The pursuit of the national interest is supposed to be the goal of foreign policy, but, like happiness, it is subject to a variety of definitions. For nearly a quarter of a century Americans have tended to agree about the ambitions and methods of our foreign policy. This has extended at least from the Truman Doctrine of 1947, which codified the breakdown of the wartime alliance with Russia, until Lyndon Johnson was driven from office for waging a war that could no longer be justified under the outworn tenets of the containment doctrine.

For the moment we are in the watershed between the two eras. The cold war—that period when the fate of the world was defined by our contest with Soviet Russia and the amorphous entity we labeled “international communism”—is over. But it is not yet clear what is going to replace it. Nixon and Kissinger extol a balance of power theory which, on closer inspection, looks suspiciously like a formula to maintain American hegemony by shifting some of the cost to prosperous allies and to client regimes rich in cannon-fodder. It remains to be seen whether this can be any more than a holding operation until the whole postwar structure collapses.

At a time of such upheaval it is not surprising to find a certain nostalgia for the good old days of the cold war when a client was a friend and an adversary an enemy, the kind of nostalgia that marks Charles Bohlen’s memoirs, which I have discussed earlier [NYR, May 31], and Eugene Rostow’s Peace in the Balance. A curious combination of lament for Lyndon Johnson, resurrection of cold war litanies, diatribe against “New Left” revisionism, and appeal for an international “rule of law” adjudicated in Washington, Rostow’s book is the eloquent statement of an unreconstructed cold warrior.

Rostow assures us that although the United States has made some mistakes over the past thirty years, “it has been on the right track” and “has had no real alternative to the general course it has pursued.” Rostow was in the State Department during the Johnson administration and is now teaching law at Yale. He is one of those members of the bureaucratic-academic complex who seems equally at home in the faculty club and in the Pentagon. His government and legal experience have taught him that, in spite of some impressions to the contrary, the United States has used force against other nations only “to achieve and preserve a balance of power in the world, and the reciprocal acceptance of rules of restraint in the conduct of international affairs.”

In this celebration of cold war diplomacy, Rostow also enthusiastically resurrects some of the cold war bogeys that might have slipped our minds. We are reminded of the late Lin Piao’s vision of peasant armies surrounding the “cities” of the Western world, that Khrushchev favored wars of national liberation, and that communists can be expected to “draw on the full armory of modern guerrilla warfare, using both violence and political and psychological weapons in various combinations.” Stooping to any tactics, communists “sponsor proxy wars and guerrilla wars, kidnappings, assassinations, bombings and bank robberies.” Bank robberies! What is the world coming to? (In fact he has compiled a list of the “adventurist” and “infantile leftist” tactics that the Communist party has been opposing in Latin America.) What is worse, “organized demonstrators are thrown into the streets on any plausible excuse in order to demoralize a weak government and to precipitate police violence that could rally support.” One wonders whether Rostow has in mind the CIA-engineered coup that toppled Mossadegh in Iran.

The Fifties are apparently having a revival in more ways than one. With Rostow we are transported back to the giddiest days of the Dulles era. While Soviet expansionism has paused before an American “threat of reprisal with overwhelming force” (remember “massive retaliation”?), nonetheless “Soviet energy presses outward, patient and ingenious, flowing around obstacles, taking advantage of every opening.” Already “Europe has been outflanked in the Mediterranean, and perhaps in the northern seas as well.” The goal is nothing less than “West European neutrality and disarmament and American withdrawal both from the Continent and from the Mediterranean.” Why the Europeans, who are more populous and richer than the Russians, and have no illusions about them, will want to disarm, even in the unlikely event of an American withdrawal, Rostow does not tell us.

A useful antidote to Rostow’s agitated call to arms is Alistair Buchan’s sensible little book, Power and Equilibrium in the 1970s. Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies in London for more than a decade, Buchan can hardly be accused of indulging in wishful thinking about Soviet power. Yet he calmly points out,

To take fright at the prospect of half a dozen Soviet ships in the Indian Ocean, of a squadron in the eastern Mediterranean (smaller and less well-equipped than the Italian navy), or the occasional cruiser off the coast of South America is, first, to be guilty of a form of hubris which will bedevil our thinking about the new pattern of international equilibrium, namely, that the high seas are an exclusive Western possession; secondly, to act as an unpaid public relations officer for Fleet Admiral Gorshkov.

Whereas Rostow tells us of our duty to protect the Third World from the machinations of Russia, China, and Cuba, acting “separately or in various combinations,” Buchan reminds us that both the communists and the Western powers have lost their zest for intervening in the developing world, except where their own primary interests are directly affected. “The major powers,” Buchan observes, “today are more concerned…with milieu, not possession, goals—to create a climate that is favorable to extension of their influence rather than to annex territory.”


In contrast to Nixon’s warning in early 1972 that “if the Soviet Union continues to expand strategic forces, compensatory US programs will be mandatory,” the former director of the West’s leading research institute for strategic studies declares that “given the vast second-strike capability which the United States in fact maintains, I find it hard to see how any level of Soviet strategic power, except of a size that would bankrupt the country, can seriously threaten American security.” Indeed, as he observes, this was confirmed by Nixon himself when he signed the SALT treaty a year ago.

In Buchan’s view the bipolar world of the American-Russian confrontation is over and we are moving toward a new kind of balance of power, one that “resembles not a pair of scales, but a mobile” with varying components of different weights, “the whole system being in a constant state of gentle movement and vibration.” Power can no longer be defined as simply military force, but as the exercise of political influence. In such a world it is impossible to view events in every part of the globe as equally important. Peace is in fact divisible and technology has not annihilated distance. He argues that the key to maintaining a stable power balance in Europe and East Asia, where the two superpowers are actively engaged, is what Marshall Shulman has described as “access,” or the right of interpenetration, the resistance of claims to exclusive spheres of influence.

Buchan understands the difference between power and force, showing that it was a misunderstanding of the global balance of power that led to Vietnam. As a result, he told his audience at the Council on Foreign Relations where he gave the lectures that comprise this book, “the United States has come, for the time being, to be regarded in Europe, in Pacific Asia, in the developing world, less as the mainspring of civilization and more as the generator of crude power.”

While hardly a revisionist, Buchan destroys many of the cold war assumptions on which Rostow’s book depends. Central to Rostow’s thesis is the view that nothing very much has changed since 1947: “Soviet energy” is still relentlessly pressing outward and American interventionism is designed only to uphold freedom and the rule of law. Naturally this leads him into sharp disagreement with liberal critics such as J. W. Fulbright, but his most strident comments are directed against the cold war revisionists. In one of the many sweeping generalities in which Rostow’s book abounds, he declares that “most of the members of this group would consider themselves relatively orthodox Marxists in their intellectual formation”—a conclusion that would come as a surprise to many revisionists. He concedes that historians of the radical left “hardly march in goose step,” but he seems to have considerable difficulty in telling them apart. By choosing Carl Oglesby as the quintessential revisionist and attacking Containment and Change as though it were some kind of revisionist I Ching, he avoids dealing with the complex and disparate arguments of such revisionist historians as Kolko, Lloyd Gardner, Walter LaFeber, and William A. Williams.

Rostow’s attack upon the revisionists rests upon a dubious interpretation of the historical record. For example, in denigrating the revisionist accusation that the United States must at least share responsibility for the cold war, he declares that the Russians had innumerable opportunities to show their good faith by accepting such generous American offers as the Baruch plan or the Marshall Plan, both of which were “dramatic episodes in a long list of American proposals for general detente.” Other such dramatic episodes, according to Rostow, include plans for troop reductions in Europe and creation of denuclearized zones.

Surely Rostow must think his readers are babes in the woods. The Baruch plan would have perpetuated the American monopoly on nuclear weapons production, and the Marshall Plan, as Charles Bohlen has shown, was designed so as to make Soviet participation impossible. As for troop reductions and denuclearized zones, it was the United States that consistently rejected such proposals—as Kennan relates so mournfully in the second volume of his memoirs—preferring a Europe divided into hostile blocs rather than a settlement involving withdrawal and neutralization. In the early 1950s, when the Russians seemed seriously interested in the neutralization and reunification of Germany, it was John Foster Dulles and Rostow’s hero, Dean Acheson, who stood opposed.


Rostow’s respect for the historical record is highly flexible. In discussing the accords ending the Indochina war in 1954, he makes the statement, remarkable for a professor of law, that the development of “separate and independent regimes” in North and South Vietnam was “exactly what the Geneva conference contemplated.” In fact, it was the precise opposite, since the final declaration of the conference plainly stated that the “military demarcation line is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary.”

In his argument that SEATO obliged us to defend the various regimes in Saigon, Rostow neglects to point out that such justification was not even mentioned until North Vietnamese units began to appear on the scene to counter the American forces fighting the Viet Cong. Even then, as Ernest Gross, former legal adviser to the State Department, reminded Rostow in a letter to The New York Times (November 24, 1972), the terms and legislative history of SEATO make clear that the treaty “did not contemplate armed intervention without prior Congressional sanction, which had been neither sought nor granted.”

Rostow also has a free and easy way with quotations that would put the most unscrupulous radical-revisionist source-distorter to shame. For example, in his breathtaking discussion of the Middle East, which pins the blame for the Arab-Israeli quarrel mainly on the Soviet Union, he asserts that “George Kennan and other writers had assured Western opinion that there need be no Western concern about the possibility of Soviet expansion in the Middle East, because an Arab association with the Soviet Union was impossible for religious reasons.” If one checks the original, however, one finds in the first volume of Kennan’s memoirs (p. 317) something quite different from what Rostow leads the reader to believe is there. In a discussion of military aid to Greece and Turkey under the Truman Doctrine, Kennan commented on the “infection” of the Middle East in these words:

I did not underrate the seriousness of the Russian-Communist penetration among the restless intelligentsia of the Moslem capitals. But I questioned the ultimate ability of the Russians to disaffect and dominate the entire Moslem world. Not only was their ideology in conflict with the Moslem faith, but they were just not that good.

Not only is Rostow given to hyperbole and unjustified accusations but his conclusions are surprisingly shallow. His chapter on the revisionists, for example, ends in a stirring peroration for free enterprise, in which he notes that “the nations of the Third World that have made the most economic and social progress are those that have utilized the energies of the market and the motivations of private business, not those that followed one or another of the totalitarian models.” It is not often nowadays, outside the confines of the John Birch Society and the NAM, that the alternative to “private business” is defined as totalitarianism. Either as defender of the faith or as scourge of the revisionists, Rostow is unpersuasive.

A more systematic broadside against revisionist history is Robert James Maddox’s The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War. Setting out to undermine the revisionists, Maddox has taken the novel step of ignoring their arguments about motives and historical forces. Instead he has chosen to examine the footnotes of the leading revisionist texts. Comparing these to the original sources, which he has exhumed and examined with an awesome patience, Maddox has concluded that the major revisionist texts “without exception are based upon pervasive misusages of the source materials.” The worst offenders are those he calls the “hard” revisionists who see the cold war as the result of the workings of American capitalism and the drive for overseas economic expansion. Not only are they obsessed with economic matters, but they employ a double standard, viewing Russia’s actions as dictated by security needs, while “Western actions are measured against some high ideal and found wanting.”

William Appleman Williams, he asserts, fails to produce “even the scantiest evidence” that American policy makers saw the Open Door as the critical factor in relations with Russia, and constructs “imaginary speeches and dialogues by splicing together phrases uttered at different times and on diverse subjects.” Gar Alperovitz is attacked for misusing quotations and “frequently altering in his own words what the sources actually say.” David Horowitz is accused of failure to go back to the original sources and for cribbing from other people’s books. Diane Clemens is praised for her “penetrating analysis” of Yalta, but scolded for ignoring material that might weaken her thesis and for general “overzealousness.” Lloyd Gardner’s Architecture of Illusion is at once praised as the “most sophisticated and convincing account of how the cold war began” from the New Left viewpoint, and damned as “a compendium of myths invented by earlier revisionist writers.” Maddox credits Kolko’s The Politics of War for its forceful prose, its weaving of disparate events into a theoretical framework, and the “apparent thoroughness” with which interpretations are documented. Yet he warns that it contains an “enormous number of factual errors and its interpretations frequently rest upon insupportable renditions of documentary materials.”

Maddox’s charges are serious and his detective work formidable. Surely few historians have ever spent so much effort tracking down the footnotes of others. His objective, apparently, is to discredit what he compendiously refers to as the “New Left,” and to demonstrate, as he declares in his conclusion, that “perhaps, after all, the New Left view of American foreign policy during and immediately after World War II can only be sustained by doing violence to the historical record.”

Does he prove his case? The answer depends, first, on whether one accepts Maddox’s instances of “misstatements of fact, quotations wrenched out of context, and unsupported allegations” at face value, and second, whether such examples do in fact undermine the wider conclusions of the various revisionists about the attitudes and institutions underlying American cold war policies. The second point can quickly be dispensed with. Maddox does not prove, or even systematically argue, that the conclusions of the revisionists are false. He merely suggests this by innuendo, arguing that if the evidence is twisted, then the conclusions are at least suspect. By failing to address himself to this wider issue, however, Maddox retreats just at the point where his charges become interesting. Maybe, as he charges, the revisionist view can be sustained only by distorting the historical record. But maybe such distortions, even where they can be demonstrated, do not undercut the central revisionist argument about the origins of the cold war. From Maddox’s book one would never know.

As for the first point, Maddox’s charges are interesting, but not nearly so substantial as he would have us believe. It is undoubtedly true that revisionists have sometimes been inaccurate in their use of source material, and unduly eager to jump at predetermined conclusions. (This is also true of orthodox, liberal, and reactionary historians.) Too often they use material to justify a thesis already decided upon, instead of letting the thesis flow from the evidence, which might lead to an interpretation that is less interesting, but more convincing. Some of the conclusions reached by various revisionists seem to be based as much upon supposition and inference as upon incontrovertible evidence. Maddox is quite right to draw our attention to such instances.

It is well to remember, however, that historians interpret the same evidence differently, depending on their own time, place, and view of the world. That they often disagree with one another is axiomatic. The fact that they interpret material differently does not prove deliberate distortion. Historians are still debating the causes of the First World War, let alone the Second. Yet what Maddox is trying to prove is not only deliberate distortion on the part of New Left historians, but collusion and conspiracy as well. “It is one thing,” he maintains, “when an individual scholar strains the evidence a bit in order to exaggerate the importance of some obscure politician or general. It is quite another when a growing body of academic historians consistently misuse the fundamental sources of a crucial era in American history.”

But having raised the issue, he fails to produce any evidence for a “New Left” plot to distort the record. Like the prestigious orthodox historians who have supported and publicized his efforts, Maddox seems to think that there is such a thing as a single “New Left” point of view. The truth is, of course, that the revisionists rarely agree among themselves and are continually challenging one another’s interpretations. Some, like Alperovitz and Clemens, see Truman as belligerently reversing Roosevelt’s attempt to cooperate with the Russians. Others, like Kolko, argue that Truman was merely carrying through an anti-Soviet policy that had been launched long before. In his tendency to lump together the socalled “hard” and “soft” revisionists, the economic determinists and those who analyze personality, Maddox blithely creates categories that are both arbitrary and inaccurate. Further, like other counterrevisionists, he seems even more prone to see conspiracies than are those whom he attacks.

Maddox, moreover, undermines his own assault by mixing the trivial with the significant, often failing to distinguish between them. Major questions of judgment and minor points of sloppiness are dealt with as though they were of equal importance. He accuses Lloyd Gardner, for example, of failing, in Architects of Illusion, to “provide any real evidence that the men actually charged with the conduct of American diplomacy acted out of the motives and assumptions he attributed to them.” Yet one searches in vain for sustained criticism that will effectively document this accusation. Instead Maddox gives a list of relatively peripheral issues, such as whether or not Churchill was really surprised when FDR announced the policy of “unconditional surrender” at the 1942 Casablanca conference, or whether a document on German reparations was a memorandum or a “pronouncement,” or whether an editorial from Fortune was paraphrased too liberally, or how the questions on a Gallup poll should be interpreted.

Similarly he accuses Gabriel Kolko of “an enormous number of factual errors” in The Politics of War, and “insupportable renditions of documentary materials.” Yet there is no indication of the degree to which these presumed errors undermine the factual statements in the book, or of their relevance to the central issues raised by Kolko. There is much to criticize in Kolko’s interpretation of the play of forces between America, Britain, and Russia during the Second World War. But it is peripheral to concentrate, as Maddox has done, on whether Kolko has exaggerated the effectiveness of the Red army against the Nazis, or whether a statement about “twenty-six German divisions” means paper divisions or effective ones.

In his zeal to discredit the revisionists, Maddox wrenches quotations out of context, as in his criticism of Gardner for writing that the Yalta accords provided “only that the new Polish provisional government should be a reorganization of the Lublin government,” when in fact they provided as well for free elections. But in Gardner’s text the “only” refers to the reorganization of the provisional government, and in preceding sentences he deals with the question of free elections. Maddox chides Kolko for saying that the American embassy in Moscow reported that the Czechoslovaks were “expressing deep satisfaction” over their treatment by Russia, when in fact the embassy was only quoting a Tass dispatch from London. But as Kolko has recently pointed out, “The Tass dispatch reports Ripka’s and Masaryk’s statements in London, not their own assessment, and no one at the time or thereafter suggested the text of the Czech words were falsified.” In another instance Maddox criticizes Gardner for misquoting from a Truman speech on military preparedness in order to show the President’s bellicosity. By contrast Maddox quotes selective pacific passages from the speech. However, other parts of the same speech, as Gardner later observed, were much more bellicose and not consistent with the tenor of the speech as excerpted by Maddox. Two, it seems, can play the game of selective quotations.

Many of Maddox’s examples of distortion turn out, on closer inspection, to be questions of interpretation, with Maddox’s no more apt, given the evidence, than those of the revisionists he attacks. For example, he accuses Alperovitz of distortion in quoting a statement to Truman by Byrnes that the atomic bomb “might well put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war.” Maddox insists that this remark was made in the context of dictating terms to Japan, not to Russia, and argues that Alperovitz deliberately distorted the quotation by omitting “at the end of the war.” But does this in fact change the meaning? If so, why did Alperovitz quote the statement in full, including the missing phrase, in two other places in Atomic Diplomacy? Surely an effort of deliberate distortion should be more consistent.

Whether from bias, from zeal, or from an inability to see more than one side of a complex issue, Maddox often gives shallow and even erroneous explanations of the very material he analyzes.1 His attack is marred by the very omissions and distortions with which he charges the revisionists. Moreover, the objectivity of his study is hardly reinforced by the personal vindictiveness he shows toward his subjects. The nastiness that infuses this book makes its tone highly disagreeable, whatever one’s attitude about the issues being discussed. The revisionists have certainly been selective in their use of quotations to prove a point. But as Maddox’s book makes clear, this is a sin with which the antirevisionist critics could equally be charged.2

To be sure, the revisionists’ interpretations often inspire disagreement. Some of the Kolkos’ rhapsodizing in The Limits of Power about the revolutionary left in the Third World, for example, is sentimental to the point of dreaminess, while their quasi-Marxist theories of economic determinism strike me as totally unconvincing explanations of American behavior. But to disagree with a historian’s interpretation of material is not to prove he is intellectually dishonest. By his diligent footnote-checking, Maddox has unearthed questionable methods used by certain revisionists but he has not provided the kind of evidence that would nullify the main points of their analysis.

Maddox is right, however, in charging that the revisionist interpretation of the origins of the cold war has virtually taken over the academy. So effective have the revisionists been in undermining the orthodox view that a new group of what might be called post-revisionists has appeared. They accept the main contention of the revisionists—that the United States bears a heavy share of blame for the cold war—but deny that it was deliberately created for either political or economic reasons. An exceptionally elegant and detached example of post-revisionism is John Lewis Gaddis’s The United States and the Origins of the Cold War. From the revisionists Gaddis accepts the accusation that Truman “administration officials found it necessary to exaggerate the Soviet ideological challenge” to rally Congress and the people to the new cold war programs. But he agrees with the orthodox that “there can be no doubt that the President and his advisers regarded the danger as a serious one.” The result of this judicious balancing leads Gaddis to maintain that “neither side can bear sole responsibility for the onset of the cold war,” a conclusion that most revisionists would certainly endorse.

Where the Kolkos analyze the economic and social setting in which American policy makers operated, Gaddis instead concentrates on the way that the political situation appeared to those in positions of power. Seeing the cold war as a series of moves and responses, rather than as simply one weapon in America’s struggle for hegemony, he argues that public opinion was a powerful factor that limited the ability of the decision makers to deal rationally with the Soviet challenge. In his view, the delay in opening the second front, the refusal to recognize Russia’s security needs in Eastern Europe, the denial of postwar economic aid to Moscow, and the decision to retain control of the atomic bomb can better be explained by the administration’s desire to retain popular support than by the expansionist pressures of American capitalism. He concludes that while both sides were to blame for the cold war, the Russians have the greater responsibility since “the very nature of the Soviet system afforded [Stalin] a larger selection of alternatives than were open to leaders of the United States.”

This is a weak conclusion to an otherwise well-reasoned and thoughtful book. It is also unconvincing. While Stalin may not have been concerned with public opinion, he was operating under other very real constraints. Not the least of these was the internal weakness of the Soviet Union compared to the United States, particularly when Washington enjoyed a monopoly on the atomic bomb. It is true that anticommunism was deeply rooted in the American past, as the red scare of the Twenties showed, and that, as Roosevelt predicted to Stalin, East European immigrant groups in the US were appalled by the Soviet takeover of their former homelands. Who can blame them? But the Truman administration was hardly dragged into a showdown with the Kremlin by an outraged American public. The problem was just the reverse: to persuade Congress and the public to support a huge rearmament program and aid to allied and client regimes.

It was Truman, as Richard Freeland shows in his excellent study, The Truman Doctrine and the Origins of McCarthyism, who launched the first loyalty program and tried to tar his opponents with the label of communism—a tactic which later backfired. It was not that the public forced the administration into belligerency, but that the public had to be cajoled into supporting cold war policies which it resisted until the Korean War. Nor is it always the case that dictators have a freer hand than democratically elected presidents. Brezhnev, after all, had to gain the support of the central committee before marching into Czechoslovakia, while Johnson invaded the Dominican Republic and Nixon devastated Cambodia without so much as a nod to Congress, the public, or even their own cabinet officials.

The argument of the economic determinists—that the cold war was rooted in the structural needs of American capitalism—is no more convincing. In explaining the economic aspects of American foreign policy, Marxists often mistake the symptom for the cause. They argue that because America is a capitalist society, it has tried to create a world order congenial to capitalism. This is undeniable, but inadequate. They could just as well argue that Russia has implacably sought an international climate hospitable to communism. In neither case does this explain the reality of imperialism as practiced by two great powers with differing social systems. The specific form that imperialism takes may be conditioned by and in some cases may be rooted in economic interests, but it has other roots as well. This is what many Marxists will not accept, and it is what makes their conclusions about causes—as distinct from their evidence about policies pursued—dubious to all but true believers.

American and Russian leaders have sought to pursue the national interest as they perceived it. What is important is the way in which that ambiguous term has been defined. During the cold war it has meant far more than physical security, that is, the protection of the nation from attack and the preservation of its social system. For the US, it has involved molding a world order on the American plan. Such a grandiose scheme could never have been attempted had it not been for the collapse of Europe and the sudden monopoly of power the United States enjoyed in the early postwar period. Goals which otherwise would have seemed visionary, or imperialistic, became conceivable, and even historically inevitable. We began to feel the stir of immortal longings. Once the United States had enough power to control much of the world, it did not need to search very far for “causes” that would justify it.

The long and painful process of demystification has now begun. It was instigated by the Vietnam war and by the failure of American officials to achieve their ambitions there at a price Americans would pay. The war in Vietnam was the response of an imperial power which had not yet defined the boundaries of its imperium. It was pursued with an obsessive ferocity long after it became obvious that the question of who controlled Vietnam was not worth the costs it involved. The real stakes were seen as political: the contest with communism and the cohesion of an informal empire. To lose control, where control is part of the definition of national greatness, is to experience a sense of loss—and not simply a loss of profit, trade, or markets.

The argument between the revisionists and their adversaries is really about the meaning of America and the validity of the nation’s image of itself. So many illusions have been dissipated, so many explanations demolished, so much self-confidence destroyed, that there is not much left to hold up the carefully nurtured faith in American omnipotence and American benevolence. The façade has fallen and the foundation is bare. What is now built upon the ruins depends on the honesty with which we confront our past. That is what the argument is about.

(This is the second of two articles.)

This Issue

June 14, 1973