Historiography on the Origins of the Cold War



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Historiography on the Origins of the Cold War

Using your textbooks, notes and the internet, research each of the historiographical schools listed below to complete the table. Try to summarise their main arguments and who the key historians are. Then try to add examples from the events you have studied that could be used to support each of the viewpoints:



School of Historiography

Key Historians and their Views (Names, Publications & Quotes)

Their Views on Key Events

Orthodox/Traditional

  • Arthur M. Schlesinger – ‘Marxism-Leninism gave the Russian leaders a view of the world according to which all societies were inexorably destined to proceed along appointed roads by appointed stages until they achieved the classless nirvana. Moreover, given the resistance of the Capitalists to this development, the existence of any non-Communist state was by definition a threat to the Soviet Union. ... An Analysis of the origins of the Cold War which leaves out these factors − the intransigence of Leninist ideology, the sinister dynamics of a totalitarian society and the madness of Stalin − is obviously incomplete’ (Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr, 'Origins of the Cold War', Foreign Affairs, October 1967, pp. 49−50)

  • George Kennan – American Diplomacy 1900-1950 – USSR was a ruthless aggressor

  • Herbert Feis – Soviet aggression responsible, Roosevelt was too soft and surrendered to Soviet demands at Yalta, paved the way for aggression and destabilised the balance of power in Europe.




  • USSR responsible for CW. Expansionist, suspicious of West

  • Marxist ideology advocated world revolution.

  • USSR couldn’t be trusted – Stalin mad, Totalitarian

  • Stalin violated Yalta/Potsdam, occupied Eastern Europe

  • COMINFORM, plotting spread of communism

  • USA had to act defensively – TD and MPlan and NATO

Revisionist

  • William Appleman Williams – The Tragedy of American Diplomacy - Dollar Diplomacy, Americans had always been an empire building people.

  • Gabriel and Joyce Kolko – US policy reflexively anti-Communist and counterrevolutionary – US was fighting any rival, not necessarily Soviets (The Limits of Power: The World and US Foreign Policy, 1945-1954, 1972)

  • Thomas Patterson – ‘coercion characterised United States reconstruction diplomacy.’

  • Gar Alperovitz – Atomic Bomb first move of Cold War, Japan already defeated, intimidate the Soviets (Atomic Diplomacy, Hiroshima and Potsdam 1965)




  • USA responsible for CW. Needs of capitalism

  • Containment – need to secure markets and free trade

  • Follows from US ‘Open Door Policy’ of 19th century

  • Stalin was pragmatic, would have made concessions if USA more willing to take USSR security concerns more seriously

  • USSR was very weak after WW2, USA had nuclear monopoly until 1949 so why USA scared?

Post-Revisionist

Combined both schools, focused on policies and individuals, clear Stalin was aggressive – misconceptions and fears on both sides



John Lewis Gaddis – ‘The Cold War grew out of a complicated interaction of external and internal developments inside both the United States and the Soviet Union. The external situation circumstances beyond the control of either power left Americans and Russians facing one another across prostrated Europe at the end of World War Two. Internal influences in the Soviet Union the search for security, the role of ideology, massive post-war reconstruction needs, the personality of Stalin together with those in the United States the need for self-determination, fear of Communism, the illusion of omnipotence fostered by American economic strength and the atomic bomb made the resulting confrontation a hostile one. Leaders of both superpowers south peace, but in doing so yielded to considerations, which, while they did not precipitate war, made resolution of differences impossible."

(John Lewis Gaddis, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War 1941−47 (Columbia University Press, 1972), pp. 359−61)

Gaddis – ‘Geography, demography, and tradition contributed to this outcome but did not determine it. It took men, responding unpredictably to circumstances, to forge the chain of causation; and it took [Stalin] in particular, responding predictably to his own authoritarian, paranoid, and narcissistic predisposition, to lock it into place.’ (We now know, Rethinking the Cold War History, 1997, p. 25)

Walter LaFeber - "The two powers did not initially come into conflict because one was Communist and the other Capitalist. Rather, they first confronted one another on the plains of Asia in the late nineteenth century. That meeting climaxed a century in which Americans had expanded westward over half the globe and Russians had moved eastward across Asia." (America, Russia and the Cold War 1945-84, 5th ed, Knopf, 1985, p. 1)

Henry Kissinger – USSR motives not based on ideology but a continuum of the long history of Tsarist empire building.


  • Misconceptions played an important part at the start

  • Overestimated the strength and threat of the other

  • Tension in 1940s a result of ‘action and reaction’ – both sides ‘improvising’ rather than following a strict plan of action

  • West did not fully recognise Soviet need for security – USSR not deterred by strong Western stance

  • USA not as aggressive as constrained by domestic politics – Stalin was not. He was in a much better position to compromise considering the power he had.

  • Truman was constrained by Red Scare to not compromise.

‘New’ Historians

Benefit from Soviet archives, move beyond blame, look at long-term factors, third world viewpoints



John Lewis Gaddis – ‘as long as Stalin was running the Soviet Union, a Cold War was unavoidable.’ (We now know: Rethinking Cold War History, OUP: 1998, p. 292).

Odd Arne Westad (Cambridge History of the Cold War 2010) – ‘Very few of our contributors believe that a "definitive" history of the Cold War is possible (or indeed that it should be possible). But a heterogeneous approach creates a strong need for contextualization […] First and foremost we need to situate the Cold War within the wider history of the twentieth century in a global perspective. We need to indicate how Cold War conflicts connect to broader trends in social, economic, and intellectual history as well as to the political and military developments of the longer term of which it forms a part.’


  • More focus on the role of individuals – Stalin

  • Stalin’s policies combined with Soviet totalitarian government drew the West into escalation

  • Other leaders not as expansionist/aggressive/paranoid

  • Origins of Korean War and Berlin Crisis 1961 reveal this


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