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Historiography of the Cold War
Why and how the Cold War ended became the question of the day after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. To people whose lives had long been circumscribed, if not terrified, by Cold War-related events, the remarkable disintegration of the Soviet Union, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and the reunification of Germany signified the end of one era and the beginning of another. Any explanations for the demise of the Cold War depended, of course, upon answers to another fundamental question: Why and how did the Cold War begin?
The fact that for fifty years histories of the Cold War were written from within that war, it has been argued, made perspective hard to achieve. In the post-Cold-War era, it has been possible for the first time to 'step outside' the object of study itself and view the half-century of confrontation between East and West in a more balanced and rational way than has perhaps been feasible before. This process of reassessment has been aided by the opening of archives, most dramatically those in the former Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, that were formerly off-limits to scholars from outside those countries (and to most of those within them) and a parallel, if more limited and less enlightening, release of Cold War information from Western archives. The result has been a process of revision and reassessment of the Cold War reflecting its closure as 'current affairs' and its admission to the category of 'history'. Among the most significant areas to be re-examined by historians in this new climate has been the question of the origins of the Cold War itself; as the 1992 quote from Thomas Paterson with which this paper begins suggests, the ending of the Cold War naturally led many to turn anew to the question of how it began. Related to that question is the issue of what kept it going over five decades of ceaseless confrontation and tension.
The end of the Cold War has freed scholars from the tendency to reflect the ideological divisions underpinning the confrontation in their own work - to seek to attack or to support particular Cold War positions rather than to analyse and understand from a position of impartiality. The ideological nature of Cold War history itself is reflected in the forms the historiography has taken since the late 1940s. As Thomas T. Hammond noted in 1982, the historiography of the origins of the Cold War passed through three chronologically defined and ideologically distinct phases, which can be called 'traditionalist', 'revisionist', and 'post-revisionist'. Each reflected the cultural and political attitudes prevailing in the wider Cold War context of the particular era in which it flourished.
From the end of the Second World War until the mid-1960s the 'traditionalists' held the field with a standpoint that can be summarized as essentially pro-American/pro-Western and anti-Soviet. Essentially, such scholars held the Soviet Union responsible for the onset of the Cold War by undermining the Second World War alliance between East and West, increasing the level of military confrontation between Russia and America, and acting aggressively to promote the imposition and spread of Communism in Europe and elsewhere. It was thus argued that the United States was correct in its policy of containment towards the U.S.S.R. And the Eastern Bloc, and that the American position was essentially a defensive one forced upon it by the hostility and aggression of the Communist East.
The 'traditionalist' position came under increasing assault during the 1960s by 'revisionist' historians who reflected what can be called the ascendant cynicism of the era towards the United States and its values, both within America and abroad. The experience of Vietnam played an important role in promoting a disillusionment with U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy, and a tendency to see the Soviet and American 'empires' as morally comparable. From being perceived as the defender of freedom against Soviet aggression and war-mongering, the United States was increasingly seen as an aggressive imperialist and militarist nation itself, sustaining the Cold War for selfish economic and strategic reasons rather than as a guarantor of liberty in a world threatened by totalitarianism.
During the 1970s, revisionism in turn began to be questioned by historians who argued that to seek to place the blame on one side or the other was misguided, and that explanation of the Cold War's origins was to be found in misunderstanding, miscalculation and miscomprehension between East and West. Such 'post-revisionism' can be understood as an expression of prevailing discontent with rigid ideological positions and tendency to seek for fragmented and contingent rather than cohesive and causal explanations of events.
In this paper, the preceding tripartite categorization is essentially the basis for discussion, with additional attention paid to developments since the end of the Cold War.
The concept of the U.S.S.R. As an aggressive power that had to be contained by the West, led by the U.S.A., crystallized as the dominant influence on U.S. policy making immediately after the end of the Second World War. From favoring a combination of persuasion and enticement as the basis of a continuing workable relationship with the Soviets, the American political and military leadership were increasingly convinced by those who argued for a tougher line in the face of what they saw as endemic Russian hostility and untrustworthiness, and the ultimate Soviet aim of defeating and destroying the capitalist West and establishing global Communism. The leading figures in this respect were George Kennan, Dean Acheson and Averill Harriman, all of whom contributed importantly to the concept of global ideological confrontation that became a foundation of the Cold War.
This interpretation can be found in a number of prominent historians of the 'traditionalist' school during the early Cold War, such as William Hardy McNeill and Herbert Feis, both of whom argue that Stalinist Russia was essentially responsible for the climate of wartime co-operation giving way to one of postwar hostility and suspicion. McNeill and Feis contend that the West could not trust Stalin to co-operate on the vital postwar issues of European and global security, reconstruction and economic co-operation once he broke his promise to ensure popularly-elected governments in Eastern Europe and dragged his heels on issues such as the future of Berlin and the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Austria and Iran. McNeill contends that such Soviet actions doomed any attempt for postwar peaceful cooperation between the U.S.S.R. And the Americans. Wartime unity had been entirely dependent on the existence of a common enemy in the form of Nazi Germany and Stalin's preparedness to summon up traditional Russian nationalism; with Germany defeated and the war over, Stalin reverted to Bolshevik ideology and the basis of the allied coalition crumbled as Soviet actions made clear their intention of tightening their grip on Eastern Europe and expanding their influence elsewhere. For McNeill and Feis, the Cold War was thus inevitable because of the expansionary nature of Soviet Communism, and the United States had no choice but to adopt a strategy of confrontation and containment. Norman Graebner summarized this position, and his generation of historians' essential approval of it, in his 1962 study, Cold War Diplomacy:
Measured by the limits of national power, American foreign policy served the country well during the first fifteen years of the postwar era. United States leadership, both Democratic and Republican, accepted the warning of Winston Churchill that the Soviet Union, heavily armed and traditionally aggressive, posed a danger to Western security. If those who determined national policy never agreed on the character and extent of the Russian threat, they chose to build and maintain the Atlantic Alliance as the surest guarantee against Soviet expansion and the recurrence of war.
A variant of this rather one-sided interpretation places the Cold War in the context of great power rivalry as much as expansionist Communism. Hans Morgenthau's In Defense of the National Interest of 1951 was a pioneering work in this respect, and the thesis was further influentially developed by Martin Herz's 1966 study, Beginnings of the Cold War and Louis Halle's The Cold War as History of 1967. These authors saw the Soviet Union's desire to establish a sphere of influence in Europe, and to exploit it free of external interference, as the key element in the development of Cold War hostilities. This interpretation modified the sometimes unbalanced 'blaming of the Soviets' that characterized McNeill and his followers, but tended to be equally hostile towards the East and equally positive about the importance of the American-led West maintaining a front against Communism.
As early as 1959, the traditionalist thesis was under assault from historians who were sceptical of U.S. leadership in the Cold War world. In that year, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy was published by William Appleman Williams. This work inverts the traditionalist model, arguing that in the postwar years it was the Soviet Union that was flexible and willing to negotiate and the United States that was rigid and doctrinaire, and that it was…[continue]
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