Reconstructing the Cold War: The Early Years, 1945 - 1958

Reconstructing the Cold War: The Early Years, 1945 - 1958

Reconstructing the Cold War: The Early Years, 1945 - 1958

Reconstructing the Cold War: The Early Years, 1945 - 1958


General answers are hard to imagine for the many puzzling questions that are raised by Soviet relations with the world in the early years of the Cold War. Why was Moscow more frightened by the Marshall Plan than the Truman Doctrine? Why would the Soviet Union abandon its closest socialist ally, Yugoslavia, just when the Cold War was getting under way? How could Khrushchev's de-Stalinized domestic and foreign policies at first cause a warming of relations with China, and then lead to the loss of its most important strategic ally? What can explain Stalin's failure to ally with the leaders of the decolonizing world against imperialism and Khrushchev's enthusiastic embrace of these leaders as anti-imperialist at a time of the first detente of the Cold War?

It would seem that only idiosyncratic explanations could be offered for these seemingly incoherent policy outcomes. Or, at best, they could be explained by the personalities of Stalin and Khrushchev as leaders. The latter, although plausible, is incorrect. In fact, the most Stalinist of Soviet leaders, the secret police chief and sociopath, Lavrentii Beria, was the most enthusiastic proponent of a de-Stalinized foreign and domestic policies after Stalin's death in March 1953.

Ted Hopf argues, instead, that it was Soviet identity that explains these anomalies. During Stalin's rule, a discourse of danger prevailed in Soviet society, where any deviations from the idealized version of the New Soviet Man, were understood as threatening the very survival of the Soviet project itself. But the discourse of danger did not go unchallenged. Even under the rule of Stalin, Soviet society understood a socialist Soviet Union as a more secure, diverse, and socially democratic place. This discourse of difference, with its broader conception of what the socialist project meant, and who could contribute to it, was empowered after Stalin's death, first by Beria, then by Malenkov, and then by Khrushchev, and the rest of the post-Stalin Soviet leadership. This discourse of difference allowed for the de-Stalinization of Eastern Europe, with the consequent revolts in Poland and Hungary, a rapprochement with Tito's Yugoslavia, and an initial warming of relations with China. But it also sowed the seeds of the split with China, as the latter moved in the very Stalinist direction at home just rejected by Moscow. And, contrary to conventional and scholarly wisdom, a moderation of authoritarianism at home, a product of the discourse of difference, did not lead to a moderation of Soviet foreign policy abroad. Instead, it led to the opening of an entirely new, and bloody, front in the decolonizing world.

In sum, this book argues for paying attention to how societies understand themselves, even in the most repressive of regimes. Who knows, their ideas about national identity, might come to power sometime, as was the case in Iran in 1979, and throughout the Arab world today.


There are many reasons to revisit the Cold War. The first is its remarkably misleading name. The Cold War was anything but cold for the almost 20 million people who lost their lives during the postwar conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States from 1945 and 1991. It has been said that victors write the history. In this case, the very naming of the conflict erases what it meant for most of the rest of the world. While the United States and Soviet Union lost fewer than 100,000 men and women in combat during the so-called Cold War, these losses are dwarfed by the millions who died in Vietnam, Angola, Afghanistan, Honduras, Mozambique, Somalia, Kampuchea, and elsewhere, as the two superpowers acted out their competition in arenas where they could plausibly avoid directly fighting each other. One purpose of this book is to remind readers that the “long peace” and the era of “bipolar stability” remarked by historians and political scientists only mask how dangerous and bloody and hot the Cold War really was for much of the rest of the world, especially the decolonizing world.

The political science subfield of international relations (IR) theory also needs a book on the Cold War. In particular, social constructivism should provide an account of the Cold War based on the identity relations of the Soviet Union and its allies and enemies around the world. Systemic IR theories, such as neorealism or systemic constructivism, are not aimed, or able, to do more than explain why there was conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States after World War II. And historians, for the most part, concentrate on providing compelling accounts of particular events and relationships during the Cold War. What I offer here fills the middle-range theoretical void left by systemic IR theories and Cold War historians. Through societal constructivism, I offer explanations for Soviet relations with both individual countries, but also for entire regions, such as Eastern Europe, or categories, such as the decolonizing world, and over some significant period of time.

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