These past two weeks I have been watching the Lynn Novick/Ken Burns documentary abut the Vietnam War. I have a few friends who have been watching as well. Usually in the mornings we email with a few thoughts on the previous night’s episode. For each of us, watching has been draining. Earlier today I was searching the New York Times database for some things relating to the war in 1967. The headlines read like a history lesson. Some of the names I came across in my very cursory search included Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Martin Luther King Jr., Secretary-General of the United Nations U Thant, Charles De Gaulle, William Fullbright, Senator Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee, Averell Harriman, and John Kenneth Galbraith. Needless to say all of these figures are now long gone, though Galbraith did not pass away until 2006.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 President Kennedy turned to historian Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August for inspiration. Five years later, for the 5 March 1967 edition of the Times, Tuchman wrote an extended piece about America’s entry into the First World War. Remember, there were still hundreds of thousands of living doughboys alive at this time just fifty years after Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. I remember seeing historian Gordon Wood on television several years ago expressing his admiration for Tuchman, though he added that she often saw her work as a historian as offering “lessons” for current times. History indeed can offer guidance, but Wood seemed to be arguing that Tuchman thought history offered a stronger template than Wood believes it does.
I knew that Tuchman’s work was often anthologized and so when I showed up at work today I searched the catalog and found a book titled Practicing History: Selected Essays, published by Knopf in 1981. Sure enough, it contains that New York Times article from 1967 that I had come across in the Times database. The anthology also contains a 1966 address to the Chicago Historical Society titled “Is History a Guide to the Future?”, in which she lays out her ideas on that subject. Her thesis, in a nutshell, is that History is more craft than science but that through due diligence it can guide and inform a way forward, at least to a degree. Practicing History includes articles about the Vietnam War that Tuchman wrote for New York Newsday in early March 1968, in the middle of the Tet Offensive; and the New York Times in May 1972. Tuchman advocated for withdrawal and explained ways the United States might have done that. In June 1972 she gave the commencement address at Williams College. Her topic that day was the war. While she was personally against it, she emphasized that people should demonize neither the military nor the soldiers. She explained why the military remained important, even when led poorly by its civilian overlords. She was particularly against the movement underway to ban the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) from college campuses.