Looking Back: The Cold War in Retrospect

By Garthoff, Raymond L. | Brookings Review, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Looking Back: The Cold War in Retrospect


Garthoff, Raymond L., Brookings Review


The Soviet Union and the United States waged the Cold War in the belief that confrontation was unavoidable, that it was imposed by history. Soviet leaders were convinced that communism would ultimately triumph in the world and that the Soviet Union was the vanguard socialist-communist state. They were also convinced that the Western "imperialist" powers were historically bound to pursue a hostile course against them. For their part, American and other Western leaders assumed that the Soviet Union was determined to enhance its power and to pursue expansionist policies by all expedient means to achieve a Soviet-led communist world. Each side thought that it was compelled by the very existence of the other to engage in zero-sum competition, and each saw the unfolding history of the Cold War as confirming its views.

The prevailing Western view was wrong in attributing a master plan to the Kremlin, in believing that communist ideology impelled Soviet leaders to expand their power, in exaggerating communist abilities to subvert a Free World, and in thinking that Soviet officials viewed military power as an ultimate recourse. But the West was not wrong in believing that Soviet leaders were committed to a historically driven struggle between two worlds until, in the end, theirs would triumph. To be sure, other motivations and interests, including national aims, institutional interests, and even personal psychological considerations, played a part. These influences, however, tended to enhance the ideological framework rather than weaken it. Moreover, the actions of each side were sufficiently consistent with the ideological expectations of the other side to sustain their respective worldviews for many years.

Ideology and Geopolitics

Within that ideological framework, the Americans and the Soviets carried on the Cold War as a geopolitical struggle, based more realistically on traditional balance-of-power politics than on world class struggle or global containment and deterrence theory. If ideology alone had driven the superpowers, the Cold War would be seen as arising from the October Revolution of 1917 rather than from the ashes of World War II. But in 1917 and during the next 25 years the Soviet Union was relatively weak and only one of several great powers in a multipolar world. By the end of World War II, however, Germany and Japan had been crushed, Britain, France, and China were weakened, and the Soviet Union, even though much weaker than the United States, seemed to pose an unprecedented threat by virtue of its massive armies and their presence deep in Central Europe. Under these circumstances, Josef Stalin's reassertion in 1946 and 1947 of the division of the world into two contending camps seemed more valid and more threatening than ever before.

Thus charged by geopolitical circumstances, a Manichean communist worldview spawned a Manichean anticommunist worldview. Each side imputed unlimited objectives, ultimately world domination, to the other. Each side looked to realize its ambitions (or its historical destiny) over the long term and thus posited an indefinite period of conflict. But even though both sides envisioned a conflict of indefinite duration, and even though policy decisions were pragmatic and based on calculation of risk, cost, and gain, the hazard of a miscalculation always existed. And that could be fatally dangerous, given the historical coincidence of the Cold War and the first half-century of the nuclear age. Nuclear weapons, by threatening the existence of world civilization, added significantly to the tension of the epoch; the stakes were utterly without precedent and beyond full comprehension.

Nuclear weapons also helped to keep the Cold War cold, to prevent a third world war in the 20th century. Nonetheless, in the final analysis and despite their awesome power, nuclear weapons did not cause, prevent, or end the Cold War, which would have been waged even had such weapons never existed. …

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