The Origins of the Cold War by
by Thomas G. Paterson
The history of the origins of the Cold War used to be simple: the menacing Russian bear grasped the globe with both hands while Uncle Sam scurried about trying to contain the giant out of the East. The Soviets acted; the Americans reacted. The Russians obstructed the postwar peace; the Americans worked to build an open world of peace and prosperity. Moscow exploited; Washington saved. Until the 1960s the prevailing view of the early Cold War followed this "good guys/bad guys- script. This point of view assumed that the United States in the 1940s, after the debacle of the "isolationist- 1930s, had to assume world leadership because it was best positioned with power to fashion a stable postwar world and because it was best equipped with principles whose application would free humankind from the curses of economic depression, political extremism, and war. It was time to grab hold of history and make it conform to the American way, thought Secretary of State Dean Acheson (Smith, 416). The traditional interpretation also held that the US was an exceptional nation. Sure it had had its brief imperialist phase in the late 1890s, but it had been a good imperialist-never so brutish as the British in India or the Soviets in Eastern Europe.
As for how the Cold War began, this view was unequivocal: an expansionist Soviet Union with unlimited ambitions, an uncompromising ideology, and a paranoid dictator bent on world domination and the elimination of democracy and capitalism. Americans had no choice but to resist totalitarian aggression-to contain Josef Stalin the way they had turned back Adolf Hitler. There were no alternatives; negotiations with the Soviets were useless. They were not housebroken, remarked Acheson:---They were abusive; they were rude. I just didn't like them- (NYT, Oct. 13, 1971).
This generally accepted view of the origins of the Cold War, then, depicted a United States forced into an activist international role by external forces, especially by the Soviet threat. America had to take defensive measures-witness the Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization-to protect a vulnerable world. Moscow started the Cold War, pure and simple. Not only did policy makers like President Harry S. Truman explain events this way; in the nationalistic mood of the Cold War until the 1960s historians did as well.'
In the early 1960s three important changes coincided to invite a different, more sophisticated, better researched reading of the tumultuous 1940s when the Cold War began. First, the decline of McCarthyism in the late 1950s eased the repressive atmosphere created by the Senator from Wisconsin and the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. That atmosphere had stymied discussion of alternative interpretations, for the consensus of vehement anticommunism treated dissent as something close to disloyalty. Indeed, unorthodox opinion might have earned an American a trip to the intimidating chambers of the HUAC (House Committee on Un-American Activities).
But with the decline of McCarthyism came more questioning of traditional assumptions, more freedom of expression. The signs were everywhere: poetry by the iconoclastic "beats;- the publication of C. Wright Mills' Power Elite (1956); Playboy magazine's assault on sexual mores; Martin Luther King's Montgomery bus boycott (1955) and the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-in (1960). In diplomatic history, William Appleman Williams Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959) boldly challenged the consensus. Rejecting the notion that the United States was an innocent only reacting to foreign aggression, Williams argued that the entire history of the U.S. was one of expansion abroad, including trampling on the rights of other nations.
America's foreign policy was deliberately and self-consciously seeking not only to save sinners and reform transgressors, but also to gain foreign markets through an open door policy. The American system became dependent upon economic expansion at least Americans thought so-and that outward thrust sent the United States into the Cold War confrontation with the Soviets.
The second influence leading to changing views on the Cold War was the Vietnam War. That wrenching war that seemed to have no beginning and no end sparked debate not just on its conduct and length but on its origins. How did Southeast Asia become defined as vital to the national interest? Who was the enemy exactly? What was the threat exactly? How did we get from the Truman Doctrine of 1947 to Vietnam in the 1960s? What were the sources of the doctrine of global containment? And because official explanations about the war and its progress often turned out to be disingenuous or distorting, a credibility gap grew, inviting doubts about the Cold War mentality and the traditional interpretations of the Soviet-American contest.
Even George F. Kerman, whose -X- article in Foreign Affairs (1947) had distinguished him as one of the architects of containment, told a national television audience watching Senate hearings that containment was designed for the stable nation states of Europe in the 1940s where the United States had long-standing ties. It did not fit, he asserted, the volatile region of Southeast Asia in the 1960s. The Vietnam War, with all of its frustrations of body counts, victory-just-around-the-corner declarations, steady escalation, and great economic costs at home generated new thinking about America's overseas role and the beginnings of global management. To question Vietnam, then, was to question the early Cold War period as well.
The third change inspiring doubts about the Cold War consensus was the declassification and opening to scholars of early Cold War documents-National Security Council reports, presidential memoranda, briefing papers, memoranda of conversations, telegrams between embassies abroad and the Department of State, drafts of speeches, diaries, and more. These papers permitted the scholar to follow policy-making almost on a day-to-day basis at the highest levels. All the questioning permitted by the decline of McCarthyism and induced by the Vietnam War would not have had a great impact on scholarship had it not been possible to test the questions in the rich historical sources themselves. The release of documents followed a normal procedure in the 1960s: after 25 years a document could be downgraded from--²Top Secret² or "Secret² and made available to scholars. Besides opening State Department records and the papers of Truman and his advisers at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, the State Department's valuable Foreign Relations of the United States documentary series was published. Volumes covering diplomacy near the end of the Second World War and early Cold War were published in the 1960s. No longer would historians have to rely on Truman's often unreliable Memoirs (1955-1956), White House and State Department press releases, newspaper accounts, or the published letters and diaries of decision-makers like Secretary of State James Forrestal (Millis).
From these three changes emerged new interpretations-sometimes called -revisionist --with which I am sympathetic and may have helped to shape. Revisionists are certainly not unified in their views. Some, like Gabriel Kolko, have argued that capitalism drove an aggressive United States, and he branded Washington the villain. Others, like Gar Alperovitz, Barton J. Bernstein, Walter LaFeber, Daniel Yergin, and Lloyd Gardener, have blended ideological, historical, political, and strategic elements with the economic element to explain the origins of the Cold War. Most of these dissenters from the official explanation believed that it was too one-sided in blaming international trouble on the Soviet Union, ignoring the interaction of the great powers. The United States was not simply reacting to Soviet machinations; it was acting on its own needs and ideas in a way that made American behavior alarm not just the Soviets but America's allies the British and French as well.
Why did Truman think it necessary to project American power abroad, to pursue an activist, global, foreign policy unprecedented in United States history? First, Americans drew lessons from their experience in the 1930s, when they supposedly indulged their "isolationism," letting economic depression spawn political extremism and war. Never again, they vowed. No more appeasement, no more Munichs. And were not all totalitarians alike, be they the Nazis of the 1930s or the Communists of the 1940s?---Red fascism- became a popular phrase to express this American reading of historical lessons. To prevent a replay of the 1930s, then, the United States would have to use its vast economic power to battle economic instability, hence foreign aid like the $13 billion European Recovery Program, assistance to Greece and Turkey, and Point Four technical assistance.
Another reason Americans felt compelled to project their power was their calculation of economic need and fear of depression. America's devastated European customers simply lacked the dollars to purchase American products. Exports, valued at $10 billion in 1945 and 1946, were considered vital to the nation's economic health. To aid Europeans, then, was not only to help them, but to sustain a high American standard of living. Then, too, the fear of postwar shortages of petroleum carried the United States into Middle Eastern oil fields, where American companies came to control half of the region's oil reserves.
A third explanation for American activism is found in new strategic thinking. Because of the advent of the air age, travel across the world was shortened in time. Strategists spoke of the shrinkage of the globe. Places once deemed beyond American curiosity or interest now loomed important. Airplanes could now travel great distances to deliver powerful bombs. Powerful as the United States was, then, it seemed vulnerable to air attack. ³The Pearl Harbor of a future war might well be Chicago, or Detroit, or even Washington," noted General Carl A. Spaatz (Maclsaac, 10). To prevent such an unhappy occurrence, American leaders worked for -defense in depth," a series of overseas bases in both the Pacific and Atlantic worlds to deny a potential enemy an attack route to the Western Hemisphere. Such forward bases would also permit the United States to conduct offensive operations more effectively. The American strategic frontier had to be pushed outward. Thus the United States took the former Japanese-controlled islands of the Carolines, Marshalls, and Marianas; maintained garrisons in Germany and Japan; and sent military missions to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Greece, China, and fourteen Latin American states.
These several explanations for American globalism suggest that the United States would have been an expansionist power whether or not the obstructionist Soviets were lurking about. As the influential National Security Council Paper No. 68 noted in April of 1950, the -overall policy- of the United States was ³designed to foster a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish.² This policy ³we would probably pursue even if there were no Soviet threat."
Besides pointing out America's contribution to Cold War tensions through its expansionist posture, dissenters from the orthodox view asked scholars to stop applying a double standard because, like other great powers in history, the United States was building spheres of influence. Americans may have thought themselves exceptional-and they were, in the nobility of their principles but they behaved like imperialists in flexing their international muscle, even practicing "atomic diplomacy in an abortive attempt to gain concessions from the Soviets. If the Soviets feared that the United States would woo Eastern European nations to the American side and thus weaken Russia's heavy-handed drive for security in the region, the British protested that Americans were homing in on their interests in the Middle East and the French objected that Washington was too rapidly rebuilding just defeated Germany. And, if "free elections- were good for Eastern Europe, as American leaders demanded. why were they not also appropriate in Latin America, where the United States nurtured dictators like Somoza of Nicaragua and Trujillo of the Dominican Republic? If the intemationalization of the Danube River in the Soviet sphere was sound, as Americans argued, then why not the internationalization of the Panama Canal or the Suez Canal as well?
Critics of the Cold War consensus also suggested that the Cold War was not inevitable, although conflict certainly was. But the extremes of passionate rhetoric, nuclear arms race, and client-state wars might have been tempered, if not avoided, by a more concerted effort to negotiate differences. Critics of the time, like Henry A. Wallace and Walter Lippman, urged Truman to practice diplomacy (no American president negotiated with a Soviet Premier after Potsdam in 1945 until the Geneva Conference of 1955), use the UN, stay out of civil wars like those in China and Greece, dispense with the "either-or" alarmist sketches of global politics, give economic rather than military aid, and avoid the rush to an indiscriminate globalism that would drain the nation's patience and resources. Revisionist scholars, in other words, found in the 1940s critics a viable, reasoned, but rejected alternative to official policy.
The revisionist interpretation of the origins of the Cold War has been especially suggestive in tackling a key question: What was the nature of the Soviet threat? Most scholars agree today that American leaders exaggerated the Soviet threat. They imagined an adversary possessing more power and ambition than the real Soviet Union. George F. Kerman himself has admitted that he exaggerated the Soviet threat; he later wrote that "the image of a Stalinist Russia poised and yearning to attack the West, and deterred only by our possession of nuclear weapons, was largely a creation of the Western imagination" Kennan, 128). The evidence seems clear that even if the Soviets had wanted to dominate the world, or just Western Europe, they lacked the capabilities to do so. The Soviets had no foreign aid to dispense; outside the Soviet Union, Communist parties were minorities; and the Soviet economy was seriously crippled by the war. Most important, the Soviets lacked a modern navy, a strategic air force, the atomic bomb (until 1949), and air defenses. Their wrecked economy could not support or supply an army in the field for very long, and their technology lagged. Soviet ground forces lacked motorized transportation, adequate equipment, and troop morale. A Soviet blitzkrieg invasion of Western Europe had little chance of success, and the Russians knew it. Even if they had managed to move across Western Europe and gain temporary control, they could not strike the United States. So they would have to assume defensive positions and await crushing American attacks, probably including atomic bombings of Soviet Russia itself war plans for which existed.
Other evidence from recent scholarship suggests that the Soviet military threat was more myth than reality. The Soviet Union demobilized its forces after the war, dropping to about 2.9 million personnel in 1948. Many of its 175 divisions were under-strength and large numbers of them were engaged in occupation duties in Eastern Europe. American intelligence sources reported that the Soviets could not count on troops of the occupied countries to help; in fact, these soldiers amounted to a hindrance to Soviet military effectiveness. At most, the Soviets had between 700,000 and 800,000 troops available for attack against the West. To resist such an attack, the West had about 800,000 troops or approximate parity. It would have been suicidal for the Soviets to make military moves to ward the West, and no American leader thought them such. In fact, few American decision-makers expected a Soviet onslaught against Western Europe. They and their intelligence sources emphasized Soviet military and economic weaknesses, not strengths; Soviet hesitancy, not boldness.
Why, then, did Americans so fear the Soviets? Why did the Central Intelligence Agency, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the President exaggerate the Soviet threat? First, because their intelligence estimates were just that-estimates, The American intelligence community was still in a state of infancy, hardly the well-developed instrument of American foreign policy that it is today. Americans lacked complete assurance that their figures were close to the mark. When leaders do not know, they tend to assume the worst of an adversary's intentions and capabilities, to think that the Soviets might miscalculate, sparking a war they did not want. Second, Truman liked things black and white, no gray. Nuances, ambiguities, and counter-evidence were often discounted to satisfy the President's preference for the simple answer or to match his preconceived notions of Soviet aggressiveness. In mid-1946, for example, the Joint Chiefs of Staff deleted a section that stressed Soviet weaknesses from a report to Truman.
Third, American leaders, particularly military officers, overplayed the Soviet threat in order to gamer larger defense budgets from Congress. Truman himself bristled at times over the military's huge appetite and hyperbole. Americans may also have exaggerated the Soviet threat because their attention to the utopian Communist goal of world revolution led them to confuse goals with actual behavior. A related explanation is that Americans thought the sinister Soviets and their Communist allies might exploit postwar economic, social, and political disorder, not through a military thrust but through subversion. The recovery of Germany and Japan, then, became necessary to deny the Communists political opportunities which might thwart American plans for the integration of these former enemies into an American system of trade and defense. And because economic dislocations troubled so much of Eurasia, Communist gains might deny the United States strategic raw materials. That this view oversimplified international realities by underestimating local conditions that might block Soviet/ Communist gains and overestimating the Soviet ability to act is true. But what is important here, in this overview of how the Cold War began, is that Americans nonetheless believed it. And, of course, the blundering and noisome Soviets did little to disarm it.
Why has recent scholarship emphasized this question of the exaggeration of the Soviet threat? Because it led to an expansion of American military power that reached beyond actual needs. Because it encouraged the Soviets to fear encirclement and thereby enlarge their own military establishment and stimulate a greater arms race. Because it put a damper on diplomacy. Because it led Americans to misrepresent events, to misread realities.
Take the case of Eastern Europe. Once considered a simple matter of the Soviets' determination to construct an iron curtain or bloc after the war, the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe is now seen by historians in more complex terms. The Soviets had profound security fears in the wake of a world war that cost them perhaps as many as 20 million dead. Moreover, the Soviets had no blueprint for the region and followed different policies in different countries: Poland and Rumania were quickly subjugated as border states; Tito's Yugoslavia was an independent Communist nation, breaking dramatically with Stalin in 1948; and in Czechoslovakia, free elections in 1946 brought to power a non-Communist government that functioned until 1948. The Soviets did not have a firm grip on Eastern Europe before 1948-a prime reason why many American leaders believed the Soviets were weak. And American policies toward the region, evidenced in pressure for elections that would have produced anti-Soviet governments, clandestine activities with anti-Communists groups, and coercive foreign aid programs, may have alarmed the Soviets and contributed to an intensification of Soviet repressive action. Such "barkings, growlings, snappings and occasional bitings," wrote one State Department officer, would only irritate the Soviets without reducing their power.
Today we do not think of the Cold War as a simple morality play. Nor do traditionalists denounce stridently the revisionists or suggest, as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. once did, that the whistle should be blown on revisionism. No, scholars have moved considerably in the last fifteen years or so to a far fuller, multi-layered explanation of the origins of the Cold War. Now we think less of pinning blame and more about shared responsibility. We think less about aggression and reaction, and more about the competitive building of spheres of influence. We think less about who lost-China and more about Chinese Communist overtures to the United States in 1949 that might have led to an accommodation. We think less about Washington's hesitant steps toward containment and more about the early formation of a concept of national security that was global in scope. We think less about a monolithic Communism and more about the strains within the Communist world, evident in Soviet relations with Yugoslavia and China in the late 1940s. We think less about attributions of unlimited Soviet ambitions and more about the exact nature of the Soviet threat. In my own work, especially in On Every Front: The Making of the Cold War (1979), I have tried to look at the systemic causes of the Cold War-those characteristics of the international system, like decolonization, economic crisis, civil wars, and power vacuums, that generated postwar hostility-while at the same time giving attention to the fundamental needs and ideas of each power and the tactics it used to pursue its goals.
Finally, it seems that revisionists and traditionalists have come to agree that the United States was imperial. The debate centers on whether that imperial exercise of power was self generated or reactive, offensive or defensive, pressed or invited. John L. Gaddis, for example, admits that the United States created a postwar empire, but he breaks with revisionists by asserting that Americans did so only at the request of others such as Western Europeans seeking reconstruction aid. Whether defensive or self-interested, this postwar expansion, scholars agree, propelled the United States into an international activism that helped initiate the Cold War.