Uncertain Empire: American History and the Idea of the Cold War

Uncertain Empire: American History and the Idea of the Cold War

Uncertain Empire: American History and the Idea of the Cold War

Uncertain Empire: American History and the Idea of the Cold War

Synopsis

Historians have long understood that the notion of "the cold war" is richly metaphorical, if not paradoxical. The conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was a war that fell ambiguously short of war, an armed truce that produced considerable bloodshed. Yet scholars in the rapidly expanding field of Cold War studies have seldom paused to consider the conceptual and chronological foundations of the idea of the Cold War itself. In Uncertain Empire, a group of leading scholars takes up the challenge of making sense of the idea of the Cold War and its application to the writing of American history. They interrogate the concept from a wide range of disciplinary vantage points--diplomatic history, the history of science, literary criticism, cultural history, and the history of religion--highlighting the diversity of methods and approaches in contemporary Cold War studies. Animating the volume as a whole is a question about the extent to which the Cold War was an American invention.Uncertain Empirebrings debates over national, global, and transnational history into focus and offers students of the Cold War a new framework for considering recent developments in the field.

Excerpt

Joel Isaac and Duncan Bell

Few concepts in the study of American history are in greater need of clarification than the idea of the Cold War. So ubiquitous has this idea become that it seems a trivial aspect of our understanding of the post–World War ii decades. This book shows that the concept of the Cold War is far from trivial and that when we attend to its multiple meanings and historical significance, we can gain new and enriching perspectives on twentieth-century American history.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, historians of the United States labored mightily to understand the diplomatic origins and domestic consequences of the geopolitical battle of wills between the United States of America and the Soviet Union; they invoked “the Cold War”—a phrase made famous by the journalist Walter Lippmann—in order to make sense of the fraught and complex “armed peace” that defined modern international relations. Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, however, the notion of a Cold War has for many ceased being a source of historical puzzlement and has instead been transformed into a rubric that itself explains much about postwar American politics and culture. the explanandum has morphed into the explanans. in recent historical scholarship, the Cold War is frequently conjured up as the name of a political order or worldview that was responsible for key features of post-1945 American history. the term “Cold War” has been transfigured from a noun into an adjective: we are today urged to examine “Cold War science,” “Cold War civil rights,” and, indeed, “Cold War America” itself. Crucially, the assumptions about the nature of the Cold War that underpin these diverse histories—assumptions about periodization, key themes, and methods of analysis—are themselves rarely interrogated. Historians seldom ask what role the idea of “the Cold War” has come to play in the historiography of the United States. What exactly do we mean when we identify a policy or an idea as a “Cold War” phenomenon? Just how metaphorical or ambiguous is the concept of the Cold War? How ambiguous should it be? Do we all agree on its chronology and does it matter if we do not?

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