New research on the origins of the cold war is confirming the realist view that the Soviets were responsible for the conflict. Philip Gordon is impressed, but the revisionists have not had their last wordby Philip Gordon / May 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Historians’ internecine quarrels can often appear as brutal as the political and ideological confrontations that they chronicle in their work. (In the social sciences, only economists’ fights rival those of historians.) And among all the disputes, the debate over the origins of the cold war and the US role in its evolution, is one of the most highly contested.
The first US commentators on the cold war, self-proclaimed “realists” such as Hans Morgenthau, Walter Lippmann and George F Kennan, placed most of the blame for the conflict on the Soviet Union. Soviet insecurity and Stalin’s hunger for power made co-operation almost impossible; the US policy of containment-conceived by Kennan for that very reason-was a necessary response to a challenge that began in Moscow. In the 1960s, revisionists began to question this. Led by historians such as William Appleman Williams, Lloyd Gardner and Gabriel Kolko, they saw a cold war instigated at least equally by both sides, and perhaps even more by an America in search of profits and markets than by the Soviets themselves. The US was no less guilty than the Soviet Union of building an empire, seeking to expand its influence and exploiting the third world. In the 1970s came an attempt to take both views into account. “Post-revisionists” admitted that the US sought power and markets, but they vehemently denied the notion of “moral equivalence” of the superpowers: even if the US-led west had its flaws, the bulk of the blame for conflict still lay in Moscow. By the early 1980s the post-revisionist interpretation had become the dominant one in the field; its proponents began to speak of a “new synthesis” on cold war history. The leader of the post-revisionists was Ohio University professor John Lewis Gaddis.
Gaddis’s role in the earlier debates makes the thesis of his latest book, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, all the more provocative. Based on newly opened archives in Moscow, Beijing, Warsaw and other former communist capitals, the book is a reconsideration of the cold war in the light of the new material. What “we now know,” Gaddis tells us, is that in many respects, the original realists were right. There was indeed a “bad” side in the cold war, and it was worse than his earlier work had suggested, and far worse than the revisionists claimed. Stalin was, as the realists had said, paranoid, ruthless and extraordinarily suspicious of capitalism and the west. His communist ideology and his inability to listen to advice not only made co-operation with the west difficult, but almost impossible. “As long as Stalin was running the Soviet Union,” Gaddis says, “a cold war was unavoidable.” And as long as his system was in place, realistic chances of resolving the conflict were nil.
The blunt thesis that US leaders simply could not have avoided or resolved the cold war until the Soviet Union changed is not only a challenge to the revisionists. It is also a direct assault on all those who have ever speculated about “missed opportunities” for settling the east-west dispute-a category that includes George Kennan himself. Having conceived of containment in 1947, Kennan soon became disillusioned with the way his policy was being implemented-for him far too rigidly and militarily-and began to condemn his own country’s unwillingness to consider options for ending Europe’s divisions (such as that allegedly contained in Stalin’s March 1952 proposal for a neutral, united Germany). Although Gaddis does not say so directly, he suggests that what “we now know” is that Kennan’s “post-containment” views were na?ve. The earlier Kennan-who suggested that the Soviets would not accept a deal even if Washington declared the US a communist republic-was closer to the mark. Stalin and his successors may have been willing to explore possible settlements, but their terms could never have been acceptable.
The new thesis (I will avoid calling it “post-post-revisionism”) is not exactly a return to the orthodox view. On several points Gaddis differs from the original realists. For example, whereas many of them worried that democracy was a great liability for the west vis-? -vis the authoritarian regimes of the communist world, in the long run it has proved a far greater strength. True, leaders in the US and western Europe were constrained by public opinion and opposition politicians whereas communists were not, and Washington had to worry about the views of its allies in managing the Nato alliance, whereas Moscow could simply impose its will. But the end result of this difference was that the western publics and allies wanted to be in their democratic alliance while the eastern ones did not. Ultimately, the defections from the communist bloc killed it, whereas Nato remains popular among its members and is even attracting new ones.
The real difference between the original explanation of the cold war and Gaddis’s current one, though, is not the argument but the method. The “old orthodox” case was based on the intuitions of statesmen or analysts writing about a period in which they lived, and was inevitably influenced by the domestic politics of the time. The “new orthodox” case, Gaddis maintains, is supported by documented proof from the former adversaries themselves.
The book is a pleasure to read, particularly because of the author’s talent for asking big, almost philosophical questions. By the end of the first paragraph, We Now Know has already broached the issue of historical inevitability, discussed the role of individuals in great events, and asked whether the cold war had to happen or not. The last page of the text compares history with palaeontology and raises the question of whether the conditions that had bred authoritarianism for centuries may now have ceased to exist. The contrast with most history being written in US universities today is striking. Many have almost ceased to teach diplomatic history (allegedly about wars and kings and diplomats, now out of fashion), and they have certainly stopped hiring diplomatic historians. In an age when most history PhD theses are written about subjects such as “attendance at universities in North Rhine Westphalia, 1886-87,” it is a delight to encounter the big questions Gaddis raises. (In the name of full disclosure I should note that I attended Gaddis’s diplomatic history courses as an undergraduate, but I have been outside his influence now for nearly 15 years.)
Is We Now Know the last word, the “new synthesis” that historians such as Gaddis have been seeking for so long? Hardly, for several reasons. First, the flow of new material from communist archives that Gaddis uses remains closer to a trickle than a flood. In this sense the book’s title is misleading. By calling the book “We Now Know,” Gaddis seems to be suggesting that the truth is out and the debate can be put to rest. He attempts to correct this impression in the preface by admitting the “contingent nature of all historical knowledge” and that all “now” means is “based on currently available information.” But that is not the impression given by the title, which confidently suggests that the debate is over. As Gaddis himself warns at the end of the book, however, historians need to retain the capacity to be surprised, and they must avoid the temptation to find evidence only for the thesis that they are trying to support.
Second, the new “evidence” that is coming out is not only incomplete, but it may not even be entirely accurate. To take just one example, Soviet sources on the Korean war show that Mao Tse-Tung got cold feet before intervening in that war in October 1950, and only went ahead under enormous pressure from Stalin and a promise of Soviet air cover. Chinese sources on the same incident, however, show Mao as anxious to intervene, only hesitating when the Soviets withdrew their promise of air cover. It will be a long time (if ever) before we know whose story is the more accurate, and whether some of the documents have been falsified in order to protect the reputations of the leaders involved. (“Custodial historiography” was not limited to the communist world, as will be clear to anyone who has compared the histories written by President Kennedy’s admirers to subsequently released White House documents.)
Third, Gaddis’s archive-based empirical approach will provoke more theoretically inclined historians, with whom he has clashed before. The theorists-from corporatists to Marxists to world-systemists to neo-realists-have long been searching for a parsimonious but comprehensive explanation of why states and peoples acted the way they did. They thus criticise historians such as Gaddis for simply “assembling facts,” with no explicit theoretical framework to distinguish what is important from what is not. Gaddis, in turn, has accused the theorists of “reductionism,” ridiculing the attempt to explain something as complex as international relations during the cold war with any single, simple model. Gaddis’s new work will give great pleasure to those who appreciate the art, and the utility, of good analytical narrative, but it will leave unsatisfied those still searching for simplified models of world politics.
Finally, We Now Know will not persuade the revisionists, some of whom have already begun to question the interpretation of new evidence. They will find nothing in the new work to refute their claim that the US and the west were driven primarily by economic considerations, nor any evidence that Stalin ever had a plan for Soviet domination of the world. (Gaddis would say this is not the sort of thing you write down.) The revisionists will also-and some already have-accuse Gaddis and his supporters of “triumphalism,” and warn that anything we learn about communist crimes will not exempt the west from responsibility for its own errors.
Perhaps a sort of “closure” in the cold war debate can only come-and even this is improbable-when the next generation of historians comes along. They will not only have access to more of the original documentation but will genuinely see the cold war as history. In the meantime, this engaging and authoritative study will be the standard work, one that will stimulate and inform anyone with even a passing interest in the subject.
We now know: rethinking cold war history
John Lewis Gaddis
Oxford: Clarendon Press 1997, ?25