Cold War Origins - Genealogy of the term




It was in the United States, not accidentally, that the Cold War as a term entered popular discourse. It was there too that much of the early discussion about its nature and causes took place and where the preponderance of historiography on the subject would later appear. The Cold War was from the beginning an American concern. It has never quite been established who coined the phrase. Nor does it much matter. Bernard Baruch, the aging financier and sometime policymaker, used the term in the spring of 1947 but in passing and without any elaboration. By his own subsequent account, Baruch took it from his friend and speechwriter Herbert Bayard Swope, who claimed he had come up with it while considering the socalled Phoney War of 1939–1940, the odd and extended early phase of World War II in Europe when nothing substantial by way of military activity took place.

The person who turned it into an integrated part of the political language, however, was the powerful newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann. In the fall of 1947, he published a series of wide-ranging articles on foreign policy that took as their critical starting point an important analysis of the Soviet Union that had appeared in the July issue of Foreign Affairs, the authoritative journal of the foreign policy establishment in the United States. The author, George F. Kennan, was a high official in the State Department, and because the piece was controversial it appeared anonymously under the signature "X"—thus rendering it known and famous subsequently as the "X Article." At the end of the year, Lippmann collected his columns in a short book he entitled The Cold War. Although he nowhere used the term in the actual writings, the idea was present throughout. In the next few years it gradually became a common reference but it only achieved general usage in the early 1950s. Against the Baruch-Swope claims to authorship, Lippmann maintained later that his choice of title had been inspired by a certain French vocabulary of politics in the 1930s, where terms such as la guerre froide (cold war) and la guerre blanche (white war) designated a state of war without open war. French lexographers have disputed Lippmann's retrospective account but the matter remains open.

There are, in any case, other and earlier appearances. Two are of considerable interest. In October 1945 the English writer George Orwell had referred to a "cold war" in the context of what he saw as a new historical stage where a few "monstrous super-States" would be able to divide the world between them because of their control of the awesome new weapon, the atomic bomb. Orwell surmised that these superpowers, now essentially unassailable, would agree not to use the bomb against each other but deploy it as a means of intimidating their respective neighbors in what would constitute "a permanent 'cold war.'"

Vast conflagrations such as World War II might then be replaced by a "'peace that is no peace,' an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity." Three such Cold War power configurations would emerge: the United States, the Soviet Union, and, potentially, China–East Asia. Highly suggestive, Orwell's grim scenario thus reserved "cold war" for the relationship between the powerful and the weak, probably an extrapolation from fascist examples of intimidation and expansion during the 1930s. His use of the term had little effect; but the notion of three global hegemons would reappear three years later in his classic novel of dystopian drabness, 1984, where Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia engage in seemingly useless wars on the periphery in the name of meaningless propagandistic slogans, language having been reduced to a political instrument of pure manipulation.

Orwell's geopolitical vision was a postwar version of an idiosyncratic work that appeared in the United States in 1941, James Burnham's The Managerial Revolution. Here, another tripartite division of superstates, each impossible to conquer, is envisaged (Japan, Germany, and the United States). Enduring in its fundamentals, the system would nevertheless feature a myriad of diffuse conflicts, hard to get a grip on because they would be undeclared, their origins, beginnings, and endings forever mired in obscurity. Orwell's peace that is no peace, already discernible in this account, will become more explicit once Burnham had moved from renegade Trotskyist to relentless cold warrior. By 1947 he was arguing that a sort of World War III had broken out even before the second one was over, a conflict triggered in April 1944 by the outbreak of civil war in Greece. This new and all-encompassing contest required, above all, unflinching assertion of American power in the form of a world empire: the United States, not least because of its atomic monopoly, would be able to intervene to decide all global issues vital to its national security. Should the United States fail, the Soviet Union would take its place. Burnham thought the imperial project, necessarily entailing a great deal of coercion, could be combined with democracy at home. Moreover, he suggested that, rather than calling the whole endeavor an empire, one should give it the more palatable name of a "democratic world order."

The idea of a new historical condition outside the "normal" polarity of peace and war, initially distilled from the experience of fascist aggression in the 1930s, was thus in circulation by the time Lippmann put the term on the public map. There is, however, a much older use, though not as old as sometimes alleged. It appears to originate in the early fourteenth century with a Castilian aristocrat, Don Juan Manuel, who was part of the long and continuing Christian campaign to reconquer the Iberian peninsula from Islamic power. This struggle featured a wide range of irregular engagements and changing frontiers against the backdrop of a "total" political and cultural conflict between religious ideologies. Don Juan Manuel, reflecting deeply on the nature of the antagonism, is said to have called it a cold war. What his manuscript actually says is probably "tepid" or "lukewarm." The rendition "cold" is the accidental result of erroneous editorial transcription in the 1860s. Yet Don Juan Manuel's image of tepid war is not without relevance in the present context. Real war, he says, has real results in the form of either death or peace. Tepid war, by contrast, is not an honorable war between equal enemies and seems not to result in any real peace. The mistake of his subsequent editor in any case illustrates some of the problems with the metaphorical aspects of the term: the opposite of cold may be hot, in this case signifying open war, but a rising temperature can also indicate a "thaw," as in a warming relationship replacing a frosty, frigid, and unresponsive one. The term indicates, then, the absolute, polar enmity of real war without any real fighting: it is warlike in every sense except, paradoxically, the explicitly military.

In pondering his Muslim enemies, Don Juan Manuel was highly respectful of their qualities as warriors; but in the end his study had to do with a conflict that was doctrinally irreconcilable in nature, indeed civilizational: there was no frame in which European Christendom and Islam could understand one another as equal adversaries. "Peace" could only result from a total victory and liquidation of the enemy as an independent force. A century later, however, Europe itself was rent asunder by confessional struggles regarding the very orthodoxy of Christianity. In the long process during which these struggles were played out, the modern concept of the state emerged along with a sharply defined, dichotomous understanding of war and peace. Simply put, confessional conflicts (and war) were effectively banished from the sovereign inside of the new, inviolate state borders. To wage war from then on is, supposedly, the exclusive right of sovereigns. Understood as a legitimate political means, such warmaking can only take place externally against enemies who are essentially legitimate equals similarly engaged. These intramural, European wars, in principle, are only to be conducted for limited gains, not for the absolute end of total liquidation of the enemy as a political entity. A whole apparatus regulating these limited wars is constructed, based on the premise of an absolute distinction between inside and outside as well as between war and peace.

This is, in short, the birth of international law as we know it. It is a profoundly Eurocentric order. Although challenged severely by the French Revolution, it survived essentially down to the 1930s, when the fascist powers launched a series of aggressions that broke decisively with the earlier, sharp distinction between the states of war and peace. Thus, Japan's war against China was officially classed as an "incident"; Italy called its intervention in the Spanish Civil War "not warmaking"; and Hitler expanded his territory through successive ultimatums and threats of violence that did not become open war. A range of state actions seemed to have emerged that constituted some form of state close to but below the level of actual war. The traditional system (declaration of war, rules of conduct, rights of noncombatants, neutrality), which had been codified in the Hague Convention in 1907 and achieved a strong resurgence in the legalistic 1920s, appeared to have been set brutally aside. It was this process, then, that eventually would draw two immense new powers onto center stage, both with universalizing, quasi-confessional claims: the United States and the Soviet Union. The "origins" of the Cold War lie in this event, more particularly in the diverging ways in which the two regimes understood and dealt with the antifascist war and its aftermath.




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