Historiography of the Cold War

Historiography of the Cold War

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As soon as the term "Cold War" was popularized to refer to postwar tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, interpreting the course and origins of the conflict became a source of heated controversy among historians, political scientists, and journalists.[1] In particular, historians have sharply disagreed as to who was responsible for the breakdown of Soviet-U.S. relations after the Second World War; and whether the conflict between the two superpowers was inevitable, or could have been avoided.[2] Historians have also disagreed on what exactly the Cold War was, what the sources of the conflict were, and how to disentangle patterns of action and reaction between the two sides.[3]

While the explanations of the origins of the conflict in academic discussions are complex and diverse, several general schools of thought on the subject can be identified. Historians commonly speak of three differing approaches to the study of the Cold War: "orthodox" accounts, "revisionism," and "post-revisionism." Nevertheless, much of the historiography on the Cold War weaves together two or even all three of these broad categories.[4]


Orthodox accounts

The first school of interpretation to emerge in the U.S. was "orthodox". For more than a decade after the end of the Second World War, few U.S. historians challenged the official U.S. interpretation of the beginnings of the Cold War.[2] This "orthodox" school places the responsibility for the Cold War on the Soviet Union and its expansion into Eastern Europe.[5] Thomas A. Bailey, for example, argued in his 1950 America Faces Russia that the breakdown of postwar peace was the result of Soviet expansionism in the immediate postwar years. Bailey argued Stalin violated promises he had made at Yalta, imposed Soviet-dominated regimes on unwilling Eastern European populations, and conspired to spread communism throughout the world.[2] From this view, U.S. officials were forced to respond to Soviet aggression with the Truman Doctrine, plans to contain communist subversion around the world, and the Marshall Plan.

This interpretation has been described as the "official" U.S. version of Cold War history.[5] Although it lost its dominance as a mode of historical thought in academic discussions in 1960s, it continues to be influential.[1]


U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s disillusioned some historians and created a cadre of historians with sympathy towards the Soviet position and antipathy towards American. This group sought to challenge the premises of "containment", and thus with the assumptions of the "orthodox" approach to understanding the Cold War.[2] "Revisionist" accounts emerged in the wake of the Vietnam War, in the context of a larger rethinking of the U.S. role in international affairs, which was seen more in terms of American empire or hegemony.[5]

While the new school of thought spanned many differences among individual scholars, the works comprising it were generally responses in one way or another to William Appleman Williams' landmark 1959 volume, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. Williams challenged the long-held assumptions of "orthodox" accounts, arguing that Americans had always been an empire-building people, even while American leaders denied it.[1]

Following Williams, "revisionist" or left wing writers placed more responsibility for the breakdown of postwar peace on the United States, (overlooking moral objections to the Soviet totalitarian system) citing a range of U.S. efforts to isolate and confront the Soviet Union well before the end of World War II.[5] According to Williams and later "revisionist" / left wing writers, U.S. policymakers shared an overarching concern with maintaining capitalism, which given its superior impact on human welfare in comparison to the soviet system is unsurprising. In order to achieve that objective, they pursued an "open door" policy abroad, aimed at increasing access to foreign markets for U.S. business and agriculture.[1]

"Revisionist" scholars challenged the widely accepted notion that Soviet leaders were committed to postwar "expansionism". They cited evidence that the Soviet Union's occupation of Eastern Europe had a defensive rationale, and that Soviet leaders saw themselves as attempting to avoid encirclement by the United States and its allies.ef name = "Calhoun" /> In this view, the Soviet Union was so weak and devastated after the end of the Second World War as to be unable to pose any serious threat to the United States; moreover, the U.S. maintained a nuclear monopoly until the USSR tested its first atomic bomb in August 1949.[2]. However this thesis, may give little comfort to those enslaved in Eastern Europe by the soviet system, that it was only a "defensive posture".

Revisionist historians have also challenged the assumption that the origins of the Cold War date no further back than the immediate postwar period.[1] Notably, Walter LaFeber, in his landmark study, America, Russia, and the Cold War, first published in 1972, argued that the Cold War had its origins in 19th century conflicts between Russia and America over the opening of East Asia to U.S. trade, markets, and influence.[1] LaFeber argued that the U.S. commitment at the close of World War II to ensuring a world in which every state was open to U.S. influence and trade, underpinned many of the conflicts that triggered the beginning of the Cold War.[2]

Starting with Gar Alperovitz, in his influential Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam (1965), "revisionist" scholars have focused on the U.S. decision to use atomic weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the last days of World War II.[2] In their view, the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, in effect, started the Cold War. According to Alperovitz, the bombs were not used on an already defeated Japan to win the war, but to intimidate the Soviets, signaling that the U.S. would use nuclear weapons to structure a postwar world around U.S. interests as U.S. policymakers saw fit.[1] According to former State Department employee William Blum and others, Japan had tried to surrender for several months, but the U.S. wanted to test nuclear weapons in war and, most importantly, show its power to the Soviet Union.[6][7]

Joyce and new left historian Gabriel Kolko's The Limits of Power: The World and U.S. Foreign Policy, 1945–1954 (1972) has also received considerable attention in the historiography on the Cold War. The Kolkos argued U.S. policy was both reflexively anticommunist and counterrevolutionary. The U.S. was not necessarily fighting Soviet influence, but any form of challenge to the U.S. economic and political prerogatives through either covert or military means.[1] In this sense, the Cold War is less a story of rivalry between two blocs, and more a story of the ways by which the dominant states within each bloc controlled and disciplined their own populations and clients, and about who supported and stood to benefit from increased arms production and political anxiety over a perceived external enemy.[3]


The "revisionist" interpretation produced a critical reaction of its own. In a variety of ways, "post-revisionist" scholarship, before the fall of Communism, challenged earlier works on the origins and course of the Cold War.

During the period, "post-revisionism" challenged the "revisionists" by accepting some of their findings but rejecting most of their key claims.[2] Another current attempted to strike a balance between the "orthodox" and "revisionist" camps, identifying areas of responsibility for the origins of the conflict on both sides.[2] Thomas G. Paterson, in Soviet-American Confrontation (1973), for example, viewed Soviet hostility and U.S. efforts to dominate the postwar world as equally responsible for the Cold War.[2]

The seminal work of this approach was John Lewis Gaddis's The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941–1947 (1972). The account was immediately hailed as the beginning of a new school of thought on the Cold War claiming to synthesize a variety of interpretations.[1] Gaddis then maintained that "neither side can bear sole responsibility for the onset of the Cold War."[2] He did, however, emphasize the constraints imposed on U.S. policymakers due to the complications of domestic politics.[2] Gaddis has, in addition, criticized some "revisionist" scholars, particularly Williams, for failing to understand the role of Soviet policy in the origins of the Cold War.[1]

Out of the "post-revisionist" literature emerged a new area of inquiry that was more sensitive to nuance and interested less in the question of who started the conflict than in offering insight into U.S. and Soviet actions and perspectives. [5] From this perspective, the Cold War was not so much the responsibility of either side, but rather the result of predictable tensions between two world powers that had been suspicious of one another for nearly a century. For example, Ernest May wrote in a 1984 essay:

After the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union were doomed to be antagonists.... There probably was never any real possibility that the post-1945 relationship could be anything but hostility verging on conflict... Traditions, belief systems, propinquity, and convenience ... all combined to stimulate antagonism, and almost no factor operated in either country to hold it back.[8]

From this view of "post-revisionism" emerged a line of inquiry that examines how Cold War actors perceived various events, and the degree of misperception involved in the failure of the two sides to reach common understandings of their wartime alliance and their disputes.[3]

But after the opening of the Soviet Archives, while Gaddis does not hold either side entirely responsible for the onset of the conflict, he has now argued that the Soviets should be held clearly more accountable for the ensuing problems. According to Gaddis, Stalin was in a much better position to compromise than his Western counterparts, given his much broader power within his own regime than Truman, who was often undermined by vociferous political opposition at home. Asking if it were possible to predict that the wartime alliance would fall apart within a matter of months, leaving in its place nearly a half century of cold war, Gaddis wrote in a 1997 essay, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History:[9]

Geography, demography, and tradition contributed to this outcome but did not determine it. It took men, responding unpredictably to circumstances, to forge the chain of causation; and it took [Stalin] in particular, responding predictably to his own authoritarian, paranoid, and narcissistic predisposition, to lock it into place.

For Stalin, Gaddis continues, "World politics was an extension of Soviet politics, which was in turn an extension of Stalin's preferred personal environment: a zero-sum game, in which achieving security for one meant depriving everyone else of it."

See also


  • Ferrell, Robert H. Harry S. Truman and the Cold War Revisionists. (2006). 142 pp. excerpt and text search
  • Fitzpatrick, Sheila. "Russia's Twentieth Century in History and Historiography," The Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol. 46, 2000
  • Gaddis, John Lewis. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy. (1982). online edition
  • Garthoff, Raymond L. "Foreign Intelligence and the Historiography of the Cold War." Journal of Cold War Studies 2004 6(2): 21-56. Issn: 1520-3972 Fulltext: Project Muse
  • Kaplan, Lawrence S. American Historians and the Atlantic Alliance, (1991) online edition
  • Kort, Michael. The Columbia Guide to the Cold War (1998)
  • Matlock, Jack E. "The End of the Cold War" Harvard International Review, Vol. 23 (2001)
  • Olesen, Thorsten B. Ed. The Cold War and the Nordic Countries: Historiography at a Crossroads. Odense: U Southern Denmark Press, 2004. Pp. 194. online review
  • Suri, Jeremi. "Explaining the End of the Cold War: A New Historical Consensus?" Journal of Cold War Studies - Volume 4, Number 4, Fall 2002, pp. 60-92 in Project Muse
  • Trachtenberg, Marc. "The Marshall Plan as Tragedy." Journal of Cold War Studies 2005 7(1): 135-140. Issn: 1520-3972 Fulltext: in Project Muse
  • Walker, J. Samuel. "Historians and Cold War Origins: The New Consensus", in Gerald K. Haines and J. Samuel Walker, eds., American Foreign Relations: A Historiographical Review (1981), 207–236.
  • Westad, Arne Odd, ed. Reviewing the Cold War: Approaches, Interpretations, Theory (2000) essays by scholars
  • Westad, Arne Odd. "The New International History of the Cold War: Three (Possible) Paradigms," Diplomatic History, 2000, Vol. 24 in EBSCO
  • Westad, Odd Arne, ed. Reviewing the Cold War: Approaches, Interpretations, Theory (2000) excerpt and text search
  • White, Timothy J. "Cold War Historiography: New Evidence Behind Traditional Typographies" International Social Science Review, (2000)
  • William, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1958) (1988 edition)
  • Xia, Yafeng. "The Study of Cold War International History in China: A Review of the Last Twenty Years," Journal of Cold War Studies10#1 Winter 2008, pp. 81-115 in Project Muse
    • Redefining the Past: Essays in Diplomatic History in Honor of William Appleman Williams. Lloyd C. Gardner (ed.) (1986)
    • Berger, Henry W. ed. A William Appleman Williams Reader (1992)
  • Gaddis, John Lewis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, (1998) excerpt and text search; also online edition * Gaddis, John Lewis. "The Emerging Post-Revisionist Synthesis on the Origins of the Cold War," Diplomatic History, Summer 1983: 171-190.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Jonathan Nashel, "Cold War (1945–91): Changing Interpretations" The Oxford Companion to American Military History. John Whiteclay Chambers II, ed., Oxford University Press 1999.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Brinkley, Alan (1986). American History: A Survey. New York: McGraw-Hill, pp. 798-799.
  3. ^ a b c Halliday, Fred. "Cold War". The Oxford Companion to the Politics of the World. Oxford University Press Inc., 2001, page 2e.
  4. ^ Peter Byrd, "Cold War" The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics. Ed. Iain McLean and Alistair McMillan. Oxford University Press, 2003.
  5. ^ a b c d e Calhoun, Craig (2002). "Cold War". Dictionary of the Social Sciences. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195123719. http://books.google.com/books?id=SvSZHgAACAAJ&dq=Dictionary+of+the+Social+Sciences. Retrieved 2008-06-16. 
  6. ^ Tim Weiner, "U.S. Spied on its World War II Allies," New York Times, Aug. 11, 1993, p.9
  7. ^ William Blum NEEDLESS SLAUGHTER, USEFUL TERROR www.killinghope.org
  8. ^ Brinkley 1986, p. 799
  9. ^ John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) For free access to the first chapter Gaddis' book online, see [1]

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