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Historical Justice and the Cold War

The Politics of War

by Gabriel Kolko
Random House, 685 pp., $12.95

Goethe remarked to Eckermann that the man who acts is always unjust and that nobody can be just except the man who observes. Twenty-five years ago, I quoted that epigram with approval. But having in the meantime read the writings of many trained observers of past political events, that is, of professional historians, I now conclude that the epigram, like most epigrams, is in need of considerable emendation. Most certainly, the act itself, impinging upon men and things on behalf of the actor’s interests, is bound to be unjust. For it at best neglects and at worst impairs the interests of others. That is true even of the unselfish act. By supporting an old-age home I withhold support for the hungry who also have a claim on my charity.

In short, the claims of justice by far exceed man’s ability to satisfy them. Thus man establishes a hierarchy among the interests to be served, and his own interests and preferences take precedence over all others. Nobody but God knows what actions the “just” hierarchy would require, but it can safely be said that a hierarchy oriented toward the interests and preferences of one man among hundreds of millions can have but a negligible chance of coinciding with the “just” order of the universe.

But while the act cannot be just, except by remote coincidence, the act, to be successful, cannot afford to be without an element of justice. That is particularly true of the political act. The requisite element of justice pertains to the intellectual sphere. The successful political act presupposes a respectful understanding of its object, its nature, its interests, its propensities and potentialities. The political actor may hate his opponent or despise the one whose support he seeks. But for the very sake of the satisfaction of his interests and preferences, that is, for the very sake of his own injustice, he must “do justice” to the other man. He must detach himself from his own emotions and aspirations and judge the other man with an objectivity similar to that with which a scientist tries to understand the phenomena of nature. He must put himself into the other man’s shoes, look at the world and judge it as that man does, anticipate in thought the way he will feel and act under certain circumstances. Seeking to deprive him of his worth as a person by using, diminishing, or destroying him, he must assess him exactly as a person in his own right. Paradoxically, he must be just in judgment in order to be effectively unjust in action.

If indeed the actor is always unjust in action while he must be just in judgment, what must we say of the corollary that nobody can be just but the one who observes? Mark that Goethe does not say that he who observes is always just, but that he is the only one who can be just. He can be just because he does not act and, hence, can allow free play to the detachment and objectivity of his mind. Detached and objective understanding—for the actor the means to the end of successful action—is for him an end in itself. Only the observer can be just, but in what measure is he? I am raising this question here not in its comprehensive meaning, but only in regard to the writing of political history.

Homer, the great poet-historian, and the other great historians of ancient Greece, Herodotus and Thucydides, have proven that a political historian can be just. Reading their accounts of the wars between the Greeks and the Trojans, the Greeks and the Persian “barbarians,” and among the Greeks themselves, one finds it hard to determine “whose side they are on.” They behold the contestants as different incarnations of the same species of man, endowed with the same virtues and vices, equally capable of great and mean deeds, of wisdom and folly, and sharing the same fate ordained by the same gods. They are all equally worthy of remembrance. Thus Herodotus sets himself the task “of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the barbarians from losing their due reward of glory.” And they are all equally deserving of compassion. Thus Euripides can honor the grief of the Trojan women whose men were killed by the Greeks.

It was this ideal of impartiality, both an intellectual and a moral virtue, which Acton put before the contributors to the first Cambridge Modern History when he wrote in his letter of instructions “that our Waterloo must be one that satisfies French and English, German and Dutch alike; that nobody can tell, without examining the list of authors where the Bishop of Oxford laid down the pen, and where Fairbairn or Gasquet, Liebermann or Harrison took it up.” However, with perhaps the sole exception of Tolstoy in War and Peace, the Greek historians have had no successors. A deep chasm separates the modern historic sensibility from that of the Greeks. Imagine an American historian writing of the war against Japan, or against Spain or Mexico for that matter, in order to preserve “the great and wonderful actions” of the enemies of the United States in their deserved glory! And imagine a Northern American playwright commemorating the sufferings of the Southern women during the Civil War!

The modern historians are partisans—partisans of nation, religion, class, and individual men. Let us take a look at some undoubtedly great modern historians. The greatest of them all, Ranke, assigned to history the task of finding out “how it really was.” Yet his Prussian history is a panegyric to the virtues and greatness of Prussia, a testimony to the author’s nationalism. Mommsen, the great historian of Rome, was also a disappointed liberal politician, longing for an effective leader of the liberal cause and judged Rome—praising the Republic and Caesar, condemning Caesar’s enemies and Caesarism—by the standards of nineteenth-century liberalism. Froude, who revolutionized the historiography of the Tudor period, was ardently opposed to the Church of Rome, and the twelve volumes of his The History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada read frequently like a learned anti-Catholic tract.

More recently, eminent German historians have given a qualitative weight, out of all proportion to its actual importance, to the German anti-Nazi resistance because they were moved by patriotism to exculpate the German people from responsibility for the Nazi regime. American history has been perceived by virtually all American historians from the vantage point of the white immigrants, and in consequence the actions and conditions of the blacks and Indians either have not been perceived at all or have been noticed only as reflections of white history. When I was a student, Austrian and Prussian historians debated passionately the question who was responsible for the Seven Years War, and no Prussian argued that it was Frederic the Great and no Austrian that it was Maria Theresa.


These observations are called forth by the huge book in which Professor Kolko of the State University of New York at Buffalo lays bare the politics behind the strategy of the Second World War. It is a book of major importance, the first revisionist book concerned with the origins of the Cold War which is also a work of first-rate scholarship. As such, it marks a turning point in the historiography of the war and postwar period. It must be said in passing, however, that it is marred by a great number of stylistic deficiencies and even outright grammatical errors that could not have escaped the attention of a half-way alert editor.

It is also an unsetting book. The truth that emerges from it is radically different from what we have taken for granted to be the truth. What we had been but dimly aware of now occupies the center of the stage, and what we had been accustomed to think of as the decisive determinants fades into insignificance or disappears altogether. Professor Kolko convinces us of the injustice of his predecessors, but he fails to persuade us of his own justice. His picture of the political world is as one-sided as theirs, only in a different way. He emphasizes what they neglected, and he underplays what they laid stress on. He illuminates those parts of the scenery they left in the shadows or in complete darkness, and he does not care to shed light on those parts which stood out in their picture of the war and postwar world.

The received truth about the politics of the Second World War assigns to the Soviet Union the main responsibility for the breakup of the alliance and for the Cold War in which the politics of the Second World War organically blend. The traditional imperialism of Russia, the world-revolutionary aspirations of Bolshevism, the suspicions, deviousness, and brutality of Stalin—those were the elements of which the “cold war guilt” of the Soviet Union appears to be composed. In comparison with the Soviet Union, which knew what it wanted and how to get it, the United States appears well meaning and bumbling, anxious to get the war over with as quickly, cheaply, and thoroughly as possible, devoid of clearly defined political objectives that could have given a political purpose to the military operations. Thus the United States, virtuous but ineffective, faced the Soviet Union, vicious and ruthlessly effective. The conclusion, which became the rationale of the Cold War, was inevitable: the United States could not do business with the Soviet Union.

The picture which emerges from Professor Kolko’s account bears hardly any resemblance to this received truth. In that picture, the United States appears as the villain, and a politically astute and purposeful villain at that. Its aim, consistently pursued for ideological and economic reasons, is the restoration of the pre-war status quo. This aim implies the military and political disarmament of the anti-fascist resistance movements as the most urgent task in the liberated areas. It also implies the containment of the Soviet Union long before that policy was officially inaugurated. And it implies finally the restoration of the defeated Axis powers as guardians of the status quo and bulwarks against the Soviet Union. On the other hand, the Soviet Union, too, is cast in the role of a “conservative” power (Professor Kolko uses the adjective many times to characterize Soviet policies) which, for the sake of allied unity, common victory, and national security, discourages revolution, keeps aloof from civil war, and promotes the Popular Front within a framework of democratic legality. Its resort to totalitarian exclusiveness in Eastern Europe is seen as a reaction either to the unreasonableness of the people it had to deal with, as in Poland, or to Western exclusiveness, as in the case of Rumania, where the exclusion of the West is explained as a response to the exclusion of the Soviet Union from the administration of Italy.

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