The Cold War in Retrospect: How Historians Still Get It Wrong

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a former Moscow correspondent for Associated Press. He spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France. 02.12.2014

Are Western historians going soft on the Cold War that the Russians waged against the West for 45 years? A new look at trends in this gray area of history indicates that many writers and younger generations now contend the threat of hostilities, including nuclear exchanges, can be blamed primarily on American post-war posture, not solely on that of the Russians.

But historian Albert Weeks, a former State Department official and long-time academic, has produced a concise and polemical book to confront this “lamentable historiographic distortion.” Now 91 and retired in Florida, he seeks to set the record straight.

Myths of the Cold War: Amending Historiographic Distortions pulls you up short with its meticulous survey of how Russia spooked the West into reacting in unusually bellicose terms. The Cold War lasted from 1946 to 1991 and is often cited today for lessons it teaches us for the future — as Russia again expands its borders and cools relations with the West. Should another cold war emerge, this book will serve as a useful backgrounder.

Weeks is aghast at some Anglo-Saxon historians’ swing in favor of the Russians. “In my over 50 years of college teaching… I find the prevailing attitude toward the Cold War… might best be summed up with the opinion that it was ‘much ado about nothing, a waste of money.’” In fact, the costs to Western powers are generally estimated at $4 trillion while the Soviet Union spent another $4-6 trillion orchestrating it, mostly on armament and logistics.

The common Russian view of its Cold War strategy — that Moscow needed an “active defense” against its fear of Western aggression — “is a gross misrepresentation of the facts.” Weeks asserts. “The fallaciousness and unfairness of this historiographic mythology should be obvious.”

To bolster his argument, Weeks supplies maps and charts showing how Russia expanded since 1939. He enumerates his case in hard facts — annexation of four former neighbors, and seizure of territories in seven other countries totaling 264,000 square miles and 24,396,000 people at the time of occupation. When added to areas under varying degrees of Soviet domination, those totals jump to 1,321,200 square miles and 123,657,000 subjugated people.

“These blows of the hammer and sweeps of the sickle have given the insignia on the Soviet flag more than symbolic importance,” he writes.

In one of the more interesting passages of this book, Weeks cites some Russian writings that acknowledge Kremlin disregard for its neighbors’ sovereignty. Historian Yevgeny Anisimov, in his 2008 book History of Russia from Riurik to Putin, catalogues Stalin’s “expansionist plans” and “imperial designs” on other countries. Weeks says this kind of criticism of Stalin “is hard to find among most of the Western Cold War authors.”

A political science professor at New York University for 20 years, Weeks remains professor emeritus and a prolific scholar of the period. He tells me he has “dug deep” into writings on Stalin, the war, and the post-war years, particularly a “large body of Cold War literature,” including Russian-language writings. He lists 211 books and dozens of articles he devoured or consulted in preparing this 147-page argument.

Author of a dozen books on related Russian themes, Weeks avoids branding any Western authors as strictly anti-American, although he comes close. The Cold War, he writes, “is simply too complex for any one observer to set himself up as an all-seeing judge. I only hope to open an avenue for discussion.”

Still, he does not pull his punches. The BBC documentary “World at War” was marred by a “pacifist emphasis and a tendentious, revisionist position on Stalin and the Cold War,” he writes. Stephen Ambrose, co-author of the BBC text, is cited as leading to a revisionist trend on the subject. Other offending historians who followed, some of them “outright apologetic,” include Henry Steele Commager, Frederick Schuman, Gar Alperovitz, Gabriel Kolko, William Appleton Williams, Mary Glantz, Joseph Davies, Melvyn Leffler and Geoffrey Roberts.

Weeks professes puzzlement over the views of many American historians. “One wonders,” he says, “why this obfuscation?” He concludes that it is “simply garden-variety anti-U.S./ugly American sentiment of the type that has cropped up in recent years with the perception of an ‘imperial’ America bent upon being ‘the world’s hegemon.’”

In a nutshell, Weeks explains the Cold War as the West’s genuine reaction to Stalin’s policy of deliberate expansionism, propelled by communist ideology determined to expand Moscow’s influence.

Perhaps the most penetrating chapter, titled “The Myth of Ideological Irrelevance,” takes issue with the writings of Daniel Bell, Odd Arne Westad, Francis Fukuyama and Lewis Feuer whose works have argued that ideology does not necessarily affect countries’ real-world actions. In the Soviet case, they would assert, ideology merely assured the public of a utopian future. Weeks takes the opposite pole and goes a step further. He sees ideology imbedded so deeply in Vladimir Putin’s regime that the old Soviet doctrines seem to have “invaded the cell structure of the contemporary political order…”

As the Cold War took shape, many Americans wrestled with the idea of a Russian menace. Allies during World War II had created a desire to continue a harmonious relationship. Russian occupation of East European countries during and after the war was often excused by Americans on the grounds that those territories “belong to the Russian sphere of influence,” Weeks recalls. (Curiously, such arguments surface again today as Russia systematically invades and occupies eastern Ukraine.) But as provocations multiplied, American policy and public opinion moved into what we came to call the Cold War.

Tracing Russia’s aggression toward its neighbors back to Tsarist times and accelerated under the Soviet communists, Weeks worries that old attitudes are coming back. “The specter of Russian history,” he writes, “rampant with autocracy and expansionism, seems to be abroad in the land.”

Even without Weeks’ warnings, new cold war rumblings are unmistakable. The website recently published data showing Russians deliberately provoked the West through airspace violations, near-miss midair collisions, close encounters at sea and simulated bombing runs along the Atlantic rim down to Portugal. About 40 such incidents this year are identified on the site’s interactive map.

Additionally, the New York Times on October 31 cited cyber attacks that have tested American defenses, forcing the temporary shutdown of some White House computer networks. Along with the airspace and seaborne violations, “they represent the old and updated techniques of Cold War signal-sending,” the Times wrote.

Contemporary parallels in Russian foreign policy with the Cold War years are evident, as Weeks convincingly shows. The anti-Western ideology in Moscow remains in place. Yet Weeks argues that a repeat of the Cold War on such a scale “should not be interpreted as a historical necessity.”

I liked his conclusion that a “cool peace” might take the place of an outright cold war this time around.

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