History Is the Unfolding of Miscalculations

Barbara W. Tuchman? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The popular historian Barbara W. Tuchman crafted one or both of the following cautionary adages:

  1. War is the unfolding of miscalculations.
  2. History is the unfolding of miscalculations.

Sometimes the final word is singular. Would you please help me unravel this mystery?

Quote Investigator: In 1971 Tuchman published “Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-45”. She discussed the strategies adopted by Chiang Kai-shek who was the leader of the Kuomintang of China. His overall plans did not succeed, and he retreated to Taiwan in 1949 after suffering defeat on the mainland. Tuchman wrote the following. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

History is the unfolding of miscalculations, and Chiang had made several.

QI has been unable to find solid evidence that Tuchman used the variant expression with “war” instead of “history” although the 1973 citation given further below ascribed the variant to her.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In February 1972 a journalist with the “Independent Press-Telegram” of Long Beach, California wrote about U.S. President Richard Nixon’s upcoming visit to China and the complex connections between the two countries. The article included a version of Tuchman’s remark with the singular word “miscalculation” instead of “miscalculations”: 2

“HISTORY,” says historian Barbara Tuchman, “is the unfolding of miscalculation.” Nowhere is that better born out than our relations with China.

In 1973 Anatole Broyard reviewed an extensively illustrated book with a warfare theme in “The New York Times”. He included a version of Tuchman’s remark with “war” instead of “history”: 3

His dominant motif is Barbara Tuchman’s famous line: “War is the unfolding of miscalculations.” He leaves no doubt that there is even more irony than iron in most wars.

Broyard’s review was printed in other newspapers such as “The Baltimore Sun” of Baltimore, Maryland. Thus, the variant quotation attributed to Tuchman achieved wide circulation. QI does not know where Broyard found the “war” quotation, and he may have constructed it via a faulty memory. 4

In 1980 “Yankee” magazine published an interview with Tuchman, and during the conversation the interviewer mentioned a slight variant of the quotation. Interestingly, Tuchman did not recognize it. Thus, the dialogue highlighted the importance of precisely dated published evidence because even the creators of sayings have imperfect memories: 5

“History is the unfolding of miscalculation,” I quoted.
“Right! Who said that?”
“You did.”
“I did?” she said with surprise. “Did I really? Very good. It is.” She looked pleased with herself.

In 1984 the reference “The Cynic’s Lexicon” included the following confusing entry: 6

1912— American historian
War is the unfolding of miscalculations.
The Guns of August, 1962

QI has carefully examined the book “The Guns of August” by Tuchman, and he has not found the quotation indicated. QI believes that this citation is probably incorrect.

In 1987 “Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations” included the same apparently flawed quotation and attribution: 7

War is the unfolding of miscalculations. Barbara Tuchman

In 1988 James B. Simpson included a correct instance in the “Foreword” of his reference “Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations”: 8

A far more serious quote comes up as I saunter to the post office: Barbara W. Tuchman’s assertion that “history is the unfolding of miscalculations.”

In conclusion, Barbara W. Tuchman should be credited with “History is the unfolding of miscalculations” which she wrote in the 1971 book “Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-45”. Variants have evolved with the singular word “miscalculation” and with “war” substituted for “history”. These variants are currently unsupported.

Tuchman was willing to accept the version with the singular “miscalculation” when she was told it was her expression in 1980. “The Guns of August” citation seems to be a mistake.

Image Notes: The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo circa 1773 from wikiart.org.

(Great thanks to Jonathan Freeman whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Freeman conducted valuable research. He noted that the expression with “war” had appeared in “The New York Times”. He also saw a citation pointing to “The Guns of August” and was unable to find the quotation in that text. Special thanks to the Interlibrary Loan system, and the librarians in Ponte Vedra, Florida; St Augustine, Florida; and Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition, thanks to discussants Donna Halper and John Baker for providing helpful information.)


  1. 1971, Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 by Barbara W. Tuchman (Barbara Wertheim Tuchman), Chapter 6: Vinegar Joe, Quote Page 132, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1972 February 13, Independent Press-Telegram, ‘China experts’ are social lions of day in Washington by Marie Ridder (Press-Telegram Capitol Bureau), Quote Page B10, Column 8, Long Beach, California. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1973 December 3, New York Times, Books of The Times: Through a Lens, Darkly by Anatole Broyard, (Book review of “WAR”: photographs with text by Albert R. Leventhal), Quote Page 37, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)
  4. 1973 December 5, The Baltimore Sun, Books: Irony of war in photographs by Anatole Broyard, (Book review of “WAR”: photographs with text by Albert R. Leventhal), Quote Page B6, Column 3, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1980 August, Yankee, Barbara Tuchman: In Search of Mankind’s Better Moments (Barbara Tuchman interviewed by Tim Clark), Start Page 60, Quote Page 63, Yankee Publishing, Inc., Dublin, New Hampshire. (Verified with scans; thanks to Arkansas State Library, Little Rock, Arkansas)
  6. 1984, The Cynic’s Lexicon by Jonathon Green, Section: Barbara Tuchman, Page 192, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  7. 1987, Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations: Revised and Enlarged, Edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Section: War, Page 360, Barnes & Noble Books, Division of Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  8. 1988, Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations, Compiled by James B. Simpson, Section: Foreword, Quote Page xiii, Column 1, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with hardcopy)