Starting the Cold War

By Roberts, Geoffrey | History Review, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Starting the Cold War


Roberts, Geoffrey, History Review


Historians and the Cold War

The term `cold war' first came into currency in 1947. It was used to denote a sharp and unexpected deterioration in postwar relations between the Soviet Union and the United States. In 1945 the USA and the USSR -- the two main victors of the Second World War -- had proclaimed their commitment to postwar unity and co-operation. But by the end of 1947 this public harmony had been replaced by mutual recrimination about who was to blame for the postwar breakup of the allied coalition that had defeated Hitler, Each side blamed the other for generating the political, ideological, and military rivalry that divided Europe into competing blocs and spawned a dangerous global power struggle between communism and liberal democratic capitalism.

From the very beginning of the cold war there was a dispute about its origins -- about when, why and how the conflict started and who was responsible. Among historians the cold war origins debate went through several main phases.

From the 1940s to the 1970s it centred on the contribution of American foreign policy. Some historians (often labelled `traditionalists' by their opponents) endorsed the official US government view that the cold war started because America resisted a series of aggressive and expansionary moves by the Soviet Union. Other historians (called `revisionists' because they sought to revise the semi-official views of the traditionalists) were much more critical of American policy, arguing that the US had acted in an aggressive and unreasonable manner after the war, provoking a Soviet counter-response.

By the end of the 1970s the debate between traditionalist and revisionists had exhausted itself. Most historians were prepared to settle for a `post-revisionist' or `post-traditionalist' compromise view -- essentially the idea that neither the Americans nor the Russians were to blame and that both sides had pursued what they considered legitimate security and foreign policy interests. The historical consensus was that the cold war was the result of mutual misunderstandings and of unavoidable clashes between Soviet and American foreign interests.

By the 1980s, however, the historical debate had entered a new phase with the publication of a number of studies on the origins of the cold war which emphasised the role of the lesser players, in particular Britain, France and West Germany. The themes of this literature were the European origins of the cold war, the independent role of the West European states, and the influence of politicians such as Churchill, Bevin, Bidault and Adenauer on US foreign policy.

Since the 1990s historical work on the cold war has been dominated by research on Soviet foreign policy. Following the fall of communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe, there was a significant opening up of Soviet bloc archives. Furthermore, the end of the cold war and the break-up of the Soviet Union facilitated more detached reflection on the roles and responsibilities of the different players. Broadly speaking, the post-revisionist consensus that nobody really wanted or was solely responsible for the cold war still holds. But it is a view that can now be validated from a multi-archival perspective.

The Grand Alliance

When exactly did the cold war begin? The two main responses to this question in the historical literature are: (i) 1917 and (ii) 1947. The first school of thought sees the cold war as a phase in a long history of antagonistic relations between the Soviet Union and the west. This history, it is argued, started when the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 and began the socialist experiment in Russia, thereby provoking the ideological animosity of western liberal capitalism.

The alternative viewpoint focuses on the post-Second World War period and on the intense character of the Soviet-Western clash from 1947 onwards: not only ideological rivalry and hostility, but the emergence of polarised military-political power blocs kept on a permanent war footing and engaged in nuclear competition with each other. …

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