The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War

By John Lewis Gaddis | Go to book overview

6
Dividing Adversaries: The United States and International Communism, 1945-1958

IT IS NOT a good idea, as a rule, to revise one's view of the past on the basis of seeing a single document. One runs the risk of committing what the historian David Hackett Fischer has called the "fallacy of the lonely fact," best illustrated by his story of a scientist who had published "an astounding and improbable generalization about the behavior of rats." When asked for the records upon which his conclusions were based, the scientist triumphantly produced a notebook from his desk. "Here they are," he said. And pointing to a cage in the corner, he added: "there's the rat." 1

But there are times when seeing a single document can produce more useful results. It can illuminate, with abrupt clarity, a pattern of events hitherto obscure. It can break through the encrustations of interpretation imposed by historians, who had the luxury of knowing what was going to happen next, to reveal the very different perspectives of people living at the time who lacked that luxury. It can provide a healthy corrective to the historian's too-easily made, if usually unconscious, assumption that his own point of view must necessarily be more sophisticated than those about whom he writes.

The need for such correction became clear to me one afternoon in 1979 while reviewing some recently declassified documents at the Eisenhower Li-

Portions of this essay were prepared as a paper, American Policy and Perspectives: The Sino-Soviet 'Wedge' Strategy, 1949-1955, for a conference on "Sino-American Relations, 1945-1955," sponsored by Peking University and the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People's Republic of China, and held in Beijing in October, 1986 It has not been previously published.

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