How far has the historical debate about the origins of the Cold War changed since the collapse of the USSR in 1991?
For forty-five years, the Cold War was at the center of world politics. It dominated the foreign policies of the two superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union- and deeply affected their societies and their political, economic and military institutions. The Cold War also shaped the foreign policy and domestic politics of most other nations around the globe. Few countries, in fact, escaped its influence. Fundamentally, the Cold War was a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, fuelled on both sides by the belief that the ideology of the other side had to be destroyed. In this sense it was a zero-sum game in which co-existence was not possible- one side could win only at the expense of the other. The Soviet Union held belief to Lenin’s belief that conflict between communism and capitalism was inevitable. The United States believed that peace and stability in the world would only emerge when the evil of communism had been exorcised. Each side imputed unlimited objectives to the other. At the ideological level, Moscow’s communist world-view, which saw capitalism as an absolute evil, fed off Washington’s world-view which saw communism as an absolute evil, and in this way helped to sustain the other’s prophecy.
Historians have offered conflicting interpretations of the Cold War’s outbreak, interpretations often grounded in deep ideological and philosophical differences. Many of these interpretations were themselves shaped by the ongoing Cold War. The end of the Cold War, coupled with the limited opening of archives in the former Soviet Union and its allies, provides an opportunity to reassess its beginnings. Scholars and historians alike moved beyond earlier controversies over responsibility for the Cold War and instead tried to understand what really happened and why. Therefore it is now possible to ask new questions about the Cold War due to the revelation of new information on the Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War.
In the United States, two views of the Cold War once competed. Defenders of US policies blamed the Soviet Union for the outbreak of the Cold War. This orthodox rendition of events portrayed the Soviet Union as relentlessly expansionist and ideologically motivated. According to this view, US officials wanted to get along with the Soviets but slowly came to realize that accommodation was impossible because of the Soviet’s drive for world domination. The traditional view made a comeback in the 1990s as some scholars seized on newly available Soviet and other Communist records to argue that Soviet foreign policy was ideologically motivated, aggressively expansionist and morally repugnant.
The second group, known as the revisionists, emerged in the 1960s as the Vietnam War and the growing availability of US records led to a more critical reflection of US policies. The revisionists argued that US policies were also expansionist and thus played an important role in starting the Cold War. Many revisionists pointed to the long history of American economic expansionism and argued that ideological beliefs and economic interests significantly shaped US policies.
In the recent years, Cold War scholars have tended to be cautious about drawing sweeping judgments based on the new Soviet documents. They have usually found that there was more than enough work to do in just understanding the meaning of the new evidence for their focused case studies.. During the Cold War, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, from Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to Alexander Haig, United States policy makers articulated a common core of shared opinions on the origins and continuing causes of the Cold War, a viewpoint that most Americans came to share. This familiar orthodox interpretation held that it was the Soviet Union that had...
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