Title: The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947
Author: John Lewis Gaddis
Categories: Diplomatic History, Foreign Relations, Political History, Cold War, World War II
Place: United States
Time Period: 1941-1947
John Lewis Gaddis examines foreign policy between the United States and Russia during the end of World War II. In contrast to the "revisionist" literature that faulted American policy-makers for the outbreak of the Cold War and stressed how it could have been avoided, Gaddis emphasizes the relatively narrow range of options for American leaders. He explicitly links domestic political pressures to foreign policy and argues that, rather than judging policy-makers, we need to understand why they defined their options so narrowly.
Gaddis moves from 1941 to 1947 to chart how a range of factors narrowed American ability or willingness to conciliate with the Soviets. First, Americans (and Russians) had their vision clouded by the legacy of the interwar period and wanted to avoid the mistakes that had led to World War II. Between 1941-1944, meanwhile, Americans consistently underestimated the importance of Soviet ideology, assuming that their Soviet counterparts would be willing to play the role of political pragmatists. Policy-makers continued to struggle at the close of the war in Eastern Europe between an ideological path of fighting for self-determination or a geostrategic path of cooperation with Russia that would safeguard Soviet security. Gaddis criticizes the Roosevelt administration for not having a coherent strategy, which led to the American public expecting free elections in Eastern Europe and Russia expecting to have a free hand. A similar incoherence developed with regard to dealing with post-war Germany, as one camp lobbied for harsh repression and the other for conciliatory rehabilitation.
When Truman stepped into Roosevelt's shoes, Gaddis argues that he was still open to a more conciliatory policy with Russia. The Truman administration at first felt relief over the successful atomic bomb testing, but were unable to effectively use it as "atomic diplomacy" as they had hoped. Gaddis charts a reorientation in 1946 away from conciliatory policies towards confrontation. This was spurred through a confluence of more aggressive Soviet behavior, rising domestic criticism of "appeasement," and coalescing of a worldview that saw Russia as driven by an ideology based on aggressive expansion and conflict with the west (articulated by George Kennan's "Long Telegram"). This reorientation based on ideology fully blossomed in 1947 with the Truman Doctrine, which staked out the ideological framework for a confrontational Cold War (and one that Gaddis notes would restrict the ability of future policy-makers to maneuver diplomatically).
Key Themes and Concepts
- Antirevisionist approach (partial defense of US)
- Narrow range of options for US political leaders (domestic pressure)
- Repression vs. Rehabilitation in Germany
- Self-determination vs. Cooperation with Russia in Eastern Europe
- Failure/ineffectiveness of "atomic diplomacy"
- Politics over economics as explanatory for why Cold War came about
- 1946 reorientation towards confrontation with USSR - spurred on by worldview of Soviet ideology as aggressive and expansionist (Long Telegram)
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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