American Interpretations of the Cold War1

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US Foreign Policy during the Cold War

Lecturer: dr. Fodor Júlia

2010. October

American Interpretations of the Cold War1

Roosevelt’s death (April 12, 1945) significantly changed the diplomatic setting by introducing an element of uncertainty about future US-Soviet relations. Truman had not been involved in FDR’s policymaking. Plus he heavily relied on policy advisers who had been ignored at Yalta!

After the Second World War the USA emerged as the strongest nation on earth. Having triumphed over the Nazis, the Americans were optimistically looking forward to a bright future. Their hopes were soon dashed. Within 2 years the USA found itself confronting its former ally, the Soviet Union.
2 developments during WWII established the context of the Cold War:

1. 5 first-rate powers were toppled: Germany, Japan, Italy (enemies)

Britain + France were drained (impossible to regain their prewar importance)

Only 2 superpowers left standing…!

  1. Technological revolution in warfare: atomic bomb → diplomacy entered a new age

American point of view: SU a ruthless power driven by Communist ideology, bent on global

revolution and domination, headed by an aggressive leader (Stalin) with a policy of expansion (ultimate aim of destroying the free world…)
Soviet point of view: the US wants a capitalist world order everywhere, is an expansionist

imperialistic country, wanting to encircle the SU with hostile capitalist countries to isolate the SU + to destroy communist regimes anywhere in the world

Each viewed the other as one bent on destroying the other!
Major historiographic schools

1. Traditional (Orthodox): SU provoked the Cold War (expansionist, aggressive)

2. Revisionists: Truman provoked the Cold War

3. New Left Revisionist: America is the one primary responsible

4. Realists: Neither the US nor the SU was responsible

5. Neo-conservative: Democratic peace theory, Domino theory, Big stick diplomacy

1. Traditional (Orthodox):

right after WWII most scholars accepted the official explanation given by the Truman administration in justifying its foreign policy:

Responsibility for the Cold War belongs to the SU for its expansionist + aggressive moves:

SU is motivated by a desire for greater security, power and larger spheres of influence
Criticized FDR: responsible for the subjugation of E. Europe

1946 spring Fulton, Missouri, Churchill: An iron curtain had been lowered across Eastern Europe by the Soviets → a growing peril to “Christian civilization”

1947. Truman Doctrine: Since the Soviets violated the agreements w/the Western powers (e.g. Yalta accords: future of E.E., and role of China)  Containment of Communism = beginning of the Cold War 1947

The USA was reluctantly forced to change its foreign policy to embark upon Containment… Without this, the Communists would have taken “all Europe” (Greece, Italy, France + E.E.)

George Kennan: Biggest influence on the official/orthodox (Truman administration) position (Publishing under the pseudonym “Mr. X” in 1947)

US foreign service officer

● He is called the Father of Containment: policy to check Russia’s expansionism

Inspired the Truman Doctrine + Marshall Plan:

Wanted the U.S. to use economic aid and covert action to strengthen the

strategically important industrialized nations of Western Europe and Japan 

● a balance of power that would contain Soviet influence  decline in isolation from the

rest of the world

2. Revisionists: mainly 1960s (deepening disillusionment over Am foreign policy)
Walter Lippmann in a 1920 study entitled A Test of the News, stated that The New York Times' coverage of the Bolshevik revolution was biased and inaccurate.

● Popularized the phrase "cold war" in his 1947 book under the title The Cold War

(collection of articles in which he argued against George Kennan’s interpretation behind Soviet policy).

● Refused to put the blame only on the SU for starting the Cold War

● The US (TRUMAN!) provoked the Cold War rather than the SU

Denna Fleming (The Cold War and its Origins 1917-60 c.)

● The Soviets were only reacting defensively

● SU was actually weak as a result of the war → not wanting to continue any war

● FDR had been dedicated to a Wilsonian “internationalism”, recognizing that the SU

would be the key to any new league of nations in the postwar period, FDR

had done his best to maintain good relations with Russia.

● But Truman adopted a tough policy toward the Russians:

●1945. April: Truman orders the Russians to change their policy in Poland or the US

will withdraw economic aid: 1945 April is the beginning of the Cold War

● Gar Alperovitz: (Atomic Diplomacy): Truman provoked the Cold War with the A bomb
Wanting to force the Russians to give in to American postwar plans: leave Eastern E.

● The responsibility for what came after belongs both to the US and SU

● US motivation: missionary zeal of manifest destiny: hoped to reshape the world

Or: economic expansion…! Capture world markets

● Marshall Plan had been purposefully designed in a way that the SU would not

participate in it

● SU motivation in Cold War: the US tried to deny the SU its due share in accordance

the Yalta agreements (Churchill and FDR had to concede at Yalta)

3. New left revisionists: viewed the US as an aggressive power throughout the entire 20th c,

starting back with the Spanish-American War (1898)

William Appleman Williams (The Tragedy of American Diplomacy):
America’s foreign policy was expansionist from the very beginning

● Open Door policy was the basis for the Cold War: Am wanted to get Eastern

Europe’s markets


(not for Democracy.. Wilson)

Walter LaFeber
US/SU foreign policy hinged on domestic issues more than anything else

upcoming elections, economic recessions, McCarthy era, struggle for power w/in

the government

● US and SU were equally interested in exploiting foreign markets wherever!

1st phase of Cold War: 1945-53 Europe oriented

America is the main bulwark in the West against Communism

2nd phase of Cold War: Vietnam War: a failure
Lloyd Gardner: America is responsible for the way the Cold War developed
Various options were available to the Americans (conciliatory path by FDR based on acceptance of Soviet postwar influence that would avert conflict)

Athan Theoharis:
A wide varieaty of options were available to American policy makers in 1945,

● nothing compelled the adoption of policies that led to the Cold War

● FDR (Détente): Conciliatory path based on the acceptance of Soviet postwar

influence averting conflict ↔ Truman (rigidly anti-Soviet)

Gabriel Kolko: (The Politics of War)
● Origins of the Cold War date back before WWI

Already in 1943 the US worked on the structure of peacetime politics in the postwar

world: extend America’s influence throughout the world
● The USA was the greatest threat to international stability (not Russia!)

US was responsible for the start of the cold war

● American capitalism is dependent on ever-expanding foreign markets for survival

4. Realists (= realpolitik) (Middle-of-the-road position)

George Kennan

By mid-1948, Kennan changed his views and was convinced that the situation in Western Europe had improved to the point where negotiations could be initiated with Moscow. The suggestion did not resonate within the Truman administration, and Kennan's influence was increasingly marginalized—particularly after Dean Acheson was appointed Secretary of State in 1949. As U.S. Cold War strategy became more aggressive and militaristic, Kennan believed that he had been misinterpreted.

In 1950, Kennan left the Department of State, and became a leading realist critic of U.S. foreign policy. He continued to be a leading thinker in international affairs as a faculty member of the Institute for Advanced Study from 1956 until his death at age 101 in 2005.

Joseph Starobin:

● Containment was necessary! (necessary response to Soviet expansion)

● motivation: power politics

Neither the US + SU were responsible for starting the Cold War: both wanted cooperation to continue (but on their own terms)

● FDR was not responsible for the Soviet subjugation of Eastern Europe (his diplomatic options were very limited since the Soviet armies “liberated EE” and were there)
SU acted out of fear and seeking security (not expansionism) → the US perceived that as a threat → triggered a countermeasure = escalation

Small crises led to a widening conflict → global proportions

● Cold War = power conflict (not conflict of ideologies!!) for balance of power in Europe
● Claiming that all of Europe might be dominated by Communists shows lack of knowledge!!
EEurope: vulnerable to outside pressures because these societies were ripe for REVOLUTION =

EE was an easy prey (to the indigenous Communists parties, Moscow directed…)

Western Europe – though weakened by the war - their social, economic, political institutions were still functioning
● US dropped the A bomb on Japan to end the War before the Soviets could enter the Pacific theater of war
Hans Morgenthau

Founder of International relations (IR) as an independent discipline

● After WWII Paradigm shift in American thinking about diplomacy (Politics among Nations), emphasized foreign policy in terms of NATIONAL INTEREST.

● Nation-states are the main actors in International Relations, and that the main concern of the field is the study of power.

In Defense of the National Interest: A Critical Examination of American Foreign Policy (1951)

● US foreign policy since 1776 had been too UTOPIAN

● only since WWII had it become more realistic: based on national interest + power politics2
● Morgenthau, along with almost all realists in the United States – except for Henry Kissinger –

opposed the Vietnam war. Their opposition came early, long before it became clear that the war was a lost cause; in fact Morgenthau was warning against American military involvement in Vietnam in the late 1950s
● Equally, almost all realists in the United States – except for Henry Kissinger – opposed the war against Iraq.

● Morgenthau thought that the domino theory was nonsense. Like all realists, he understood that we live in a balancing world and that the fall of Vietnam would not have a cascading effect in Southeast Asia, much less across the entire globe. →

5. Neo-conservatives: big-stick diplomacy (Bush doctrine: military power over diplomacy)

Domino theory: if Vietnam were to fall to communism, other countries in Southeast Asia would quickly follow, and then countries in other regions would begin to fall under the rule of the Soviet Union.

● Neo-conservative theory – the Bush doctrine – is essentially “Wilsonianism with teeth”. The theory has an idealist strand and a power strand: Wilsonianism provides the idealism, an emphasis on military power provides the teeth.

● the United States has a remarkably powerful military

● America can use its power to reshape the world to suit its interests

● Wilsonian strand of the neo-conservatives’ theory of international politics focuses on promoting democracy (the most powerful political ideology)

● the world divides into good states and bad states

Good states: Democracies only wage war when the bad states (non-democratic states), leave them no choice.

Democratic peace theory: democracies hardly ever fight each other.

→ So if the US could help create a world populated exclusively with democracies, there would be no war and we would have reached what Francis Fukuyama famously called “the end of history” Fukuyama thought we had reached the end of history in 1989 with the end of the cold war.

If every state in the world looked like democratic America, (a virtuous state) we would live in a world of good states → it would be a peaceful world.

● Root of terrorism: lack of democracy in the Arab states

● Solution: export democracy to the middle east, and hopefully to the wider Islamic world. (No democracy modeled after the US will resort to terror)

● Social engineering on a massive scale: when Baghdad fell (9 April 2003): the Bush administration and its neo-conservative supporters made it clear that they intended to use the threat or application of military force to topple the regimes in Iran and Syria and eventually to transform the entire region into a sea of democracies.

No true conservative would embrace such a grandiose policy

● Neo-conservatives favor unilateralism over multilateralism.

● International politics operate according to “bandwagoning” logic: if a powerful country like the US is willing to threaten or attack its adversaries, then all the states in the system – friends and foes alike – will quickly understand that the United States means business.

● Knocking off Saddam: will have a cascading effect in the middle east, if not the wider world.

Iran and North Korea will respond to the fall of Saddam

● pro-Israel neoconservative faction inside the administration, including the biggest advocate of the Lobby's goals – George W. Bush.

Quick and decisive victory in Iraq based on faith in the revolution in military affairs

1. stealth technology

2. air-delivered precision-guided weapons

3. small but highly mobile ground forces to win quick and decisive victories

4. The American military would swoop down out of the sky, finish off a regime, pull back and reload the shotgun for the next target.

5. There might be a need for US ground troops in some cases, but that force would be small in number.

Deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz (left) (prominent neo-conservative) and

Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld (right) did not take seriously (then US army chief of staff) General Eric Shinsheki’s

comment that the United States would need “several hundred thousand troops” to occupy Iraq.
Realist critique of this neo-conservative theory:

● Realists do not believe that we live in a bandwagoning world.

● We live in a balancing world, in which, when one state puts its fist in another state’s face, the target usually does not throw its hands in the air and surrender. Instead, it looks for ways to defend itself

● Realists predicted that Iran and North Korea would not react to an attack on Iraq by abandoning their nuclear programs, but would work harder than ever to acquire a nuclear deterrent so as to immunize themselves from American power.

● Neo-conservatives expected America’s allies in Europe to change their opinion after Iraq and support the Bush doctrine.3

1 Interpretations of History (by Grob and Billias Chp.10. Containment or Counterrevolution)

2 Published on openDemocracy ( By John J Mearsheimer, Created 2005-05-18

3 OpenDemocracy ( By John J Mearsheimer

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