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The Cold War Revisited

Both Gaddis and Yergin see Roosevelt as a generally undeceived leader struggling manfully to reconcile international geopolitical inevitabilities, such as Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, with domestic political myths, such as the wickedness of spheres of influence. The president “consistently shows very little interest in Eastern European matters,” as Harriman noted with his usual perceptiveness after a talk with Roosevelt in October 1944, “except as they affect sentiment in America.”11 The trouble, as Yergin well puts it, was “the considerable gap between Roosevelt’s foreign foreign policy and his domestic foreign policy”; and, of course, his failure to live long enough to bring the two together.

In his altogether admirable study Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945 Robert Dallek reaches the same conclusion. “Mindful that any emphasis on…Realpolitik might weaken American public resolve to play an enduring role in world affairs,” he writes, “Roosevelt made these actions the hidden side of his diplomacy.” Dallek’s focus is on Roosevelt, not on the Russians. He evidently accepts Ulam’s view that no American action “could have appeased them or basically affected their policies” while at the same time rejecting the idea that Roosevelt could have restrained Soviet expansion “through greater realism or a tougher approach to Stalin.” Roosevelt’s “complicated strategy” by the time of Yalta, Dallek thinks, was to withhold the atomic secret until the Russians demonstrated a capacity for postwar cooperation, to get Stalin to move slowly in taking over Eastern Europe, to bargain about the Far East, and to bring both the Soviet Union and the United States into a new world organization that could fix up the details later. He was in effect offering Stalin a series of tests. “Had he lived,” Dallek believes, “Roosevelt would probably have moved more quickly than Truman to confront the Russians.”

Post-revisionist historiography has thus made judicious and limited use of revisionism. But by permitting revisionism in some measure to frame the debate, it has perpetuated one of revisionism’s defects. For cold war revisionism has been a peculiarly American enterprise. There are few British or French or German revisionists. Writing mainly from American records, because American documents were available earlier, and for an American audience rendered cynical about American foreign policy by the Vietnam War, the revisionists turned out in the end as ethnocentric as the free-world crusaders. Crusaders and revisionists are, in fact, mirror images of each other. One believes in the Soviet master plan, the other in the capitalist master plan. Both vastly overrate the ability of the United States to control events in other countries, whether for good in the orthodox view or for evil in the revisionist. Both share in what Denis Brogan long ago called “the illusion of American omnipotence.” The judgment of Professor D.C. Watt of the London School of Economics is not excessive: “American historiography of the Cold War tells us very little of the Cold War much of American intellectual history in the 1960s and 1970s.”12


The urgent need for cold war historiography today is to get off the American base and to broaden research and analytical perspectives. We need to know more, for example, about Soviet expectations and objectives. Of course Soviet archives remain sacrosanct; Soviet leaders decline to collaborate with the Columbia Oral History Research Office; and Soviet history is for the most part worthless. Consider the Sivachev-Yakovlev Russia and the United States, a peculiar entry by the University of Chicago Press in its otherwise estimable series “The United States in the World: Foreign Perspectives.”

Sivachev and Yakovlev give the American revisionists a benign pat on the head. “Often people find that their arguments coincide with the Soviet point of view. Without question, this is correct—the ‘revisionists,’ somewhat tardily, have agreed with Soviet historians regarding who bears the responsibility for the cold war.” But the revisionists do not go far enough to satisfy Sivachev and Yakovlev, who present a benevolent and infallible Soviet Union, incapable of offense, miscalculation, or error, patiently seeking peace against all manner of Western provocation. Excerpts should convey the flavor:

In spite of all this, the Soviet Union continued efforts directed toward reducing international tension, and sought ways to normalize relations with the United States….

As far as the USSR was concerned, there was no necessity for any reappraisal of values, for the Soviet government continued, as before, to adhere to the principles of peaceful coexistence….

The cold war had not achieved the goals on which those who initiated it in the West had been counting…..

The notion of “two superpowers” is alien to Soviet foreign policy in principle; our diplomacy works in the interests of universal peace and international security….

Therefore Moscow has been so serious and tireless in promoting the course of peaceful coexistence, slowing down the arms race, and disarmament.13

This is history as dime novel melodrama. There are, alas, no revisionists published in the Soviet Union.

Since Soviet historians can’t or won’t do a competent job on Soviet policy, Western historians have to do what they can with what evidence they can uncover. We have had a very few revealing glimpses behind Kremlin gates—Khrushchev’s memoirs for example, and Djilas’s Conversations with Stalin. Joseph Starobin in American Communism in Crisis, 1943-195714 and Philip J. Jaffe in The Rise and Fall of American Communism15 supply informed accounts of the view from Twelfth Street CP headquarters. There are several able books on the French and Italian Communist Parties. Eugenio Reale’s Avec Jacques Duclos…à la réunion constitutive du Kominform gives an invaluable inside picture of the crucial Cominform meeting in September 1947 in Poland. Soviet memoirs and the Soviet press when carefully decoded, the writings of defectors, commentary from the East European satellites and from West European Marxists—this rather considerable body of secondary evidence, if no substitute for the Kremlin documents, still provides the basis for reasoned and reasonable conjecture. As Vojtech Mastny points out in Russia’s Road to the Cold War: Diplomacy, Warfare, and the Politics of Communism, 1941-1945, the student of Soviet policies is not notably worse off than historians of the ancient world who also have to form judgments from fragmentary evidence. “In fact, on recent events as well, some of the best books have been written before the archives opened their doors and some of the worst have been the product of extensive abuse of archival material.”

Mastny’s effort is to work out the theory of the postwar world that inspired Soviet actions during and immediately after the Second World War. He dismisses the idea of a Soviet master plan: “Stalin’s goals should be considered as evolving rather than as a design firmly fixed and single-mindedly pursued.” He is unimpressed too by the notion of Stalin’s total control in the USSR. “Behind the formidable façade of Stalinism there loomed inefficiency, opportunism, and drift.” And he accepts the view of relative Soviet weakness. “As an art of compensating for the deficiency of power, diplomacy loomed large in the Russian conduct of the war.”

Mastny’s Stalin is secure if not all-powerful at home, cautious and opportunistic abroad, mistrustful of leftwing partisan movements in Europe, ineradicably hostile to the Western allies, determined to defend Soviet security. A more effective diplomat than Roosevelt and Churchill, Stalin “had by the fall of 1944 secured Russia’s supremacy in all the countries he regarded as vital for its security, and beyond.” But in Mastny’s view, the ease with which this was accomplished stimulated Stalin to inflate Soviet security requirements. “Has craving for security was limitless.”

A key Mastny witness is Maxim Litvinov, Commissar of Foreign Affairs from 1930 to 1939, spokesman at the League of Nations, ambassador to Washington from 1941 to 1943. As early as October 1944, Litvinov warned the journalist Edgar Snow that trouble was brewing: “Diplomacy might have been able to do something to avoid it if we had made our purposes clear to the British and if we had made clear the limits of our needs, but now it is too late, suspicions are rife on both sides.” When Snow came again to Moscow in June 1945, Litvinov asked, “Why did you Americans wait till now to begin opposing us in the Balkans and Eastern Europe?…. You should have done this three years ago. Now it’s too late and your complaints only arouse suspicion here.” In November 1945 Harriman asked Litvinov what could be done to reverse the trend toward confrontation. Litvinov replied bleakly, “Nothing.” Asked the same question by Richard C. Hottelet of CBS in June 1946, Litvinov said, “If the West acceded to the current Soviet demands it would be faced, after a more or less short time, with the next series of demands.”16 No Soviet diplomat was better known to the West than Litvinov; and American policy makers, reading his judgments, might be excused for attending to his conclusions. Nor can subsequent historians claim he was saying such things to serve the interests of an expansionist capitalism.

Mastny himself endorses the Litvinov thesis. “Russia’s striving for power and influence far in excess of its reasonable security requirements was the primary source of conflict, and the Western failure to resist it early enough an important secondary one.” Stalin, he adds, “might have acted with more restraint if…the Western powers had taken a firm and unequivocal stand early enough.” But would earlier Western firmness have discouraged or would it have intensified the Soviet determination to grab, as Litvinov put it to Alexander Werth, “all they could while the going was good?”17 No one can answer this question with any confidence.

Mastny overlooks, moreover, the domestic constraints on Western policy. Until Japan was beaten, both the American and British governments would have found it almost impossible to justify challenging an ally in Europe, when it would have meant a longer war in the Far East. After V-J day, the Western governments remained for a season the prisoner of their own wartime propaganda about the noble Soviet ally. Their peoples, desperately weary of war, demanding the swift demobilization of the armed forces, would have required compelling evidence before they could rouse themselves to face a new international crisis. Had their leaders seemed to prejudge Soviet purposes, domestic resistance to a firm policy, considerable enough in any event, would have been overwhelming, and the revisionist case would be far more persuasive today. The experiment in postwar collaboration had to be seen to fail before counteraction was politically acceptable.

But there is much more to Mastny’s book than his thesis. For all its unduly polemical tone, Russia’s Road is a valuable work, containing much new evidence and insight on such questions as the Second Front controversy, the fear of a separate peace, unconditional surrender, spheres of influence, Soviet attitudes toward European resistance movements, and a host of other questions. One is constrained to agree with Walter LaFeber, an able and moderate revisionist, who writes on the jacket that “Mastny has given us what will probably become the authoritative volume on the role of Soviet and Eastern Europe foreign policies in the origins of the Cold War.”

  1. 11

    W.A. Harriman and Elie Abel, Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin, 1941-1946 (Random House, 1975), p. 366.

  2. 12

    D.C. Watt, “Rethinking the Cold War,” Political Quarterly, October-December 1978.

  3. 13

    Russia and the United States, pp. 247, 240, 249, 255, 269.

  4. 14

    Harvard University Press, 1972; University of California Press, 1975.

  5. 15

    Horizon Press, 1975.

  6. 16

    Italics added. Litvinov made similar comments to Alexander Werth and Cyrus Sulzberger. Mastny has assembled the Litvinov dossier in his article “The Cassandra in the Foreign Commissariat,” Foreign Affairs, January 1976. Revisionists tend to ignore Litvinov’s testimony.

  7. 17

    Alexander Werth, Russia at War, 1941-1945 (Dutton, 1964), p. 938.

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