Barbara W. Tuchman Quotes

Barbara Wertheim Tuchman, 1912 – 1989

Born: 30 January 1912, New York City
Died: 6 February 1989, Greenwich, Connecticut

Barbara Wertheim’s father was a wealthy banker and noted philanthropist, her mother was the granddaughter of diplomat Henry Morganthau. She attended Walden School and graduated from Radcliffe in 1933. She spent two years at the Institute of Pacific Relations, including a year at Tokyo. Her father had bought The Nation and she joined the staff as a writer, then covering the Spanish Civil War from Valencia and Madrid. She married Dr Lester Tuchman, an internist, in 1940, worked for the Office of War Information during WW II, then took several years off to raise a family. She had written one book on the history of England and Spain earlier and she began work on Bible and Sword while her daughters were young. To the horror of most professional historians, she went on to write a dozen of the most-readable volumes of history, collecting two Pulitzers and ten honorary doctorates. She felt that most historians were so taken with the details of history that they failed to tell a compelling story that would hold readers’ interest. At the time of her death from complications related to a stroke, her book on the international background of the American Revolution, The First Salute, was on The New York Times best seller list.

Barbara W. Tuchman quotes:

A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by government of policies contrary to their own interests.
    Barbara W. Tuchman – The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984)

A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by government of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any human activity.
    Barbara W. Tuchman – The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984)

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.
    Barbara W. Tuchman – A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)

Books are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.
    Barbara W. Tuchman

Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill.
    Barbara W. Tuchman

Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change, windows on the world and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.
    Barbara W. Tuchman

Character is fate.
    Barbara W. Tuchman

Confronted by menace, or what is perceived as menace, governments will usually attempt to smash it, rarely to examine it, understand it, define it.
    Barbara W. Tuchman – The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984)

Dead battles, like dead generals, hold the military mind in their dead grip and Germans, no less than other peoples, prepare for the last war.
    Barbara W. Tuchman – The Guns of August (1962)

Dead battles, like dead generals, hold the military mind in their dead grip.
    Barbara W. Tuchman – The Guns of August (1962)

Diplomacy means all the wicked devices of the Old World, spheres of influence, balances of power, secret treaties, triple alliances, and, during the interim period, appeasement of Fascism.
    Barbara W. Tuchman

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.
    Barbara W. Tuchman – A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)

Every successful revolution puts on, in time, the robes of the tyrant it has deposed.
    Barbara W. Tuchman

For belligerent purposes, the 14th century, like the 20th, commanded a technology more sophisticated than the mental and moral capacity that guided its use.
    Barbara W. Tuchman – A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)

For me, the card catalog has been a companion all my working life. To leave it is like leaving the house one was brought up in.
    Barbara W. Tuchman

Dead battles, like dead generals, hold the military mind in their dead grip and Germans, no less than other peoples, prepare for the last war.

Barbara W. Tuchman

The Guns of August (1962)
Diplomacy means all the wicked devices of the Old World, spheres of influence, balances of power, secret treaties, triple alliances, and, during the interim period, appeasement of Fascism.

Barbara W. Tuchman
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.

Barbara W. Tuchman

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)
Every successful revolution puts on, in time, the robes of the tyrant it has deposed.

Barbara W. Tuchman

Stillwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945 (1971)
Fateful moments tend to evoke grandeur of speech, especially in French.

Barbara W. Tuchman

The Guns of August (1962)
For belligerent purposes, the 14th century, like the 20th, commanded a technology more sophisticated than the mental and moral capacity that guided its use.

Barbara W. Tuchman

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)
For me, the card catalog has been a companion all my working life. To leave it is like leaving the house one was brought up in.

Barbara W. Tuchman
Government remains the paramount area of folly because it is there that men seek power over others — only to lose it over themselves.

Barbara W. Tuchman

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984)
Had all the world been a school and Wilson its principal, he would have been the greatest statesman in history.

Barbara W. Tuchman

The Zimmermann Telegram ()
Historians who stuff in every item of research they have found, every shoelace and telephone call of a biographical subject, are not doing the hard work of selecting and shaping a readable story.

Barbara W. Tuchman
Honor wears different coats to different eyes.

Barbara W. Tuchman

The Guns of August (1962)
Human behavior is timeless.

Barbara W. Tuchman

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)
Human beings of any age need to approve of themselves; the bad times in history come when they cannot.

Barbara W. Tuchman

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)
I ask myself, have nations ever declined from a loss of moral sense rather than from physical reasons or the pressure of barbarians? I think that they have.

Barbara W. Tuchman

quoted by Bill Moyers in A World of Ideas (1989)
I have always been in a condition in which I cannot not write.

Barbara W. Tuchman

I have always felt like an artist when I work on a book. I see no reason why the word should always be confined to writers of fiction and poetry.

Barbara W. Tuchman
If I had taken a doctoral degree, it would have stifled any writing capacity.

Barbara W. Tuchman
If power corrupts, weakness in the seat of power with its constant necessity of deals and bribes and compromising arrangements, corrupts even more.

Barbara W. Tuchman

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984)
In America, where the electoral process is drowning in commercial techniques of fund-raising and image-making, we may have completed a circle back to a selection process as unconcerned with qualifications as that which made Darius King of Persia…. he whose horse was the first to neigh at sunrise should be King.

Barbara W. Tuchman

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984)
In individuals as in nations, contentment is silent, which tends to unbalance the historical record.

Barbara W. Tuchman

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)
In the United States we have a society pervaded from top to bottom by contempt for the law.

Barbara W. Tuchman

quoted in Newsweek (1976)
It is wiser, I believe, to arrive at theory by way of evidence rather than the other way round … It is more rewarding, in any case, to assemble the facts first and, in the process of arranging them in narrative form, to discover a theory or a historical generalization emerging on its own accord.

Barbara W. Tuchman

Practicing History (1981)
Learning from experience is a faculty almost never practiced.

Barbara W. Tuchman
No more distressing moment can ever face a British government than that which requires it to come to a hard, fast and specific decision.

Barbara W. Tuchman

The Guns of August (1962)
No nation in the world has so many drastic problems squeezed into so small a space, under such urgent pressure of time and heavy burden of history, as Israel.

Barbara W. Tuchman

“Israel: Land of Unlimited Impossibilities” in Saturday Evening Post (1967)
Nothing sickens me more than the closed door of a library.

Barbara W. Tuchman

quoted in The New Yorker (1986)
Nothing so comforts the military mind as the maxim of a great but dead general.

Barbara W. Tuchman

The Guns of August (1962)
Of all the ills that our poor … society is heir to, the focal one, it seems to me, from which so much of our uneasiness and confusion derive, is the absence of standards.

Barbara W. Tuchman
Policy is formed by preconceptions, by long implanted biases. When information is relayed to policy-makers, they respond in terms of what is already inside their heads and consequently make policy less to fit the facts than to fit the notions and intentions formed out of the mental baggage that has accumulated in their minds since childhood.

Barbara W. Tuchman

Practicing History (1981)
Reasonable orders are easy enough to obey; it is capricious, bureaucratic or plain idiotic demands that form the habit of discipline.

Barbara W. Tuchman

Stillwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945 (1971)

Rome had Caesar, a man of remarkable governing talents, although it must be said that a ruler who arouses opponents to resort to assassination is probably not as smart as he ought to be.

Barbara W. Tuchman
Satire is a wrapping of exaggeration around a core of reality.

Barbara W. Tuchman

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)
Strong prejudices in an ill-formed mind are hazardous to government, and when combined with a position of power even more so.

Barbara W. Tuchman

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984)
The appetite for power is old and irrepressible in humankind, and in its action almost always destructive.

Barbara W. Tuchman

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984)
The better part of valor is to spend it learning to live with differences, however hostile, unless and until we can find another planet.

Barbara W. Tuchman

“How We Entered World War I” in The New York Times Magazine (1967)
The conduct of war was so much more interesting than its prevention.

Barbara W. Tuchman

The Proud Tower (1966)
The costliest myth of our time has been the myth of the Communist monolith.

Barbara W. Tuchman

quoted in Foreign Service Bulletin (1973)
The fact of being reported increases the apparent extent of a deplorable development by a factor of ten.

Barbara W. Tuchman

The Atlantic (1973)
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).

Barbara W. Tuchman

“Tuchman’s Law” in A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)
The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

Barbara W. Tuchman

The Guns of August (1962)
The open frontier, the hardships of homesteading from scratch, the wealth of natural resources, the whole vast challenge of a continent waiting to be exploited, combined to produce a prevailing materialism and an American drive bent as much, if not more, on money, property, and power than was true of the Old World from which we had fled.

Barbara W. Tuchman
The poets have familiarized more people with history than have the historians.

Barbara W. Tuchman

“Can History Be Served Up Hot?” in The New York Times Book Review (8 March 1964)
The power to command frequently causes failure to think.

Barbara W. Tuchman
The story and study of the past, both recent and distant, will not reveal the future, but it flashes beacon lights along the way and it is a useful nostrum against despair.

Barbara W. Tuchman

“The Historian’s Opportunity” in Practicing History: Selected Essays (1981)
The unrecorded past is none other than our old friend, the tree in the primeval forest which fell without being heard.

Barbara W. Tuchman

“Can History Be Served Up Hot?” in The New York Times Book Review (8 March 1964)

The writer’s object is—or should be—to hold the reader’s attention.

Barbara W. Tuchman
There is no such thing as a neutral or purely objective historian. Without an opinion a historian woud be simply a ticking clock, and unreadable besides.

Barbara W. Tuchman

“Can History Be Served Up Hot?” in The New York Times Book Review (8 March 1964)
To a historian libraries are food, shelter, and even muse.

Barbara W. Tuchman

“The Houses of Research” in Practicing History (1981)
To a historian libraries are food, shelter, and even muse. They are of two kinds: the library of published material, books, pamphlets, periodicals, and the archive of unpublished papers and documents.

Barbara W. Tuchman

“The Houses of Research” in Practicing History (1981)
To be a bestseller is not necessarily a measure of quality, but it is a measure of communication.

Barbara W. Tuchman

speech (1966)
To put away one’s own original thoughts in order to take up a book is a sin against the Holy Ghost.

Barbara W. Tuchman
To rush in upon an event before its significance has had time to separate from the surrounding circumstances may be enterprising, but is it useful? … The recent prevalence of these hot histories on publishers’ lists raises the question: Should — or perhaps can — history be written while it is still smoking?

Barbara W. Tuchman

“Can History Be Served Up Hot?” in The New York Times Book Review (8 March 1964)
Vainglory, however, no matter how much medieval Christianity insisted it was a sin, is a motor of mankind, no more eradicable than sex.

Barbara W. Tuchman

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)
War is the unfolding of miscalculations.

Barbara W. Tuchman

The Guns of August (1962)
We seem to be afflicted by a widespread and eroding reluctance to take any stand on any values, moral, behavioral or esthetic.

Barbara W. Tuchman
What his imagination is to the poet, facts are to the historian. His exercise of judgment comes in their selection, his art in their arrangement.

Barbara W. Tuchman

“Can History Be Served Up Hot?” in The New York Times Book Review (8 March 1964)
What his imagination is to the poet, facts are to the historian. His exercise of judgment comes in their selection, his art in their arrangement. His method is narrative…. His subject is the story of man’s past. His function is to make it known.

Barbara W. Tuchman

“Can History Be Served Up Hot?” in The New York Times Book Review (8 March 1964)
When the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide, the system breaks down.

Barbara W. Tuchman

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)
Wisdom — meaning judgment acting on experience, common sense, available knowledge, and a decent appreciation of probability.

Barbara W. Tuchman

“An Inquiry Into the Persistence of Unwisdom in Government” in Esquire (May 1980)
Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.

Barbara W. Tuchman

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984)

Words are seductive and dangerous material, to be used with caution.

Barbara W. Tuchman

“History by the Ounce” in Harper’s Magazine (1965)

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