The Cold War: The Ordinary People who Helped Shaped the Future

| | January 11, 2021

COLD WAR HISTORIOGRAPHY has undergone major changes since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. For two years (1992–1993) the principal Soviet archives fell open to scholars, and although some of the richest holdings are now once again closed, new information continues to find its way out. Moreover, critical documentary information has become available from the former Soviet bloc nations and from China. Gone are the days when students of the Cold War found the Eastern bloc side completely closed off to historical investigations. Such is the rush of new documentation from the former Eastern bloc that some researchers have commented that trying to make use of the materials is like trying to drink from a fire hose.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute held at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., “New Sources and Findings on Cold War International History,” under the direction of Dr. James F. Hershberg of George Washington University and Dr. Vladislav M. Zubok, Senior Research Fellow at the National Security Archive. The program directors did an excellent job, providing a superb reading list (see Works Cited) and assembling an all-star cast of speakers featuring many of the leading contributors to recent Cold War scholarship, including Vojtech Mastny, John Haynes, Allen Weinstein, Chen Jian, Kathryn Weathersby, Mark Kramer, Raymond L. Garthoff, and Timothy Naftali, among others. The seminar represented the very best scholarship from the mainstream of Cold War studies.

Most of the twenty-nine participants at the Institute were specialists in diplomatic history, the history of the Cold War, international affairs, or in the recent history of the Soviet Union or China. I am a Latin Americanist and my attendance at the Institute was prompted by my present research project: I am writing a general history of Ecuadorian/United States relations for the University of Georgia Press’ “United States and the Americas” series. In this sense, I came to the Institute with something of an outsider’s perspective, with all the disadvantages and advantages that this status can bring. Outsiders lack an insider’s nuanced knowledge base and command of the field’s specialized vocabulary, but on the other hand, outsiders can sometimes see larger patterns that are not as plainly visible to insiders working on more narrowly defined problems in their field. As a specialist in Latin American history who lived among Cold War scholars at the NEH Institute, I would like to first report back to other historians what I believe are the leading new conclusions from Cold War studies, especially those that bear on the teaching and writing of Third World and Latin American history. The History Teacher has previously published two pieces on Cold War historical scholarship, that of Greg Cashman and Arthur N. Gilbert, “Some Analytical Approaches to the Cold War Debate” (1977), and that of Edward Crapol, “Some Reflections on the Historiography of the Cold War” (1987). While both of these essays can still be read with profit, given the remarkable progress in the field of Cold War studies in the past sixteen years, it is time for an update.

New Findings on the Cold War

Cold War scholars have tended to be cautious about drawing sweeping judgments based on the new 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. Nevertheless, what is most striking to me is the broad accord I see on a number of important new conclusions—conclusions I believe that many non-specialists would find fairly surprising. 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 started the Cold War after WWII when it ruthlessly occupied territory and set up pro-communist puppet governments in Eastern Europe. The orthodox view also held that the Soviet Union together with fellow communist allies, especially Red China, spied and spread discord across the globe and endlessly probed for Western weakness as part of a larger plan for communist world conquest. Even today many Americans, indeed, perhaps even most Americans, would probably still adhere to the basic tenets of this orthodox position.

At first, as Eastern bloc documents began to become available, it appeared that the new information would vindicate the orthodox view of the Cold War. (Beginning in 1992 thousands of new Cold War documents have been translated and published in the series, Cold War International History Project Bulletin, published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.) For example, the new information confirmed that Alger Hiss was guilty. Julius Rosenberg had also passed on secrets (even if his wife Ethel was only marginally involved in espionage). Documents from the Soviet side confirmed that stolen atomic secrets helped their scientists develop the A-bomb two years earlier than they might have otherwise. And intercepted spy cables showed that hundreds of Americans, especially people linked to the American Communist Party, actively engaged in espionage to aid the Soviet Union (although admittedly most of this came during WWII when the Soviets were our allies). (See, Weinstein and Vassiliev, and Haynes and Klehr, Venona.)

But the impact of the new evidence has largely been otherwise. There have, of course, been “revisionist” and “post-revisionist” challenges to the orthodox view, but the new documents have yielded further evidence that calls into question several of the most basic suppositions of the orthodox view. It has come from multiple archives and from multiple sources: secret records, letters, directives, meeting minutes, logs of private conversations from Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Mao Zedong, and other communist leaders, as well extensive recently declassified records from other top level communist officials from across the Eastern bloc. What this means is that we no longer have to guess at communist actions, goals, and intentions, we can read their secret debates, private ruminations, and their own explanations to themselves and their colleagues about what they did and what they thought about what they were doing. As a result, key claims about the extent of Soviet control over its satellites, about the extent of unity within the Eastern bloc, about the extent of Soviet direction of Cuban military involvement in Africa, and even basic orthodox assertions about the essential nature of Soviet intentions throughout the Cold War are all now under serious challenge due to the new evidence.

To be sure, not all Cold War scholars would agree with this. Indeed, one of the most respected senior Cold War authorities, John Lewis Gaddis, author of We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (1997), flatly rejects the notion that the new documents have revealed weaknesses in the standard orthodox position, holding, quite to the contrary, that the new evidence supports the orthodox view. But the redoubtable Gaddis notwithstanding, what is most striking to me is how, in new case study after case study, on issue after issue, most Cold War scholars (if clearly not all of them) have come to individual conclusions that the new evidence undercuts several essential assumptions of the orthodox view of the Cold War.

There are many, many examples. Stalin’s decision after WWII to set up communist governments in the nations along the Soviet border in Eastern Europe derived almost entirely from his continuing fear of a resurgent Germany and his determination to assure future Soviet security. If Stalin’s actions were just a first step in a larger plan for world conquest, he did a good job of hiding this from others in leadership positions in Moscow. Instead, what the new documents reveal is that Stalin showed almost no practical interest in and gave almost no effort to fomenting world communist revolution, and least of all in Latin America, which he conceded was part of the United States’ sphere of influence.

READ MORE: The February Revolution

There is no reason to doubt that Stalin believed in the inevitability of conflict between socialism and capitalism, and that he thought that socialism would ultimately prevail. However, even if Stalin was sure that the world victory of socialism would come one day, he could not really say when. If this did not happen in his lifetime, then perhaps it would come in the next generation, or if not then, then at some point after that. Stalin was a patient man. Consequently, Stalin’s core belief in the ultimate victory of socialism over capitalism did very little to inform his practice of foreign policy. (See Zubok and Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War.)

The new documents also show that Eastern bloc allies were actually far more autonomous in their attitudes and actions than had previously been suspected. The crises over Berlin had much more to do with the machinations of East German leader Walter Ulbricht than it did with Soviet long term intentions. (See Harrison, “Ulbricht and the Concrete ‘Rose’: New Archival Evidence on the Dynamics of Soviet-East German Relations and the Berlin Crisis, 1958–61.”) Likewise, the Sino-Soviet split came earlier and was deeper than we realized. (See Westad, ed., Brothers in Arms.)

For Third World specialists, new documents on Cuba’s support for revolutionary forces in Africa similarly demonstrate the need to reconsider prior orthodox suppositions. Given the previous near total lack of documentation, it had been reasonable enough to assume that the reason the Cubans sent 300,000 troops to Africa from the 1960s to the 1980s was that their Soviet benefactors instructed them to do so. The new documents, especially those from Cuban archives, show that it was just the reverse. (See, Gleijeses, “Cuba’s First Venture in Africa”; Gleijeses, “Flee! The White Giants are Coming!”) Fidel Castro sent Cuban troops because he wanted to support fellow revolutionaries. When the Soviet leadership found out what Castro was doing they tried to stop him. Typically the Soviets would only send in their own troops after the Cubans had shamed them into it.

Prior interpretations of the Cuban missile crisis also got key aspects of the story wrong. Conventional United States accounts of the showdown have emphasized how President John Kennedy exercised cool crisis management, went “eye ball to eye ball” until the other guy blinked, and in facing down Soviet aggression saved the world from a nuclear inferno. However, one of the things that we can see now is that in the early 1960s the Soviet nuclear arsenal was actually very weak compared to that of the United States. In fact, it was so weak that some American strategists concluded that the Soviet Union was actually vulnerable to a first strike. American intelligence predicted that if the United States launched a first strike against the Soviet Union, the United States could be ninety percent certain to take out one hundred percent of Soviet nuclear weapons, and one hundred percent certain to take out at least ninety percent of Soviet nuclear weapons. Given this, some in the Pentagon, most famously General Curtis E. LeMay, seemed at points to be advocating a first strike, at least under certain conditions. It is therefore posible to argue, ironically, that had it not been for Kennedy’s reaction, Khrushchev’s placement of nuclear weapons in Cuba could actually have brought greater nuclear stability, for the weapons there would have removed any further temptation among some in the Pentagon to push for a United States nuclear first strike.

What the new documents show is that Khrushchev decided to place nuclear weapons in Cuba in order to dissuade the United States from directing another invasion against the island, as it had attempted at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. In the end, Khrushchev removed the missiles only after Kennedy agreed to a deal. Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba and to withdraw American nuclear missiles from Turkey. In return Khrushchev took the nuclear weapons, including, we now know, about one hundred tactical nuclear weapons, out of Cuba. (See, Fursenko and Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble.”)

Throughout the Cold War the Soviet Union repeatedly took unilateral steps to attempt to bring about an end to the Cold War, as for example when Khrushchev dramatically cut Soviet troop levels in the late 1950s. (See Evangelista, “Why Keep Such an Army?”) As the Cold War came to an end in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was the unilateral steps that Mikhail Gorbachev took that proved decisive. He radically reduced Soviet nuclear and conventional arms and withdrew Soviet troops from Eastern Europe. (See, Garthoff, The Great Transition.) Gorbachev and the top Soviet officials that supported his leadership recognized what should have been obvious to all long before: the arms race was both ruinously expensive and held the world in nuclear terror; continuing it was madness. The Soviet Union produced a generation of leaders surrounding Gorbachev who had the wisdom, vision, and courage to support a series of unilateral Soviet steps that brought about the end of the Cold War. The United States failed to produce such leadership. For Cold War studies, this may be the most provocative conclusion of all.

Obviously, it would be impossible to get all Cold War scholars to agree upon any single overarching interpretation of the Cold War. The very essence of scholarly debate precludes it. Nevertheless, taken as a whole the new scholarship does generally endorse conclusions which stand at sharp variance with the old orthodox position. Even those who still advocate the orthodox view would concede this point. For instance, Richard C. Raack, a determined defender of the orthodox position, attacks the new scholarship in his recent essay in World Affairs (1999), vigorously asserting that the current generation of Cold War studies scholars are as a whole a profoundly unqualified group, noteworthy for their “remarkable naiveté” and “incompetence.” (Raack, 45, 47) He goes so far as to write that the “cheapened [university] degrees” of this cohort have left them “intellectually impoverished,” “dismally uniformed,” and “provincial.” (Raack, 45) Because these writers—”apparently willing victims of Stalin‘s propagandists” (60)—”know [so] appallingly little,” they “broadly mislead readers,” Raack says. (Raack, 60, 49) To Raack it is especially lamentable that “nowadays [such ‘anti-American…’ views—that is, anti-orthodox views]…reflect…the stodgy political certainties of much of the U.S.—and not only U.S.—journalism and academe.” (Raack, 47) While I can join in none of Raack’s judgements regarding the value of the new scholarship, on at least part of his last point we do agree: the bulk of the new Cold War scholarship directly disputes the orthodox position.

Ultimately, each historian will have to decide for her or himself whether or not the new evidence has seriously undermined key orthodox suppositions about the Cold War. What is beyond debate is that given the overall developments in the field, history teachers who deal with Cold War issues in their classrooms will need to carefully examine the new scholarship. This will be a large task because the new research is not neatly summed up in three or four books. While John Lewis Gaddis’s We Now Know does seek to bring together in just one volume the largest implications of the new research (his is a work of synthesis, not original research), in all fairness Gaddis’s overall conclusions do really seems to be out of step with those of most others working in the field.

Finally, I was somewhat disappointed at the Institute to find no real representation there of a broader way of looking at foreign policy or of exploring new methodological pathways and asking questions involving gender, race, and social history. Examples of this new scholarship include Brenda Gayle Plummer’s well researched Rising Wind: Black Americans and U.S. Foreign Affairs, 1935–1960 (1996), which considers how leaders in the African-American community sought to influence the debate on Cold War and international political issues. Richard M. Fried’s The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!: Pageantry and Patriotism in Cold War America (1998) shows how American society was influenced, and sometimes not influenced, by United States Cold War propaganda. Cynthia Enloe’s work on women and international studies, including Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives (2000), and The Morning After: Sexual Politics at the End of the Cold War (1993) explores how the military as a “patriarchal institution…[has] manipulate[d]…women’s lives in order to maintain its efficiency, power, and readiness.” (Review by Rowley, 103) If Enloe’s work is not favored by all—Michael Lind writing in The New Republic characterizes her work as “rambling exercises in free association” (Lind, 38)—she is at least asking some intriguing new questions. Some studies have appeared on masculine gender roles (see for example, Robert D. Dean, “Masculinity as Ideology: John F. Kennedy and the Domestic Politics of Foreign Policy”), and new Cold War studies would certainly benefit from additional investigations of how leaders’ notions of what constitutes proper masculinity may have shaped decision making.

Teachers should certainly be aware that the history of the Cold War is much more than the story of the decision making processes of the great leaders, for it is also the story of how ordinary people were affected by these decisions and how, in turn, these ordinary people helped to shape historical outcomes.


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Cashman, Greg and Gilbert, Arthur N. “Some Analytical Approaches to the Cold War Debate,”The History Teacher 10:2 (February 1977): 263–280.
Crapol, Edward. “Some Reflections on the Historiography of the Cold War,”The History Teacher 20:2 (February 1987): 251–262.

Dean, Robert D. “Masculinity as Ideology: John F. Kennedy and the Domestic Politics of Foreign Policy,” Diplomatic History 22:1 (Winter 1998): 29–62.
Enloe, Cynthia. Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives. Berkeley, 2000.

_______. The Morning After: Sexual Politics at the End of the Cold War. Berkeley, 1993.

Evangelista, Matthew. “‘Why Keep Such an Army?’: Khrushchev’s Troop Reductions.” Cold War International History Project Working Paper #19.
Fried, Richard M. The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!: Pageantry and Patriotism in Cold War America. New York, 1998.

Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Naftali, Timothy. “One Hell of a Gamble”: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958–1964. New York, 1997.
Gaddis, John Lewis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. New York, 1997.

Garthoff, Raymond L. The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War. Washington, 1994.

Gleijeses, Piero. “Cuba’s First Venture in Africa: Algeria, 1961–1965.” Journal of Latin American Studies (February 1996): 159–95.

_______. “Flee! The White Giants are Coming! The United States, the Mercenaries, and the Congo, 1964–1965.” Diplomatic History (Spring 1994): 207–237.

Harrison, Hope M. “Ulbricht and the Concrete ‘Rose’: New Archival Evidence on the Dynamics of Soviet-East German Relations and the Berlin Crisis, 1958–61.” Cold War International History Project Working Paper #5.
Haynes, John, and Klehr, Harvey. Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. New Haven, 1999.

Lind, Michael. “Of Arms and the Woman.” The New Republic 209:20 (November 15, 1993): 36–38.

Mastny, Vojtech. The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity: The Stalin Years. New York, 1996.

Plummer, Brenda Gayle. Rising Wind: Black Americans and U.S. Foreign Affairs, 1935–1960. Chapel Hill, 1996.

Raack, Richard C. “The Cold War Revisionists Kayoed: New Books Dispel More Historical Darkness.” World Affairs 162:2 (Fall 1999): 43–62.
Rowley, Monica. Review of Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives, by Cynthia Enloe. Sexuality & Culture 5:2 (Spring 2001): 103–106.

Weinstein, Allen, and Vassiliev, Alexander. The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America—The Stalin Era. New York, 1999.

Westad, Odd Arne, ed. Brothers in Arms: The Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1945–1963. Washington, 1998.

Zubok, Vladislav M., and Pleshakov, Constantine. Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev. Cambridge, 1996.

By Ronn Pineo

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