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.


The reader who has followed us thus far may well ask how a book which replaces the excesses of partisanship of its predecessors with excesses of its own can be a major contribution to historical understanding. The answer lies in the very nature of historical understanding. The historian is limited in his understanding of the past by the vantage point from which he beholds the past. That vantage point, in turn, is determined by the sum of his “personal equation,” that is, his personality, his interests, his philosophy, his attitude toward the issues of the present. That limitation we must take for granted in all historians. No historian can have the whole truth about the past; for he is able to see only what is visible from his particular vantage point, which is determined by his personal traits and tendencies and by his involvement in the present.

What distinguishes the mere partisan of a cause from the historian is not partisanship—Mommsen was as much a partisan of liberalism under strong national leadership as any politician supporting Bismarck’s ascent to power, and Froude saw in the Church of Rome as much a threat to the national interests of England as any politician supporting disestablishment. What sets the historian apart from the politician is his relation to the factual evidence. The politician appeals to interest, prejudice, and emotion; the historian lets the evidence, carefully selected for his purpose it is true, speak in support of his position. The professionalism of the historian flows from the competence with which he handles the factual material, and the conclusiveness with which he marshals it in support of his position. His aim, by which his efforts must be judged, is the coherent reconstruction of the past, which illuminates the past, the present, and the human condition regardless of time and place.

Professor Kolko’s book achieves this aim in three significant respects. It demonstrates the unexpected extent to which the United States competed with Great Britain for control of the postwar world. It shows to what extent the Second World War was an international civil war, in which the defeat of the Axis powers was sought by the West as a means to the end of the restoration of a pre-Fascist status quo. Subsidiary to this end was the Western opposition to Communism in its Soviet manifestation, in the resistance movements throughout occupied Europe, and in the Communist parties and governments emerging from the war.

War in the twentieth century has become a necessary precondition for the emergence of a powerful Left, and for the first time since 1919 the Left, both in Europe and Asia, issued forth from the shadow of political defeat and impotence to the very center of world politics. War has come to mean not just the defeat of armies or the change of borders, but frequently the destruction or disintegration of social systems. Internal class conflict ripened to complicate the more traditional issues of international political, economic, and military conflict. In China, Italy, Greece, France, and Eastern Europe there were in varying degree real or disguised civil wars taking place at the very time of the war against Germany and Japan. Germany for its part saw the significance to the Allied camp of the movement toward the left and ultimately, in the last moments before defeat, attempted to play on the fears of the West in a manner that profoundly shaped relations among the Allies and the contours of postwar politics.

In Europe the form of the armed Resistance, the phenomenal growth of the Communist parties in Western Europe, and the rise of Soviet power as the tide of the Red Army moved relentlessly toward the West all typified the problem of the Left for the United States. The Resistance and the growth of the Italian and French Communist parties, however, were not the result of the presence of Soviet troops, as was the case in much of Eastern Europe, but of the collapse of the Old Order during the war and its alliance in many nations with fascism.

One can now see, to one’s surprise, that the ideological commitment of the West to the restoration of a pre-Fascist status quo was much stronger and purer, that is, less diluted by considerations of national advantage, than was the Soviet ideological commitment to the Communization of the world. For the West, the destruction of Fascism and the containment of Communism were ends in themselves, for Fascism and Communism were evils to be contained if they could not be destroyed. For Stalin, the destruction of Fascism and the spread of Communism were means to the end of the security of the Soviet state.

Thus, in the months before the outbreak of the Second World War, Great Britain, France, and Poland preferred risking defeat at the hands of the Nazis to a chance to contain them through an alliance with the Soviet Union. What the French Right proclaimed openly in the slogan “Rather Hitler than Blum” underlay as a deepseated ideological preference the domestic and foreign policies of the West: Fascism was bad but Communism was worse. On the other hand, Stalin, without such a strong ideological commitment, could choose between seeking an alliance with the West against Germany and, that failing, coming to an understanding with Germany: both for the purpose of containing German expansion, at least in the direction of the Soviet Union.

Stalin chose the latter alternative and stuck with it even after it had become imprudent to do so. It was Hitler who forced upon both the West and the Soviet Union a course of action which they would have preferred not to take: the West, in order to save itself, had to allow the Red Army to advance into Central Europe, and the Soviet Union had to bear the main brunt of the German onslaught. It is not surprising that an alliance forged not by the free choice of its members but by the necessity imposed upon them by the common enemy began to dissolve when the weight of necessity began to lift. One can now see that alliance as a kind of interlude in an international civil war which began in 1917 and has continued to this day. One can now see also that this international civil war was not so much interrupted by the alliance as glossed over and forced underground.

Professor Kolko’s book is in good measure an account of how that civil war was waged by the United States. That account is persuasive and illuminating. It cannot but make on doubt the chances of one’s own often repeated advice that the government of the United States ought at the very least to refrain from opposing revolution in the Third World. But the account suffers from two major deficiencies. They are interrelated, stemming as they do from the author’s personal perspective which sees only the faults of the United States, while it shoves the faults of others into the background, if it does not pass them over altogether. Since Professor Kolko sees the United States as the villain and embraces the philosophy of economic determinism, he yields to the temptation of attributing to American policy a rational coherence and Machiavellian purpose which run counter to the historical evidence. The author himself shows clearly the weakness of Roosevelt’s leadership, a weakness of knowledge, understanding, and will. Only Secretary of War Stimson and Assistant Secretary of War McCloy emerge from his account as statesmen who understood the interplay of interests and power, means and ends, in the foreign policy of their own country as well as that of others; and they were, not by accident I presume, the least ideologically motivated of American statesmen.

What his account does not reveal is the messiness of the political management of the war on the American side. This is particularly obvious in the disjunction between political objectives and military operations. Had American policy been endowed with the single-minded political purpose which Professor Kolko attributes to it, it would have made military strategy a servant of that purpose. That is to say, the United States would have followed Churchill’s advice: It would have gone as far East as possible and stayed there until the Russians had fulfilled their part of the bargain. Instead, no clear-cut and consistently applied political purpose informed military strategy. That was as true in Asia as it was in Europe. The exchange of messages among Generals Marshall, Eisenhower, and Bradley concerning strategy during the last phase of the war against Germany provides a classic illustration of the political vacuum which existed at the top and made it inevitable for generals mindful of their subordination to the civilian authorities to fashion their strategy without regard to a political purpose.

Had the government of the United States really been as acute politically as Professor Kolko makes it out to have been, it would have pursued a military strategy which could easily have kept Czechoslovakia out of the Soviet orbit and prevented Berlin from becoming an enclave in Soviet-controlled territory. What the author leaves out of account is the enormous and frequently decisive influence ignorance, absentmindedness, and a naive reliance upon the beneficial effects of good will and peaceful intentions have exerted upon American foreign policy. What he overstresses and misconstrues as a conscious and consistent foreign policy, tied functionally to objective institutional forces, is in essence a conservative mood, a fear of radical social change, especially in the form of Communism.

The same urge to charge the United States with the responsibility for the breakdown of the alliance and for the Cold War is responsible for Professor Kolko’s neglect of certain objective factors that make international conflicts—like domestic ones—well-nigh inevitable. As orthodox and revisionist historians look at the world from different perspectives which force upon them different views of the world, so nations look upon the world and, more particularly, upon one another, from different vantage points, misunderstanding one another and themselves in the process, seeking to realize incompatible types of world order, and opposing one another because of those different world views and misunderstandings. In the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, spheres of influence are a case in point.


Since the Second World War, the Soviet Union has been the foremost practitioner of a spheres-of-influence policy, while the United States has been opposed to spheres of influence as a matter of principle. The Soviet Union never made any bones about its desire to acquire a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and to divide the world into spheres of influence as well. According to the “Secret Additional Protocol” to the Treaty of Non-Aggression of August 23, 1939, better known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet Union and Germany “discussed in strictly confidential conversations the question of the boundaries of their respective spheres of influence.” During the Second World War, the Soviet Union persistently pressed Great Britain for a spheres-of-influence agreement dividing Europe, and while Great Britain appeared agreeable, the United States was as persistently opposed.

It was in the face of that temporarily relenting opposition that Churchill and Stalin, on October 9, 1944, concluded personally and most informally an agreement dividing the Balkans into Soviet and non-Soviet spheres of influence. The agreement gave the Soviet Union 90 percent influence in Rumania and 75 percent in Bulgaria, divided Soviet and Western influence equally in Hungary and Yugoslavia, and allotted Great Britain 90 percent influence in Greece. After the war, the Soviet Union made numerous proposals for the division of the world into two gigantic spheres of influence, dominated by the Soviet Union and the United States. While these proposals were never officially acknowledged by the United States, they were occasionally referred to in the press. In The New York Times of March 13, 1950, for instance, James Reston reported such a proposal under the heading “Soviet Move Seen for Deal with US to Divide World,” and he concluded that “there is no evidence that officials here are even slightly interested in such a deal.”

This lack of interest was not limited to the officials of the day; rather it reflects a consistent opposition to spheres of influence of any kind. During the Second World War, Secretary of State Cordell Hull was in the forefront of that opposition. In his Memoirs, he declared he was not “a believer in the idea of balance of power or spheres of influence as a means of keeping the peace.” When he reported to Congress on November 18, 1943 on the Moscow Conference, which had agreed on the establishment of the United Nations, he declared that “there will no longer be need for spheres of influence, for alliances, for balance of power, or any other of the special arrangements through which, in the unhappy past, the nations strove to safeguard their security or promote their interests.” And Franklin D. Roosevelt stated as fact on March 1, 1945, in his report to Congress on the Yalta Conference: “The Crimean Conference…spells the end of the system of unilateral action and exclusive alliances and spheres of influence and balances of power and all the other expedients which have been tried for centuries—and have failed.”

This opposition to spheres of influence is rooted in two tenets of American political philosophy: the availability of an alternative to “power politics” in the form of a universal international organization, and the universal applicability of democratic procedures and institutions as a remedy for political ills. The first tenet is clearly and consistently expressed in Hull’s utterances. Recalling in his Memoirs his opposition to a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, he wrote: “I could sympathize fully with Stalin’s desire to protect his Western borders from future attack. But I felt that this security could best be obtained through a strong postwar peace organization…. It seemed to me that any creation of zones of influence would inevitably sow the seeds of future conflict. I felt that zones of influence could not but derogate from the overall authority of the international security organizations which I expected would come into being.” In other words, nations have a choice between traditional “power politics,” with all its moral liabilities and political risks, of which spheres of influence form an intrinsic part, and a new and different kind of foreign policy free of those liabilities and risks.

The other tenet has been most eloquently formulated by Woodrow Wilson in his message to the Senate on January 22, 1917:

No peace can last, or ought to last, which does not recognize and accept the principle that governments derive all their just powers from the consent of the governed and that no right anywhere exists to hand people about from potentate to potentate as if they were property…. I am proposing, as it were, that the nations should with one accord adopt the doctrine of President Monroe as the doctrine of the world: that no nation should seek to extend its policy over any other nation or people, but that every people should be left free to determine its own policy, its own way of development, unhindered, unthreatened, unafraid, the little along with the great and powerful.

At Yalta and at the conferences and in the diplomatic exchanges following it our insistence upon democratic governments for the nations of Eastern Europe became the main ideological weapon with which we tried to nullify the transformation of Eastern Europe into a Soviet sphere of influence.

However, this opposition to spheres of influence as a matter of principle has been completely at odds not only with the Soviet conception of international order but also with two facets of our own foreign policy: the championship of a sphere of influence when it was supposed to serve our interests, and our acquiescence in practice in the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

The Monroe Doctrine, stipulating the exclusion of European political institutions and territorial acquisitions from the Western Hemisphere and thereby allowing the preponderance of the United States free play, is the most comprehensive unilateral proclamation of a sphere of influence of modern times. American statesmen have not hesitated to refer to the Western Hemisphere or part of it as an American sphere of influence (and, needless to say, they have never insisted, as they did in Eastern Europe, that democratic governments be established in Latin America). Secretary of State Robert Lansing, invoking the Monroe Doctrine as well as more specific American interests, wrote in a state paper addressed to President Wilson that “The Caribbean is within the peculiar sphere of influence of the United States….” None other than Woodrow Wilson said that “In adopting the Monroe Doctrine the United States assumed the part of Big Brother to the rest of America,” and referred to the Western Hemisphere as an “implied and partial protectorate.” The inconsistency of dealing with the Western Hemisphere as an American sphere of influence as a matter of course and opposing, as a matter of principle, all other spheres of influence moved Winston Churchill, in defending his deal with Stalin on the Balkans against American opposition, to write to the British Ambassador in Washington: “On the other hand, we follow the lead of the United States in South America as far as possible, as long as it is not a question of our beef and mutton. On this we naturally develop strong views on account of the little we get.”

American opposition to spheres of influence per se is not only inconsistent with American practice in the Western Hemisphere, but inconsistent also with American practice in that sphere of influence which provoked our most strenuous opposition: the Soviet sphere in Eastern Europe. The conflict between ourselves and the Soviet Union, which is at the root of the Cold War, arose at Yalta from incompatible conceptions and aspirations concerning the shape of the postwar world. The Soviet Union, following in the footsteps of Czarist Russia, wanted an exclusive sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. The West, while supporting military dictatorships throughout Latin America, wanted to keep at least a measure of influence in Eastern Europe through the instrumentality of democratic governments, which, however, were supposed to be friendly to the Soviet Union.

Yet Stalin saw the inner contradiction of that proposal and did not hesitate to resolve it in favor of the Soviet Union. “A freely elected government in any of these countries,” he observed at Yalta, “would be anti-Soviet, and that we cannot allow.” The Red Army, then already in control of Eastern Europe, provided the guarantee that what the Soviet Union could not allow would not come to pass. Thus what the United States sought to achieve at Yalta was impossible of achievement so long as the Red Army was in control in Eastern Europe. When President Roosevelt reported to Congress that “The Crimean Conference…spells the end of the system of unilateral action…spheres of influence…and all the other expedients which have been tried for centuries,” he intended to proclaim victory for the American conception of the postwar world.

In truth, he had ratified, without knowing it, the triumph of the Soviet conception. For it was exactly through this “system of unilateral action…spheres of influence…and all the other expedients” of traditional power politics that Stalin intended to, and actually did, secure the interests of the Soviet Union. The briefing book that President Truman took with him to the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 summarized the situation in these laconic terms: “Eastern Europe is, in fact, a Soviet sphere of influence.”

American rhetoric refused to reconcile itself to this fact. As the Soviet Union has reproached us for refusing to recognize its sphere of influence, so we have reproached the Soviet Union for having acquired it. More than that, for about a decade after the end of the war, we have intimated through slogans such as “Liberation” and “Roll Back” that we were contemplating a policy to undo what Stalin had achieved. But, as the London Economist pointed out on August 30, 1952, “Unhappily ‘liberation’ applied to Eastern Europe—and Asia—means either the risk of war or it means nothing….’Liberation’ entails no risk of war only when it means nothing.”

That this is what it meant became obvious when the United States remained inactive during the German uprising of 1953, the Polish revolt and Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The two latter events are particularly revealing in that the United States declared from the outset, in the case of the Hungarian Revolution through its President, that it would refrain from intervening on behalf of democracy and against exclusive Soviet control. We are here not concerned with the merits of this policy of abstention, but only with its bearing upon the American opposition to spheres of influence, especially to the Soviet sphere in Eastern Europe. Our policy of abstention, reducing “liberation” to nothing, by the same token amounted to the implicit recognition of the Soviet sphere of influence. What we had refused to do explicitly at Yalta and ever since, we have done implicitly through consistent inaction. Our inaction repudiated our policy at Yalta and our rhetoric following it, as well as the moral principles from which both stem.

Not only have American policies concerning spheres of influence been at odds in different periods of history, but the official opposition to spheres of influence has been challenged by the highest political authority, the President himself. One challenge remained without practical results. It is reported in a memorandum by the late Cardinal Spellman, entitled “Here are a few outstanding points of the conversation” the Cardinal had with President Roosevelt on September 3, 1943. Under the sub-heading “Collaboration of the ‘Big Four”‘ we read:

It is planned to make an agreement among the Big Four. Accordingly the world will be divided into spheres of influence: China gets the Far East; the US the Pacific; Britain and Russia, Europe and Africa. But as Britain has predominantly colonial interests it might be assumed that Russia will predominate in Europe. Although Chiang Kai-shek will be called in on the great decisions concerning Europe, it is understood that he will have no influence on them. The same thing might become true—although to a lesser degree—for the US. He hoped, although it might be wishful thinking, that the Russian intervention in Europe would not be too harsh.

The other challenge, operating within President Roosevelt’s mind as well as between himself, on the one hand, and Cordell Hull and Harry Hopkins, on the other, concerns the British-Soviet spheres-of-influence agreement over the Balkans. Churchill informed Roosevelt of his plan, and Roosevelt ordered an approving cable to be sent to Churchill. Hopkins intercepted the cable and persuaded Roosevelt to send instead a cable to Stalin, reaffirming the American opposition to spheres of influence.

There is in this global war literally no question, either military or political,…in which the United States is not interested. You will naturally understand this. It is my firm conviction that the solution to still unsolved question can be found only by the three of us together. Therefore, while I appreciate the necessity for the present meeting, I choose to consider your forthcoming talks with Mr. Churchill merely as preliminary to a conference of the three of us….

However, Roosevelt approved the deal once it was made, while Hull remained strenuously opposed.

Spheres of influence, as Churchill and Stalin knew and Roosevelt recognized sporadically, were not created by evil and benighted statesmen and, hence, cannot be abolished by an act of will on the part of good and enlightened ones. Like the balance of power, alliances, arms races, political and military rivalries and conflicts, and the rest of “power politics,” spheres of influence are the ineluctable by-product of the interplay of interests and power in a society of sovereign nations. If you want to rid the world of spheres of influence and the other “expedients” of “power politics,” you must transform that society of sovereign nations into a supranational one whose sovereign government can set effective limits to the expansionism of the nations composing it. Spheres of influence is one of the symptoms of the disease, if this is what you want to call “power politics,” and it is at best futile and at worst mischievous to try to extirpate the symptom while leaving the cause unattended.

Thus the American political mind has been engaged in a three-cornered war. It has been at war with the political realities, which do not yield to the invocation of moral principles. It has been at war with its moral principles, since it must condone implicitly what it condemns explicitly and is powerless to change. And it has been at war again with its moral principles since it practices with a good conscience what it condemns in others. It closes the gap between its moral principles and its political practices by juxtaposing its selfless intentions, most eloquently propounded, as for instance by Wilson in justifying the intervention in Mexico, with the evil purposes of other nations.

The war with the political realities has proven to be a quixotic futility, creating hopes sure to be disappointed and inciting actions doomed to fail. One war with moral principles opens up a gap between words and deeds, suggesting political weakness. The other war with moral principles results in a self-confident pragmatism, which, in the best British tradition, combines moral assurance with political advantage.

A classic example of this combination is provided by the telephone conversation between Secretary of War Stimson and Assistant Secretary of War McCloy of May, 1945, which Professor Kolko quotes. The issue was how to combine the exclusiveness of the American sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere with the international organization then planned. Both officials agreed that the formation of similar spheres in Europe and Asia for the benefit of the Soviet Union would conjure up the risk of war and destroy the effectiveness of the international organization. They also agreed that the exclusive American sphere in the Americas, where the United States could act unilaterally, must be preserved: “I think,” said Stimson, “that it’s not asking too much to have our little region over here which never has bothered anybody.” They further agreed that the Soviet Union could not object to such an arrangement since it was building a similar sphere in Eastern Europe. Finally, they agreed that, according to McCloy, “we have a very strong interest in being able to intervene promptly in Europe…we ought to have our cake and eat it too; that we ought to be free to operate under this regional arrangement in South America, at the same time intervene promptly in Europe; that we oughtn’t to give away either asset.” Both denied that the position the United States occupies in the Western Hemisphere was analogous to the one the Soviet Union aspired to in Europe, because our intervention in the Western Hemisphere did not upset the world balance of power while Soviet intervention in Europe would.

In other words, we could not divorce the centuries-old Russian aspirations for a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe from the world-wide aspirations of Communism, and, hence, we interpreted the Soviet Union’s territorial war aims as a stepping stone toward the Communization of the world; as we later interpreted North Korea’s invasion of South Korea as the opening shot in a Communist campaign to conquer the world. On the other hand, the Soviet Union, baffled by the combination of our quixotic dedication to abstract moral principles with our cold-blooded attempt to restore the status quo ante bellum, interpreted our political opposition to the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe as still another manifestation of undying capitalist enmity. The United States and the Soviet Union understood, and in good measure misunderstood, each other’s policies according to dogmatic ideological assumptions about the unchanging nature of the other, seemingly buttressed by experience.


This dogmatic distortion is one important factor that goes into the making of foreign policy. To understand its historic manifestations and significance one does not need to search for a villain. It is enough to be aware of the frailty of human reason, driven by passion and unequal to the rich complexities of experience. In that frailty all men share, Greeks and Persians, Americans and Russians. Beholding them all as brothers in blindness, we can be just to them. That is the justice of Thucydides, of which Louis Halle’s The Cold War as History is a contemporary echo. This justice, as we have seen, is rare; for it requires a commitment to charitable understanding—“when mercy seasons justice”—being at odds with the commitment to particular adversary interests. This quality is absent from Professor Kolko’s work.

Professor Kolko’s justice is not charitable but compensatory. He has seen the partial and partisan justice, which amounts to injustice, of the orthodox historians and undertakes to set the record straight. Thus he pits his partisan and partial justice, which is also injustice, against theirs. From the dialectic interplay of these opposing and partial views of the truth a vision of the whole emerges. The one-sidedness of one impinges on the one-sidedness of the other as a qualification and a corrective. Taken together and infused with the charitable view beyond partisanship which sees weakness and error all around, they give an account of history “as it really was.”

The political significance of Professor Kolko’s book derives from its correspondence with the contemporary mood. That mood reacts negatively to the simple and simplistic equation, obligatory during the war and postwar periods, of American interests and policies with democratic virtue and wisdom, and those of their enemies with totalitarian folly and vice. As the orthodox historiography of the Second World War and the Cold-War expressed and justified that ideological juxtaposition, so the revisionism of Professor Kolko expresses and justifies the new mood of ideological sobriety. However, given the moralism behind American political thinking regardless of its content, revisionism tends to be as moralistic in its critique of American foreign policy as orthodoxy is in defending it. While the moralistic approach remains, the moral labels have been reversed: what once was right is now wrong, and vice versa. Yet as historic truth may emerge from the dialectic of opposite extremes, qualified and tempered by charity and understanding, so sound political judgment requires both the recognition of extreme positions as inevitable and of their possible transcendence through a morality which is as alien to the moralism of our political folklore as Thucydidean justice is to the compensatory justice of opposing historical schools.

This Issue

July 10, 1969