Historiography of the Cold War

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History of the Cold War

Origins of the Cold War
World War II
(Hiroshima and Nagasaki)
War conferences
Eastern Bloc
Western Bloc
Iron Curtain
Cold War (1947–53)
Cold War (1953–62)
Cold War (1962–79)
Cold War (1979–85)
Cold War (1985–91)
Frozen conflicts
Timeline  · Conflicts

As soon as the term "Cold War" was popularized to refer to postwar tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, interpreting the course and origins of the conflict became a source of heated controversy among historians, political scientists, and journalists.[1] In particular, historians have sharply disagreed as to who was responsible for the breakdown of Soviet-U.S. relations after the Second World War; and whether the conflict between the two superpowers was inevitable, or could have been avoided.[2] Historians have also disagreed on what exactly the Cold War was, what the sources of the conflict were, and how to disentangle patterns of action and reaction between the two sides.[3]

While the explanations of the origins of the conflict in academic discussions are complex and diverse, several general schools of thought on the subject can be identified. Historians commonly speak of three differing approaches to the study of the Cold War: "orthodox" accounts, "revisionism," and "post-revisionism." However, much of the historiography on the Cold War weaves together two or even all three of these broad categories,[4] and more recent scholars have tended to address issues that transcend the concerns of all three 'schools'.

Interpretations of the Cold War

Pro-Soviet accounts

The Soviet historiography was under central control, and blamed the West for the Cold War.[5]

In Britain, the historian E.H. Carr wrote a 14-volume history of the Soviet Union, focused on the 1920s, published 1950-78. His friend R.W. Davies, said Carr belonged to the anti-Cold-War school of history, which regarded the Soviet Union as the major progressive force in the world, the United States as the world's principal obstacle to the advancement of humanity, and the Cold War as a case of American aggression against the Soviet Union.[6][7] Carr criticized those Anglophone historians who, he felt, had unfairly judged the Soviet Union by the cultural norms of Britain and the United States.[8] In 1960, Carr wrote that:

Much of what has been written in the English speaking countries during the last ten years about the Soviet Union […] has been vitiated by this inability to achieve even the most elementary measure of imaginative understanding of what goes on in the mind of the other party.[8]

Orthodox accounts

The first school of interpretation to emerge in the U.S. was "orthodox." For more than a decade after the end of the Second World War, few U.S. historians challenged the official U.S. interpretation of the beginnings of the Cold War.[2] This "orthodox" school places the responsibility for the Cold War on the Soviet Union and its expansion into Eastern Europe.[9] Thomas A. Bailey, for example, argued in his 1950 America Faces Russia that the breakdown of postwar peace was the result of Soviet expansionism in the immediate years following World War II. Bailey argued Stalin violated promises he had made at Yalta, imposed Soviet-dominated regimes on unwilling Eastern European populations, and conspired to spread communism throughout the world.[2] From this view, U.S. officials were forced to respond to Soviet aggression with the Truman Doctrine, plans to contain communist subversion around the world, and the Marshall Plan.

Another prominent "Orthodox" historian Herbert Feis in his works like "Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin" and "From Trust to Terror:The Onset of the Cold War", stated similar views. According to him, Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe in the post-war period was responsible for starting of the Cold War. Apart from this, he also argued that President Roosevelt's policies towards Stalin and his "surrender" to Stalin's demands in the Yalta conference paved the way for Soviet aggression and destabilized balance of power in Europe in Soviet favor.[10]

This interpretation has been described as the "official" U.S. version of Cold War history.[9] Although it lost its dominance as a mode of historical thought in academic discussions in 1960s, it continues to be influential.[1]


U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s disillusioned New Left historians and created a cadre of historians with sympathy towards the Viet Cong position and antipathy towards American policies. This was a small group.

Much more important were the revisionists who argued that both United States and the Soviet Union were responsible for blundering into the war, and rejected the premises of "containment". They Battled the "orthodox" historians.[2] "Revisionist" accounts emerged in the wake of the Vietnam War, in the context of a larger rethinking of the U.S. role in international affairs, which was seen more in terms of American empire or hegemony.[9] While the new school of thought spanned many differences among individual scholars, the works comprising it were generally responses in one way or another to William Appleman Williams' landmark 1959 volume, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. Williams challenged the long-held assumptions of "orthodox" accounts, arguing that Americans had always been an empire-building people, even while American leaders denied it.[1]

Following Williams, revisionists placed more responsibility for the breakdown of postwar peace on the United States, citing a range of U.S. efforts to isolate and confront the Soviet Union well before the end of World War II.[9] They argued that American policymakers shared an overarching concern with maintaining the market system and democracy. In order to achieve that objective, they pursued an "open door" policy abroad, aimed at increasing access to foreign markets for U.S. business and agriculture.[1]

Revisionist scholars challenged the widely accepted scholarly research that Soviet leaders were committed to postwar "expansionism." They cited evidence that the Soviet Union's occupation of Eastern Europe had a defensive rationale, and that Soviet leaders saw themselves as attempting to avoid encirclement by the United States and its allies.[9] In this view, the Soviet Union was so weak and devastated after the end of the Second World War as to be unable to pose any serious threat to the United States; moreover, the U.S. maintained a nuclear monopoly until the USSR tested its first atomic bomb in August 1949.[2]

Revisionist historians have also contradicted the scholarly work that proves that the origins of the Cold War date no further back than the immediate postwar period.[1] Notably, Walter LaFeber, in his landmark study, America, Russia, and the Cold War, first published in 1972, argued that the Cold War had its origins in 19th century conflicts between Russia and America over the opening of East Asia to U.S. trade, markets, and influence.[1] LaFeber argued that the U.S. commitment at the close of World War II to ensuring a world in which every state was open to U.S. influence and trade, underpinned many of the conflicts that triggered the beginning of the Cold War.[2]

Starting with Gar Alperovitz, in his influential Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam (1965), revisionists have focused on the U.S. decision to use atomic weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the last days of World War II.[2] In their belief, the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, in effect, started the Cold War. According to Alperovitz, the bombs were not used on an already defeated Japan to win the war, but to intimidate the Soviets, signaling that the U.S. would use nuclear weapons to stop Soviet expansion, however this they failed to do.[1]

New Left historians Joyce and Gabriel Kolko's The Limits of Power: The World and U.S. Foreign Policy, 1945–1954 (1972) has also received considerable attention in the historiography on the Cold War. The Kolkos argued U.S. policy was both reflexively anticommunist and counterrevolutionary. The U.S. was not necessarily fighting Soviet influence, but any form of challenge to the U.S. economic and political prerogatives through either covert or military means.[1] In this sense, the Cold War is less a story of rivalry between two blocs, and more a story of the ways by which the dominant states within each bloc controlled and disciplined their own populations and clients, and about who supported and stood to benefit from increased arms production and political anxiety over a perceived external enemy.[3]

Another prominent revisionist is Melvyn P. Leffler.


The revisionist interpretation produced a critical reaction of its own. In a variety of ways, "post-revisionist" scholarship, before the fall of Communism, challenged earlier works on the origins and course of the Cold War.

During the period, "post-revisionism" challenged the "revisionists" by accepting some of their findings but rejecting most of their key claims.[2] Another current attempt to strike a balance between the "orthodox" and "revisionist" camps, identifying areas of responsibility for the origins of the conflict on both sides.[2] Thomas G. Paterson, in Soviet-American Confrontation (1973), for example, viewed Soviet hostility and U.S. efforts to dominate the postwar world as equally responsible for the Cold War.[2]

The seminal work of this approach was John Lewis Gaddis's The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941–1947 (1972). The account was immediately hailed as the beginning of a new school of thought on the Cold War claiming to synthesize a variety of interpretations.[1] Gaddis then maintained that "neither side can bear sole responsibility for the onset of the Cold War."[2] He did, however, emphasize the constraints imposed on U.S. policymakers due to the complications of domestic politics.[2] Gaddis has, in addition, criticized some revisionist scholars, particularly Williams, for failing to understand the role of Soviet policy in the origins of the Cold War.[1] Gaddis's 1983 distillation[11] of post-revisionist scholarship became a major channel for guiding subsequent Cold War research.[12] An almost immediate move to subvert the barely erected post-revisionist framework came from Melvyn P. Leffler,[13] who "demonstrated that it was not so much the actions of the Kremlin as it was fears about socioeconomic dislocation, revolutionary nationalism, British weakness, and Eurasian vacuums of power that triggered US initiatives to mold an international system to comport with its concept of security."[14] This provoked "strong rebuttals"[15] from the post-revisionists,[16] though Leffler deemed their objections inaccurate and unsubstantiated.[17]

Out of the "post-revisionist" literature emerged a new area of inquiry that was more sensitive to nuance and interested less in the question of who started the conflict than in offering insight into U.S. and Soviet actions and perspectives.[9] From this perspective, the Cold War was not so much the responsibility of either side, but rather the result of predictable tensions between two world powers that had been suspicious of one another for nearly a century. For example, Ernest May wrote in a 1984 essay:

After the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union were doomed to be antagonists. […] There probably was never any real possibility that the post-1945 relationship could be anything but hostility verging on conflict […] Traditions, belief systems, propinquity, and convenience […] all combined to stimulate antagonism, and almost no factor operated in either country to hold it back.[18]

From this view of "post-revisionism" emerged a line of inquiry that examines how Cold War actors perceived various events, and the degree of misperception involved in the failure of the two sides to reach common understandings of their wartime alliance and their disputes.[3]

But after the opening of the Soviet Archives, while Gaddis does not hold either side entirely responsible for the onset of the conflict, he has now argued that the Soviets should be held clearly more accountable for the ensuing problems. According to Gaddis, Stalin was in a much better position to compromise than his Western counterparts, given his much broader power within his own regime than Truman, who was often undermined by vociferous political opposition at home. Asking if it were possible to predict that the wartime alliance would fall apart within a matter of months, leaving in its place nearly a half century of cold war, Gaddis wrote in his 1997 book, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History:

Geography, demography, and tradition contributed to this outcome but did not determine it. It took men, responding unpredictably to circumstances, to forge the chain of causation; and it took [Stalin] in particular, responding predictably to his own authoritarian, paranoid, and narcissistic predisposition, to lock it into place.[19]

For Stalin, Gaddis continues, "World politics was an extension of Soviet politics, which was in turn an extension of Stalin's preferred personal environment: a zero-sum game, in which achieving security for one meant depriving everyone else of it." According to Leffler, the most distinctive feature of We Now Know is the extent to which Gaddis "abandons post-revisionism and returns to a more traditional interpretation of the Cold War. In unequivocal terms, he blames the Cold War on Stalin's personality, on authoritarian government, and on Communist ideology."[20]

21st century scholarship

Since the 2000s, benefiting largely from the opening of Cold War-era archives in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in the world, Cold War historians have begun to move on from questions of blame and inevitability to consider the Cold War in the longue durée of the 20th century, and alongside questions of culture, technology, and ideology.[21][22] Historians have also begun to consider the Cold War from a variety of international perspectives—i.e. non-American, non-Soviet—and most especially have stressed the importance of what was then called the "Third World" in the latter half of the Cold War.[22] As Odd Arne Westad, co-editor of the Cambridge History of the Cold War (2010) has written:

Very few of our contributors believe that a "definitive" history of the Cold War is possible (or indeed that it should be possible). But a heterogeneous approach creates a strong need for contextualization […] First and foremost we need to situate the Cold War within the wider history of the twentieth century in a global perspective. We need to indicate how Cold War conflicts connect to broader trends in social, economic, and intellectual history as well as to the political and military developments of the longer term of which it forms a part.[22]

See also


  • Berger, Henry W. ed. A William Appleman Williams Reader (1992)
  • Ferrell, Robert H. Harry S. Truman and the Cold War Revisionists. (2006). 142 pp. excerpt and text search
  • Fitzpatrick, Sheila. "Russia's Twentieth Century in History and Historiography," The Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol. 46, 2000
  • Gardner, Lloyd C. (ed.) Redefining the Past: Essays in Diplomatic History in Honor of William Appleman Williams (1986)
  • Garthoff, Raymond L. "Foreign Intelligence and the Historiography of the Cold War." Journal of Cold War Studies 2004 6(2): 21-56. Issn: 1520-3972 Fulltext: Project Muse
  • Isaac, Joel; Bell, Duncan, eds. Uncertain Empire: American History and the Idea of the Cold War (2012) online review by Victoria Hallinan
  • Kaplan, Lawrence S. American Historians and the Atlantic Alliance, (1991) online edition
  • Kort, Michael. The Columbia Guide to the Cold War (1998)
  • Matlock, Jack E. "The End of the Cold War" Harvard International Review, Vol. 23 (2001)
  • Olesen, Thorsten B. Ed. The Cold War and the Nordic Countries: Historiography at a Crossroads. Odense: U Southern Denmark Press, 2004. Pp. 194. online review
  • Suri, Jeremi. "Explaining the End of the Cold War: A New Historical Consensus?" Journal of Cold War Studies - Volume 4, Number 4, Fall 2002, pp. 60–92 in Project Muse
  • Trachtenberg, Marc. "The Marshall Plan as Tragedy." Journal of Cold War Studies 2005 7(1): 135-140. Issn: 1520-3972 Fulltext: in Project Muse
  • Walker, J. Samuel. "Historians and Cold War Origins: The New Consensus", in Gerald K. Haines and J. Samuel Walker, eds., American Foreign Relations: A Historiographical Review (1981), 207–236.
  • Watry, David M. Diplomacy at the Brink: Eisenhower, Churchill, and Eden in the Cold War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014. ISBN 9780807157183
  • Westad, Arne Odd, ed. Reviewing the Cold War: Approaches, Interpretations, Theory (2000) essays by scholars
  • Westad, Arne Odd. "The New International History of the Cold War: Three (Possible) Paradigms," Diplomatic History, 2000, Vol. 24 in EBSCO
  • Westad, Odd Arne, ed. Reviewing the Cold War: Approaches, Interpretations, Theory (2000) excerpt and text search
  • White, Timothy J. "Cold War Historiography: New Evidence Behind Traditional Typographies" International Social Science Review, (2000)
  • William, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1958) (1988 edition)
  • Xia, Yafeng. "The Study of Cold War International History in China: A Review of the Last Twenty Years," Journal of Cold War Studies10#1 Winter 2008, pp. 81–115 in Project Muse


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Nashel 1999.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 Brinkley 1986, pp. 798–9.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Halliday 2001.
  4. Byrd 2003.
  5. Samuel H. Baron, and Nancy W. Heer, eds. "The Soviet Union: Historiography since Stalin," in Georg Iggers and Harold Parker, eds. International handbook of historical studies: contemporary research and theory (1979) pp 281-94
  6. R.W. Davies. "'Drop the Glass Industry': Collaborating with E.H. Carr" New Left Review, Issue # 145, May–June 1984 pp. 56–70 quote on p. 59
  7. Hillel Ticktin, "Carr, the Cold War, and the Soviet Union" in Michael Cox, ed., E.H. Carr: A Critical Appraisal (2000) pp. 145–161. ISBN 978-0-333-72066-0.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Laqueur 1987, p. 115.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 Calhoun 2002.
  10. Feis 1957.
  11. Gaddis 1983.
  12. Hogan 1987, p. 494.
  13. Leffler 1984a.
  14. Leffler & Painter 2005, pp. 15–6.
  15. Leffler & Painter 2005, p. 16.
  16. Gaddis & Kuniholm 1984.
  17. Leffler 1984b, p. 391.
  18. Brinkley 1986, p. 799.
  19. Gaddis 1997, p. 25.
  20. Leffler 1999, p. 503.
  21. Mastny 1996, pp. 3–4: "[N]ow the fight is over, the old inquiry about who started the Cold War is less interesting than the new one about why it ended the way it did. Less constrained to apportion the blame, we can be more relaxed in narrating a fascinating story. […] In looking at the Cold War as history, much of the distinction between the 'orthodox' and the 'revisionist' schools […] has become blurred."
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 Westad 2010.
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Westad, Odd Arne (2010). "The Cold War and the international history of the twentieth century". In Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, eds., The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume 1: Origins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–19. ISBN 978-0-521-83719-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>