Origins of the Cold War: An International History

By Melvyn P. Leffler; David S. Painter | Go to book overview

1

NATIONAL SECURITY AND US FOREIGN POLICY

Melvyn P. Leffler

During the late 1960s and the 1970s historians and political scientists bitterly debated the origins of the Cold War. An eclectic group of scholars, known as revisionists, challenged traditional views of how the Cold War got started. Revisionists insisted that the United States was not an innocent bystander. Focusing on the expansionist tradition and the entrepreneurial capitalism that had characterized US history from its inception and influenced by their hostility to the war in Vietnam, some of them argued that deeply embedded economic and ideological imperatives inspired American officials to assume global responsibilities. Other revisionists focused more directly on the legacy of the great depression which, they said, reinforced an elite consensus in favor of overseas market expansion in order to avert domestic business stagnation and unacceptable levels of unemployment. Still others turned a harsh lens on the diplomacy of Harry S. Truman who, they believed, reversed his predecessor’s desire to maintain the wartime coalition with the Soviet Union.

These revisionist arguments angered many retired government officials and a good number of traditional scholars. Traditionalists reiterated their views that the Kremlin started the Cold War. They pointed to the paranoid personality of Joseph Stalin and the revolutionary implications of Marxist-Leninist doctrine. Traditional scholars believed that given the experiences of totalitarian aggression in the 1930s and the dramatic failure of appeasement practices, US officials had no alternative but to respond as they did to the possibility of postwar Soviet/Communist expansion.

By the mid-1980s this controversy was losing its intensity. In a famous article John Lewis Gaddis declared that a post-revisionist consensus was emerging. According to this consensus, the United States had become an imperial nation after the Second World War, but

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