From the outset of the Cold War, the two adversaries blamed one another for the conflict. For a long time, historians, echoing the patriotic culture of their nations, followed in train. In the Soviet Union, historical interpretation adhered to the rigid Communist Party line, which held the "imperialist" United States responsible for the Cold War. The Americans had tried to strangle the Soviet Union during its infancy and had sought ever since, with the brief interlude of World War II (known there as the Great Patriotic War) to contain Russia by surrounding it with hostile states. The United States and its allies had menaced the Soviet Union with the atomic bomb and had tried to isolate and destroy the "motherland" with their economic power and trade restrictions. The Soviet Union depicted itself as a defensive outpost of progressive reform in a world dominated by ruthless but ultimately doomed capitalist imperialists.
Until a wave of revisionism emerged in the 1960s, historians in the United States interpreted the evolution of the Cold War in orthodox terms: that it was a struggle to contain an expansionist and "totalitarian" Soviet regime. The totalitarian model linked Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as two ruthless military powers that forced their will upon neighboring states and employed terror at home against their own people. Like the Soviets, Americans insisted that their actions in the Cold War had been primarily defensive, as the term "containment" suggested. The essential argument, reflected in the language of NSC 68, was that the United States represented the "free world" in a struggle against atheist totalitarianism.
Revisionists of various shades began to emerge in the United States in the late 1950s, reaching their apogee in the wake of the disastrous U.S. intervention in Indochina. Revisionists challenged the patriotic culture with their will-ingness to consider the Soviet point of view. Some argued that economic necessity, specifically the need for foreign markets, determined the direction of U.S. Cold War diplomacy. Revisionists emphasized that the United States, not just the Soviet Union, had been an expansionist power throughout its history. They also underscored the willingness of U.S. national security elites to ally themselves with a host of dictators across the globe, as long as those rulers embraced anticommunism and left their nations open to U.S. economic penetration.
Orthodox interpretations returned with a vengeance with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The triumphalist argument held that the Cold War policies of the United States and its allies had been necessary to contain communism and that they had proven spectacularly successful. Despite the violence of the era, some viewed the Cold War as a "long peace," because, in fact, the superpowers had not gone to war. One scholar went so far as to assert that the end of the Cold War marked the "end of history" insofar as democratic politics and capitalism soon would be embraced by everyone.
Others rejected the triumphalist interpretation of the history of the Cold War as well as the notion that the long struggle had been worth the effort. They argued that the Cold War had been extremely expensive, diverting resources to the respective militaries and away from economic and social development. Moreover, the superpowers typically carried out military conflicts on Third World battlefields, leaving many of those nations divided and wracked by poverty and degradation. The East-West struggle might have come to an end, but the great divide in wealth and quality of life between North and South had never been greater. Moreover, market reforms failed to revive the Russian economy. Indeed, "shock therapy" brought a sharply lower standard of living for most of the population, which had lost the guaranteed employment and safety net once provided under the Soviet system. In 1999, Yeltsin stepped down for Vladimir Putin, a little known former KGB officer, who became the new Russian president.
Interpretations of the Cold War will continue to evolve as scholars gain access to more evidence and as world events continue to unfold and illuminate fresh perspectives on the past. New archival evidence, made available by the collapse of the former Communist Party regimes, has revealed fascinating insight into Cold War conflicts such as the Korean War and the Cuban missile crisis. Scholars now argue that Third World countries, rather than being mere pawns in the Cold War, often shaped the agenda for their superpower allies. Others argue that the real significance of the Cold War was its impact on science, technology, and culture, including popular culture and consumerism.
By century's end, the Cold War may have been over but many legacies remained. Russian-American and Sino-American relations continued to be strained. Ethnic and regional conflicts simmered across the globe. The threat posed by nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons remained real, whether they might be wielded by terrorists or by so-called outlaw regimes. At the same time, information technology, rapid population growth, and environmental threats such as global warming began to establish an agenda for the new millennium. The efforts of the people of the world and their leaders to meet these challenges would determine the character of the post–Cold War world.