Americans are fond of asserting that they saved Europe from tyranny in two world wars. In truth, nations seldom go to war for purely altruistic reasons. In both conflicts, the United States remained technically neutral for more than two years because Americans were reluctant to admit that their interests were threatened. When troops were eventually mobilized, their purpose was to defend America, not to rescue Europe.

This issue of interests nicely links two new books on the origins of the world wars. Both “The Sleepwalkers” and “Those Angry Days ” show how conceptions of national interest eventually led a people to war, convincing them that carnage is justified. Less directly, both books also touch upon the perception of Europe that World War I inspired. As Christopher Clark argues, “The protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.” This perception of Europe as a place of danger convinced Americans that they should remain neutral in 1939, even though their interests were genuinely threatened. Isolationism arose from the assumption that corrupt Europe could be ignored.

The outbreak of World War I is one of history’s most complex problems. Some 25,000 books and articles have been written on the subject, most of them seeking the elusive truth of culpability. This attempt to assign guilt has obstructed understanding because prejudice has polluted reason. In an attempt to separate himself from the mob of blamers, Clark starts from the premise that “the outbreak of war was a tragedy, not a crime.” That approach results in what is easily the best book ever written on this subject. “The Sleepwalkers” is a work of rare beauty that combines meticulous research with sensitive analysis and elegant prose. The enormous weight of its quality inspires amazement and awe.

In addressing the war’s origins, Clark aims not to answer why, but to explain how. The question “Why?”, he feels, leads inevitably to the assignment of guilt, making truth elusive. “The Sleepwalkers” is not an inquisition but an inquest, a calm and reasoned attempt to unravel a complex problem. Along the way, resilient assumptions are discarded: The Serbs were not plucky freedom fighters; Austria-Hungary was not a doomed Empire; Great Britain behaved rather badly. The nation that fares best from this inquest is, ironically, Germany, traditionally the focus of blame. Clark believes that the tendency to condemn German behavior arose from an attempt to simplify the complex. This tendency was evident even while the crisis played out. French, British and Russian assertions about German aggression were “repeated, mantra-like, at every possible opportunity in dispatches, letters and departmental minutes, . . . [merging] to form a new virtual reality, a way of making sense of the world.”

Genuine aggression is, in fact, difficult to find. Every power that went to war in August 1914 did so to defend national interests. “The etiology of this conflict was so complex and strange,” argues Clark, “that it allowed soldiers and civilians in all the belligerent states to be confident that theirs was a war of defence, that their countries had been attacked or provoked by a determined enemy, that their respective governments had made every effort to preserve the peace.” A common feature among these actors was the readiness to contemplate war as a solution to perceived peril. Clark rues the “eloquent silence of those civilian leaders who, in a better world, might have been expected to point out that a war between great powers would be the very worst of things.” Embedded deep within this wonderful book is a tiny fact of superb irony: The car that took the Archduke Franz Ferdinand to a rendezvous with his assassin Gavrilo Princip had no reverse gear. The same could be said of Europe as a whole.

’Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941’ by Lynne Olson (Random House )

“The situation is extraordinary,” Col. Edward House told Woodrow Wilson after visiting Europe in May 1914. “It is militarism run stark mad.” This perception of mad Europe was strengthened after 1918 because the war that was supposedly fought to make the world safe for democracy produced instead a continent torn by fascist tyranny. For many Americans, Europe’s behavior in the interwar period seemed proof enough that their intervention in 1917 had been a mistake and that a second “rescue” mission in 1939 would compound the folly. Isolationists assumed that American economic strength made it possible to ignore Europe. They clashed head-on with Franklin Roosevelt, who understood that an increasingly complex global economy meant that Europe’s problems were also America’s.

The most famous isolationist was Charles Lindbergh. He carried weight for the simple fact that he was an American hero, thus demonstrating that celebrity is no substitute for wisdom. In Lynne Olson’s book, Lindbergh emerges as a pigheaded man unaware of his limitations, a man the columnist Dorothy Thompson called “a sombre cretin . . . without human feeling.” Though he did not understand international relations, that did not stop him from imposing his warped and naive vision of the world on his fellow Americans.

“Those Angry Days” is not, however, simply a hatchet job on Lindbergh. Roosevelt also fares badly. Olson feels that the president was a consensus, not a conviction, politician. While he understood that American interests were threatened from the beginning of the war, his obsession with opinion polls prevented him from providing the leadership the crisis demanded. As a result, the United States went to war by fits and starts; through conniving and manipulation, Roosevelt gradually increased aid to Britain while maintaining the pretense of neutrality. He insisted that Lend-Lease and other measures of assistance were motivated not by altruism, but by the desire to defend American interests. Interventionists of sturdier morality, however, argued that since American aid was proof of American interest, the president should have the courage to commit fully to the fight. Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, attacked the hypocrisy of pandering to isolationism: “I’m saving my scalp/Living high on an Alp/Dear Lindy!/He gave me the notion!”

Lindbergh was undoubtedly the most famous isolationist, but his importance is overstated in “Those Angry Days.” His prominence presumably arises from Olson’s desire to make her story more marketable. As a result, we get a lot of irrelevant tittle-tattle about the Lindbergh family, at the expense of serious analysis of American isolationism. This is a pity, since Olson is a competent historian with the skills of a great storyteller. While “Lindbergh” in the title will undoubtedly lend this book prominence at airport shops, giving the flyer less emphasis would have resulted in a more honest book.

This raises an important issue about the state of history today. Authors like Olson dominate the popular market. While most are accomplished dramatists, they often fall short when it comes to expert analysis. Academic historians, on the other hand, possess the skills to get to the core of a historical problem, but are often unable or unwilling to communicate with readers beyond academia. (I’ve known colleagues who measure the intellectual worth of their books by how few copies are sold.) Clark is that rare breed of academic — one who combines meticulous research with the instinct of a novelist. Academics should take note: Good history can still be a good story.

Gerard DeGroot is professor of history at the University of St Andrews.


How Europe Went to War in 1914

By Christopher Clark

Harper. 697 pp. $29.99


Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941

By Lynne Olson

Random House. 548 pp. $30