Cold War Evolution and Interpretations

Walter L. Hixson

Interpreting the history of the Cold War has been a notoriously controversial pursuit. New evidence, unearthed in recent years from archives on both sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific, has not resolved old debates, but it has added immensely to our collective knowledge. Much remains to be learned and understood about the history of the global power struggle, the impact of which on the latter half of the twentieth century can scarcely be exaggerated. As it recedes into history, the passions of presentism (interpreting history on the basis of contemporary prejudices) have receded as well. These developments open up new possibilities for stimulating discussion of the evolution and interpretations of the Cold War.

Five key interpretive themes can be employed to explain the evolution of the Cold War and to interpret the history of the conflict: ideology, national expansionism, economic hegemony, militarization, and patriotic culture. These forces help explain the origins, evolution, and end of the Cold War. Despite the primary focus on Soviet-American relations, no one questions that the Cold War became a global phenomenon enveloping the fates of scores of nations, some modern and industrial, others premodern and developing. Nations such as Great Britain and China played key roles in the evolution of the Cold War, but so did smaller states as diverse as Angola, Cuba, Egypt, Greece, India, Israel, Japan, Korea, South Africa, Vietnam, and many more. As this list suggests, the Cold War encompasses a vast and complex history, overshadowing the latter half of the twentieth century.


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Carroll, John M., and Herring, George C., eds. Modern American Diplomacy. Rev. ed. Wilmington, Del., 1996. An excellent anthology.

Chomsky, Noam. World Orders Old and New. New York, 1994. A radical perspective on the end of the Cold War and its implications.

Engelhardt, Tom. The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation. New York, 1995. An enlightening cultural perspective.

Gaddis, John Lewis. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy. New York, 1982. A worthwhile read on American grand strategy.

Gardner, Lloyd C. Spheres of Influence: The Great Powers Partition Europe, from Munich to Yalta. Chicago, 1993.

Garthoff, Raymond L. Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan. Washington, D.C., 1985. A magisterial history.

——. The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War. Washington, D.C., 1994. The best work on the end of the Cold War.

Gorbachev, Mikhail. Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World. New York, 1987. The deposed Soviet leader's revolutionary ideas on society and foreign policy.

Herring, George C. America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975. New York, 1996. 3d ed. An excellent survey of the Indochina war.

Hixson, Walter L. Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945–1961. New York, 1997. Assesses psychological warfare and cultural perspectives.

Hogan, Michael J. A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State, 1945–1954. New York and Cambridge, 1998.

Hunter, Allen, ed. Rethinking the Cold War. Philadelphia, 1998. The best anthology on the end of the Cold War.

LaFeber, Walter. The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad Since 1750. 2d ed. 2 vols. New York, 1994. One of the best texts on postwar U.S. foreign policy.

Lebow, Richard Ned, and Janice Gross Stein. We All Lost the Cold War. Princeton, N.J., 1994. A critical perspective on the argument that the West "won" the Cold War.

Leffler, Melvyn P. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford, Calif., 1992.

Lundestad, Geir. East, West, North, South: Developments in International Politics Since 1945. 4th ed. New York, 1999. The perspectives of a top Norwegian scholar.

May, Ernest R., ed. American Cold War Strategy: Interpreting NSC 68. New York, 1993. Multiple perspectives on perhaps the most revealing document on the American side of the Cold War.

Pessen, Edward. Losing Our Souls: The American Experience in the Cold War. Chicago, 1993. A historian's biting assessment of U.S. Cold War diplomacy.

Schulzinger, Robert D. American Diplomacy Since 1900 . 4th ed. New York, 1998. One of the better texts on modern U.S. foreign policy.

Sherry, Michael S. In the Shadow of War: The United States Since the 1930s. New Haven, Conn., 1995. The best analysis of the role of militarism in American society.

Smith, Tony. "New Bottles for New Wine: A Pericentric Framework for the Study of the Cold War." Diplomatic History 24, no. 4 (fall 2000): 567–591. Emphasizes the centrality of peripheral nations in the Cold War era.

Stueck, William W. The Korean War: An International History. Princeton, N.J., 1997. A solid international history of a pivotal Cold War conflict.

Trachtenberg, Marc. A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945–1963. Princeton, N.J., 1999. An excellent analysis of the first generation of the Cold War.

Westad, Odd Arne. "The New International History of the Cold War: Three (Possible) Paradigms." Diplomatic History 24, no. 4 (fall 2000): 551–565. A stimulating reconceptualization based on new documentation.

White, Donald W. The American Century: The Rise and Decline of the United States as a World Power. New Haven and London, 1996. A mammoth study of the American empire.

Williams, William A. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. 2d rev. ed. New York, 1972. A classic work on the economic imperatives underlying U.S. diplomacy.

Zubok, Vladislav, and Constantine Pleshakov. Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev. Cambridge, Mass., 1996. The best assessment of Soviet Cold War diplomacy by two accomplished Russian scholars.

See also Arms Control and Disarmament ; Arms Transfers and Trade ; Balance of Power ; Cold War Origins ; Cold War Termination ; Cold Warriors ; Collective Security ; Containment ; Covert Operations ; Deterrence ; Domino Theory ; Foreign Aid ; Globalization ; Intelligence and Counterintelligence ; International Organization ; Intervention and Nonintervention ; The National Interest ; National Security Council ; North Atlantic Treaty Organization ; Nuclear Strategy and Diplomacy ; Outer Space ; Post–Cold War Policy ; Science and Technology ; Summit Conferences ; Superpower Diplomacy ; The Vietnam War .

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