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The Cold War Revisited

Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State

by Daniel Yergin
Houghton Mifflin, 526 pp., $15.00

Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945

by Robert Dallek
Oxford University Press, 657 pp., $19.95

Russia and the United States

by N.V. Sivachev, by N.N. Yakovlev
University of Chicago Press, 301 pp., $12.95

Russia’s Road to the Cold War: Diplomacy, Warfare, and the Politics of Communism, 1941-1945

by Vojtech Mastny
Columbia University Press, 409 pp., $16.95

Stalin Embattled, 1943-1948

by William O. McCagg Jr.
Wayne State University Press, 423 pp., $18.95

The Communist Movement from Comintern to Cominform

by Fernando Claudin, translated by Brian Pearce, by Francis MacDonagh
Monthly Review Press, 2 vols., 831 pp., $11.90 (paper)

The American Non-Policy Towards Eastern Europe, 1943-1947: Universalism in an Area not of Essential Interest to the United States Press

by Geir Lundestad
Universitetsforlaget (Oslo), distributed by the Columbia University, 654 pp., $18.00 (paper)

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 or, probably, understood at the time.

The second revisionist theme seeks to explain why the United States was the aggressor. The thesis tends to be put simply. Driven on by the insatiable needs of a capitalist system that had to expand in order to survive, Washington embarked on its own course of world domination. American policy demanded an “open door” for trade and investment around the planet and thus the “integration” of the world into the American economic empire. The opposition to this plan came from the Soviet Union; hence, American leaders portrayed that weak and battered country as a military and ideological threat in order to justify measures required by the imperatives of capitalist expansion. So the United States forced the cold war on an innocent world.

This theme has been less successful. Its methodology is seriously vulnerable since it is difficult to document the pressure that great capitalists presumably brought on the American government to make sure that foreign policy served their goals. The revisionist way of dealing with this objection has not been convincing. If such evidence was lacking, it was, said William Appleman Williams, the godfather of the revisionist school, because “American leaders had internalized…open-door expansion. Hence they seldom thought it necessary to explain or defend the approach.”3 In short, the less evidence the better.

Historians do not ordinarily go for the argument ex silentio; so, to fortify the case, revisionists like to analyze the backgrounds of people shaping foreign policy. For a time a key revisionist villain was Averell Harriman, a railroad magnate, an international banker, an authentic capitalist with a world outlook.4 Harriman’s own dispatches and memoirs are notable, however, for their indifference to questions of American trade and investment. And Harriman himself, without altering his original views about Soviet communism, has turned out to be the great champion of detente and quite possibly the most popular American, rock singers apart, in Moscow. Even the Soviet historians N.V. Sivachev and N.N. Yakovlev in their generally egregious book Russia and the United States describe Harriman as a “statesman…whose standing in the Soviet Union has always been high.”5 The revisionist attempt to substitute background for evidence has not been persuasive.

Beyond its methodological weakness, the open-door interpretation is logically vulnerable as well. Why, for example, should Roosevelt and Truman, both engaged in bitter struggles with the business community and both persuaded of the folly and greed of business leaders, have allowed those same business leaders to dictate their policies abroad? No doubt they believed in a freely trading world, if this is such a heinous offense, but most American businessmen, then and now, are protectionists, not free traders.

Even more vulnerable is the assumption that the quest for a liberalized commercial policy led ineluctably to a policy of confrontation with the Soviet Union. For world trade expansion obviously does not, as revisionists imply, oblige Marxist states to go over to capitalism and assume subordinate roles in an American economic empire. American trade with Russia, Eastern Europe, and China disproves every day the myth that capitalism requires an economically indivisible world.

More than that, some of the most ardent proponents of trade expansion in the 1940s argued that accommodation with Russia, not confrontation, was the surest way to find outlets for American goods. From Eric Johnston, Donald Nelson, and Joseph E. Davies on the right to Earl Browder on the left, Americans saw peace as the only means of assuring access to the Soviet market. “It is a fact, whether we like it or not.” Browder put it, “that the American economy requires expanded foreign markets in order to live, and that there is not the slightest chance of organizing such markets except through a durable peace guaranteed by Soviet-American cooperation.”6 For uttering such heresies, Browder did indeed expose himself to fierce harassment and obloquy. His persecutors, however, were not American business leaders but his former brethren in the CPUSA.

Revisionists often cite the Bretton Woods agreement as a first step in the master plan of American capitalism to take over the world economy. Yet the architect of Bretton Woods was Harry D. White, who, whatever his precise relationship to communism (and this was overstated in the McCarthy days), can hardly be described as an agent of American capitalism or as an enemy of the Soviet Union. And it was Henry Wallace himself, the great proponent of accommodation, who said in the very speech that led to his dismissal from the Truman administration, “We cannot permit the door to be closed against our trade in Eastern Europe any more than we can in China.”7 In short, the opendoor policy, in so far as it was a major American concern, did not lead inexorably to the cold war. It is obviously necessary to introduce other factors to explain why some open-doorsmen favored accommodation and others favored containment.


For such reasons, the revisionist emphasis on capitalism as the cause of the cold war has fared less well than the emphasis on the security needs of the Soviet Union. In post-revisionist literature, John Lewis Gaddis’s The United States and the Origins of the Cold War (1972) still holds a commanding position. Gaddis, however, in his excellent analysis emphasizes the domestic politics rather than the economic constraints on American foreign policy, dismissing the revisionist perspective as “too narrow.”

More recently Daniel Yergin’s Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State has excited attention for its wide-ranging research its lucid and lively exposition, its instinct for bureaucratic politics, its eye for personalities as well as for issues and also for the beyond-the-old-battle tone of its judgments. Reviewers accustomed to the cold war debate found Shattered Peace hard to deal with. The traditionalist Herbert Meyer condemned it in Fortune as a “dangerously specious” essay in revisionism likely to produce “a dangerous change in the way Americans think about the US-Soviet rivalry,” while the revisionist Carolyn Eisenberg condemned it in Diplomatic History as an insidious traditionalist attempt to co-opt and emasculate revisionism by leaving out its essence—the capitalist drive for world economic hegemony.8

Despite many excellences, Shattered Peace has visible defects. Some are due perhaps to the author’s weakness for flashy packaging. He makes an eyecatching distinction between the followers of the “Riga” and the “Yalta” approach to the USSR, contrasting the policy makers who allegedly decided that Russia’s revolutionary ideology committed it to world conquest and those who saw the Soviet Union as just another traditional Great Power. But, as Daniel Harrington has convincingly argued, neither Kennan nor Bohlen, the alleged apostles of the Riga outlook, subscribed to the so-called Riga axioms. Kennan’s argument was that ideology was the instrument of Soviet power, not vice versa, and that the “basic motive” behind Soviet expansion lay in the desire to guarantee “the internal security of the regime itself.” Bohlen similarly saw ideology as a means, not an end, “essential for the maintenance of the Communist Party and the Soviet system.” Both men, contrary to Yergin, were alert to opportunities for diplomacy; and the true reign of the Riga axioms came in the 1950s when Kennan and Bohlen were excluded from influence.9 Nor do other American policy makers of the early cold war—Byrnes, Marshall, Harriman, or even Truman himself, seeking as late as 1948 to send Chief Justice Vinson on a mission to Moscow—fit into Yergin’s scheme. Forrestal could be associated with the Riga approach, but Truman after all fired Forrestal.

It is central to my argument,” Yergin writes, “that diplomacy did matter.” But he does not tell what he thinks diplomacy might have done, referring instead to Adam Ulam in The Rivals as “one of the few writers to emphasize the possible utility of diplomacy in the postwar years.” Surely he misreads Ulam, for The Rivals argues not that diplomacy could have averted the cold war but that Stalin outmaneuvered the West into making a series of unnecessary concessions and that tougher Western diplomacy—i.e., fighting the cold war earlier—might have held the Russians back.10

  1. 1

    The Tragic Element in Modern International Conflict” was originally published in Review of Politics, April 1950, and can be found in Butterfield’s History and Human Relations (London: Collins, 1951).

  2. 2

    When I wrote in 1967 that the cold war had to be seen as tragedy (“Origins of the Cold War,” Foreign Affairs, October 1967), I had quite forgotten Butterfield’s Notre Dame lecture. Very likely he had planted the idea in my unconscious.

  3. 3

    W.A. Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, second edition (Dell, 1972), p. 206.

  4. 4

    Harriman’s natural antagonism to the Soviets was reinforced by his vigorous belief in the necessity of open-door expansion, a belief that may have been heightened even more by an unhappy experience with the Russians in the 1920s, when his attempt to control a sizable segment of the world’s manganese market by developing Russian supplies ended in mutual dissatisfaction.” Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, pp. 219-220.

  5. 5

    Emphasis added.

  6. 6

    Eall Browder, War or Peace with Russia (New York: A.A. Wyn, 1947), pp. 104-105.

  7. 7

    At Madison Square Garden, September 12, 1946.

  8. 8

    Herbert E. Meyer, “A Trendy Cold War Fairy Tale,” Fortune, November 1977; Carolyn Eisenberg, “Reflections on a Toothless Revisionism,” Diplomatic History, Summer 1978.

  9. 9

    Daniel F. Harrington, “Kennan, Bohlen, and the Riga Axioms,” Diplomatic History, Fall 1978.

  10. 10

    Adam Ulam, The Rivals (Viking, 1971), pp. 96-101.

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