The "New" Cold War History and the Origins of the Cold War

By Siracusa, Joseph M. | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, March 2001 | Go to article overview

The "New" Cold War History and the Origins of the Cold War


Siracusa, Joseph M., The Australian Journal of Politics and History


In 1998, the United States Congress passed legislation which directed the Department of Defense to design and distribute a Cold War Certificate of Recognition to the estimated 27 million American veterans and countless civilians in the Department of State, CIA, and other relevant departments and agencies who served their country in the Cold War struggle. It established the dates of the Cold War, which was defined as "a global competition between two ideologies, the Free World, led by the United States, and the Communist World led by the Soviet Union",(1) to be between 2 September 1945 (the last day of World War II) and 26 December 1991 (the last time the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered).(2) Seemingly, this gesture has arrived just in time.

For some of us, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently reminded us, the Cold War rivalry of the United States and the Soviet Union, is already a fading memory. For many, it is not a memory at all. Today's high school students were merely infants when the infamous Berlin Wall fell in 1989. But we all have an obligation to remember and learn, as agreed-upon conclusions as to why events ran as they did after World War II are likely to serve as foreign policy axioms in Washington and Moscow in decades to come. It is absolutely crucial that students of modern history develop these conclusions with far more care than has been characteristic in the pre-nuclear past.

The Cold War, to return to Albright's observation, was not just, then, a useful background for spy fiction and James Bond movies. Rather:

   It was a time of relentless and institutionalized tragedy; of proxy wars
   that destroyed lives in every continent, of barbed wire stretched across
   Europe's heart; of gulags and forced confessions; and of countless
   thousands killed while trying to escape. Above all, it was a time of fear
   -- of showdowns in Korea, Berlin, and Cuba.... Each night we knew that
   within minutes, perhaps through a misunderstanding, our world could end and
   morning never come.(3)

Today's leaders, in the major capitals throughout the world, have no greater responsibility than to ensure that the history of the Cold War does not repeat itself.

Although no one would seriously question the centrality of the Cold War to the history of our times, scholars have long debated how to write this history.(4) Until the early 1990s they did so within the confines of the Cold War itself, with little or no expectation that it could or would end soon. Now that it has, however, the entire field needs reassessment, and that process is well underway.

In future, the "new" Cold War history will reevaluate various aspects of the Cold War experience in light of how the Cold War ended; draw on Soviet, East European and Chinese sources,(5) as well as the more familiar ones of the United States and its friends and allies, to rewrite Cold War history as international history; and apply new conceptual or analytical frameworks, such as theories about the international system or the states that functioned within it, the social or cultural construction of reality as it affected or was affected by the Cold War, and the intersection of foreign policy and domestic institutions within the states that fought the Cold War.(6)

The opening of Soviet archives in the early 1990s together with the declassification of the so-called Venona papers -- translations of some 3,000 messages sent between Moscow and Soviet intelligence stations in the 1940s -- led to the publication, in the late 1990s, of four major works on Soviet espionage that proved without question "the Russians were running a good many spies in the Untied States in the 1930s and 1940s, that they recruited them from the ranks of the left, that they ran them to steal secrets, and when they got caught at it they went to ground and waited for a better day".(7) The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America -- The Stalin Era, by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassilev; The Sword and the Shield, by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin; Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr; and Venona: The Greatest Secret of the Cold War, by Nigel West, all paint a picture of a "golden age"(8) of Soviet espionage. …

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