For some strange reason, it occasionally happens that debates within that peculiar
Oxford Union, reflect and perhaps even symbolize the preoccupations of an age. Recall the famous
1934 debate which resulted in a victory for the resolution that "this House will in no circumstances
fight for King and Country." Whatever impression this may or may not have made on Adolf Hitler, it
made an indelible one on an appalled young American who witnessed it, Dean Rusk, and he would
draw on it for the rest of his life as the supreme example of irresponsibility in thinking about
international relations - with consequences that would very much affect his own thinking about Ho
Or consider another lesser-known but no less interesting Oxford disputation, held precisely half a
century later in 1984 between the great Marxist historian E. P. Thompson and the American
secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger. These improbable contenders took on the issue:
"Resolved, there is no moral difference between the foreign policies of the U.S. and the USSR."
Thompson described the United States and the Soviet Union, during the debate, as "two terrorist
states," with "born-again Christians on the one side and still-born Marxists on the other." "What is
this quarrel about?" he demanded dramatically. "It is very simple," Weinberger responded, with
remarkable calm under the circumstances. "It's all about freedom. Individual, personal, human
freedom and whether we and our children will be allowed to exercise it."
Somewhat surprisingly, Weinberger won this debate, by a vote of 271 to 240, thereby astonishing
the American embassy staff in London, which had urged him not to participate in it, and eliciting a
congratulatory phone call early the next morning from Mrs. Thatcher herself. That was a little over a
decade ago but look how far we've come.
The concern most often voiced these days is that the United States is too passive rather than too
aggressive. There may well be more people in the world now who fear American weakness than
who worry about American imperialism. Many Americans themselves welcome their country's
diminished profile on the international stage, and see greater costs than benefits in continuing to try to
be number one.
And of course our great erstwhile adversary the Soviet Union, morally equivalent or not, no longer
even exists. Were the Oxford Union to restage such a debate today, several former officials of that
government might eagerly participate, but for the purpose of condemning their own side. The general
drift of the memoirs that have emerged from surviving Soviet Cold Warriors is not unlike that of
Robert McNamara on the Vietnam War: "We were wrong, horribly wrong."
Chinese historians these days take a similarly critical view of their country's policies under Mao, and
certainly few East European scholars would defend the old regimes in that region. Nor would there
be much sympathy within the Third World for earlier efforts there to follow the Soviet and Chinese
examples. Indeed, I would venture to say that the people now most likely to sympathize with E. P.
Thompson's "moral equivalency" position - or at least a watered-down version of it - are some of
my colleagues within the American academic community.
Consider two issues that have suddenly made the writing and teaching of history a hot political issue.
One is the controversy over the so-called "National History Standards," the other is the flap - there
is no better word for it - over the Smithsonian Institution's abortive effort to mount a fiftieth
anniversary exhibit on the decision to drop the atomic bomb.
The National History Standards emerged from a federally funded commission that was to draw up
guidelines for the teaching of history in the secondary schools. Drafted by prominent historians in all
fields, these were meant to shape not only classroom instruction but also the textbooks and other
teaching materials to be used in providing it. The intent was to bring secondary school instruction into
line with the best and most advanced trends in scholarly historical research.
The atomic bomb exhibit grew out of the decision made some time ago to mount a display of the
fuselage of the Enola Gay at the National Air and Space Museum, a branch of the Smithsonian in
Washington. A carefully prepared set of texts and photographs was to accompany this exhibit, once
again with a view to providing a context for this imposing historical artifact that would reflect current
lines of scholarly research.
Both efforts misfired badly, it's now fair to say, in the sense that, far from generating a consensus on
how to look at the past, they sparked controversies that went well beyond what those responsible
for these projects ever imagined might happen.
The National Standards have attracted the ire of editorial writers, politicians, and talk-show hosts. In
a rare display of near-unanimity, the United States Senate voted ninety-nine to one to condemn them
- the nay vote was from a senator who thought the proposed condemnation not strong enough. The
charge, fair or not, is that the National Standards have deliberately focused on what has been violent
or unjust or depraved about the American experience, at the expense of most of what has been
good about it. We are portrayed, or so the critics argue, as a nation of victims - and victimizers.
The Enola Gay controversy has fueled an equally vociferous debate featuring many of the same
participants; joining them here, though, have been hordes of outraged veterans. The charge is that
the curators at the Smithsonian focused on the horrors brought about by the decision to use the
bomb as well as the possibility that it might not even have been needed to defeat the Japanese, but
neglected what the Japanese themselves had done to start the war in the first place and what
Americans at the time - both the policymakers and the troops about to storm the beaches - thought
it was going to cost to force their surrender.
These two episodes have in common a tendency to treat the American experience - whether
throughout the entire sweep of American history or with respect to the specific decision to use the
bomb - in ways that reject American exceptionalism and tilt toward a kind of "moral equivalency."
The American record, the National Standards imply, is about as bad as that of any other country;
certainly the effect of the new guidelines is to shift the emphasis in teaching American history away
from the idea of the United States serving as an example for the rest of the world. Or, at least, if we
are to provide examples, they are henceforth to be of what to avoid.
The atomic bomb decision, the Smithsonian exhibit implied, was an act of vengeance, motivated by
racism and by a determination to intimidate the Russians in the developing Cold War, rather than by
any sincere belief that it might be necessary to end World War II. The suggestion is that we were at
least as vicious as the Japanese in the way we fought the war, and that, having won it, we then
proceeded to start another large and unnecessary conflict with the Soviet Union.
Now, there is certainly room for legitimate argument on these points; nor has there been any absence
of it, even among historians, who have by no means unanimously supported either the National
Standards or the Smithsonian curators. And surely there is a great deal to be said for taking a good
hard look at all of the episodes in our past: the teaching of history is supposed to encourage the
making of critical judgments. Smugness and self-congratulation are not what we should be about -
especially since Americans are, by their nature, so notoriously good at smugness and
But neither should we indulge in the questionable pleasures of self-flagellation. Coming to grips with
our own history does not require that we emulate the example of those early Christian saints who
wandered around in the desert or lived on top of tall poles, mortifying the body in the belief that only
this would save the soul.
What the National Standards and the Enola Gay controversies have revealed, more clearly than any
of us had previously realized, is the extent of the gap that now exists between scholarly research and
writing on American history, on the one hand, and what the American public believes about its
history, on the other. That is an interesting intellectual problem - and perhaps also a methodological
problem - for historians.
But what is much more serious is the political problem, because the existence of this gap between
scholarly and public perceptions is setting the principles of democracy and freedom of inquiry at
odds with one another. The scholars are asking: What basis does anyone, whether inside or outside
of government, have for challenging academic freedom, however unpopular the conclusions it
produces? If we the professors say oppression is the dominant theme in American history, then that's
what our kids should learn. The politicians, responding to their constituents, are asking: What
obligation do we have to spend public funds to support research that undermines our most
fundamental values and institutions? If our kids are taught to hold these in contempt, what future is
there for them?
Or, to put it another way, the historians are saying, "Isn't it awful?" The people, through their
representatives, are responding, "Compared to what?"
It is curious that this debate arose so soon after the Cold War ended, for some of the same scholars
who condemn the oppressiveness of our culture at home have taken a rather different line in
explaining how we won the Cold War. It was not so much the wisdom of our policies, they have
insisted - it was the seductiveness of our life-style. Marxism-Leninism just could not compete with
blue jeans, rock music, and American television exports. We have become, according to this view,
not just a city on a hill, but a multi-megawatt antenna, drowning most of the other signals out there.
But isn't there a problem here? After all, nobody forced "I Love Lucy" or MTV or the Simpsons
(take your pick, Bart or O. J.) on the rest of the world. There was always the option of switching the
channel. If the American domestic example was as dreadful as the National History Standards
suggest, why did it have so much appeal abroad, an appeal that went well beyond the pop-culture
icons I've invoked here? Why did American culture, to say nothing of the American example in
organizing politics or markets or the protection of human rights, spread as widely as it did during the
second half of the twentieth century?
Think of it as a simple matter of comparative transplantation. For whatever reason, the American
model took root more readily in other parts of the world than did that of its major Cold War
adversary, the Soviet Union - this despite the fact that Marxism-Leninism was, from the start, an
internationalist ideology that deliberately sought transplantation. Or think of transplantation in another
sense, that of emigration. The United States remains one of the major countries of choice for those
fleeing oppression in their own homelands. But victims normally seek to move away from, not
toward, the sources of their victimization.
So there is an interesting clash between the argument that our culture is oppressive, on the one hand,
and the claim that its attractiveness is what ended the Cold War, on the other. One cannot, without
considerable strain, have it both ways.
Old Cold War History
This contradiction becomes all the more interesting in the light of what has been happening within the
field of Cold War history since the Cold War came to an end. What used to be thought of as new
approaches are suddenly showing their age, while what might recently have been regarded as old
approaches have taken on a renewed vitality.
Two decades ago, references to the "old" Cold War history would have called up images of the
so-called "orthodox" interpretation, perhaps best exemplified in the works of such scholars as
Herbert Feis, John Spanier, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who tended to see that conflict much as
American officials of the time did. It had been a challenge to the values and even the lives of free
men everywhere, mounted through the use of a militantly expansionist world revolutionary ideology
by a totalitarian regime different from that of Hitler only in its craftiness, its patience, and its
sophistication in appealing to the downtrodden throughout the world.
Only a heroic Western response, led by reluctant Americans who would rather have been doing
other things, managed to frustrate the Soviet design with such measures as the Truman Doctrine, the
Marshall Plan, NATO, and the reaction to military aggression in Korea. Without it, these "orthodox"
historians have argued, the world would have descended into a new dark age. The Americans came
along at just the right time, stuck their finger in the dike, and then proceeded to rebuild the entire
structure so that it held against the flood and thereby saved Western civilization. So much for the
A decade ago, references to the "old" Cold War history might well have added to the "orthodox"
interpretation a totally different explanation of the coming of the Cold War, put forward by the
so-called "revisionist" historians of the 1960s and early 1970s. Following in the tradition of William
Appleman Williams, these scholars saw the United States itself as the source of whatever
expansionist tendencies existed in the postwar world, for the simple reason that capitalism, by its
very nature, requires access to markets, investment opportunities, and sources of raw materials.
Alternative ways of organizing society were direct challenges and could not be allowed to succeed.
It followed from this - and was argued, with varying degrees of intensity, by historians like Gabriel
Kolko, Walter LaFeber, Lloyd Gardner, and Thomas McCormick - that the Cold War arose from
the efforts of the United States, accompanied by nervous but co-opted allies, to throttle, defang, or if
all else failed at least buy out revolutions throughout the world. The interests of market capitalism
and social justice, from this perspective, were thoroughly at odds with one another. So much for the
Today, I would further expand my definition of the "old" Cold War history to include several other
explanations that gained prominence during the 1970s and became even more widespread during the
1980s. One of these would be post-revisionism, a well-intentioned but ill-defined effort to find
common ground between the earlier "orthodox" and "revisionist" interpretations. A good deal of my
own writing falls into this rather mushy category: the idea was that if only we could take the strongest
elements of these two previous approaches, discard the weaker ones, and ground the whole thing as
much as possible in whatever archives were available, then truth would emerge.
Such differences in interpretation seem less significant now that the Cold War is over; indeed, what
is interesting from today's perspective is how much they have in common. These shared features, I
think, are going to cause a new generation of Cold War historians to regard all of these earlier
interpretations as "old" Cold War history. They include:
(1) Americocentrism: Almost all of these accounts approached the Cold War from the perspective
of the United States, its allies, or its clients. There was little sense of the Cold War as a rivalry in
which there were two great centers of power, each interacting with the other; or in which less
powerful states nonetheless carved out for themselves a certain amount of autonomy through their
capacity to manipulate the superpowers.
To the extent that Americocentrists did see the Cold War as an international system, they tended to
do so through a kind of billiard-ball model, borrowed from the so-called "realist" theories of
international relations, in which collisions between states were important, but not their character.
That brings us to another characteristic of the old Cold War history, which was:
(2) Neglect of ideology: Apart from some of the earliest "orthodox" Cold War histories written in
the late 1940s and the early 1950s, surprisingly little attention was paid to the fact that one side in
that conflict based its legitimacy upon a Marxist-Leninist authoritarian ideology, while the other
espoused a looser but no less ideological vision grounded in democratic and capitalist values.
One reason for this neglect, I think, was the lingering legacy of McCarthyism within the American
academic community. The excesses of the 1950s so traumatized us that, by the time I entered
graduate school in the mid-1960s, to talk about the ideological roots of Soviet foreign policy was to
sound a little like a member of the John Birch Society, if not Tail-Gunner Joe himself. Even in the
field of Soviet studies, where ideology could hardly be dismissed, it tended to be explained as a
rationalization for actions already decided upon rather than as a guide to action.
Once again, the international relations theorists reinforced our thinking in this regard. Had it not been
Hans Morgenthau himself who established that all nations, regardless of their domestic constitutional
structure or their ideological predisposition, seek power? Had it not been Kenneth Waltz who
dismissed as unscientific attempts to relate what he called "unit-level behavior" - where surely
ideology would reside - to the workings of the international system?
(3) The absence (even in most orthodox histories) of a moral dimension: Remember where
realism came from in the first place. As conceived by Morgenthau, E. H. Carr, and George F.
Kennan, it was a reaction against what the latter had called the "moralistic-legalistic" strain in the
policies of the Western democracies that had taken hold with Woodrow Wilson, the Fourteen
Points, and the League of Nations, and had so abysmally failed to prevent World War II.
To be fair, the founding fathers of realism never entirely dismissed moral concerns. Morgenthau tried
to find ways to integrate them into his theory; Kennan was certainly aware of them as a result of his
exposure to Stalin's Russia; and another of those founding fathers was Reinhold Niebuhr, one of this
century's most profound thinkers about the connection between morality and reality.
It is correct to say, though, that the realists regarded the arena of international relations as cold and
cruel, a place where power relationships would dominate and even democratic states could not
expect to apply the same standards of behavior that they did at home - that is, if they wished to
survive. These realists themselves tended to be "moral relativists," if not explicitly believers in "moral
equivalency," when it came to what the United States and its allies would have to do to survive in a
hostile and power-dominated world.
That quality of "moral relativism," and in some cases even "moral equivalency," certainly showed up
in subsequent approaches to Cold War history. As a consequence, there was surprisingly little
discussion within any of the major schools of the role of ideas in the Cold War - whether from an
ideological or a moral point of view. Not, that is, until the summer of 1989, when Francis Fukuyama
pointed out that the idea of democracy was about to end that conflict altogether, and all of history as
Fukuyama, as it happened, was right about the Cold War but wrong about history. And it is to what
I would call the "new" Cold War historyby which I mean the kind that is being written now, after
the Cold War has come to an end - that I now want to turn. It is one in which ideas, ideologies, and
morality are going to be central.
New Cold War History
It is hardly surprising that the end of a particular conflict should cause reassessments of it. To note
this is not to fall into presentism so much as it is simply to acknowledge the inestimable advantage of
knowing how things came out. Reaching the end of a historical process always elicits new insights
into how it operated. That is why the end of the Cold War would have provided significant
opportunities for a rethinking, and a rewriting, of Cold War history, even if we had no new sources
with which to work.
But we do have new documents, memoirs, and oral histories, in ever increasing volume, from the
former Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, and Eastern Europe. A good indicator of how
much exists is to compare the first Bulletin of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Cold War International
History Project, which monitors these new materials, with the more recent ones. The first issue,
published in the spring of 1992, came in at thirty-two pages. The sixth one, which appeared early
1996, is almost three-hundred pages.
For decades, we wrote Cold War history pretty much in the way we used to look at the moon: we
could see only one side of it. That told us a good deal and even gave us some basis for speculating
about what the side that faced away from the earth might be like. But until the first lunar orbiters
actually reached the other side and sent back photos of it, we didn't really know what was there.
These new archival sources give us, for the first time, a comparable ability to know what was on the
"other side" during the Cold War. The release of these materials has by no means been a clear,
consistent, or uncontroversial process, far from it. They are sure to raise at least as many questions
as they answer. But that is not much different, again, from where things stood when we got the first
view of the dark side of the moon. At least we know much better now what there is to argue about.
It's now clear that one of the things that will be worth arguing about is the topic with which I began:
the question of "moral equivalency."
Let me provide some examples from the new sources that illustrate why it will be difficult to write
and teach Cold War history without reference to moral issues. Let me also use these examples to
advance a few suggestions about how we ought to go about making moral judgments in history in the
Begin - pardon my gruesomeness - with body counts. Lionel Trilling once warned of the dangers of
letting history become so dispassionate, so abstract, so concerned with the long view, that "the
corpse[s] and the hacked limbs [come to seem] not so very terrible...." Interestingly, General
George C. Marshall had a similar view. As he recalled of World War II: "I was very careful to send
Mr. Roosevelt every few days a statement of our casualties.... You get hardened to these things and
you have to be very careful to keep them always in the forefront of your mind."
We have long considered that Hitler's crime of deliberately slaughtering six million Jews and other
victims in the Holocaust put him beyond the pale of civilized society. These bodies bulk so large in
our view of Hitler that they overshadow everything else we know or think important about him. As a
consequence, no serious historian would argue that we could or should have attempted to negotiate
with such a monster. There was no common ground - all you could do was to try to destroy him and
the regime he created. These days the only differences among historians have to do with whether or
not we accomplished that task as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Where does that leave us, though, with the new evidence we have about the victims of Stalin and
Mao Zedong? One recent but reliable estimate suggests that Stalin's domestic victims alone - when
one totals not only the figures for the purges but also for the collectivization of agriculture and the
famine that resulted from it - numbered about twenty million dead. This does not count the additional
acknowledged twenty-seven million Soviet citizens who died as a result of World War II. But this is
not the worst of it. Estimates of those who died in one single episode - the Chinese famine produced
by Mao's ill-conceived Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1961 - now come to some thirty million,
thereby qualifying the Chairman (whose image was once a popular adornment for t-shirts and
dormitory wall posters in the West) as perhaps the greatest mass murderer of all time.
Should that make a difference to us? We've long since agreed that it does with Hitler: the blood on
his hands defines who he was and how he will be remembered. But what about Stalin and Mao?
The dominant tendency in most of what has been written about the Cold War has been to treat them
as more or less "normal" statesmen, and certainly many Cold War historians have made the case that
we should have tried harder than we did to get along with them.
But if you take the opposite line - that the blood on Stalin's and Mao's hands put them in the same
league with Hitler - are you then prepared to say that we should never have collaborated with the
Soviet Union to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II? Or that Richard Nixon should never have
gone to Beijing? I have no easy answers to these questions; indeed, the more one thinks about them,
the more difficult they become. But there are, I think, several things we as historians can do with this
kind of information.
First, we must never ignore it. We should follow General Marshall's example and keep it in the
forefront of our minds. Respect for the dead, if nothing else, requires that we not allow ourselves to
become so hardened to this evidence that we take it for granted, or so naive that we try to sustain
"moral equivalency" arguments in the face of it. The body count alone - the simplest and most
elemental basis for making moral judgments in history - would seem to preclude that.
Second, we need to acknowledge that not only were there real bodies; there were also real
consequences. Stalin's and Mao's atrocities, like Hitler's, had a profound impact on the societies in
which they occurred, ultimately undermining the legitimacy of the regimes that perpetrated them. The
fact that the Soviet Union no longer exists, and that China today is a very different kind of place from
what it was in the Chairman's day, is to no small extent the result of their own policies and the
enormous human cost they exacted.
Third, we need to take more seriously than we have the question of whether regimes that treat their
own people this brutally are not likely to behave similarly toward the outside world. International
relations theorists have shown quite convincingly that democratic regimes tend not to go to war with
one another - that civil society at home tends to project itself onto the international scene. But what
about the other side of the equation? What about authoritarian societies and the terror that sustains
them? Are such states ever "normal" states, to be dealt with in normal ways?
Domestic Culture and External Behavior
That brings me to a second aspect of morality and Cold War history, which is the extent to which
the nature of the regimes in question affected the evolution of that conflict. Let me focus here on just
one case, drawn from the new information available to us. It has to do with what happened in
Germany in 1945 and 1946 as the citizens of that defeated state confronted their respective
It is now reasonably clear that what Stalin really wanted in Germany was both division and
reunification: establishing a separate communist regime in eastern Germany would in time, he
believed, provide a kind of magnet that would attract Germans in the western occupation zones
without requiring the use of force - something the Russians could ill afford, given the exhaustion of
their own country and the Americans' monopoly over the atomic bomb.
Obviously, this is not what happened. Germans first voted with their feet - fleeing to the West in
huge numbers to avoid the Red Army - and then at the ballot box in ways that frustrated all that
Stalin had hoped for. But this outcome was not foreordained. There were large numbers of
communist party members throughout Germany at the end of the war, and their prestige - because of
their opposition to the Nazis - had never been higher. Why did the Germans so overwhelmingly
welcome the Americans and their allies, and fear the Russians?
It has long been known that the Red Army behaved brutally toward German civilians in those parts
of the country that it occupied. This contrasted strikingly with the treatment accorded the Germans in
the American, British, and French zones. What we did not know, until recently, is that the problem
of rape was much larger than once thought. Red Army soldiers, it now appears, raped as many as
two million German women in 1945 and 1946. There was no significant effort to stop this pattern of
behavior or to discipline those who indulged in it. To this day, surviving Soviet officers tend to recall
the phenomenon much as Stalin saw it at the time: troops that had risked their lives and survived
deserved a little fun.
Now, obviously rape in particular, and brutality in general, is always a problem when armies occupy
the territory of defeated adversaries. Certainly Russian troops had good reason to hate the Germans,
given what they had done inside the Soviet Union. But these semisanctioned mass rapes took place
precisely during the period when Stalin was trying to win the support of German people, not just in
the east but throughout the country. He even allowed elections to be held inside the Soviet zone in
the fall of 1946, and suffered keen embarrassment when the Germans - the women in particular -
voted overwhelmingly against the Soviet-supported candidates.
The incidence of rape and brutality was so much greater on the Soviet than on the Western side that
it played a major role in determining which way the Germans would tilt in the Cold War that was to
come. It ensured a pro-Western orientation among all Germans from the very beginning of that
conflict, which surely helps to explain why the West German regime was able to establish itself as a
legitimate government and the East German regime never could. This pattern, in turn, replicated itself
on a larger scale when the West Europeans invited the United States to organize the NATO alliance
and include them within it. The Warsaw Pact, a Soviet creation imposed on Eastern Europe in
reaction to NATO, operated on quite a different basis.
What happened here was not so much a matter of deliberate policy as it was one of occupying
armies reflecting their own domestic institutions, cultures, and standards of acceptable behavior. The
rules of civil society implicit in democratic politics made the humanitarian treatment of defeated
enemies seem natural to the Western allies. They didn't have to be ordered to do this - they just did
it, and it didn't occur to them to do otherwise. Much the same thing happened, with equally
important long-term results, in occupied Japan. But the Russian troops came out of a culture of
brutality unparalleled in modern history. Given this background, it did not occur to many of them that
there was anything wrong with brutalizing others. And it did not occur to their leaders to put a stop
to the process, despite the fact that it lost them Germany.
In this instance, then, the existence of moral standards on one side and their absence on the other
played a huge role in determining the course of events. Idealistic behavior turned out to have very
realistic consequences. What this suggests is that, in thinking about moral issues in history, we would
do well - in addition to counting bodies - to look carefully at what the people who actually had to
confront these issues thought and did about them.
For when people vote with their feet they have ideas in their minds. But to understand these, we
have to take seriously what people at the time believed, not just historians in retrospect. No historian
looking at the religious practices of late antiquity, or at the medieval peasantry, or even at revolutions
in America, France, or Russia, would quarrel with that proposition.
And yet, some of those same historians, when looking at the origins, the evolution, and the end of the
Cold War - or for that matter at the gap between public and academic perceptions of the past today
- take the view that it is the professionals who ought to tell the public what its memory of the past
should be. Sometimes I think it wouldn't hurt for us as historians to indulge in a little self-scrutiny, to
ask ourselves whether we are really treating the distant past and the recent past in exactly the same
The Bomb and Alternatives
Finally, and in that regard, let me mention a third case in Cold War history where I think morality
made a difference. It gets us back to the debate over the Enola Gay, for it has to do with the atomic
bomb and its impact on the history of the world since 1945. And it raises yet another point about
making moral judgments in history, which has to do with the need to consider alternatives to what
actually took place.
The Enola Gay controversy focused narrowly on whether or not the United States did the right thing
in dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Implied in it, though, is a
much larger issue: What are the moral implications of having been the only nation, so far, to use
nuclear weapons against human targets? That is where the question of alternatives comes in, and it
does so in several different ways.
First, what would have been the alternative, within the immediate context of August 1945, to using
the bomb? Even if Japan was on the verge of surrender at that point as a result of Soviet entry into
the war, as some have suggested, would the number of lives required to bring about that capitulation
have been less than the number expended in the two atomic bombings? The continued conventional
bombing of Japanese cities, together with either a naval blockade or a ground invasion, could easily
have cost as many lives - allied and Japanese - as the more than two hundred thousand taken in
these two attacks and their aftereffects.
Second, would there have been a Cold War with the Soviet Union if the two atomic bombs had not
been used? Were they the crucial determinant in bringing about that event? Although American
officials certainly did have in mind the effect the bomb would produce on the Soviet Union, that was
not the primary reason they dropped it. The very fact that these thoughts occurred to them suggests
that the roots of the Cold War predated the atomic bombs. Where did ideas about the need to
intimidate the Russians come from in the first place, if not from the prior behavior of the Russians in
Central and Eastern Europe?
Third, would atomic bombs have been developed in the absence of the decision to use them in
1945? Is the United States therefore responsible for bringing atomic energy into the realm of military
technology? The answer here is quite clear: several other nations were aware of the military potential
of atomic energy and had launched programs to explore these possibilities during the war - the
Soviet Union first among them. There is no reason whatever to think that, in the absence of actual
use in 1945, no such weapons would ever have been developed.
Fourth, would it have made a difference if the world had learned of the existence of atomic weapons
by less violent means? If they had simply been tested and their existence then announced? Perhaps,
but not necessarily in a desirable way. One advantage of military use was that the horror of atomic
weapons fixed itself in people's minds at the moment they learned of their existence. Had an
awareness of existence preceded an awareness of capabilities, it is not clear that the world - or the
two Cold War superpowers - would have held these lethal instruments in such awe.
Fifth, would it have made a difference if another nation had developed atomic weapons first? Here it
is worth pointing out the irony that the world's principal democracy wound up being the first nation
to build - and the only nation to use - the world's most horrible weapon. Questions of human rights
played a major role in determining this outcome, for many of the scientists who developed the bomb
had come to the United States during the 1930s as refugees from Nazi Germany. It is also worth
noting that, having used the bomb, the United States then handled its four years of actual monopoly -
and perhaps a decade, altogether, of effective monopoly - with surprising restraint.
Why didn't the United States exploit its advantage to keep the Soviet Union from developing its own
bomb? Or to avoid near-defeat in Korea? These are complicated questions, but one of the answers
that comes up, when one looks at what American officials said to each other, is the conviction that a
democracy could only use such a weapon as a last resort, and in self-defense.
But that in turn raises another interesting question of comparative morality: would an authoritarian
system - one based on an ideology that explicitly justified any means necessary to achieve its ends,
one that employed terror as a method of government, and one as casual about the loss of human life
as were Stalin's and Mao's - have shown similar restraint had it got the bomb first?
There is no way to answer any of these questions authoritatively, but posing them in these
counterfactual terms is a useful exercise because it makes us see that history did not have to happen
in the way that it did. There might have been better ways to have handled these situations. There
might also have been worse ways.
All of this suggests, then, several things about the relationship of morality to the writing of Cold War
history - or to any kind of history.
First, what people believe is at least as important as what they do. Historians have an obligation to
make the imaginative leap from their own time to whatever age in the past they are writing about and
try to figure out what was going on in the minds of those who lived then. It is critically important to
take people from the past on their own terms and only after having done so to make judgments
about them based upon our terms.
Second, it follows that ideas, ideologies, and moral frameworks become very significant. We have
gone too far looking at the Cold War within a materialist framework devoid of moral content. This
was, from the outset, a struggle for people's minds as well as for their bodies and their possessions.
We are sure to understand it badly if we fail to take that fact into account.
Third, the history of the Cold War shows the gap between domestic and international spheres to
have been less pronounced than the diplomatic historians or international relations theorists have led
us to believe. Whether states were democratic or autocratic at home made an enormous difference
in how they behaved in the world at large - and whether they prevailed, in the end.
Fourth, nobody today would claim that the domestic systems of the Western democracies and the
Marxist-Leninist states were morally equivalent. The body count alone has ruled that out. But if the
line between domestic and international behavior is indeterminate, then that would appear to make
moral equivalency arguments with respect to foreign policy during the Cold War seem tenuous as
Fifth, what all of this suggests is that perhaps the Cold War really was, as Cap Weinberger
explained to E. P. Thompson in that fabled year 1984, about individual freedom and the ability to
pass it along to our kids. George Orwell, I believe, would not have disagreed.
But these conclusions, in turn, suggest the need for us as professional historians to rethink some of
our academic approaches to this subject. We need to cultivate the art of critical celebration as well
as condemnation: the idea of "criticism," as I understand it, involves the possibility for praise as well
as for blame. We need to be able to cite, discuss, and explain those instances in which we did the
right thing as well as those in which we did not. We need to avoid the pitfalls of both excessive
self-congratulation and self-flagellation.
We need to stay in touch with what people outside our profession think. Professionalization can wall
us off from some of the most important objects of our inquiry, opening up unhealthy gaps in the ways
the academic world and the general public view the past.
We need to be careful about the methodological metaphors we keep in our minds. Too much of
Cold War history was written as if its major contenders were indeed featureless billiard balls, whose
internal composition and character didn't much matter. In retrospect, apples and oranges might have
been the better metaphor: at least it would have allowed for irregularity, asymmetry, and the
possibility of internal rot.
Finally, we may need to rediscover a very old idea: that there are such things as good and evil in
history, and that part of our task as historians is not just to know them when we see them but to
devise more explicit criteria for making such distinctions in the first place. If the history of our
lamentable century has taught us anything at all, it ought to be how appalling the consequences can
be when the moral constraints on human behavior, for whatever reason, drop away.
But this is an ancient truth, and surely we knew it, in our hearts, all along. Perhaps it is time we
moved it back into our minds, as well as into the way in which we write, teach, and presumably still
retain the capacity to learn from the field in which we work.
1.Dean Rusk, As I Saw It (New York: Norton, 1990), 72-73.
2.Barton Gellman, "Weinberger Victorious in Oxford Debate," Washington Post, February 28, 1984. See also
Caspar Weinberger, Fighting for Peace: Seven Critical Years in the Pentagon (New York: Warner
Books, 1990), 169-70.
3.Robert S. McNamara, with Brian VanDeMark, I n Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New
York: Random House, 1995), xvi. For two examples of such Soviet memoirs, see Georgi Arbatov, The
System: An Insider's Life in Soviet Politics (New York: Times Books, 1992); and Anatoly Dobrynin, I n
Confidence: Moscow's Ambassador to America's Six Cold War Presidents (1962-1986) (New York: Times
4.The best single source for these new materials is the Bulletin of the Cold War International History
Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Smithsonian Institution, indefatigably
edited by James Hershberg.
5.Bibliographies on both of these controversies are already enormous. The most balanced coverage has
probably appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
6.This appeared to be the conclusion of a roundtable at the 1995 annual convention of the Society for
Historians of American Foreign Relations on "Culture and Diplomacy," which featured Emily Rosenberg,
Walter Hixson, Robert McMahon, and Jessica Gienow.
7.See, on this point, Douglas J. Macdonald, "Communist Bloc Expansion in the Early Cold War: Challenging
Realism, Refuting Revisionism," International Security 20 (Winter 1995/96), 152-88.
8.A good recent review of Cold War historiography is Anders Stephanson, "The United States," in David
Reynolds, ed., The Origins of the Cold War in Europe: International Perspectives (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1994), 23-52.
9.Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991 (New York: Free Press,
1994), strongly criticizes Soviet studies for neglecting the importance of ideology.
10.The classic texts, of course, are Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power
and Peace (New York: Knopf, 1948), with five subsequent editions; and Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of
International Politics (New York: Random House, 1979).
11.See, in addition to Morgenthau, Edward Hallett Carr, T he Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919-1939: An
Introduction to the Study of International Relations (New York: St. Martin's Press; 1939); and George F.
Kennan, American Diplomacy: 1900-1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951).
12.For more on the moral relativists, see John Lewis Gaddis, The United States and the End of the Cold War:
Implications, Reconsiderations, Provocations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 55-57.
13.Francis Fukuyama, "The End of History?" National Interest 16 (Summer 1989), 3-18.
14.Quoted in Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society
(New York: Knopf, 1994), 117.
15.Quoted in Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Organizer of Victory (New York: Viking, 1973), 316.
16.Malia, Soviet Tragedy, 263.
17.Basil Ashton, Kenneth Hill, Alan Piazza, and Robin Zeitz, "Famine in China, 1958-61," Population and
Development Review 10 (December 1984), 613-45.
18.A recent example is Melvyn P. Leffler's justifiably prize-winning A Preponderance of Power: National
Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992).
19.R. C. Raack, "Stalin Plans His Post-War Germany," Journal of Contemporary History 28 (1993), 53-73
provides a useful overview of Stalin's plans.
20.Norman M. Naimark, The Russians in Germany: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945-1949
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 69-140, is an eloquent and compelling account.
21.See the interviews with Red Army officers in part one of the recent British television series "Messengers
From Moscow"; also Milovan Djilas, Conversations with Stalin, trans. Michael B. Petrovich (New York:
Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962), 95.
22.Naimark, Russians in Germany, 120-21.
23.See, for this distinction, Geir Lundestad, "Empire by Invitation? The United States and Western Europe,
1945-1952," Journal of Peace Research 23 (September 1986), 263-77.
24.A point now made clear by David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy,
1939-1956 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994); and Richard Rhodes, Dark Sun: The Making of the
Hydrogen Bomb (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995).
25.See John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1987), 142.
John Lewis Gaddis teaches in the Contemporary History Institute of Ohio University. He is the
author, most recently, of The United States and the End of the Cold War (Oxford University
Press, 1992); his next book, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, a reassessment of the
Cold War in light of new Russian, East European, and Chinese sources, will appear in 1997. He is
currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
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