How far has the historical debate about the origins of the Cold War changed since the collapse of the USSR in 1991? For forty-five years, the Cold War was at the center of world politics. It dominated the foreign policies of the two superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union- and deeply affected their societies and their political, economic and military institutions. The Cold War also shaped the foreign policy and domestic politics of most other nations around the globe. Few countries, in fact, escaped its influence.
Fundamentally, the Cold War was a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, fuelled on both sides by the belief that the ideology of the other side had to be destroyed. In this sense it was a zero-sum game in which co-existence was not possible- one side could win only at the expense of the other. The Soviet Union held belief to Lenin’s belief that conflict between communism and capitalism was inevitable. The United States believed that peace and stability in the world would only emerge when the evil of communism had been exorcised.
Each side imputed unlimited objectives to the other. At the ideological level, Moscow’s communist world-view, which saw capitalism as an absolute evil, fed off Washington’s world-view which saw communism as an absolute evil, and in this way helped to sustain the other’s prophecy. Historians have offered conflicting interpretations of the Cold War’s outbreak, interpretations often grounded in deep ideological and philosophical differences. Many of these interpretations were themselves shaped by the ongoing Cold War.
The end of the Cold War, coupled with the limited opening of archives in the former Soviet Union and its allies, provides an opportunity to reassess its beginnings. Scholars and historians alike moved beyond earlier controversies over responsibility for the Cold War and instead tried to understand what really happened and why. Therefore it is now possible to ask new questions about the Cold War due to the revelation of new information on the Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War. In the United States, two views of the Cold War once competed.
Defenders of US policies blamed the Soviet Union for the outbreak of the Cold War. This orthodox rendition of events portrayed the Soviet Union as relentlessly expansionist and ideologically motivated. According to this view, US officials wanted to get along with the Soviets but slowly came to realize that accommodation was impossible because of the Soviet’s drive for world domination. The traditional view made a comeback in the 1990s as some scholars seized on newly available Soviet and other Communist records to argue that Soviet foreign policy was ideologically motivated, aggressively expansionist and morally repugnant.
The second group, known as the revisionists, emerged in the 1960s as the Vietnam War and the growing availability of US records led to a more critical reflection of US policies. The revisionists argued that US policies were also expansionist and thus played an important role in starting the Cold War. Many revisionists pointed to the long history of American economic expansionism and argued that ideological beliefs and economic interests significantly shaped US policies.
In the recent years, Cold War scholars have tended to be cautious about drawing sweeping judgments based on the new Soviet documents. They have usually found that there was more than enough work to do in just understanding the meaning of the new evidence for their focused case studies.. During the Cold War, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, from Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to Alexander Haig, United States policy makers articulated a common core of shared opinions on the origins and continuing causes of the Cold War, a viewpoint that most Americans came to share.
This familiar orthodox interpretation held that it was the Soviet Union that had started the Cold War after WWII when it ruthlessly occupied territory and set up pro-communist puppet governments in Eastern Europe. The orthodox view also held that the Soviet Union together with fellow communist allies spied and spread discord across the globe and endlessly probed for Western weakness as part of a larger plan for communist world conquest.
Even today many Americans would probably still adhere to the basic tenets of this orthodox position. As Eastern bloc documents began to become available, it appeared that the new information would vindicate the orthodox view of the Cold War. But the impact of the new evidence has largely been otherwise. There have been “revisionist” and “post-revisionist” challenges to the orthodox view, but the new documents have yielded further evidence that calls into question several of the most basic suppositions of the orthodox view.
It has come from multiple archives and from multiple sources: secret records, letters, directives, meeting minutes, logs of private conversations from Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Mao Zedong, and other communist leaders, as well as recently declassified records from other top level communist officials from across the Eastern bloc. What this means is that we no longer have to guess at communist actions, goals, and intentions.
We can read their secret debates, private ruminations, and their own explanations to themselves and their colleagues about what they did and what they thought about what they were doing. As a result, key claims about the extent of Soviet control over its satellites, about the extent of unity within the Eastern bloc, about the extent of Soviet direction of Cuban military involvement in Africa, and even basic orthodox assertions about the essential nature of Soviet intentions throughout the Cold War are all now under serious challenge due to the new evidence.
However, not all Cold War scholars would agree with this. Indeed, one of the most respected senior Cold War scholars, John Lewis Gaddis, author of We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (1997), flatly rejects the notion that the new documents have revealed weaknesses in the standard orthodox position, holding, quite to the contrary, that the new evidence supports the orthodox view. Some historians who previously were strong advocators of their belief also started shifting perspectives.
For example Anna Kasten Nelson, who in a major news service essay, mentioned that the traditionalists put full blame on the Soviet Union whereas “revisionists emphasize the dual responsibility of the United States and the Soviet Union, and described American foreign policy as a search for global economic hegemony. ” Nelson has moved the revisionists into the post-revisionists perspective, and promoted post-revisionists to the old orthodox perspective. It is impossible to get all Cold War scholars to agree upon any single overarching interpretation of the Cold War.
Nevertheless, the new scholarship does generally endorse conclusions which stand at sharp variance with the old orthodox position. Even those who still advocate the orthodox view would concede this point. For instance, Richard C. Raack, a determined defender of the orthodox position, attacks the new scholarship in his recent essay in World Affairs (1999), vigorously asserting that the current generation of Cold War studies scholars are as a whole a profoundly unqualified group, noteworthy for their “remarkable naivete” and “incompetence. (Raack, 45, 47) He goes so far as to write that the “cheapened [university] degrees” of this cohort have left them “intellectually impoverished,” “dismally uniformed,” and “provincial. ” (Raack, 45) Because these writers—”apparently willing victims of Stalin’s propagandists” (60)—”know [so] appallingly little,” they “broadly mislead readers,” Raack says. (Raack, 60, 49) To Raack it is especially lamentable that “nowadays [such ‘anti-American… ‘ views—that is, anti-orthodox views]… reflect… the stodgy political certainties of much of the U. S. —and not only U. S. —journalism and academe. (Raack, 47) American archival materials for the early Cold War are plentiful, but documentation on Soviet foreign policy remains incomplete and the meaning of the available documents is often ambiguous. It is still difficult to discern with a high degree of confidence the motives and goals of the Soviet Union. Even though many more Soviet records are now available, we still lack a definitive account of Soviet foreign policy in this period. Nevertheless, historians and political scientists have become more nuanced in their interpretations of developments in the Soviet Union.
Early views that the Soviet Union had a clear blueprint for world domination have been discredited. Although Soviet Union archival materials and Russian memoirs again underscore the importance and the brutality of Communist dictator Stalin, they also suggest that he was opportunistic and pragmatic in his foreign policy, seeking to further Soviet power but keenly attuned to constraints and risks. Therefore, the historical debate on the origins of the Cold has changed immensely since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, largely due to the opening f Soviet archives. From blaming the USSR for their expansionistic ideals, to the capitalistic world domination of USA to the sharing of equal responsibility for causes and effects, the debates of the origins does not stop. Debates on who and what really sparked off the Cold war will still continue for decades to come for what we are starting to question now is not whether should we deviate from our previous claims, but whether is there really a need to do so?