Blogs > Cliopatria > Schrecker's Cold War

Jul 21, 2004 1:18 am

Schrecker's Cold War

“There was no way to view Korea,” writes Ellen Schrecker in her newly published edited volume, “as an American success” (p. 9). I suspect that most citizens of South Korea would disagree with this assertion, one of a host of curious claims in Cold War Triumphalism: The Misuse of History after the Fall of Communism.” This book is a pretty good example, I’d say, of misuse of history after the fall of communism, but not by the Cold War triumphalists.

I’m shortly to write a survey text on the Cold War, which is why I picked up Schrecker’s book, expecting to find some fresh scholarly interpretations. Schrecker and her co-authors instead cite their specifically political motive in writing: they oppose the Bush administration’s foreign policy, and want to deny “Cold War triumphalists” (Anne Coulter and Condoleeza Rice seem particular targets) of an opportunity to justify Bush’s foreign policy by portraying the Cold War as an American “victory.” Indeed, Schrecker laments, “Outside of the left and a handful of academics, few even question the notion that America ‘won’ the Cold War” (p. 2). The guilty parties include “centrist” historians (this is a rare book in which “centrist” is used as an epithet) such as John Lewis Gaddis and David Kennedy.

The book opens with several rambling essays critiquing American diplomatic historians, intellectuals, and liberals for not resisting more forcefully the main currents of “triumphalist” thought (i.e., that the United States “won” the Cold War). The volume’s heart, however, comes in a “new” look at the Cold war’s origins and effects by Schrecker, Maurice Isserman, Carolyn Eisenberg, and Jessica Wang.

In a confused essay, Schrecker and Isserman alternatively rationalize or dismiss the significance of CPUSA spying for the Soviet Union. A “tiny minority” of the CPUSA membership, they note, was involved in spying (p. 160). (Of course, that number included much of the party’s leadership.) Most U.S. spies, they reason, “were internationalists whose political allegiances transcended national borders,” whose Soviet spymasters “often had to go to elaborate lengths to draw even the most committed Communists into cooperation” (p. 166). What espionage occurred didn’t really matter anyway, since Schrecker and Immerman doubt that “the history of the world [would] really have been all that different between the 1930s and 1950s” if the CPUSA had behaved differently. Why, then, does a book on US foreign policy contain a chapter on figures whose authors claim had no impact? To counter the work of “Cold War triumphalists,” who use evidence of CPUSA spying to defend the anti-communist nature of U.S. foreign policy during the 1940s. Moreover, Schrecker and Isserman note conspiratorially, U.S. archives for this period “remain largely off-limits but are selectively opened to provide materials that celebrate its Cold War triumphs” (p. 169). What materials from US foreign policy between the 1930s and 1950s remain off limits 50 years after the fact the authors do not reveal.

The Eisenberg and Wang essays offer, if anything, even less convincing attempts to mold the past to serve the needs of the authors’ contemporary policy views. Eisenberg, disturbed that Condoleeza Rice has repeatedly praised Harry Truman’s success in resisting the Soviet blockade of Berlin, contends that (a) the blockade never really occurred, at least in a technical sense; or (b) if it did occur, it was the fault of the United States, for moving forward with plans for an independent West Germany. (Her essay never really decides which of these two arguments she ultimately wants to forward.) In Eisenberg’s retelling of events, Stalin was eager for a diplomatic settlement, as was the UN, but they were undermined by Truman’s “antipathy to compromise” (p. 177). Wang’s essay also celebrates the UN, which she contends symbolized the high point of a half-century of American internationalism, which Cold War “unilateralism” then abandoned. Wang is a practitioner of the “new political history” at UCLA—a department about which I’ve written previously; her essay suggests that the new political historians should stay with strictly social history topics. Her sources on internationalism reflect the state of historiographical debate circa 1970; the essay remarkably defines the period from 1935-1941 as part of an “internationalist” era, necessary to prove that the Cold War represented a “unilateralist” reaction against a previous policy of promoting peace.

The book finishes up with an essay by political scientist Corey Robin, who notes that in the days after the 9/11 attacks, “intellectuals, politicians, and pundits—not of the radical left [of course], but mainstream conservatives and liberals—breathed an almost audible sigh of relief, almost as if they welcomed the strikes as a deliverance” from the post-1980s crisis of confidence “that the United States could no longer define its mission in terms of the Soviet menace” (p. 277). (Perhaps I was living in a different country at that time.) Robin’s chief complaint, however, seems to be with the political effects of the attacks: “9/11,” he observes with frustration, “has confirmed what conservatives have been saying for years: The world is a dangerous place” (p. 285). Indeed, he fears that the United States “may well be entering one of those famed Machiavellian moments . . . when a republic opts for the grandeur and frisson of empire” (p. 295).

In the end, the Schrecker book is less an example of history distorted by authors’ political agendas (though, as Robin’s comments suggest, it certainly is that), but of the unoriginality inherent in much of what remains of the “revisionist” critique of the Cold War. Essays regularly cite William Appleman Williams’ insights—fresh, certainly, when the Wisconsin School was at its high point in the 1960s, but a bit dated now. Schrecker contends that even without the Cold War, the United States “would have promoted capitalism”—as if the argument that a capitalist country would promote capitalism is revelatory (p. 8). And in a view dismissed by nearly all recent work on Lenin but also common among 1960s revisionists, Schrecker suggests that while “ultimately they must be judged by their record and not their intentions, the early Bolsheviks themselves did not foresee the circumstances that would lead them to become architects of a new totalitarian order in the Soviet Union” (p. 161).

In her essay, Eisenberg complains about the “unwillingness of the mass media to incorporate diverse perspectives” like those in this book to its portrayal of U.S. foreign policy (p. 175). I don’t defend the media much, but in this case, I’m in their corner.

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Richard Henry Morgan - 7/21/2004

I enjoyed the review, will skip the book itself, and mourn the trees that had to die in order that this book might live.

Your mention of Lenin brings to mind the fact that he was, at the end, being treated with Salvarsan, an arsenic-based medication for syphilis. Yep, the great philosopher, humanist, and architect of communism was in the throes of tertiary syphilis, or general paresis -- which come to think of it, might explain a lot ...

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/21/2004

. . . like the one the US hockey team put on the Soviets in 1980. Or Rocky put on Ivan Drago in 1985. Great review, KC. Good stuff. And you did not even have to get in to what strikes me as the fundamental question at the heart of all of this -- the Soviet Union, especially in truman's time, was evil. now that truism should have had its limits in terms of policy (um, constructive engagement?) and excess at home and abroad. But at its essence, the idea that we were tha bad guys in the Cold War is so patently absurd that it should make even an ardent lefty blush. It is only because of these sorts of fools that we have to suffer the Ann Coulter kind of fools. Hell, were it not for the prevalanece of these sorts of fools, we might not even have to suffer the Ron Radosh type.

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