The Historiography of the Origins of the Cold War



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Steven Higginbotham

Dr. Buzzanco

History 6393

Spring 2007


The Historiography of the Origins of the Cold War
In the second half of 20th century, one conflict, the Cold War, stands unchallenged as the preeminent organizing principle for U.S. foreign policy. A central question in the historiography of the Cold War is simply, whose fault was it? During World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union were allies against the fascist Axis powers. In the waning years of that always uneasy alliance, greater signs of strain began to show, and soon a complete break would follow. Was this unavoidable? If not, who carries the greater blame for creating this division, which after all, repeatedly threatened nuclear holocaust and created the ideological justification for a series of horrendously destructive interventions into the so-called “Third World.” While there remains a great diversity of opinion regarding these questions, it has become commonplace in many academic discussions to refer to three broad “schools” of thought regarding the origins of the Cold War: “orthodox” explanations, “revisionism,” and “post-revisionism.” Of course, this categorization is not nearly as “neat and tidy” as one might be inclined to believe; it tends to mask the depth and diversity of the efforts of many historians.1 What follows will be a discussion of these three main perspectives, an evaluation of their arguments, and thoughts regarding the future of the field of Cold War historiography.

For the first ten to twenty years after the end of World War II, the “orthodox” view dominated the history of the Cold War. In this formulation, the United States, repository of all that is pure and good in the world, stood firm against the diabolical designs of the Communist menace. The Soviet Union, seeking to foment world Stalinist revolution, exploited every opportunity to destabilize and destroy democracy, spreading chaos and despair which could be then manipulated by devious Soviet agents for their own despicable ends. To stop such a dastardly plot, the United States, a “reluctant superpower,” having learned the terrible lessons of appeasement from the beginnings of World War II, was determined to thwart global holocaust and thus took up the challenge of world leadership.2 With a wise yet firm hand, the United States held at bay the unprecedented planetary threat represented by the Soviet Union’s militaristic and imperialistic aspirations. In every case, the United States acted altruistically, generously rebuilding Europe through the Marshall Plan to aid them in their own efforts to overcome Communist subversion, while providing military aid through the Truman Doctrine to fragile young democracies like Greece and Turkey in their noble efforts to follow the glorious path of freedom. Americans, according to the traditional interpretation, rejected ideas of imperial aggrandizement or “spheres of influence,” where a state would be given unchallenged influence in a given area. Instead, America embraced a “universalism” that viewed all nations has having a “shared interest in the affairs of the world.”3

Not surprisingly, the orthodox view is indistinguishable from official U.S. government pronouncements regarding the Cold War. Indeed, many of the most notable historians in the orthodox tradition served in the U.S. government, including Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Herbert Feis, and Louis Halle.4 Perhaps the seminal statement of the orthodox view came in the form of the “Long Telegram” (and later in the “X Article”) by George Kennan, a U.S. diplomat serving in the Moscow. Kennan presented an irrational, paranoid Soviet regime that viewed itself at war with capitalism, and was inherently incapable of being a responsible world partner. While direct military confrontation was too risky, a policy of “containment,” namely the prevention of Soviet expansion, and an effort to isolate and frustrate the Communist regime until its eventual collapse, would have to suffice. The orthodox tradition sees Kennan’s prescription as a stroke of genius that has been validated by the unfolding of history. As always, throughout the entirety of the Cold War, traditionalists argue that America was free of any imperial pretensions, acting only in a defensive capacity.

As mentioned above, these orthodox histories often came from those who had formerly worked for the U.S. government (usually the State Department) and thus give the reader an “insider’s view” into the motivations and processes of the government regarding the beginnings of the Cold War. Edward Crapol has warned that while these accounts have “the attraction and excitement of an insider’s view of events, [they] must be used with extreme care and caution.”5 This is due to the fact that these histories inevitably become slanted by the political viewpoints and personal egos of the participants, and can at times be not much more than a simplistic “court history” chronicling and lionizing the actions of the “ruling elite.”6

Another example of an “orthodox” view came from historian Thomas A. Bailey of Stanford University (who authored the enormously successful survey text, The American Pageant) with his 1950 work, America Faces Russia. Bailey argued that Russia was solely responsible for the unraveling of the Grand Alliance. He further maintained that Stalin broke the assurances he had given at Yalta, forced Eastern Europe against their will to become a series of Soviet satellite states, and desired to foment communist world revolution. Thus, the United States had no choice but to respond to this menace with containment.7 Unmentioned in the orthodox view is the fact that the United States similarly thwarted the democratic will of various peoples when it found that they made the wrong choice.

In the 1960s, a radical revisionism (or “New Left” historiography) presented a strong challenge to this orthodox view. Disillusioned with the United States’ war in Vietnam, these scholars took a more critical stance of the American role in the postwar world. The work of scholars like William Appleman Williams and Gabriel Kolko presented a far more complex view of the origins of the Cold War, emphasizing the Soviet Union’s defensive security needs and the efforts by the United States to construct a system of global capitalism that put the economic interests of the United States first and foremost in its concerns. These scholars argued that the Cold War was just another, more ambitious phase in the long history of economic expansionism in U.S. foreign relations.

Most observers point to William Appleman Williams’ The Tragedy of American Diplomacy as the starting point for the revisionist perspective concerning U.S. foreign policy and particularly the Cold War. In this book, Williams argued that U.S. foreign policy had maintained a central operative element since the 1890s to the present, namely the centrality of economic expansionism as formulated by the “Open Door” policy. The Open Door, first applied in China, was designed to secure foreign markets for continual domestic economic expansion, while abandoning the more burdensome elements of traditional colonial imperialism. Whereas a colonial power had to conquer and hold ground, leading almost inevitably to the growth of an extensive anti-imperialist nationalist insurgency, the Open Door provided many of the benefits of empire (access to natural resources, markets for surplus industrial and agricultural production, outlets for finance, etc.) without shedding the blood and treasure required for overt colonization. All that was needed was to gain economic entry (the Open Door) to as many sectors as possible, and the power of the U.S. economy would create a de facto client state. Should a particular regime not prove sufficiently cooperative, or should the people choose the wrong candidate in a democratic election, various methods could be instituted to achieve what is today called “regime change.” However, it was far preferable to utilize the “soft power” of U.S. economic hegemony (backed by unparalleled U.S. military might) as opposed to direct military action.

According to Williams, the Open Door provided the ideal mechanism by which the United States could construct an international capitalist system that allowed for U.S. world hegemony by the open movement of U.S. capital. Edward Crapol is quick to point out that Williams’ analysis is far from “crude economic determinism,” since Williams provides a rich portrait of American motivations that sprung from “a sophisticated Weltanschauung that incorporated cultural, religious, political, and ideological aspects as well.”8 Thus, the United States that emerges in Williams’ analysis is not a passive, reactive force in the early stages of the Cold War, but an active agent, intent on the implementation of a long-standing agenda of U.S. economic penetration throughout the world. Given the unparalleled ascendancy of the United States after the Second World War, policy planners seized the opportunity to construct a world order conducive to what they perceived of as the national interest. Many policy planners also believed that what was best for the United States, was also best for the world. Their worldview made it inconceivable that any rational person could consciously prefer another system to the American system of liberal democratic capitalism.

With regard to Soviet motivations, revisionists were inclined to view their actions as motivated primarily by rational and legitimate security concerns. After the unprecedented destruction of World War II, the former international state system was completely overhauled. The imperial powers of France, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan were devastated and receded in importance on the world stage. The Soviet Union was similarly weakened, having sustained over 20 million deaths as well as enormous damage to its infrastructure. Nevertheless, it had a large standing army and had conquered vast tracts of Axis-held territory. Additionally, its international prestige was boosted as it had stood nearly alone in its confrontation with the bulk of Nazi forces until D-Day. Beyond the Soviet Union, Communist-led resistance movements within Axis-occupied nations also won many hearts and minds around the world with their courage and leadership during the darkest hours of fascist ascendancy.

After World War II, Russia, having suffered three terribly destructive invasions in a little over a century from Western European nations (Napoleon, WWI, WWII), viewed the prevention of a forth major invasion as its preeminent security interest. To this end, the Soviet Union desired to create a series of allies in Eastern Europe that would serve as a buffer against any future military action. The aggressive swagger of the United States (especially its repeated references to its nuclear weapons monopoly) only confirmed and intensified the desires of the Soviet Union to shore up its defensive parameters against a perceived “encirclement” by a hostile United States and its allies. Many traditionalists, outraged by these lines of inquiry, have argued that this revisionism amounts to little more than anti-American apologetics for Soviet aggression. These claims should be seen as little more than reactionary hysterics, for the revisionist analysis did not paint the internal repression of the Soviet Union in a positive light, it merely pointed out that the Soviets were far from being the only agents in the creation of the Cold War. In the early 1960s, this was an idea that some considered tantamount to treason.9

Alone among the world powers, the United States emerged enormously more powerful in the aftermath of World War II. America sustained relatively few human losses during the war, and enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom as a result of war production, “doubling its gross national product (GNP) during the conflict: by 1945, it accounted for around half of the world’s manufacturing capacity, most of its food surpluses, and almost all of its financial reserves.”10 The United States strode the planet as a colossus, a world power of unprecedented power, prestige, and influence over the course of global affairs. Contrary to orthodox claims, the U.S. actively used its economic strength in the form of “lend-lease, reconstruction aid, and postwar loans” to gain concessions from a world devastated by war.11 Policy planners felt that it was essential that America take up the challenge of “global leadership,” but were justifiably concerned that the American people, tired of war, would prefer to demobilize and convert the nascent military-industrial complex to peacetime operation. To avert this calamity, Truman consciously exaggerated the threat posed by the Soviet Union in order to "scare the hell" out of the American people (Truman’s own words). Only a terrified American population could be expected to support the militaristic and expensive Cold War.

Another major element in the revisionist case regarding the origins of the Cold War surrounds the decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan at the end of the Second World War. Indeed, some revisionists have called the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the “opening shots” of the Cold War. In his groundbreaking 1965 book, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam, Gar Alperovitz made a strong argument that the bomb was not dropped for purely military reasons, but as a diplomatic bargaining tool to be used against the Soviet Union in postwar negotiations. As was well known at the time, Japan was actively seeking terms for surrender. All of their allies were defeated, and the Soviet Union was due to enter the war soon. Japan stood no chance of victory, and all observers knew this. The Americans, however, intent on maintaining sole authority over the future of Japan, and eager to use their fancy new (and very expensive weapon) to end the war before the Soviets entered, dropped the bomb for primarily diplomatic, not military, reasons. United States’ monopoly on the atomic bomb was felt to be the ideal tool to bully the Soviets into conceding U.S. supremacy in the construction of the postwar world order.

Another major contribution to the historiography of the revisionist school came with the publication of Joyce and Gabriel Kolko’s The Limits of Power: The World and U.S. Foreign Policy, 1945-1954. This book makes the case that the U.S. was not confronting the Soviet Union as much as it was intent on thwarting any defiance of U.S. hegemony within the United States’ sphere of influence. Thus, the principle antagonist is not so much Soviet communism as it is revolutionary nationalism. Similarly, the Soviet Union used its power to maintain its influence in its sphere of influence, which was largely limited to Eastern Europe.

Revisionists also bristled at the hypocrisy shown by the United States when it challenged the legitimacy of the Soviet sphere of influence, as America managed to conveniently ignore the reality of its own sphere of influence in all of Latin America, and many other parts of the world. Though Soviet crimes in Hungary and other locations were very real, the deletion of American crimes in Iran, Guatemala, and many other places from the orthodox account of the Cold war was seen as a fatal flaw in the arguments of traditionalists among revisionist scholars.

The challenge presented by the revisionist school shook the foundations of traditionalist Cold War academia, who would later respond with a so-called “post-revisionism,” exemplified by the work of John Lewis Gaddis and Melvyn Leffler. These scholars tended to ridicule what they saw as the “economic determinism” of the revisionist school.12 Perhaps the most important book of post-revisionism was Gaddis’s The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947. This work made a more sophisticated and subtle defense of U.S. actions at the beginning of the Cold War, which some revisionists labeled “neo-orthodoxy.” Many post-revisionists accept the majority of the mountain of evidence gathered by revisionists, yet they tend to distance themselves from revisionist conclusions. For example, Gaddis has stated that post-revisionists accept revisionist claims that economics levers were used by Americans to achieve desired outcomes, that Stalin was more of a pragmatist nationalist than an ideologically driven advocate of world communist revolution, that U.S. political leaders “exaggerated” the threat posed by the Soviet Union to achieve domestic political goals, and finally, that they accept the reality of an American Empire, though one that is a “defensive empire,” created not by force but “by invitation.”13 Gaddis further argues that “neither side can bear sole responsibility for the onset of the Cold War.”14 Still, Gaddis feels that the Soviet Union shared the greater share of blame, since Stalin, as a totalitarian dictator, enjoyed a greater freedom of action than did U.S. policymakers, who were limited in their freedom of movement by the vocal anticommunist elements in the country.15

Other post-revisionist Cold War historians have sought to put aside the question of culpability in starting the conflict, and instead view the Cold War as an inevitable outcome. This argument holds that the vast differences in belief systems, culture, goals, and the history of mutual mistrust made the conflict inevitable. This stated, post-revisionists in this line of thought tend to focus more on understanding the perspectives of the various actors involved than on the question of why the Cold War began and who was responsible for it.

In evaluating each of the respective strands of Cold War historiography, orthodoxy, revisionism, and post-revisionism, it is first of all evident that the views grow from certain ideological positions. The orthodox view was born during the hysteria of anticommunism, and was largely created with a more or less conscious desire to provide a functional justification for the construction of a capitalist postwar world order. Its black and white, good versus evil simplicity bears the indelible mark of nationalist propaganda, and should be studied primarily as a relic of the Cold War itself, not a serious strain of impartial scholarship. The work of revisionist scholars, influenced by New Left historiography, has convincingly skewered the fairy tale history of the United States as a disinterested protector of democracy and freedom. Power politics and, above all, economic interest, played a crucial and decisive factor in the motivations of the United States. A long and sad historical list of interventions, wars, military aid and covert actions proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the prime directive for U.S. planners was the expansion and protection of U.S.-style capitalism, not the self-determination or democracy of “Third World” nations. This led them to initiate policies specifically designed to antagonize the Soviet Union and further the incorporation of the world into a U.S. dominated system.

Further, with the recent access to Soviet archives, orthodox arguments that rest on the paranoid belief that the Soviet Union had a “blueprint for world domination” have been convincingly disproved.16 These new sources have highlighted the centrality and cruelty of Stalin, but simultaneously paint a picture of a man who engaged in realpolitik regarding foreign policy objectives. Scholar Geoffrey Roberts uses these archives to follow the evolution of Soviet perspectives from World War II into the beginnings of the Cold War. Interestingly, Roberts’ work shows that “the views and policies revealed in these records are strikingly similar to those in Soviet speeches and other public statements at the time.”17 Thus, it seems that Stalin was quite serious when he argued that his interests were largely limited to an Eastern European sphere of influence and safety from another German invasion. It is also clear that Stalin considered it a most important objective to maintain good relations with the United States and Great Britain until 1947. This seems to be irrefutable confirmation of revisionist claims that Stalin was quite well aware of the limitations of his position, and only hoped to secure modest gains regarding legitimate national security concerns from a war that, after all, his country had made perhaps the greatest sacrifices to win.

The picture of a reactive and defensive Soviet Union is further buttressed by the work of David Holloway, who has studied the effects of atomic diplomacy on Soviet policy. Holloway argues that while the U.S. monopoly on the bomb did heighten the Soviet dictator’s distaste for direct military confrontation with the United States, it also magnified his determination to stand his ground on many less potentially catastrophic issues as to avoid the appearance of weakness. Needless to say, it also fueled Stalin’s efforts to gain the atomic bomb.18 Once again, this recent scholarship has bolstered the revisionist work of Gar Alperovitz.

Moreover, the view of Stalin as a relentless supporter of “communist subversion” around the world has increasingly been discredited. During World War II, for example, left-wing Greek Nazi resistance forces gained widespread support among the population, and were likely to take control of Greece. To prevent this, the British intervened, but by the end the war felt unable to bear the costs of repressing domestic resistance and handed off the operation to the United States. While the U.S. provided enormous amounts of military and economic aid to Greek anticommunist forces through the Truman Doctrine, the Soviet Union offered little to the Greek Communists, “leaving them at a severe disadvantage in the civil war.”19 The principle motivation for Stalin’s actions here was not a fanatical desire to export communism; clearly it was a desire to maintain positive relations with his wartime allies. These actions were repeated in Italy and France as popular Communist groups were repressed by CIA-directed government repression. Once again, the orthodox view of Stalin as an ideological maniac throwing caution to the wind in order to further world communism crumbles, and the revisionist view of Stalin as a careful, cynical disciple of power politics is strengthened.

Overall, it is my view that the post-revisionist line of Cold War studies has largely been a feeble attempt by more ideologically right-wing scholars to respond to the ocean of evidence accumulated by the work of revisionists. In particular, the post-revisionist argument that the Cold War was inevitable because of the stances of both antagonists seems rather uncharitable to the increasingly well-documented sincerity of Stalin’s efforts to maintain the Grand Alliance. Stalin was clever enough to know that his hand was far the weaker compared to the U.S. after World War II, and it is clear he had no initial desire to try to overplay that hand. More likely, if the Cold War was genuinely “inevitable,” this was a result of the unflappable hostility and self-assured swagger (as a result of the atomic bomb monopoly) of the power elite in the U.S. to any government not willing to conform to their plans for a global capitalist order. Additionally, Gaddis’s contention that the U.S. Empire is solely one created by “invitation” would surely be surprising to millions of Guatemalans, Vietnamese, Chileans, and the many others who have suffered the consequences for refusing the “invitation” to subjugate themselves to American hegemony.

The future of Cold War historiography will most likely reveal new insights culled from the archives of the former Soviet Union. What these insights exactly will be is unknown, but it would be hard to imagine that the orthodox view, a view rabidly pro-American and full of paranoid anti-Soviet propaganda, will find any greater support among Soviet sources. Though post-revisionists have contributed quality work to the field, they have a great deal more work to do before they can seriously challenge the conclusions of revisionist scholarship. With regard to calls for a “synthesis” of the various strands of Cold War scholarship, I see no particularly pressing need to do so. As previously mentioned, orthodox views are interesting for what they reveal concerning American ideology and self-deception, but any attempt to synthesize this strand with revisionism is utterly pointless.

Regarding a synthesis of revisionism and post-revisionism, I do not see any strong argument here either, but perhaps Edward Crapol’s call for a “comparative empire” approach to the Cold War holds some potential. The work of Andrew Bacevich, author of American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy appears to fit nicely with this line of scholarly inquiry, though it contains far more revisionism than post-revisionism. Still, calls for a synthesis are largely moot given that the revisionism of Williams, Kolko and others seems only to be gaining in explanatory power in light of more recent U.S. foreign policy, particularly the ongoing Iraq War. While it is nice that Gaddis and other post-revisionists finally recognize the reality of an American Empire, they firmly hold to the proposition that this state of affairs was inevitable and desirable. Revisionists generally disdain such conclusions, and I see no reason to believe that these two camps are likely to “synthesize” anytime soon. Nor should they.


1 Edward Crapol, “Some Reflections on the Historiography of the Cold War,” from The History Teacher, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Feb., 1987), 252.

2 Andrew J. Bacevich, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002, 7.

3 Ibid., 253.

4 Ibid., 253-254.

5 Ibid., 254.

6 Ibid.

7 Thomas A. Bailey, America Faces Russia: Russian-American Relations from Early Times to Our Day, New York: Cornell University Press, 1950.

8 Crapol, 254.

9 Ibid., 255.

10 Melvyn P. Leffler and David S. Painter, “Introduction,” Origins of the Cold War: An International History,” 2nd Ed., New York: Routledge, 2005, 3.

11 Crapol, 256.

12 John Lewis Gaddis, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, New York: Columbia University Press, 1972, 358.

13 Crapol, 258-259.

14 Gaddis, 360.

15 Ibid.

16 Leffler, 2-3.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid., 5.

19 Ibid., 8.


Selected Bibliography

Bacevich, Andrew J. American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.


Bailey, Thomas A. America Faces Russia: Russian-American Relations from Early Times to Our Day, New York: Cornell University Press, 1950.
Crapol, Edward. “Some Reflections on the Historiography of the Cold War,” from The History Teacher. Vol. 20, No. 2, Feb., 1987.
Gaddis, John Lewis. The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, New York: Columbia University Press, 1972.
Leffler, Melvyn P. and Painter, David S. “Introduction,” Origins of the Cold War: An International History,” 2nd Ed., New York: Routledge, 2005.
Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1959.







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