Dec 2nd 2014

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

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

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 EuropeanLeadershipNetwork.org 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.




First posted on the American Spectator, posted here with the kind permission of the author.



 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Feb 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "In an increasingly polarised political landscape, we see differing political views challenged, not through debate and discussion, but through tribal behaviour. We often consider the groups that we belong to as worthy of empathy, respect and tolerance – but not others. What’s more, recent research has identified that we reward our leaders for being naysayers – negating, refuting or criticising others – rather than empowering them."
Feb 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "All of which is to say that the Communist Manifesto is not a historical relic of a bygone era, an era of which many would like to think we have washed our hands. As long as workers’ rights are trampled on, and children are pressed into wretched servitude; as long as real wages stagnate, so that economic inequality continues to grow, allowing wealth to be ever more concentrated in the hands of the few – then the Communist Manifesto will continue to resonate and we will hear the clarion call of workers of the world to unite, “for they have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” "
Feb 4th 2020
EXTRACTS: "In my many visits to Michael’s studio I have had the opportunity to observe his process up close and over time.............."Armageddon Yacht (2019)". The name is derived from a term that US sailors use for an aircraft carrier. Power and violence are recurring themes in Anderson’s work – and no less here. With irony and wit he questions our contemporary assumptions and illusions about power. The central image of three models sipping martinis on a yacht presents us with an idealized vision of Western luxury and decadence, privilege and wealth."
Jan 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: " For the first time in over two decades a painting by Marc Chagall will be going up for auction in Israel. Tiroche Auction House will be hosting the Israeli & International Art auction on January 25th – featuring paintings by a number of Israeli masters, including Reuben Rubin, and Yosl Bergner. The highlight of the evening however is Chagall’s Jacob’s Ladder (1970-1974), a theme to which the artist would return at least a dozen times in paintings and drawings."
Jan 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Between 1940 and 1942 Charlotte Salomon, a young German-Jewish artist, created a sequence of 784 paintings while hiding from the Nazi authorities. She gave the sequence a single title: Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?). Viewed in the 21st century, Salomon’s artwork could be considered a precursor to the contemporary graphic novel, creating a complex web of narratives through words and images."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s simply not possible to do justice to the value of Iran’s cultural heritage – it’s a rich and noble history that has had a fundamental impact on the world through art, architecture, poetry, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy and engineering. The Iranian people are intensely aware – and rightly proud of – their Persian heritage. The archaeological legacy left by the civilisations of ancient and medieval Iran extend from the Mediterranean Sea to India and ranges across four millennia from the Bronze age (3rd millennium BC) to the glorious age of classical Islam and the magnificent medieval cities of Isfahan and Shiraz that thrived in the 9th-12th centuries AD, and beyond."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Lautrec had a genius for representing people. He would rarely paint any other subject. When he looked at a person who caught his interest, not only their appearance, but seemingly also their personality would magically flow from his hand, fixing a moment of their life, and his, on a piece of cardboard or canvas."
Jan 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2010, Great Britain generated 75% of its electricity from coal and natural gas. But by the end of the decade*, these fossil fuels accounted for just 40%, with coal generation collapsing from the decade’s peak of 41% in 2012 to under 2% in 2019. The near disappearance of coal power – the second most prevalent source in 2010 – underpinned a remarkable transformation of Britain’s electricity generation over the last decade, meaning Britain now has the cleanest electrical supply it has ever had. Second place now belongs to wind power, which supplied almost 21% of the country’s electrical demand in 2019, up from 3% in 2010. As at the start of the decade, natural gas provided the largest share of Britain’s electricity in 2019 at 38%, compared with 47% in 2010."
Jan 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Owing to these positive developments, many were lulled into thinking that modern advanced economies can run on autopilot. And yet economists knew that market capitalism does not automatically self-correct for adverse distributional trends (both secular and transitional), especially extreme ones. Public policies and government services and investments have a critical role to play. But in many places, these have been either non-existent or insufficient. The result has been a durable pattern of unequal opportunity that is contributing to the polarization of many societies. This deepening divide has a negative spillover effect on politics, governance, and policymaking, and now appears to be hampering our ability to address major issues, including the sustainability challenge."
Jan 2nd 2020
In September 2018, Ian Buruma was forced out as editor of The New York Review of Books, following an outcry over the magazine’s publication of a controversial essay about #MeToo. A year later, in a conversation with Svenska Dagbladet US correspondent Malin Ekman, he reflects on lost assignments, literature, cancel culture, threats to freedom of speech, and the state of liberal democracy.
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "I have long been troubled by the way so many believing Christians in the West have either been ignorant of or turned their backs on the plight of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim. Right​-wing Evangelicals, under the sway of heretical theology, are so blinded by their obsession with Israel that they can't see Israel's victims. Other Western Christians simply just don't know or about the people of Palestine. I find this state of affairs to always distressing, but especially so at Christmas time, since the Christmas story we celebrate not only took place in that land, it continues to define the lives of the Palestinians who live in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth. "
Dec 19th 2019
EXTRACT: "Although there have long been farmers and merchants who specialised in growing and selling seeds, it wasn’t until the 20th century that people started talking about seed production as an industrial process. Thanks to changes in farming, science and government regulations, most of the “elite” seed that is bought and sold around the world today is mass produced and mass marketed — by just four transnational corporations."
Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Dehydration is associated with a higher risk of ill health in older people, from having an infection, a fall or being admitted to hospital. But an appetite for food and drink can diminish as people age, so older people should drink regularly, even when they’re not thirsty. Older women who don’t have to restrict their fluid intake for medical reasons, such as heart or kidney problems, are advised to drink eight glasses a day. For older men, it’s ten glasses."
Dec 12th 2019
EXTRACT: "A decade ago, I wrote The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. This month, a fully revised Tenth Anniversary edition was published, and is available, free, as an eBook and audiobook. The chapters of the audiobook are read by celebrities, including Paul Simon, Kristen Bell, Stephen Fry, Natalia Vodianova, Shabana Azmi, and Nicholas D’Agosto. Revising the book has led me to reflect on the impact it has had, while the research involved in updating it has made me focus on what has changed over the past ten years"
Nov 27th 2019
EXTRACT: "Jay Willis at GQ reports that Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said on Fox and Friends that Trump is God’s Chosen One. He said he told Trump, “If you’re a believing Christian, you understand God’s plan for the people who rule and judge over us on this planet and our government.” Perry also said that he had written a memo for Trump about how God uses imperfect people, comparing Trump to biblical figures such as Solomon, Saul and David, who were also flawed. This evangelical discourse that a providential God controls political power goes back to old West Semitic Religion"
Nov 7th 2019
Extract: "The PSA test is done using a small amount of blood to detect raised levels of prostate specific antigen (PSA). Yet, despite its relatively low cost and ease of administering, it is not offered for routine screening in many countries, including the UK. This is because a significant proportion of those testing positive have no disease (a false-positive result), slow-growing cancer that doesn’t need treatment, or positive results caused by a relatively benign condition, such as a urinary tract infection. Detecting prostate cancer early is important and saves lives. But many of those identified by the PSA test as having elevated levels of the antigen could potentially undergo painful treatment with significant life-altering side effects, which were unnecessary. Also, up to 15% of men with prostate cancer have normal PSA levels (a false-negative result), meaning that many men would receive unwarranted reassurance from this test. Guidelines in most countries, therefore, note that the possible benefits of testing are outweighed by the potential harms of over-diagnosis and over-treatment, making it unsuitable for screening everyone."
Nov 5th 2019
Extract: "Ken Loach’s film, Sorry We Missed You, tells the harrowing tale of Ricky, Abby and their family’s attempts to get by in a precarious world of low paid jobs and the so-called “gig economy”. But how realistic is it? Can Loach’s film be accused of undue pessimism?"
Nov 3rd 2019
Extract: "Travel to Prague, Kyiv, or Bucharest today and you will find glittering shopping malls filled with imported consumer goods: perfumes from France, fashion from Italy, and wristwatches from Switzerland. At the local Cineplex, urbane young citizens queue for the latest Marvel blockbuster movie. They stare at sleek iPhones, perhaps planning their next holiday to Paris, Goa, or Buenos Aires. The city center hums with cafés and bars catering to foreigners and local elites who buy gourmet groceries at massive hypermarkets. Compared to the scarcity and insularity of the communist past, Central and Eastern Europe today is brimming with new opportunities.......In these same cities, however, pensioners and the poor struggle to afford the most basic amenities. Older citizens choose between heat, medicine, and food. In rural areas, some families have returned to subsistence agriculture."
Nov 3rd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Genetic clustering has existed in all past societies. People have typically been relatively genetically similar to others nearby. But most of this was because of limited mobility."........."But in the 19th and 20th centuries, people started to move about more. Societies opened up geographically, and socially. This new mobility has created a new kind of clustering – what the American author Thomas Friedman called a “great sorting out”.".........".....this is now visible at the genetic level too."