike. That will bring the (she believed, illegal, unjustified) war to a stop!

Also really interesting were the articles written around the time of the Watergate scandal, arguing for impeachment and for abolishing the presidency. Her arguments do make sense, I have to say!

Finally, I especially liked Why Policy-Makers Don't Listen, which I mentioned above and which analyses why sometimes excellent advice is not listened to, and explains the filters it sometimes goes through, which strip it of its meaning and convincingness.

If you're interested in history, this collection is highly recommended.



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