Back To CourseHistory 107: World Conflicts Since 1900
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Adam has a master's degree in history.
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, 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 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.
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.
In other words, the United States jumped the gun out of the fear of a possible threat. The 'New Left' revisionists, such as William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko, and Gar Alperovitz, then delivered their interpretation. This sub-school held the United States was absolutely responsible for the Cold War as a result of its imperialist desire to expand and claim new economically profitable markets. These scholars believed that the United States was similar to a villain looking to steal money and valuables.
The revisionists had a strong hold on Cold War literature for a period of roughly 30 years. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, scholars entered into a new period from 1991 to contemporary times known as post-revisionism. This was a fresh, and often blame-free, reassessment of the Cold War; neither nation was a hero nor a villain.
Individuals, such as Hans Morganthau and Louis Halle, maintained that the Cold War was neither the fault of the United States nor Soviet Union. This event was sparked by power politics and conflicting national interests. Neither side wanted to precipitate a conflict, yet misconceptions led to ideological myths and ultimately tension between the two nations - similar to rumors in social networks that spark controversy. Post-revision even created a new way of analyzing the Cold War in a global context in order to, as an example, develop interpretations from the point of view of third-world nations that were involved.
This was a lot of information, so let's recap what has been discussed. The history of the Cold War is voluminous. Historians needed a way of classifying and organizing all of the varying interpretations since 1945. They were able to do this by regrouping information into four schools of thought: realism, traditionalism, revisionism, and post-revisionism.
Realism represented interpretation that was 'of the time,' or, in other words, being written while the Cold War was beginning. This notion suggested that the Soviet Union was solely responsible for the event due to its aggressive behavior following the Second World War. Traditionalism was an extension of the realism school. Yet, this class of interpretation maintained that the United States was responsible for combating the communist menace through the policy of containment.
Revisionism eventually surfaced when individuals challenged the idea that the United States was free from blame. Traditional revisionists held the United States responsible due to the weak nature of the Soviet Union. Moderate revisionists argued that the United States was responsible, but should share the blame. 'New Left' revisionists claimed that the United States was fully at fault based on its imperial aggressiveness. Post-revisionism eventually contended that neither side was at fault. Instead, the Cold War was a terrible byproduct of misconceptions and myths.
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Back To CourseHistory 107: World Conflicts Since 1900
8 chapters | 73 lessons