This Day in Jewish History / A Woman Who Unwittingly Taught JFK Strategy Is Born

Barbara Tuchman’s books popularized history and won her two Pulitzers – and convinced a U.S. president that every officer needed to read her.

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January 30, 1912, is the birthdate of the popular historian Barbara Tuchman, whose skill at weaving mountains of facts into an enjoyable narrative helped make many of her books – two of which won Pulitzer Prizes – best-sellers.

She was born Barbara Wertheim, in New York, and both of her parents came from patrician German-Jewish stock. Her father, Maurice Wertheim, was a banker, philanthropist, art collector, and onetime president of the American Jewish Committee.

Her mother, the former Alma Morgenthau, was a singer and music patron, and the granddaughter of Henry Morgenthau, Sr., who had been an American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and to Mexico, and niece to Henry Morgenthau, Jr., who would be secretary of the treasury under Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Barbara began reading history books at age 6, and was much enamored of the “Twins” series of history books by Lucy Fitch Perkins. She attended the progressive, private Walden School in New York, followed by Radcliffe College then the women’s college of Harvard University, graduating in 1933.

In 1934-35, she worked as an intern at the Institute of Pacific Relations in both New York and Tokyo, and helped prepare a handbook of the Pacific region. After her father purchased the bankrupt Nation magazine, Barbara went to work there, starting in the editorial archive before she began writing. By 1937, she had traveled to Spain, where she covered the civil war there for the Nation.

Regardless of Hitler

In 1938, she published her first book, “The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain Since 1700,” and the following year, she married Lester Tuchmann, an internist and medical teacher. When World War II broke out, she recalled years later, her husband declared his opposition to bringing children into the world, whereas his wife argued that “if we waited for the outlook to improve we might wait forever, and if we wanted a child at all we should have it now, regardless of Hitler.” They proceeded to have three daughters.

During the war, Barbara worked for the Office of War Information in New York, while Lester served as a doctor in North Africa.

While she was raising children, Barbara Tuchman’s research and writing moved slowly: She worked on her second book, “Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour,” for six years. It was the only one of her works that dealt even indirectly with Jewish history, although in the mid-1960s she did write a few journalistic articles about Israel, one of which, written in the wake of the Six-Day War, became the foreword of a Fodor’s Guide to the country.

Unwitting counsel to Kennedy

In total, Barbara Tuchman published nine original works, plus a collection of essays. The one that first put her on the map was 1962’s “The Guns of August,” about World War I’s early months, focusing on the sequence of events that inevitably led to a military stalemate that doomed the various players to years of endless killing, with little strategic benefit accruing to either side.

Not only did that book win the Pulitzer (and sit on the Times bestseller list for 42 weeks), but it was read by President John F. Kennedy, who took counsel from it during the tense days of the Cuban missile crisis, and who asked his secretary of the army to assign it for reading to every officer in the corps.

A decade years later, Tuchman won her second Pulitzer for “Stilwell and the American Experience in China,” about American policy in China in the decades before World War II. Other books included two more about the origins of World War I -- “The Zimmermann Telegram” (1958), about a German play to entice the U.S. into the war earlier than it did; and “The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War” – as well as “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century” (1978) and “The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam” (1984).

Barbara Tuchman died after a stroke, on February 6, 1989, at the age of 77.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen