Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State
Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945
Russia and the United States
Russia's Road to the Cold War: Diplomacy, Warfare, and the Politics of Communism, 1941-1945
Stalin Embattled, 1943-1948
The Communist Movement from Comintern to Cominform
The American Non-Policy Towards Eastern Europe, 1943-1947: Universalism in an Area not of Essential Interest to the United States Press
Thirty years ago, in the agitated days of the early cold war, Sir Herbert Butterfield gave a lecture at Notre Dame called “The Tragic Element in Modern International Conflict.” The historiography of international conflict, Butterfield said, went characteristically through two stages. “In the midst of battle, while we are in a fighting mood, we see only the sins of the enemy.” In this Heroic stage, historians portray a struggle of right with wrong, of good men fighting bad. Then, as passions subside, historians enter the Academic stage, when they begin “to be careful with the defeated party,” to try “by internal sympathetic infiltration” to find out what was in their minds and to reflect on the structural dilemmas that so often underlie great conflicts between masses of human beings. The “higher historiography” moves on from melodrama to tragedy. “In historical perspective we learn to be a little more sorry for both parties than they knew how to be for one another.”1
Butterfield’s air of superiority toward the conflict between the Soviet Union and the West pained some of the embattled historians of the time (this writer included). But his essay has turned out to be a pretty good forecast of cold war historiography. The picture of the cold war as melodrama, after holding sway among historians for a generation, has begun to give way to analytical and tragic views.2 Actually some quite early works—notably W.H. McNeill’s remarkable America, Britain and Russia written for Chatham House in 1953—attained a high degree of objectivity. But most cold war history, especially in the United States, remained in the Heroic mood. This mood had two phases: the orthodox in the 1940s and 1950s, with the Russians as the bad guys; and the revisionist in the 1960s with the Americans as the bad guys.
Revisionism covers a wide variety of doctrine; but one can isolate two pervading themes in the revisionist argument. The first is the determination to take into account the way the postwar world looked to the Soviet leaders. This is Butterfield’s technique of “internal sympathetic infiltration.” For the Soviet Union had suffered greater losses in the Second World War than any other nation. After the war its consuming motives might well have been to reconstruct its devastated economic life, to seal off the historic invasion routes from the west, and to prevent any revival of German aggression. The revisionists did not invent the notion that the Soviet Union had legitimate security interests. Soviet experts in the State Department like Charles E. Bohlen and George F. Kennan had said this in the 1940s. But orthodox historians had not absorbed the point, and on this question the revisionist critique has surely prevailed. Post-revisionist historiography accepts that the Soviet Union acted less out of some master plan for world domination and more for local and defensive reasons than the official West admitted…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.