The Origins and Legacies of World War I
The United States and the League of Nations: 1918-1920
Combatants fight while a war is on. Historians fight about the war when it is over. Few topics have been so fertile in historical disputes as war origins. The most ruthless aggressor likes to claim that he was provoked into war by the other side. No doubt Attila used to grumble that he would have remained a peaceful shepherd in Asia if the Romans had not offended his moral sensibilities by their vulgar luxury. In the nineteenth century, we know, the redskins were always the aggressors, and even General Custer set out on his massacres with the utmost reluctance. The earliest job of the historian was to justify the wars of his chieftain, and most historians have remained true to their assignment. Nearly all school textbooks and most academic historians still conclude that their own nation has been more often right than wrong. If American historians dispute this about themselves, they will endorse it about Russian historians, and the Russians feel the same the other way round.
In recent times, some historians have reacted against this prostitution of their calling and have been prepared at any rate to examine the case for the other side. This broadmindedness is said to be a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon virtue, though French historians have done pretty well against Napoleon and even German historians against Bismarck. Still, it was Anglo-Saxon, and especially American, historians who first took a detached view about the First. World War, and their outlooks have fed controversy to the present day. This impartiality is a difficult operation. Ideally, a historian should write with his eye set on eternity. The reader should not be able to deduce a historian’s nationality, his creed, or even the epoch in which he wrote. This is a counsel of perfection. No historian escapes the climate or the prejudices of his own society. When he tries to do so, he often falls over on to the other side, or seems to do so.
I experienced this myself when I once tried to consider the origins of the Second World War in scholarly detachment. Since I was an active propagandist for opposing Hitler from the day he came to power, it did not occur to me that anyone would see in my book a defense of him and his policy. But so it proved. What had been written as explanation was condemned as apology, and the condemnation was reinforced by personal abuse. (Only the other day, I learned from the American journal Dissent that I had been a member of the notorious Cliveden set—a group of people whom I had never met and often denounced.) I do not mind this from English historians, at any rate when their record is as clean as mine. I take it hardly from Americans, citizens of a country which entered the Second World War only when it was attacked and had no choice. Yet most of this controversy is unnecessary. The origins of the Second World War are clearer than those …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Big Wars and Small Wars March 27, 1969