Reviewing Barbara W. Tuchman: The Guns of August, The Proud Tower in the Times Literary Supplement recently, Robert Zaretsky noted that one of the ways to assess the aims and success of her 1962 Pulitzer prize–winning book is to consider “its influence on a man whose job it was to respond to present pressures: President Kennedy.”
Much has been made of the influence The Guns of August had on Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis—and for good reason. Kennedy himself made a point of referring repeatedly to the lessons of Tuchman’s book (which had been published just a few months before that fateful October). In the midst of the crisis, he told his brother Bobby: “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [and call it] The Missiles of October.”
Given the passions of the moment, this was a nearly superhuman task. Would someone who had not read the book, or who had not studied history (as Kennedy had at Harvard), have been able to resist the advice of military men like Curtis LeMay, who wanted to evaporate the island with nuclear bombs?
In his memoir Swords Into Ploughshares, General Maxwell Taylor recalled how the book came up during his discussions with the president during the crisis:
An avid reader of history, Kennedy has been greatly impressed by Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, which he often quoted as evidence that the generals are inclined to have a single solution in a crisis and thus tie the hands of the political leaders by leaving them with the choice between doing nothing and accepting an inflexible war plan. As he read Tuchman’s book, it was the rigidity of the mobilization plans both of the Triple Alliance and of the Triple Entente which made it impossible for the diplomats to avert a world war in 1914.
In his review Zaretsky cites the study Ronald Carpenter makes of the influence of Tuchman’s book on Kennedy’s decision making in Rhetoric in Martial Deliberations and Decision Making (2004), in which Carpenter writes:
Tuchman’s goal was to demonstrate how “miscalculations” by European leaders caused utter carnage. Her narrative was framed rhetorically by using August 1914 as a short span of time to signify synecdochically (by a part representing the whole) years of decision making. Moreover, long-term planning was communicated metonymically (by something tangible representing the intangible) by describing vividly the massive howitzers designed by Germany years earlier to be manufactured in time and transported over specially constructed railroad tracks to specific border locations to reduce Belgian forts at the onset of hostilities. To his brother Robert as well as his speechwriter Ted Sorensen, the president had explained how “miscalculation” in October 1962 was a greater danger than in August 1914, and thus when surviving ExCom members convened in 1987 with historians at the Hawk’s Cay Conference in Florida to reevaluate the decision-making process, Sorensen saw fit to restate the analogy between “howitzers and missiles” as a result of Kennedy’s reading of The Guns of August.
Zaretsky notes other correspondences between 1914 and 1962:
There are, to be sure, intriguing parallels between Tuchman’s discussion of the naval blockade successfully implemented by the risk-averse British Admiralty and Kennedy’s equally successful decision to impose a “quarantine” on Cuba. Is it possible that, in the pages of Tuchman’s narrative, Kennedy found a prescription for action?
It is tempting to say he did. As Kennedy told his brother Bobby: “I wish we could send a copy of that book to every Navy officer on every ship right now, but they probably wouldn’t read it.” At the very least, Kennedy’s remark hints at the possibility that a certain kind of historical narrative—faithful to fact and expert at exposition—can serve as a guide for the perplexed. Mostly faithful and always expert, Tuchman told a story about August 1914 that not only made sense for the story unfolding in October 1962, but perhaps also changed the ending.
Sorensen reaffirms the view that the lessons of The Guns of August were much on President Kennedy’s mind when, in his biography of the president, he recalls Kennedy frequently referring to
the 1914 conversation between two German leaders on the origins and expansion of that war, a former chancellor asking “How did it all happen?” and his successor saying , “Ah, if only one knew.” “If this planet,” said President Kennedy, “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.’”