Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

result of our efforts has been to embitter Soviet-American relations, with no corresponding return in terms of influence in Soviet-occupied countries. Then there are the revisionists who attribute American aggressiveness chiefly to a determination to maintain an economic open door everywhere in the world, in order to fend off the periodic depressions to which the American economy seems so vulnerable. But whether revisionists stress moralism or economic expansionism, there is agreement among them that actions by the United States brought on the long, anxious, expensive period of international conflict that we call the Cold War.

In the following review-essay, a young historian, Gar Alperovitz, summarizes the realist-revisionist view of international politics after World War II. Other revisionists, such as William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko, and Lloyd Gardner, would place much stress upon American economic objectives where Alperovitz does not, but much of what Alperovitz argues has the assent of all revisionists. They would agree that the United States came out of the war strong, the USSR weak; that American officials knew this, and were emboldened to adopt a more manipulative, ambitious diplomacy than they might otherwise have considered; that the Cold War started not in 1948 when Russia crushed political democracy in Czechoslovakia, but in 1945 when American policy-makers tried, through diplomatic and economic pressure, to force the Soviets to settle the affairs of eastern and central Europe in ways satisfactory to the West. By 1946 the Soviets were thoroughly alienated and alarmed, and they shifted from an initial postwar moderation and pragmatism to the hard-line brutality and intransigence of 1947-1948 which American politicians pointed to in justifying our own rearmament.

Alperovitz sees all this as an unfortunate mistake on America's part. A wiser policy would have been to concede the existence of a vital Soviet security interest in eastern Europe -- recalling Russia's history of repeated invasions from the West -- and to accept Soviet control of the buffer states rather than risk diplomatic rupture with a great world power. He hints here, and has argued elsewhere, that Franklin Roosevelt would probably have followed a more realistic policy had he lived. The school of revisionists who locate the source of American aggressiveness in the commitment to an economic open door, rather than in a moralistic tendency to exaggerate our responsibilities and capabilities, would think Alperovitz wrong in his belief that a different American policy was possible. For them, the American economic system has produced expansionist pressures since at least the 1880s, and it would be foolish to think that a mere change in political leadership could blunt expansionist pressures so deeply rooted in the social structure.

This is an important disagreement, dividing critics of American foreign policy into those who would get wiser policies through learning the lessons of history and those who think that nothing short of social revolution will bring the desired change. But if revisionists cannot reach anything like a consensus on this, they have certainly created an impressive shelf of scholarship that puts the old orthodoxy on the defensive. It is still possible to believe that America does not bear predominant responsibility for the onset of the Cold War, as one learns from reading Dean Acheson's memoir, Present at the Creation ( 1969), or Herbert Feis's stubbornly orthodox account, From Trust to Terror ( 1969). But so diligent have been the revisionists in piling up evidence of American pugnacity that the burden of proof now seems to rest with yesterday's orthodoxy. The wide acceptance of the revisionist argu

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