Reconsidering the Cold War

Professor Marc Trachtenberg, University of Pennsylvania

May 10, 2000

Over the past decade an enormous trove of documentary material on the Cold War has become available-particularly from western archives but increasingly from their eastern counterparts as well. The test of the value of this new material is whether it challenges our prior assumptions and understandings regarding the conduct of international affairs in this period. In short, was our prior understanding wrong?

In several fundamental ways, our key views on the Cold War do appear to have been misguided. The mainstream view was that ideological rift between the two superpowers necessitated antagonism between them. However, careful examination of the recently surfaced material suggests that the nature and conduct of the Cold War were highly contingent. Events could have gone in a very different direction; nothing was pre-ordained about the Cold War that we got.

While there are many areas that have benefited from expanded access to archival materials, three will be highlighted here. First, the period from the end of World War II until the late forties set in stone the key elements of the Cold War. The American and Soviet armies faced off in Europe, yet neither side was willing to risk major war in order to expand its own sphere of interest or over ideologically sympathetic states. While this desire could have been enough to ensure peace between the two behemoths, the German problem ensured that such a pacific outcome would not come to pass. The crux of this problem lay in Soviet fears of German power set against an American need for a remilitarized Germany to assist in Western security. Thus, the foundation to the Cold War that we experienced was laid in American and Soviet policy toward Germany and its disposition following World War II.

The new archival material contributes to our understanding of this key issue-area in several ways. Our new understanding of the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945 is illustrative. First, we now realize President Truman recognized that the Soviets would be likely to remain in Europe for a long time to come and that he found this to be acceptable. This is in sharp contrast with the conventional wisdom that views Truman as a hard-line Cold Warrior from the outset.

Similarly, at Potsdam Secretary of State Byrnes seems clearly supportive of having Germany split, with one part in each of the two opposing camps. Some of the key decisions at this conference surrounded the economic relations among the four zones of the divided Germany. It has been the conventional view that these had the unanticipated effect of supporting the long-term division of Germany. Given the new archival material, this view seems naive and slights the intellects of the diplomats of the day. Rather, it was their intent that the economic provisions support the division.

Had the U.S. position remained this accepting of the Soviet role in Germany, it seems likely that the Cold War would have been much less confrontational. However, by late 1945 the division of Germany was no longer acceptable to the United States. In order to secure public opinion in support of a sustained American role in Europe, the Truman administration could not abide the division of Germany. From this perspective, it is clear that the American leadership were not following an ideology-driven policy. Rather, the leaders were engaging in realpolitik: They were supporting German reunification not on the basis of self-determination, but as a way to enhance American power. (For a very compatible view, see Melvyn Leffler's A Preponderance of Power: National Security, The Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford University Press, 1992).)

The second period in which new archival evidence has shaken our prior beliefs is the Eisenhower Administration. Again, the conventional wisdom of historians through the late Cold War saw both Eisenhower and Dulles as relatively straightforward, hard-line, ideological Cold Warriors. This view has been subject to revision over the past few decades, and both now are seen to be more nuanced politicians. Dulles, for instance, was the most vocal proponent of the American nuclear strategy of massive retaliation in public. However, at the same time he was a key leader of the movement within the government to shift from this strategy toward flexible response. Similarly, while his rhetoric may have suggested that he viewed China and the Soviet Union as part of a monolithic Communist movement, it is clear now that he believed that they could be separated. Indeed, he seems to have believed that the best way to bring about this split was to stress their alliance by claiming to believe that it was tight, and promising to retaliate against both for transgressions of either. A final example of the new view of Dulles comes from his perspective on Germany. It is now clear that he felt the United States and the Soviet Union had "a common interest" in preventing a third resurgence of German expansionism. In each of these examples, Dulles' views contrast sharply with his prior label as a Cold War ideologue.

Our assessment of Eisenhower, too, has evolved. According to the new material, Ike repeatedly stressed that America would not stay in Europe forever. Not only did this mean that the Europeans needed to come together through the EU and WEU, but also that Ike supported nuclear weapons for the Europeans. This is the case not only for the French and British, which had already been known, but even for the Germans as well. Indeed, by the end of the Eisenhower Administration, the Germans had effective control over hundreds of American nuclear weapons. Some historians had portrayed the laxity of the controls in the nuclear sharing agreements governing these weapons as due to bureaucratic error. It is clear now, however, that this was a deliberate policy of the Eisenhower administration, albeit a surreptitious policy aimed at circumventing American legal restrictions. The waning asset of the American nuclear arsenal justified these steps in Ike's view. American confidence in the ability of its own nuclear arsenal to ensure the credibility of extended deterrence slipped in stages. The first of these came with the Soviet breaking of the U.S. nuclear monopoly in 1949. But even after this, the U.S leadership increasing realized that, given concepts of finite deterrence, even an American preponderance of weapons could not ensure the viability of its overseas commitments. Under these circumstances it made sense for the Europeans to have their own nuclear weapons so that extended deterrence would not be so fragile.

Turning to the final period examined here, Kennedy too is often viewed as a Cold Warrior. His hawkish inauguration speech seemed to bear this out. Yet his record in events such as the Vienna Summit of 1961 contradicts this hard-line view. There, his approach is not one of a rabid ideologue, but rather as the leader of one great power to another. He made clear that the United States was willing to except a Soviet role in Eastern Europe (note this concession was deleted from the originally released version of the notes of the meeting). He also suggested that the United States sympathized with Soviet fears of Germany. Indeed the U.S. position at Vienna seems so moderate that the puzzle is why did the Soviet Union not accept it? We were making it clear to them that we could accept the status quo, and all we asked was that they do the same (with regard to Berlin). Answering that puzzle will have to await more openness in the Russian archives.

Throughout these examples comes a sense that the Cold War was more contingent than it might have originally appeared. The system was not foreordained. On issues such as the role of the United States in Europe and the non-nuclear status of Germany, there was indeed scope for leadership and policy innovation. Statecraft mattered.

Additionally, it seems that both sides' leaders were more "power politics" oriented than originally perceived. Ideology did not provide an overly tight constraint on their freedom of action. However, we also see leaders straddling the domestic and international spheres, mobilizing the former to serve the latter.

This entire set of revised understandings emphasizes the true value of archival material. Rather than merely tying up loose ends or filling in a few blanks, archives provide an insight into the private thinking of national leaders, supplementing their public pronouncements and actions. Such new insight has radically changed the way we view the nature of the Cold War. Much of our prior understanding was based on the public statements available at the time. As these examples have shown, there are often substantial differences between public statements and private rationales. It is only through careful archival research that the latter can be fully appreciated.

Professor Trachtenberg is Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his BA and Ph.D. from UC Berkley and has held numerous fellowships and visiting scholarships, including a stint at MIT's Center for International Studies. One of the premier diplomatic historians of the Cold War, his most recent book is entitled A Constructed Peace: the Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963 (Princeton University Press, 1999).

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