Term Paper: Historiography of the Cold War

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[. . .] The United States, argues Williams, was so ideologically committed to the ideal of an open global capitalist system that it could not comprehend any other settlement; cohabitation with the Soviet bloc on the basis of mutual acceptance was thus ruled out. This is thus fundamentally an economic explanation rather than an ideological one, but one that sees economics in essentially political terms. As the counter-culture movements of the 1960s and the effects of the Vietnam War exerted their influence on U.S. perceptions of the world and America's role within it, many scholars developed similar arguments to Williams. Walter LaFeber's America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-1966 of 1967 offered a subtle and very influential model of the revisionist argument, while Joyce and Gabriel Kolko's The Limits of Power: the World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1954 (1972) presented a more directly anti-American interpretation that stressed U.S. economic self-interest.

This revisionist interpretation for the origins of the Cold War was itself criticized and revised during the 1970s by a theory that was less intent on placing 'blame' on either the Americans or the Soviet Union but instead emphasized misunderstandings and misperception. The post-revisionist historiography laid stress on the role of particular events, individual perceptions and misperceptions and the processes of bureaucratic decision-making in moving history rather than relying on the grand designs of policy-makers or on sweeping historical theories. The most influential post-revisionist historian was probably John Lewis Gaddis, whose book, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947 (1972) argued that both U.S. And Soviet intentions following the end of the Second World War were to preserve peace and ensure collective security but led to increased hostility because of the inability of the Eastern and Western blocs to co-operate in the pursuit of these aims. Gaddis argued that American 'war aims' continued beyond the end of the Second World War itself, to encompass not only the defeat of the Fascist powers but also an effective guarantee of postwar peace. This aim required the defeat of the enemy, the promotion of independence and self-determination, the prevention of economic depression, and the establishment of new international security structures and organizations. These goals required Soviet cooperation, but the Communist Bloc could not give assent to the American vision for peace in the postwar world as it was perceived as representing an effective American victory over the East. The non-compatibility of the American and Soviet schemes for post-war peace, argued Gaddis, led to the Cold War.

This 'post-revisionist' interpretation held sway in Cold War studies until the Cold War itself came to an end. Only with the fracturing and collapse of the Communist Bloc was a new interpretation able to gain credence. The new historiography of the Cold War since the early 1990s has been varied in its re-interpretation of existing perceptions. An important strand of recent study has been concerned with the role of ideology in originating and sustaining the conflict. A concern with ideology is not in itself new; as early as 1962 Norman Graebner was noting that the hostile ideological stance adopted by the United States towards the Soviet Union reduced the likelihood of an accommodation between the two sides being reached. However, more recent writers have stressed ideology as the defining element in the Cold War confrontation; Gaddis himself expressed this view in the mid-1990s, and other scholars pursuing this line have included Douglas MacDonald and William Wohlforth. The evidence gleaned from the then recently-opened archives of the Soviet Union, these historians argued, supported the claim that the U.S.S.R. was ideologically committed to expansionism as early 'Cold War warriors' such as Kennan had claimed. Others, however, see the Soviet archival evidence in a different light, arguing that rather than supporting an ideological interpretation of Soviet foreign policy they suggest that power politics and strategic considerations were more important than ideology in determining Soviet policy and behaviour. This interpretation would seem to conclude that the Cold War resulted from a contest of great powers, not a conflict of ideologies, and that both the United States and the Soviet Union bear responsibility for the origins of the Cold War.

However, the main thrust of recent Cold War historiography has been that the confrontation had its origins in ideological confrontation. In the 1980s Linda Kielen and Hugh Thomas produced important studies stressing the role of ideological incompatibility between East and West in producing a climate of hostility not amenable to resolution, a theme that was picked up in the 1990s by, among others, Powalski, Ball, and Davis. However, while focusing on the importance of ideology, this recent scholarship tends to be more concerned with Eastern ideology rather than that of the West. This can be seen in an important work of the new scholarship, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History by John Lewis Gaddis (1997). In many ways this book continues the themes already established by Gaddis's earlier work and summarized above: an emphasis on the importance of geo-politics and power balances in driving the confrontation. The new element, and one which reflects important trends in modern Cold War scholarship, is a concern with factors such as the personality of Stalin, the nature of authoritarian government, and the character and content of Communist ideology.

It can thus be seen that the historiography of the Cold War's origins incorporates a very wide range of approaches. Cold War scholarship has incorporated traditionalist accounts of an expansionist Soviet Union that needed to be restrained by an American-led Western alliance, revisionist assaults on the policies and purposes of the United States, and post-revisionist arguments that have sought to explain the confrontation without apportioning 'blame' to one side or the other. These interpretations were themselves the product of ideological alignments that reflected the Cold War world, whether they consciously recognized it or not. Since the Cold War itself came to an end, a new consensus has emerged - a 'fourth phase' in the historiography of this vital period in modern history. This 'fourth phase' emphasizes ideology and, in some ways, represents a return to the orthodoxies of diplomatic history, finding explanations in ideological alignments and great power politics. Greater access to archival evidence has tended to strengthen (while not conclusively proving) the contention that conflicting and irreconcilable ideological ambitions were the ultimate source and driving force of the Cold War.

Not least of the contributing factors to the continuing development and reassessment of our historiography of the Cold War is its centrality to the shaping of the modern age and the way it became enduringly embedded in culture, ideology and society. As a recent study commented, 'The Cold War is embedded in America's political culture. The way we remember this era impacts upon our current sense of purpose and well being... Our stake in Cold War history... remains high.' Just as the ideological positions inherent in the Cold War determined the forms and approaches of the historiography of the East-West confrontation, so the post-Cold War world produces historical theorizations of itself and its origins that reflect its own preoccupations and concerns.


Ball, Simon J., The Cold War: An International History, 1947-1991 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Davis, Nigel, 'Rethinking the Role of Ideology in International Politics During the Cold War', Journal of Cold War Studies 1, 1 (1999).

Feis, Herbert, From Trust to Terror: the Onset of the Cold War, 1945-1950 (New York W.W. Norton, 1970).

Gaddis, John Lewis, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972).

Gaddis, John Lewis, 'The Tragedy of Cold War History: Reflections on Revisionism', Foreign Affairs 73, 1 (1994).

Gaddis, John Lewis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Graebner, Norman A., Cold War Diplomacy: American Foreign Policy, 1945-1960 (New York: Van Nostrand, 1962).

Hammond, Thomas T. (ed.), Witnesses to the Origins of the Cold War (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1982).

Kielen, Linda R., The Soviet Union and the United States: A New Look at the Cold War (Boston, MA: Twayne, 1989).

Leffler, Melvyn P., A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration and the Cold War (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992).

Leffler, Melvyn P., 'Inside the Enemy Archives: The Cold War Reopened', Foreign Affairs 75, 4 (1996).

Leffler, Melvyn P., "The Cold War: what do "We Now Know"?', American Historical Review, 104 (1999).

MacDonald, Douglas J., 'Communist Bloc Expansion in the Early Cold War: Challenging Realism, Refuting Revisionism', International Security 20, 3 (1995/96).

McNeill, William Hardy, America, Britain and Russia: their Co-operation and Conflict, 1941-1946 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957).

Medhurst, Martin J., Cold War Rhetoric: Strategy, Metaphor and Ideology (Medhurst, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1997).

Paterson, Thomas G., War on Every Front: the Making and Unmaking of the Cold War (New York W.W. Norton, 1992).

Powalksi, Ronald, The Cold War: The United States and the Soviet Union, 1917-1991 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).… [END OF PREVIEW]

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