Of revisionist history

Published : Jun 23, 2001 00:00 IST

Reviewing the Cold War: Approaches, Interpretations, Theory edited by Odd Arne Westad; Frank Cass, London; pages 382, $64.50 (hardbound), $26 (paperback).

IN the past, revisionist history of the commencement and course of the Cold War was confined to a few scholars like Frederick Schuman and William Appleman Williams. Predictably, they invited censure from mainstream historians. Robert James Maddox wrote a scathing critique The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War. Today, revisionism has become pre-eminently respectable because, unlike the revisionists of the 1960s they draw on the archives and are vastly more rigorous in analysis. John Lewis Gaddis' sustained work on George F. Kennan qualified him to a place of pre-eminence in this field. His book We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (1997) remains a classic of its kind. Scholars like James G. Hershberg made their fine contributions. The Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Centre has rendered yeoman service as has the National Security Archive, which cooperates with the CWIHP, actively. Unfortunately the earlier revisionists made no use of the Freedom of Information Act. They were, besides, impassioned to a degree.

The opening of the archives in Moscow, after the aborted coup in 1991, provided a bonanza. Inside the Kremlin's Cold War (1996), based on the archives, was written by Vladislav Zubok, a Senior Fellow at the National Security Archive, and Constantine Pleshakov, a writer who lives in Moscow. In 1997 appeared One Hell of a Gamble. It was the Secret History of the Cuban Missile Crisis based, again, on archival research. It was written by Aleksander Fursenko, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and one of Russia's leading historians, and Timothy Naftale who teaches history at Yale. A scholar who won particular note is Vojtech Mastny, whose most recent work is the Cold War and Soviet Insecurity. He is a senior Research Scholar at the CWIHP. Mastny's article in Foreign Affairs (May-June 1999) should be read widely. Entitled ''Did NATO Win the Cold War?'', it debunks many a hoary myth.

The volume under review is edited by a historian at the London School of Economics whose work Brothers in Arms: The Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance 1945-1963 disclosed texts of exchanges between the Soviet and Chinese leaders, in some of which India loomed large.

The present volume takes stock of new material. Seventeen scholars of repute discuss how the history of the Cold War should be studied, a decade after it ended. It is the first in a new, promising series.

Professor Shu Guang Zhang, for instance, analyses "China's Strategic Culture and the Cold War Confrontations". He writes insightfully: "The Chinese traditionally view crises in dialectical terms. The term 'crisis' in Chinese stands for shi (a situation) embodying with wei (danger) and ji (opportunity). Mao genuinely believed that all crises were dialectical in terms of their strong and weak points, their advantages and disadvantages, their dangers and opportunities. Thus, he considered any crisis to be both negative and positive, believing that a dangerous situation could be turned to his advantage. In many ways Mao adopted the legalist principle bupo buli busai buliu buzhi buxing (there is no construction without destruction, no flowing without damming and no motion without rest). This preference in part explains why China initiated intervention in Korea in 1950 and the Taiwan Strait crises in 1954-55 and 1958. By initiating limited and well-controlled crises, Beijing expected to clearly demonstrate China's resolve to counter international pressure."

Some of the essays cover the various factors - ideology, history, culture, military - that influenced the course of the Cold War and crucial areas like Germany and China. Others discuss themes like detente. The ones that take an overview yield conclusions which are relevant to confrontational situations in other regions: ours, for example. What emerges all too clearly is that each side attributed to the other aspirations to dominance which were unrealistic and beyond the capacity of the rival. Each side exaggerated, no less, the other's military might.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment