A Paragraph by Barbara Tuchman

I bought a box of about forty volumes of American Heritage — bone dry, no mold — for eight dollars. So I’ve been reading about Commodore Vanderbuilt’s two sons, and General Knox’s estate in Thomaston, Maine, as well as an article by Barara Tuchman, written in 1970.

She was by that time established as a preminent historian after John F. Kennedy was seen with a copy of The Guns of August.

Anyway, here is one paragraph from her story about the Japanese invasion of China:

“Determined to make an example of the capital that would bring the war to an end, the Japanese achieved a climax to the carnage already wrought in in the delta below. Fifty thousand soldiers hacked, burned, raped, and murdered until they had killed, by hand and in person, according to the evidence witnesses and collected by missionaries and other foreigners of the International Relief Committee, a total of forty-two thousand civilians in Nanking. Groups of men and women were lined up and machinegunned or use alive for bayonet practice or tied up, doused with kerosene, and set afire while officers looked on. Reports by missionary doctors and others, dazed with horror and helplessness, filled church publications in America. Much of the photographic evidence that later reached newspapers abroad came from snapshots taken by the Japanese themselves which they gave for developing to ordinary camera shops in Shanghai, where copies made their way to the correspondents.”

Not only is this paragraph an extraordinary example of the skill of my favorite historian, it is equaled by the brilliance of the paragraphs around it.

How did the USA react to this news? Were people outraged? Not exactly. Congress immediately took up the Ludlow Resolution, which would have reguired a national referendum before the country could declare war. Think about that. It almost passed.

FDR understood what was happening in China, and wanted to impose an embargo on the Japanese. Not a chance.

“It’s a terrible thing,” he told a friend, “to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead and find no one there.”