Good Books: Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August

In 1962, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August was published to immediate acclaim. Causes of the First World War had been debated since 1919, when it ended, but Tuchman boiled it all down to this: the European powers had created an aggessive posture as the best defense and, once that defense was triggered, it could not be stopped. Armies could be mobilized, but not easilly made to stand down; treaties between the great powers were often secret, so that there was no clear understanding in Germany, say, that marching through Belgium would immediately cause England to enter the war; the inflexibility of military plans kept any diplomatic solution from ever having a chance.

Barbara Tuchman. "War is the unfolding of miscalculations." [Bob Child/AP via]

Barbara Tuchman. “War is the unfolding of miscalculations.” [Bob Child/AP via]

In her research, Tuchman quoted the German chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, when asked how the war started, “Ah,” he replied “If only one knew.” One of her readers, President John F. Kennedy, was horrified by those lines. He himself was facing the possibility of nuclear armageddon — during the Berlin Crises of 1961 – 62, he asked a general what would happen if the Soviet Union did not back off. The general replied that he would order a nuclear strike. Kennedy now, for the first time, really understood the stakes in the game he was playing and immediately began removing nuclear capability from the military as a tactic. Now he read Bethmann-Hollweg’s words and said:

If this planet is ever ravaged by nuclear war—if the survivors of that devastation can then endure the fire, poison, chaos and catastrophe—I do not want one of these survivors to ask another, “How did it all happen?” and to receive the incredible reply: “Ah, if only one knew.”

Bethmann-Hollweg at Versailles in 1919. He requested that the Allies try him for war crimes rather than the Kaiser. He died two years later. []

Bethmann-Hollweg at Versailles in 1919. He requested that the Allies try him for war crimes rather than the Kaiser. He died two years later. []

Shortly after, the Cuban Missile Crisis tested Kennedy and his resolve not to allow global catastrophe on his watch. Tuchman was not the only popular writer to impress Kennedy, but she was easilly the best. Her clear and readable account of the war’s beginnings was excellent but her influence on policy-making was exemplary. Unfortunately, policy-makers ignored her later book, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, which described how nations find themselves enmeshed in stupid, self-destructive policies.

Tuchman’s work synthesized research done by others during the previous decades that emphasized the automatic responses of the nations involved when faced with a problem. Previously, most histories had dealt with assigning blame to this or that nation; Tuchman’s book pinned the blame on the system, rather than a specific country. For a while, this concept held primacy, but, slowly and surely, the human need to fix blame re-established itself as the focus of historians.

The first nation to bear the burden of causation was Germany. If Germany had not invaded France via Belgium… Okay, but France was committed to war against Austria, so if that nation had not… And so on. Every country involved, including Russia and England, has been blamed for the First World War, and that multiplicity of blame seems only to strengthen Tuchman’s thesis: once an idiotic hair-trigger policy was generally adopted, it was only a matter of time until someone caused that trigger to be pulled and then all was disaster. My own inclination is, that if a single nation is to be blamed for the war, that nation is Serbia. Which then brings up the question of nationalism, cited by many as a cause of the war, and which was very much in the minds of the Treaty of Versailles drafters, including Woodrow Wilson, who came up with a scheme to prevent future wars of nationalism. Currently, Wilson is thought a fool, and he was certainly foolish in proposing a scheme that involved what we now would call ethnic cleansing, though that fitted the engineer mentality of the best and brightest of his era.

Of course, World War I was only the first act, the second occurred between 1939 – 45. We know that now and that knowledge has kept alive the question of the cause(s) of WWI, which ended the European system inaugurated by the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia and renewed by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, ending one era and beginning another. Perhaps it is a good thing that contemplating this history causes us doubt and confusion, perhaps that provides a lesson to be learned here. And another lesson, as Kennedy put it, people should beware the “stupidity, individual idiosyncrasies, misunderstandings, and personal complexes of inferiority and grandeur” that characterized the leadership of 1914 Europe.



Barbara Tuchman,The Guns of August

On Kennedy and Berlin, see Michael Beschloss, The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Krushchev, 1960-1963




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