Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt; drawing by David Levine

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

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.”


In Stalin Embattled, 1943-1948 W.O. McCagg, Jr., makes a rather different attempt to reconstruct Soviet aims. This is a bizarre book, often fascinating in detail but reckless and unsubstantiated in speculation. McCagg sees. Stalin as a “statist,” more interested, that is, in building the Soviet state than in the Communist Party. At the end of the war he found his absolute control challenged on two fronts: abroad, by foreign insurrectionaries like Tito, whose revolutionary ardor threatened to cause trouble between the Soviet Union and the West; and at home, where he faced the rise to autonomous power during the war of pushy new groups—generals, industrial managers, the secret police. To recover his authority, according to McCagg’s hypermachiavellian scenario, Stalin turned back to the Communist Party, and to revive party militancy he had to permit a more aggressive foreign policy. Since the Western powers were “divided and gullible,” why not offend them for the moment? In the longer run, the inevitable hardening of the Western response, McCagg’s Stalin supposes, would discredit further adventurism. “If in the process he risked war abroad, one must suppose that his fear of war was less than his fear of losing control at home.”

McCagg’s attempt is evidently to reconcile the sober wartime Stalin—the man Harriman found “better informed than Roosevelt, more realistic than Churchill, in some ways the most effective of the war leaders”18—with the postwar risk-taker. His solution has Stalin “wrestling with the Politburo” until December 1946, pretending to be a revolutionary in order to deceive the CPSU “and for that reason unable to extend a friendly hand to the West.” By the time he had restored his authority at home, however, he had deceived Truman as well, who now took the hard line he had declined to take in 1945. “Though [Stalin] wanted peace, he did not explain to outsiders the methods he would use to attain it,” and his policies failed.

This is deductive ingenuity run riot. Still, McCagg has read widely, and his footnotes offer a useful guide to a broad range of East European sources. The effort to unravel “the antagonistic political relationships which existed behind the monolithic face” is essential now that we see that the theory of absolute totalitarian power expounded so memorably by George Orwell in 1984 (1949) and Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) was, after all, an illusion. Nor can the idea that Stalin was “playing domestic politics with his foreign policy” be dismissed.

This indeed was the alternative to the Riga and Yalta axioms favored by Kennan and Bohlen. For Soviet policy may have sprung neither from revolutionary ideology nor from traditional Realpolitik but rather from the requirements of a ruling class determined to maintain itself in power. That thesis receives a Marxist elaboration in the long book by Fernando Claudin, The Communist Movement from Comintern to Cominform. Claudin joined the Spanish Communist Party in the 1930s. Santiago Carrillo purged him in 1965, along with Jorge Semprun, who wrote the screenplays for La Guerre est finie and Z. Semprun has given his own highly personal account of these matters in The Autobiography of Frederico Sanchez. Claudin’s book supplies the theoretical and historical underpinnings.

In Claudin’s view Stalin’s dissolution of the Comintern in 1943, far from being a trick to gull the West, or even to expedite victory over Hitler, was “the necessary condition for the division of the world between the Stalinist state and its capitalist allies.” Stalin’s objective was “a durable compromise with American imperialism which would allow joint control of the world.” His foreign policy, after all, “could be no more than the reflection of his domestic policy,” and he was “pursuing the aims of the bureaucratic class which had replaced the revolutionary October proletariat in the leadership of the Soviet state.” He could not afford a revolutionary policy because he dared “not encourage in other countries the freedom and democracy…denied to the workers of the USSR.” His goal was to build power on the prostrate body of Lenin’s world revolution.

Like the revisionists Claudin sees the American goal as the removal of barriers to the expansion of world capitalism. Unlike them, he does not contend that this goal made the cold war inevitable.

Roosevelt and his colleagues included in this vision collaboration with the Soviet Union; in their view American industry’s contribution to the reconstruction of the USSR would have advantages for both countries and would be reflected in the political education of the Soviet regime. As a result of this beneficial support, “socialism in one country” would become able to fit smoothly into the Roosevelt world.

The Americans, moreover, counted on Stalin to save Western Europe and China from proletarian revolution. Stalin “faithfully” cooperated with that objective. These factors “forced Washington into a policy of conciliation towards Moscow, in spite of the instinctive anti-Communism of Truman and his team.”

Why then the Cold War? The answer, Claudin suggests, lay in the obscurity and instability of the power balance. The first upsetting factor was the American monopoly of the atomic bomb. Having gained the bomb, Claudin says, “American imperialism finally turned the corner toward world dominion,” not, however, in order to destroy the Soviet Union but in order to facilitate “the policy of ‘containment’ under the protection of the atomic umbrella.” American policy, while pursuing consolidation in its own sphere, was nonetheless “dominated by the need to avoid at all costs a direct armed confrontation with the military power of the Soviet bloc.” Stalin responded with a consolidationist policy of his own, expecting that his hard line would “impose on the White House a world-wide arrangement on the basis of an allocation of ‘spheres of influence’ which would satisfy Soviet interests.” But “no compromise was possible as long as the two parties had not reached a realistic, and therefore similar, appraisal of the relation of forces.”

According to Claudin the cold war

was a sort of exploration or sounding carried out to gain a more exact knowledge of the forces and dispositions of the enemy…. The two most serious “soundings” carried out during the “cold war,” those which gave the world the impression of being on the brink of a major conflict, were the Berlin crisis and the Korean war. In fact, both cases showed the firm determination of the two super-powers to maintain the positions they had won during the Second World War and to make no attempt to modify them by war against each other.

In 1949 the Soviet Union achieved its own bomb, and by 1951-1952 “the two super-powers began to get a clear idea of each other’s strength and intentions and of the new balance which had been established in the world.” The cold war thereafter began to give way to “peaceful coexistence.” Though Claudin’s argument bristles with Marxist trimmings, it turns in essence on the old question of the balance of power. Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill, he writes, “had only one true God between them—raison d’état.” In the end, this is Claudin’s true God too, and Realpolitik rather than Marxism accounts for the force of his analysis.


Because the cold war broke out first in Eastern Europe, this region has been a natural focus of historiographical concern. In the fantasies of William Appleman Williams, American business had long since “penetrated the economies” of Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Albania, acquiring “significant interests in eastern Europe throughout the 1920s.”19 Actually Eastern Europe before the Second World War received only about 2 percent of American exports and held about 5.5 percent of American direct investment.20 American economic interests were so insignificant that American business watched the Nazi takeover of Eastern Europe with total indifference. Nevertheless, Williams contends that United States policy after the war was one of “reasserting American influence in eastern Europe while pushing the Russians back to their traditional borders,” a policy prescribed by “the traditional outlook of the open door and the specific desire to keep the Soviets from establishing any long-range influence in eastern Europe…. It was the decision of the United States to employ its new and awesome power in keeping with the traditional Open Door Policy which crystallized the cold war.”21

More serious scholars have questioned whether the United States pursued a coherent anti-Soviet policy in Eastern Europe and whether indeed the United States had an East European policy at all. Lynn Etheridge Davis discussed the period 1941-1945 in The Cold War Begins: Soviet-American Conflict over Eastern Europe (1974). The American government, she contends, saw no specific or local American interests in Eastern Europe but was unwilling for global as well as domestic reasons to acknowledge a breach in the Atlantic Charter. So while loudly proclaiming its lofty principles, Washington systematically rejected anti-Soviet initiatives proposed by its men in the field and took “minimal action” to discourage Soviet violations of inter-Allied understandings.

The State Department rejected pleas from General Cortland Schuyler, the American representative on the Romanian Control Commission, that the United States withdraw economic assistance from Russia in order to bring about Soviet compliance with the Yalta agreement on Eastern Europe. It ignored urgent requests from Maynard Barnes, the American representative in Bulgaria, that Washington take action to obtain international supervision of the Bulgarian elections. When Harriman said that, if America and Britain were unwilling to intervene in favor of such elections, then Washington should inform the American people of the character of the Communist dictatorship in Bulgaria, the State Department declined even to do that. When Barnes instructed the American representative on the Control Commission to ask for the postponement of the elections until assurances could be given that they would be free, the Department countermanded his action. And when Barnes’s unauthorized initiative succeeded and the elections were postponed, Washington rejected recommendations by Barnes and the British government that the Western allies should follow up this success with firm action to achieve a revision of the electoral law. “No one in the State Department argued that the United States should learn from the success of Barnes’s initiatives in Bulgaria and undertake more active protests against Soviet actions throughout Eastern Europe.”

The result of maximalist rhetoric and minimalist action was the worst of both worlds: Soviet suspicions inflamed and Soviet ambitions unchecked.22 Davis’s incisive critique of American non-planning in Eastern Europe—left in the hands of the European Division of the State Department since no one higher up considered Eastern Europe sufficiently important—is generally persuasive. But each of the choices Washington failed to make—on the one hand, explicit abandonment of Eastern Europe; on the other, concrete opposition to Soviet actions—had weighty disadvantages. Was it after all a real choice?

A new book by a young Norwegian historian carries the story forward to 1947, though without adequate recognition of Davis’s earlier work. Geir Lundestad writes about the cold war with the happy detachment of a Scandinavian born in 1945. The American Non-Policy Towards Eastern Europe, 1943-1947: Universalism in an Area Not of Essential Interest to the United States is solidly researched, well organized, and clearly if repetitiously written.

Lundestad’s findings parallel those of Davis. Washington, he writes, approached Eastern Europe in its general postwar mood of “universalism,”23 but made no serious attempt to apply universalist policies to Eastern Europe—because Soviet interests in the area were primary and self-evident, because American interests were meager and vague, because Washington’s means of enforcement were limited almost to the point of nonexistence, and, most important, because Washington found it useful to make a practical retreat in Eastern Europe in order to limit Soviet influence in areas of greater consequence to the United States, above all in Asia.

The problem was more difficult because a democratic Eastern Europe, while no doubt to the American advantage, had other justifications. The last free elections in the area, Lundestad writes, show that “even if universalism with its democratic-multilateralist elements may be seen as expansionist ideology, this did not necessarily mean that it conflicted with the wishes of the Eastern European people. Usually it did not.”

In the election in Hungary in November 1945, for example, the Communists polled 17 percent of the vote as against 57 percent for the Smallholders. “There is little reason to doubt,” Lundestad writes, “that Mikolajczyk in Poland, Maniu in Rumania, and probably also Petkov in Bulgaria would have piled up percentages in any free elections on a scale comparable to what the Smallholders achieved in Hungary.”

Nevertheless the idea of putting first things first led to American concessions that, like the peace treaties, “actively furthered the Soviet domination over Eastern Europe.” Truman, for all his “outward bluster,” consented to actions that granted the Soviet Union a favored position. One of his first decisions indeed was to increase the admissible percentage of Stalin’s Poles in the new Polish Provisional government and thereby “to reduce US demands as to what constituted an acceptable government in Poland, the crucial country in the region.” Lundestad also agrees with Davis that Washington’s refusal to renounce the universalist creed only increased Soviet-American tension. “The United States never resolved the basic dilemma between universalism and the many modifying elements” and “never developed a clear-cut policy towards Eastern Europe”—a point Lundestad demonstrates by a detailed country-by-country analysis of what the United States actually did.

Lundestad seeks to place himself above the American cold war debate. “American policy probably represented a combination of both traditional security considerations and a desire for expansion of American political and economic interests. Instead of seeing the security and expansionist aspects as complementary, traditionalists emphasize only the first and revisionists only the second.”24 All the same, Lundestad gives most weight to strategic considerations, citing Harriman’s 1944 cable:

When a country begins to extend its influence by strong arm methods beyond its borders under the guise of security it is difficult to see how a line can be drawn. If the policy is accepted that the Soviet Union has a right to penetrate her immediate neighbors for security, penetration of the next immediate neighbor becomes at a certain time equally logical.

“The one crucial factor in the Eastern European power system,” Lundestad concludes, was “the Red Army.” As for the alleged American obsession with the open door, Lundestad’s country-by-country examination demonstrates that the American objection was not to “domestic economic radicalism”—planning, nationalization, expropriation—but to “Soviet economic domination” and hence was political rather than commercial in its motive. And though Lundestad feels that the revisionists have usefully “pierced the screen of official and self-serving proclamations,” he rejects their “two major assumptions”—that the United States was definitely superior in strength to the Soviet Union and that the Truman administration was strongly bent on removing Soviet domination over Eastern Europe. The trouble with these assumptions, Lundestad sensibly remarks, is that

they are not consistent with one of the few absolutely certain facts we have on this controversial period, viz. final Soviet control over Eastern Europe. How could the Soviet Union have come to exert complete domination there if the United States, clearly the strongest power in the world, was “aggressively” intent on playing the predominant role in the region?


This important work suffers from its use of the American cold war debate as a frame for analysis. The cold war is thereby cast mostly in Soviet-American terms. Yet, as Lundestad acknowledges at one point, Western Europe had its entirely independent concern about the Stalinization of Europe. This fact is another powerful blow against open-door simplicities. For most West European states after the war had Socialist governments and even West Germany had a strong Socialist party. Men like Attlee and Bevin in England, Blum, Ramadier, and Moch in France, Schumacher and Reuter in West Germany could not care less about finding outlets for American trade and investments. But they cared passionately about the future of democratic socialism, and they had noted well the terrible fate of the noncommunist left (and soon of the independent Communist left) in Eastern Europe. The revisionist explanation of the cold war cannot account for the European Socialist reaction to Stalin’s postwar course.

Nor were these Socialists pushed or bribed by Washington into anti-Soviet policies. On the contrary: they regarded Washington’s response to the Soviet challenge as disquietingly tentative and slow. “We have heard of American ‘aggression,”‘ Sir Herbert Butterfield himself wrote in 1969, “and a new generation often does not know (and does not credit the fact when informed) that Western Europe once wondered whether the United States could ever be awakened to the danger from Russia.”25 British Foreign Office papers recently opened under the thirty-year rule verify Butterfield’s point.

Peter Boyle of the University of Nottingham has assembled the evidence in a paper published in the summer 1979 issue of Diplomatic History. The reports of British diplomats in Washington to the Labour government in London in the year and a half after the end of the European war undermine the revisionist theory of an American government hell-bent on saving the world for capitalism. The British representatives, far from having been hauled into the cold war by American open-doorsmen, saw Truman as a wobbly and irresolute leader. Six months into Truman’s presidency, Ambassador Halifax told the Foreign Office, “To serious observers it seems pitifully obvious that the man at the helm is no longer the master of the ship.” In the midst of the early Iranian crisis, Halifax complained that the American government was persisting in its “stubborn determination to rationalise Soviet actions whenever possible and thereby to reduce the prevailing fear of the Russians in the hope of realising the American dream of one world.” Even after Churchill went to Fulton: “Profound as the uneasiness is about Soviet policies, there is still [in the American government]…a strong underlying anxiety if possible to find a way of cooperation with the Russians.”

According to the revisionists, the American government invented a phony Soviet threat in order to frighten war-weary Americans into an anti-Soviet crusade. This was hardly the way it seemed to British diplomats in Washington at the time. It was not the American government, Ambassador Inverchapel told London in 1946, but the mass of ordinary people who first became angry over Soviet actions and then turned the Truman administration around. “The driving force,” a colleague reported,

has come not from the top but from below. Events and public opinion have forced the obviously uncertain and reluctant administration into affording to the world at least some measure of the leadership which the United States ought to be providing.26

The European perspective throws new light on America’s part in the cold war. Indeed, the more one broods about the cold war, the more irrelevant the assessment of blame seems. The Second World War had left the international order in acute derangement. With the Axis states vanquished, the European allies exhausted, the colonial empires in tumult and dissolution, great gaping holes appeared in the structure of world power. The war had also left two states—America and Soviet Russia—with the political, ideological, and military dynamism to flow into these vacuums. The two states were constructed, moreover, on opposite and antagonistic ideas. Neither knew with any precision what the other was up to. Decisions were made in darkness. “It is very difficult to remember,” as Maitland once said, “that events now in the past were once far in the future.” No one should be surprised at what ensued. The real surprise would have been if there had been no cold war.

This Issue

October 25, 1979