Approaches Toward the Cold War: Traditionalism, Revisionism & Post-Revisionism

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  • 0:01 Building a Context
  • 1:08 Realism
  • 1:58 Traditionalism
  • 2:57 Revolutionism
  • 4:15 Post-Revisionism
  • 5:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The study of the Cold War has produced a voluminous amount of interpretation. In this lesson, you will learn about the various schools of thought, including realism, traditionalism, revisionism and post-revisionism.

Building a Context

The Cold War encompassed a lengthy period of United States history, spanning from 1945 to 1991. Teachers and students generally focus on the events that transpired during the period, such as the red scare, the space race, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, to name a few. Yet, another important aspect of the Cold War was the interpretations that were developed to explain such a monumental period by statesmen, journalists, historians, and academicians.

The research that has been conducted on the Cold War is voluminous. Thousands of books and papers have attempted to cover every aspect of the period. Interpretations of the event are still being delivered in contemporary times.

So, how is all of this information organized and classified? Through an extensive historiography, which is the study of everything that has been written on a topic. Since the end of the Second World War, historians have analyzed the written material on the Cold War and have placed the interpretations into several different schools of thought: realism, traditionalism (also known as orthodox), revisionism, and post-revisionism (also regarded as 'new history'). Let's break down each classification in an attempt to understand what has been written about the Cold War.

Realism

Realism, and its associated 'realist' writers, represented interpretation that occurred at the onset of the Cold War. This was analysis that was being released as relations between the United States and the Soviet Union deteriorated. The realist period can largely be attributed to George Kennan's work American Diplomacy, 1900-1950. This interpretation framed the Soviet Union as a ruthless aggressor that sparked the Cold War. It challenged the United States to take the initiative in bringing collective security to the world by containing the communist menace.

Imagine this school of thought as an action movie with a hero and a villain. In this instance, the Soviet Union was deemed the villain; the United States assumed the hero role to protect its own interests. Interpretation of the realism period quickly yielded a newer form of assessment known as traditionalism.

Traditionalism

Traditionalism is heavily rooted in the realist school of thought. It is simply just an extension of the realist interpretation of the early events of the Cold War. The argument changes slightly under the traditionalist approach.

Traditionalists still maintained that the Soviet Union was a ruthless aggressor, but they painted the United States in an even more positive light. Interpretations suggested that the United States pursued a peaceful post-Second World War, but it had to establish itself as a global force to serve as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. Returning to the hero/villain scenario, the Soviet Union was still painted as the villain, but now the United States, as the hero, was expected to protect the interests of the world from the alleged dangers of communism.

A very important concept was developed out of the traditionalist school of thought: the policy of containment, which called for the United States to prevent the spread of communism. Individuals, such as George Kennan and Herbert Feis, argued that the United States must adopt a containment strategy as a means of harnessing the expansion of communism. As you can see, both schools of thought supported the United States' battle against the Soviet Union.

Revisionism

Yet, there was a change in thinking as the Cold War progressed between the 1960s and 1980s. Scholars began reassessing the interpretations of the realists and traditionalists and offered a school of thought grounded in revision. The revisionists encouraged individuals to look at the Cold War through a very different lens. The simple argument within revisionism was that the United States was responsible for the beginning of the Cold War. In other words, the United States now assumed the villain role. However, it becomes more complex because revisionism morphed into a number of sub-schools of thought.

Traditional revisionists, such as Walter Lippmann, argued that the Cold War was precipitated by American moves because the Soviet Union was too weak following the Second World War to spawn a Cold War. Simply put, the Soviet Union had to be innocent because it was too feeble to spark a confrontation. Moderate revisionists, such as Denna Fleming, contended that the United States was responsible, but not all of the blame can be leveraged against the Americans; the Soviet Union did pose a potential threat.

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