Cold War Historiography: New Evidence Behind Traditional Typographies

By White, Timothy J. | International Social Science Review, Fall-Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Cold War Historiography: New Evidence Behind Traditional Typographies


White, Timothy J., International Social Science Review


For Americans and many in the world, the Cold War dominated international relations from 1945-1991. Only the nuclear balance of terror prevented this uneasy peace from becoming all out war, and few if any events could be understood outside of the context of this bipolar rivalry. As the Cold War came to an end, some thought we had witnessed "an end to history."(1) Instead, we have witnessed a fundamental change in the logic of world politics. The United States has had difficulty developing a clear and coherent foreign policy in this new era. The New World Order of President Bush and the strategy of engagement and enlargement of President Clinton seem vague and ambiguous when compared to the clarity and simplicity of the American policy of containment during the Cold War. While this policy of containment rapidly gained a consensus both among the American foreign policy elite as well as the mass public after World War Il, it did represent a fundamental shift of relations with the Soviet Union from one of wartime cooperation. Explaining the origins of the Cold War has been one of the most common and contested topics in the study of American diplomatic history, and the end of the Cold War has changed how historians examine and interpret this period. Increasingly, scholars have gained access to documents, especially on the Soviet side, that have allowed them to go beyond past conjecture and utilize archival evidence. The end of the Cold War has removed much of the passion that surrounded writing Cold War history while scholars and states were still living it. This increased detachment has allowed historians to move from placing blame to recognizing the ideological conflict that was at the center of the Cold War's origins.

Reexamining the Origins of the Cold War

Traditionally, those who have offered explanations of the Cold War have been classified according to a three-fold typology.(2) Traditionalists were the defenders of the U.S. policy of containment who tended to blame the Soviets for the breakdown of friendly relations and the onset of the Cold War. These scholars dominated the historiography of the Cold War until the mid 1960s. By then, many came to question American innocence and blamed the Cold War on American economic imperialism or untrustworthy behavior during World War II. By the 1970s some scholars, labeled Post-revisionists, attempted to go beyond placing blame on either side and contended that misperception and miscalculation accounted for the beginnings of the Cold War. This categorization does not explain the actual historical interpretations of the Cold War's origins because traditional and revisionist accounts incorporate at least two different explanations. This article offers a more precise categorization and analysis than that provided in the traditional typology. In addition, I also take into consideration the most recent wave of Cold War historiography. A consensus is emerging that the Cold War was not caused by one side or the other but by the conflicting and unyielding ideologies of the United States and the Soviet Union. By identifying seven different historical explanations embedded in the literature and assessing the merit of each based on the historical evidence, this article demonstrates how progress has been made in accurately and more completely analyzing the origins of the Cold War.

Soviet Expansionism: The Neurotic Bear(3)

The first explanation of the origins of the Cold War was not developed by historians but by a policy-maker. Seldom has a single individual done so much to shape American foreign policy as George Kennan in his characterization of the Soviet Union as a paranoid and insecure power that exaggerated the external threats to justify internal repression and cautious expansion. His article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," profoundly affected how policy-makers, the American people, and scholars viewed the Soviet Union. Kennan almost single-handedly transformed a former wartime ally into a nervous enemy that needed to be contained. …

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