Cold War History at a Glance

By Levine, Alan J. | The World and I, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Cold War History at a Glance


Levine, Alan J., The World and I


Alan J. Levine is the author of seven books, including The Strategic Bombing of Germany, the Pacific War, Race Relations Within Western Expansion, and the recently published The War Against Rommel's Supply Lines.

The study of Cold War history has suffered greatly from many simple conceptual problems and mistakes. As most students of the subject have probably noticed, the field abounds with logical fallacies, misstatements, factual errors--even, to be blunt, lies--and innumerable dubious or erroneous assumptions that all too often are embedded in the very phraseology which Cold War historians have employed. The purpose of this paper is to analyze at least a few of these troublesome issues. It may not provide simple cures but will, I hope, point out the diseases.

Not a little trouble has been caused by the very name Cold War. The term abounds with false concreteness. It gives the impression that it refers to some discrete historical event or era on which there is some basic agreement, like World War I or II, but it does not actually do so. When we speak or write of World War II, for example, it is generally understood that we are referring to a distinct conflict that began in 1939 and ended in 1945, with a known lineup of forces. There is even a high degree of agreement on the meaning and moral issues of the events involved. While some will argue that the war "really" began in July 1937 with the Japanese invasion of China, and others hold that it was not truly a world war until 1941, even these alternative readings are relatively few, readily understood, and of limited importance.

A PROBLEM OF DATES

No such underlying agreement exists in relation to the Cold War--not even on the appropriate dates. Some hold that it began with the Bolshevik Revolution, some others that it really started during World War II as soon as the Soviet government was certain that Russia would win the war. Many say that it developed during 1945--46, started at some distinct point during those two years, or began as late as 1947. I have never run into anyone who dates the start after that, but a fair number of authors hold that the "original" Cold War, which they see as starting in the 1940s, ran out of steam in the 1960s, only to have a "second Cold War" begin in the 1970s. (Some older authors, especially in Britain, had already seen a "first Cold War " that ended with Stalin's death and the Korean armistice, only to start up again in the late 1950s.)

Often, these varying dates are connected to basic assumptions about the nature of the conflict and the moral issues involved--often, but not always. Both hard-line anticommunists and inveterate Soviet apologists (D.F. Fleming, for example) have traced the Cold War to 1917. On the other hand, back in the 1950s, there was a tendency for Soviet apologists or those who were (for lack of a better term) "soft" on the Cold War to date its beginning quite late, usually from the Truman Doctrine speech of 1947. Later revisionists, however, writing in the 1960s, tended to drive the starting date of the Cold War backward, so their favored dates tended to coincide with, or overlap, those of orthodox historians. Orthodox, of course, is yet another term that conceals considerable disagreement. We need merely compare the conceptions held by, say, Adam Ulam, with the perhaps more conventional work of Herbert Feis, to name two of the more capable older writers who fit into that designation, to realize the considerable disagreements that it always contained. (The much-talked-about postrevisionist school seems to contain differences almost as great.)

It may be argued that the problem of dates is of limited importance, but it is a pointer to the fact that there is no agreement on what the Cold War was about, who started it, or even who constituted the primary antagonists. Was the Cold War a duel between the United States and the USSR, as is fashionable to suppose, or was it a struggle between the Western world as a whole and the Soviet Union, with a varying cast of minor allies on both sides? …

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