Friday, May 25, 2007

On the Origins of the Cold War

I've been reading a number of books on the origins of the Cold War because I really believe that it was the post-WW II period that set us on the path we're on today: militarism, empire, and lessening democracy and devotion to the Constitution at home. For a truly excellent description of "the path we're on today" read Chalmers Johnson's new book Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. This is a book many will find difficult to take seriously but I find it very convincing; and Johnson is no knee-jerk radical, he worked as a consultant for the CIA for a number of years and has been a respected academic for many years.

At any rate I've been reading John Lewis Gaddis' The United States and the Origins of the Cold War. Gaddis is considered the primary 'respectable' authority on the Cold War and indeed his book is very well written and researched (I'm reading the original 1971 edition.). Gaddis began with a Preface in which he explained that he was going to look at foreign policy through the eyes of those who made it. What he failed to say was that this principle applied primarily to American policymakers and not their Soviet counterparts. One of the things this means is that America's commitment to "self-determination" for all peoples, as announced by FDR and Churchill in the Atlantic Charter of pre-Pearl Harbor 1941, is taken at pretty much face value. This is important because when the Soviet Union's armies, which fought the Nazis with little manpower help from England or the US for about three years and lost 16-20 million in doing so, wanted its own sphere of influence in Eastern Europe (through which it had been attacked three times within 130 years), the U.S. found it necessary to stand for the "self-determination" of Eastern European countries.

Gaddis finds it difficult to fully acknowledge that most of our talk about "self-determination" was disingenuous propaganda because acceding to Churchill we excluded most of the British Empire from self-determination and in our own history had amply demonstrated our hypocrisy re "self-determination". For evidence of the latter think of Cuba, the Phillipines and Puerto Rico in 1898, Cuba in 1960-1, Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, French Indochina (Vietnam) in the 1954-1974 period, Chile in 1973, etc. etc. etc. (Read Stephen Kinzer's book, Overthrow.) My belief is that historians ought to attempt to be as objective as possible but most of the American history I read is "patriotic" history.


no fortunate son said...

I too have been reading on that period. I was set on the trail by reading Geoffrey Perret's Commander in Chief.

Books I found very interesting are Another such victory: President Truman and the Cold War, 1945-1953 by Arnold A. Offner; Washington's China: the national security world, the Cold War, and the origins of globalism by James Peck; and Stalin's wars: from World War to Cold War, 1939-1953 by Geoffrey Roberts.

I am no professional in this area, merely an interested citizen, so I would be interested in others' reactions to these books.

James A Bond said...

Dear no fortunate son,
I have not read any of the books you mentioned so I can't comment. Would be happy to hear what you thought of them.
Another book worth looking at is "Inside the Kremlin's Cold War" by two Russian critics of Stalin who had access to Soviet documents and are familiar with the language, Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov.

no fortunate son said...

As I said, I'm no expert, so all I can say is that I found them thought-provoking. All fall into the revisionist category, which means they play to my biases. For that reason, don't want to go overboard in pushing them.

I never really had much interest in the period or in Truman until I read Perret's book, which goes against the conventional wisdom on Truman. That set me to wondering just how much of the Cold War mentality was necessary and how much was over-reaction.

If your time is limited, I would recommend that you read Ch. 1 of Peck's China, titled "Visionary Globalism and the National Security Community". He has apparently read many of the early NSC papers and points out how they display the elements of the unconscious ideology of parochial Americanism that ruled the time (and still does, I guess).

Thanks for the recommendation. I'll be requesting it from my library and put it on my reading list.

James A Bond said...

no fortunate son,
I qualify as someone who is thoroughly against the conventional wisdom on Truman, I think Truman was one of our very worst presidents because he destroyed FDR's policies toward the Soviet Union and really started the Cold War in its very vicious form. The Cold War I believe led to much that is wrong with the US today: 1) it gave the extremist nationalist right a perfect fear card to play which they used for 45 years; 2) it led to the 'permanent war economy' and the 'military industrial complex'; 3) it led the US into a viciously imperialist phase of its history in the name of 'anti-communism'; 4) it led to authoritarians on the right being able to abridge civil liberties; I have trouble thinking of anything good about the Cold War that Truman started.