It doesn’t matter which Barbara Tuchman book you start with. You wind up reading them all and you wind up knowing a lot more about world history. Her career took off when John F. Kennedy was spotted reading “The Guns of August.”
Here are some of my favorites.
“The First Salute” I discussed in the last entry.
“The Zimmerman Telegram” — in which the Germans, as World War I is raging, secretly offer the Mexicans a chance to get Arizona, New Mexico and Texas back by coming in on their side. Mighty tempting! The British intercept this telegram (or fabricate it, I wouldn’t put it past them) and make it public, causing the American people, neutral up ’til then, to become pissed at the Germans.
“The Guns of August” — in which a dumb German general named (what else?) von Kluck turns his flank to Paris and all the Franch troops hop on taxicabs and catch the Germans in the rear, so to speak, resulting in a great victory in the Battle of the Marne.
In “The Guns of August,” she also explains how von Hindenburg, a German general much smarter than von Kluck, was caught between two Russian armies and defeated one while the other one sat around with their thumbs you know where, and then turned around and defeated the second army, the ones with the stinky thumbs.
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn writes about the same battle, The Battle of Tannenberg, in his book “August 1914.” It turns out that the Russian war minister, in charge of military preparedness, had put the emphasis on cavalry, rather than artillery, and that after the war he retired to Germany where he wrote a biography of his hero, Kaiser Wilhelm.
“The Proud Tower” — in which, among many other things, Mark Twain loses one hundred consecutive poker hands to House Speaker Thomas Reed of Maine. Also the American flag that Johannes de Graff saluted gets planted in conquest for the first time in the Philippines.
“The Distant Mirror” explains the 13th century. “Stilwell and the American Experience in China” explains how “Vinegar Joe” kept trying to get Chiang Kai Shek to fight the Japanese, but Chiang kept giving him the runaround because he was stockpiling all the weapons and supplies and equipment that America was sending to China to use in his post-WWII battle with the communists.
“Japan is a disease of the skin,” Chiang was said to have said. “Communism is a disease of the heart.” He lost the post-war conflict, of course, but this was no surprise to people familiar with “conditions on the ground,” as they say. According to Tuchman, Chiang and the nationalists had never really ruled China. It was more what we now quaintly call a “warlord” type of situation with no real centralized authority.
Some eggheads in the State Department and elsewhere could see that the communists had the only functioning government that was capable of running the country. For this, of course, they were later accused of “losing” China. How careless can you be?
Tuchman gives you these insightful glimpses into the great personalities and the great decisions of history. We find out that when Stilwell left the room, Chiang would tell his aide to open the window “to get rid of the smell of the foreigner.”
And when the French Army in WWI wanted to change the color of the soldiers’ trousers from red (not too smart in the era of machine guns) to some less visible color, one of the deputies in the assembly rose up and called out, “Les pantalons rouge, c’est la France!” Which, roughly translated, means, “Red pants, that’s France!”