Jennifer W. See

In the last few decades of the twentieth century diplomatic historians increasingly turned their attention to the study of ideology. Previously scholars had largely ignored ideology, choosing instead to focus upon economic or political interests in their explanations. More and more, however, historians found explanations centered on economic imperatives and geopolitical calculations insufficient, even anemic, and many began drawing on new approaches borrowed from other disciplines. The work of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, in particular, has proven influential among historians and social scientists, offering a powerful tool for understanding the content of ideology and for uncovering its role in policymaking. Geertz's conception of ideology as part of the context within which social interactions unfold has played a significant role in the renewed interest in how ideology influences foreign policy. A rich literature has developed around this subject.

Nevertheless, scholars of American foreign policy still disagree sharply over the importance of ideology in the policymaking process and precisely how it determines outcomes. Even those who emphasize the primacy of ideology in shaping policy concede it is an elusive concept. In particular, at the level of specific policy decisions—and foreign relations historians in the United States have tended overwhelmingly to focus their attention on policymaking—ideology has a way of disappearing. Moreover, little consensus exists over theoretical issues such as definition.

Nowhere has the debate been more intense than among scholars of the Cold War. This dynamic in part results from the intense attention that diplomatic historians have devoted to the superpower conflict—a quick glance through a half dozen back issues of the journal Diplomatic History makes clear just how overrepresented the post-1945 period has been. But the nature of the Soviet-American rivalry has also forced scholars to confront the issue of ideology, because both superpowers used strongly ideological rhetoric during the period. Did policymakers during the Cold War believe the ideological claims they made about the world in their public statements, and shape policies accordingly? Or did ideology represent an instrument of politics used to win over their publics and serve as a kind of ex post facto justification for decisions reached on other grounds? Despite the lack of consensus, the intense and ongoing debate over the Cold War highlights both the challenges and the importance of examining ideology.


Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New ed. New York, 1973.

Campbell, David. Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity. Rev. ed. Minneapolis, Minn., 1998. An analysis of American foreign policy from a postmodernist perspective.

Carlsnaes, Walter. Ideology and Foreign Policy: Problems of Comparative Conceptualization. Oxford and New York, 1987.

Gaddis, John Lewis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. Oxford and New York, 1997.

Gardner, Lloyd C. Safe For Democracy: The Anglo-American Response to Revolution, 1913–1923. New York, 1987.

——. Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam. Chicago, 1995.

Geertz, Clifford. "Ideology as a Cultural System." In David E. Apter, ed. Ideology and Discontent. New York, 1964. See also "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture." In Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures. New York, 1973. Of Geertz's many writings, these two essays offer the clearest explanation of his views on ideology.

Halle, Louis J. The Cold War as History. New ed. New York, 1991.

Hamilton, Malcolm B. "The Elements of the Concept of Ideology." Political Studies 35 (1987): 18–38. A useful analysis on the question of definition.

Hunt, Michael. Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven, Conn., 1987. An excellent starting place on the subject from a historical perspective. For an explanation by the same author of the complexities of ideology as a category of analysis, see "Ideology," in Michael J. Hogan and Thomas G. Paterson, eds. Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations. New York, 1991.

Kennan, George F. American Diplomacy. Expanded ed. Chicago, 1984. The classic realist critique of American foreign policy.

Larraín, Jorge. Marxism and Ideology. London and Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1983.

Leffler, Melvyn. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford, Calif., 1992. Highlights the role of national security calculations in early Cold War policymaking.

Logevall, Fredrik. Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam. Berkeley, Calif., 1999.

Lukacs, John. The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age. New York, 1993.

Malia, Martin. The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917–1991. New York, 1994.

McCoy, Drew R. The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1980. An analysis of the role of republican ideology in early America.

McDougall, Walter A. Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776. New York, 1997.

McLellan, David S. Ideology. Minneapolis, Minn., 1986. A straightforward introduction to the subject.

Morgenthau, Hans. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. 5th ed. New York, 1973. See especially chapters 7–8.

Mullins, Willard A. "On the Concept of Ideology in Political Science." American Political Science Review 66 (1972): 498–510. A helpful if somewhat dated survey.

Perkins, Bradford. The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations: The Creation of a Republican Empire, 1776–1865. Vol. 1. Cambridge and New York, 1993.

Smith, Tony. America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, N.J., 1994. Ideology, and particularly Wilsonian ideology, is central in this account of American foreign policy. For a contrasting view that examines American intervention in the Third World, see David F. Schmitz. Thank God They're On Our Side: The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships, 1921–1965. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1999.

Stephanson, Anders. Manifest Destiny: American Expansionism and the Empire of Right. New York, 1995. A short but thoughtful look at how an ideology of destiny has shaped American foreign policy. An interpretation of American ideology during the Cold War by the same author is "Liberty or Death: The Cold War as U.S. Ideology." In Odd Arne Westad, ed. Reviewing the Cold War: Approaches, Interpretation, Theory. Portland, Ore., 2000.

Trachtenberg, Marc. A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945–1963. Princeton, N.J., 1999. A history of the Cold War written from a realist perspective.

Weber, Max. "The Social Psychology of the World Religions." In H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York, 1948.

Westad, Odd Arne. "Bernath Lecture: The New International History of the Cold War." Diplomatic History 24 (2000): 551–565.

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. 2d ed. New York, 1972. The classic revisionist work on American foreign policy.

Zubok, Vladislav, and Constantine Pleshakov. Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev. Cambridge, Mass., 1996.

See also Open Door Interpretation ; Realism and Idealism ; Revisionism .

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