To the Editors:

Some comment seems to be in order on a number of important issues raised by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s thoughtful review of Cold War historiography (NYR, October 25). Drawing on Herbert Butterfield’s distinction between heroic and academic interpretations of international conflict, Schlesinger argues that the revisionist historians of the 1960s are squarely in the heroic stage, that is to say, preoccupied with portraying “a struggle of right with wrong of good men fighting bad.” Thus in Schlesinger’s view, a curious symmetry exists between the orthodox historians and their revisionist critics, except that in the orthodox analysis, the United States is the hero and the Soviet Union is the aggressive villain, while for the revisionists, these roles are reversed.

In my judgment, this is not a fair assessment of revisionism and it is particularly unfair to the one revisionist historian that Schlesinger singles out for special scorn, William Appleman Williams. It is perhaps understandable why Schlesinger does not care for Williams as an historian since his work has been highly critical of those liberal heroes—from Andrew Jackson through Franklin Roosevelt to the Kennedys—whom Schlesinger has celebrated in a series of distinguished biographies. But that is no excuse for mispresenting his argument.

Williams makes it very clear that the Cold War was not the exclusive responsibility of the United States or any other nation, save perhaps Nazi Germany whose policies brought the USSR and America face to face over a prostrate Europe. Nor does he maintain that the Cold War was caused by evil or malevolent motives or objectives on the part of American political leadership. Indeed, in his Tragedy of American Diplomacy, Williams writes, “That sad result was not caused by purposeful malice, callous indifference, or ruthless and predatory exploitation. American leaders were not evil men. They did not conceive and execute some dreadful conspiracy. Nor were they treacherous hypocrites. They believed deeply in the ideals they proclaimed….” (The context here is US-Cuban relations, but the point is illustrative of his general view.)

Nor is it true that Williams subscribes to the official Soviet view on the origins of the Cold War: that Moscow was peace-loving and cooperative and the breakdown in relations was all Washington’s doing. He simply argues that in relative terms, America was strong. Russia was weak, and thus the United States had more options and greater room for flexibility. He also notes that there were divisions in the Soviet political elite regarding relations with the West and that some American policies—control of the atomic bomb, reparations, cut-off of lend-lease aid, etc.—played into the hands of the hardliners. This does not appear to be so very different from the analysis offered by Mastny, McCagg, and Claudin on Soviet foreign policy.

At any rate, it is rather ironic that Schlesinger apparently fails to notice that Williams, as the title of his book implies, also sees the Cold War as a major historical tragedy as do Butterfield and Schlesinger himself. Williams as well stresses those structural factors that, in Schlesinger’s words, “so often underlie great conflicts between masses of human beings.” Perhaps Schlesinger ignores these parallels because he is so uncomfortable with one of the structural factors that Williams and other revisionists have emphasized; namely, the dynamics of capitalism. The essence of the revisionist thesis, according to Schlesinger, is that the United States, “driven on by the insatiable needs of a capitalist system that had to expand in order to survive…embarked on its own course of world domination.”

Schlesinger regards this thesis as simplistic, not to say simple-minded. In his view, it is nothing more than a left-wing fantasy. Yet his criticism avoids crucial questions. Has not American capitalism been, in fact, an expanding system through most of its history? Has this expansion not been one force that has oriented American power in its relations with the rest of the world? Indeed, has not capitalism as a world-system (I am using Immanuel Wallerstein’s concept here) been expanding, both economically and geographically, at least since the sixteenth century and has not this been one major factor in bringing great masses of human beings into conflict? Is Schlesinger arguing that the United States was a non-expansionist power or that American capitalism did not need economic growth, which could only take place in the context of a world economy, to survive, or at least to prosper? Perhaps he thinks that the United States did not aspire to, and largely achieve, world economic hegemony after 1945. Or that the crisis of world capitalism in the mid-twentieth century did not have a profound effect on the structure of world power and the pattern of alignment among states.

I don’t know how Professor Schlesinger would answer these questions and I’m not going to presume to guess. Perhaps he would argue that they are irrelevant with respect to the Cold War because revisionists have failed to prove that business leaders dictated US foreign policy to the American government. But surely this is an oversimplification, for no revisionist has argued that business “dictated” foreign policy. Rather they have merely emphasized the close connections between the government’s foreign policy elite and corporate business and how the two groups were tied together by ideology and social position. In this context, it might be noted that with respect to Averell Harriman, despite his current pro-détente stance and his alleged indifference to US foreign trade and investment, the strategy he advocated toward the Soviet Union in 1944-1945 was predicated precisely on superior American economic strength, which he thought would give the US leverage over Moscow’s conduct in Eastern Europe.


Yet Schlesinger insists that America’s quest for a liberal world economy did not lead “ineluctably to a policy of confrontation with the Soviet Union” as the revisionists would have it. He rightly notes that many advocates of US economic expansion were also proponents of accommodation with the Soviet Union. Moreover, Williams’s Open Door thesis is an unconvincing explanation of American policy toward Eastern Europe where US economic interests were marginal at best. These are strong points but not as strong as Schlesinger thinks.

For perhaps the reason why the historical controversy over Eastern Europe has been so difficult to resolve is that Eastern Europe as such looms both too large and small in the debate over the Cold War. What is striking in Schlesinger’s review is the absence of any discussion of the problem of Germany in the development of the Cold War. It is my contention that Germany was the central issue in the growing Soviet-American antagonism. Germany was vital to Soviet security; it held the key to the political and economic future of Europe, and was crucial for the success of American plans for the restoration of a functioning world economy. When it became all too apparent, virtually right from the start, that the Western allies and the USSR had reached a deadlock over Germany, it became increasingly difficult to agree on anything else—Eastern Europe, lend-lease settlement, reconstruction aid, the atomic bomb, etc. The division of Europe into American and Soviet spheres logically followed from the prior division of Germany.

Having said all this, I don’t wish to imply that Williams or other revisionists have had the last word on the Cold War. Williams’s Tragedy was first published twenty years ago. By tracing patterns of expansion in US history, Williams offered a fresh perspective on America’s confrontations with Germany, Japan, the USSR, and modern social revolutions. In doing so, his work refocused the study of US diplomacy among many younger historians and cast new light on the dynamics of American power in the world. This is no mean achievement nor is it diminished by the fact that subsequent research and reflection by other scholars have gone beyond Williams’s own formulations and conclusions. Indeed, this is quite in keeping with Williams’s own conception of history as a way of learning.

It is also consistent with Schlesinger’s call that historians break with the traditionalist-revisionist controversy and move on to consider the structural factors that underlie the Cold War. This is a welcome suggestion but Schlesinger seems to have a very different idea of what this would entail. For the post-revisionist scholarship that Schlesinger praises does not, by and large, stress structural forces in their historical explanations. Rather, the works of Yergin, Gaddis, Dallek, Davis, etc. are built around the importance of contingent factors—bureaucratic in-fighting, ideological misperceptions, the vagaries of American politics, the character of and the choices by political leaders—in their interpretations of the Cold War.

No doubt this approach has its merits but the arbitrary nature of the causal patterns it discovers seem to be predetermined by the methodology and analytical focus employed: namely, traditional political history. As David Potter wrote some years ago, “Political history…tends to minimize the deterministic component in history, because it all deals with policy, and the study of policy always assumes that man can modify his circumstances, control his environment, shape his ends….” A really new history of the Cold War would break from the statist and nationalist framework of political history shared by orthodox, revisionist, and post-revisionist historians alike and focus on the circumstances and environment—in short, the structural context—which conditioned the development of that conflict and within which political leaders and nations acted.

In this perspective, the behavior of nations would be studied in relation to the structure and dynamics of the world-system of which they are a part. The emphasis would be on interstate competition and capital accumulation on a global scale as the major sources of dynamism in the world-system. In this conception, it is the capitalist world political economy, whose development since the sixteenth century has been the driving force of modern social change, that provides the analytic framework for historical research. Seeking to give meaning to Marx’s old adage that “people make their own history, but they do not make it exactly as they please,” this approach attempts to locate and define the internal structures of the modern world-system which determine the possibilities of human action.


Rejecting the voluntarist perspective of political historiography, a world-system perspective on the history of the Cold War would deal with, in the words of Pierre Vilar, “those great questions which…would dominate our century…demography, migration, colonization, urban and industrial poles of development, transformations of agricultural modes of production, progress in energy, and, closest of all to living, palpitating history, the crises of the British world, the future of the vast American spaces, the awakening of the Asian masses, the birth of Soviet plans.”

For Schlesinger, the cause of the Cold War “turns in essence on the old question of the balance of power” and he compliments the Marxist historian Fernando Claudin for recognizing its importance. In contrast, he sneers at the economic emphasis found in Williams and other revisionists. But the balance of power is not a force of nature, nor can this concept provide a structural explanation unless the balance of power itself be subject to a structural analysis in terms of its foundations and dynamics: population, natural resources, geography, variations in the economic productivity of the constituent regions of the world economy. I’m sure the list could be greatly expanded, and just as surely, any adequate concept of the balance of power would focus on the two phenomena that the German historian Otto Hintze thought above all condition “the real organization of the state. These are, first, the structure of social classes, and second, the external ordering of the states—their position relative to each other, and their over-all position in the world.”

But this, in turn, would require a theory of the world political economy. Only then would we have some grasp of those “structural dilemmas (contradictions?) that so often underlie great conflicts between masses of human beings.”

Steven J. Cagney

San Francisco, California

Jr. Arthur Schlesinger replies:

“Has not American capitalism,” Mr. Cagney asks, “been, in fact, an expanding system through most of its history?” Well, yes and no. The leaders of the early republic would have been surprised at how little the United States had expanded territorially by the last quarter of the twentieth century. Jefferson favored the acquisition of Cuba, “the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States,” and John Quincy Adams supposed Cuba would inexorably fall to the North American Union by the law of political gravitation. So did W.H. Seward. Madison and Charles Sumner were sure the same law would bring in Canada. These things never came to pass. We have not annexed Cuba or Canada; Texas waited outside the union as an independent republic for a decade and then entered only through presidential sleight of hand; the movement during the Mexican War to acquire “all Mexico” failed; the Ostend Manifesto was a flop; Grant was denied the Dominican Republic; except for Alaska, which Congress accepted with the utmost ill humor, Seward’s expansionist program got nowhere; it took half a century of agitation before we annexed Hawaii, and this might never have taken place had it not been for the war with Spain; even with, that war, we still did not annex Cuba. Despite the current idea of a people red hot for expansion since 1776, imperial visions (the westward movement excepted) have encountered consistent popular indifference and resistance throughout American history.

But what about “neo-imperialism”—i.e, the extension to other countries of informal means of American control? In this sense the United States has manifestly become an expansionist power. But I do not see that this form of expansion derives uniquely from the “dynamics of capitalism.” Max Weber once proposed that, in order to clarify the nature of imperialism, we make “the mental experiment of assuming the individual polities to be somehow ‘state-socialist’ communities, that is, associations supplying a maximum amount of their needs through a collective economy.” The problem of expansion, Weber said, “would hardly change fundamentally…. All political associations of such a collective economy would seek to buy as cheaply as possible indispensable goods not produced on their own territory…. Force would be used where it would lead to favorable conditions of exchange…. One cannot see why the strong state-socialist communities would disdain to squeeze tribute out of the weaker communities.” The motives of states do not depend on the nature of their economic systems.

Mr. Cagney, like Appleman Williams before him, seems to think that, if the United States had not been a capitalist country, it would not have become an expansionist power. Let us try Max Weber’s mental experiment and imagine that the United States had always been a communist country like the Soviet Union, with private and corporate profit thereby eliminated as motives in foreign policy. How different would the diplomatic history of the Union of American Socialist Republics have been? Would the UASR have been any less determined to expand to the Pacific? Would it have been less concerned to exclude extracontinental powers from the Western hemisphere through something like the Monroe Doctrine? Would it have been less interested in dominating Latin America? Would a Soviet America have stood idly by while a hostile power from another continent placed nuclear missiles in Cuba? Would it have regarded the balance of power in Europe with indifference? Would it turn its back on Middle Eastern oil? Does not expansionism therefore derive from the characteristics of a great power rather than from the characteristics of an economy? The Williams school ignores the fact that political and strategic motives have a life and force of their own, quite regardless of systems of ideology and ownership.

Raisons d’état, not the “dynamics of capitalism,” created the American thrust for world influence. A Soviet America would have behaved the same way, no doubt with greater ruthlessness. In our own history the state has used the capitalist economy more in foreign affairs than the economy has used the state. Cagney cites Averell Harriman’s desire to employ economic leverage against the Soviet Union after the Second World War; but Harriman wanted to use such leverage precisely for political-strategic, not for corporate-commercial, objectives. Even in our own backyard, the State Department at the high noon of “dollar diplomacy” had to persuade a reluctant banking community to enter the Caribbean; and the State Department’s object was not to make money for bankers but to diminish European political influence and strengthen American political control in an area of strategic concern to the United States (see Dana G. Munro, Intervention and Dollar Diplomacy in the Caribbean, 1900-1921).

Preclusive action, not private profit, has been the mainspring of imperialism. Hans Morgenthau accurately sums up the findings of scholarship: “Economic determinism as a guide to the understanding of American foreign policy was discredited long ago by case studies that showed the extent to which the so-called dollar diplomacy of the turn of the century, seemingly a typical example of a foreign policy doing the bidding of economic interests, was a political policy using economic interests for the political purposes of the state rather than the other way around.” So too A.J.P. Taylor: “The economic analysis [of imperialism] breaks down in almost every case which has been examined in detail.”

Cagney concedes, I take it, that the profit interests of American capitalism might have been served as well by a policy of rapprochement with the Soviet Union as by a policy of containment. This concession surely destroys William’s “open door” explanation since it requires a search for other motives in order to account for the Cold War. Another correspondent reminds me of The Curtain Falls: The Story of the Socialists in Eastern Europe (London, 1951), edited by Denis Healey, which shows why democratic socialists were just as fearful of the Stalinization of Europe as American capitalists are supposed to have been—more fearful, indeed, than some American capitalists, such as Joseph P. Kennedy and Cyrus Eaton.

Cagney says that I misrepresent Williams when I ascribe to Williams the view that the United States forced the Cold War on the hapless Russians. But Williams himself writes: “The great majority [of American leaders] rapidly embarked upon a program to force the Soviet Union to accept America’s traditional conception of itself and the world…. 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” (Tragedy of American Diplomacy, 1972 edition, p. 206). Or again, in Williams’s fanciful rendition of the way American leaders were thinking after the Second World War: “The death of capitalism would mean socialism, the dreaded Future, and hence the Open Door Policy must be applied throughout the world. All action…must be guided by one rule: ‘The United States must run this show’ ” (America Confronts a Revolutionary World, 1776-1976, p. 170).

This Issue

March 20, 1980