The End of the Cold War

By Matlock, Jack E. | Harvard International Review, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

The End of the Cold War


Matlock, Jack E., Harvard International Review


Rethinking the Origin and Conclusion of the US-Soviet Conflict

It is hard to decide when the Cold War ended unless we can determine when it began. Did it begin after World War II, when the two most powerful countries to emerge from that conflict confronted each other in what seemed a geopolitical zerosum game? Or did it begin earlier, with the victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917, in which case the rivalry following World War II was merely a new manifestation of an existing ideological struggle?

If the Cold War began in 1945 or 1946, then it must have ended in 1990, when the iron curtain across Europe was dismantled and there was no longer an East-West military confrontation. By the fall of that year, the Central and Eastern European countries that had been under Soviet dominance since the end of World War II were allowed to choose noncommunist governments, Soviet forces were withdrawn from the area, and Germany was unified with Soviet blessings. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev even signed an agreement that permitted the newly united Germany to remain in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO),the alliance that had been created to prevent the Soviet conquest of Western Europe. Furthermore, the Soviet government agreed to reduce its conventional forces in Europe to levels comparable to those in the NATO countries. Military competition outside Europe also essentially ended in 1990 when the Soviet Union voted with the United States and its NATO allies to resist Iraq's aggression against Kuwait.

If the Cold War really began in 1917, however, the end might have come at a different time. If the conflict was basically ideological rather than geopolitical, it would have ended when one side or the other abandoned the ideology that had caused the conflict in the first place. Subsequent events, such as the attenuation of military confrontation and the resolution of geopolitical disputes, would have been important not because they marked the end of the ideological struggle but because they confirmed its end.

Some of the first histories of the Cold War, written while it was still at its height, described it as beginning in 1917. D.J. Fleming, a professor at Vanderbilt University, published a two-volume study in 1961 entitled The Cold War and Its Origins: 1917-1960, that traced the origins of the Cold War to the Bolshevik Revolution. A similar conclusion was reached by the French scholar and journalist Andre Fontaine four years later, in his book La Guerre Froide (subsequently published in English under the title History of the Cold War). These authors differed in their opinions about which side was responsible. Fleming considered the United States primarily responsible because, in his view, it tried to combat communism by military force rather than peaceful means. For Fontaine, in contrast, it was a clash between Woodrow Wilson's espousal of peace based on political liberty and the Bolshevik leaders' conviction that the proletarian revolution would either sweep Europe or be destroyed by the European powers. For ex ample, Fontaine contrasts Wilson's message to Congress of April 2, 1917, when he stated that "peace must be planted on the tested foundations of political liberty," with Leon Trotsky's statement to the Congress of Soviets later the same year: "Either the Russian Revolution will create a revolu tionary movement in Europe, or the European powers will destroy the Russian Revolution."

Although the Bolsheviks subsequently replaced Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution with Josef Stalin's "socialism in one country," the idea that a "proletarian dictatorship" would eventually sweep the world persisted. Until it did, the Soviet Union would be the bastion of proletarian interests and the protector of "socialist" revolutionaries wherever they might emerge.

Though they were often preoccupied with other concerns, Soviet leaders from Lenin to Chernenko never deviated from an ultimate belief in the eventual victory of their version of socialism throughout the world . …

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