The books that change history
FILE - President John F. Kennedy - shown here during his 1961 inaugural address - drew many lessons from reading Barbara Tuchman's "The Guns of August", about the causes of World War I, that served him well during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In February 1962, Barbara Tuchman’s compelling narrative history of the beginning of World War I was published. Entitled “The Guns of August,” it tells how all of Europe was drawn into a war that no one wanted.
As Meredith Hindley explains in the most recent edition of Humanities magazine, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, gave President Kennedy a copy. Fortunately, the president read it, because as George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Just months later, in October, aerial surveillance photos showed missile launch sites for Soviet nuclear weapons under construction in Cuba.
The president and his advisers debated what to do. Total nuclear war and the lives of tens of millions were at stake. Military advisers argued for attacking — either bombing the sites or even invading. The discussion referenced history — what was the best historical analogy for this situation? The Suez Crisis? The Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1956? Kennedy ruled out a surprise bombing of the missile sites because it echoed Japan’s infamous surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. He decided on a naval blockade.
Having recently read Tuchman’s book, Kennedy told several advisers about how each European nation “seemed to tumble into [World War I]. . . through stupidity, individual idiosyncrasies, [miscalculations] misunderstandings, and personal complexes of inferiority” and grandiosity.
From Tuchman’s book, Kennedy learned several things. He learned that he should weigh advice from military experts just as he weighs counsel from other sources. He learned that it’s hard to avoid war if the principal concern is that the enemy not get the jump on you. He learned that he shouldn’t box either the U.S. or the Soviet Union into a corner, but rather give both countries options, ways to resolve the crisis without war. And he learned that he should do everything possible to avoid war. Alluding to Tuchman’s “The Guns of August,” Kennedy said, “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time. The Missiles of October. If anybody is around to write after this, they are going to understand that we made every effort to find peace and every effort to give our adversary room to move.”
We are around, of course, to write and read the history of those events, but we came terrifyingly close to not being.
But “The Guns of August” isn’t the only history-changing book. At the very same time that it was on the New York Times best-seller list, that list also included “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which helped the civil rights movement succeed because it caused millions of whites to see the issues in moral terms. And it included Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”
But it’s worth considering: Is it the books that change history, or the ideas they contain? Or is it, in fact, the people who read them?
Peter A. Gilbert is executive director of The Vermont Humanities Council. This essay was first aired as a commentary on Vermont Public Radio.