Traditional scholarship on the Cold War assigned a central but sharply circumscribed role to ideology. The writers of the 1950s drew on the official rationales that the Truman administration had used to explain the nature of the Cold War and the necessity for the American Cold War policy of containment. This literature portrayed the Soviets as bent on expansion, driven by a combination of traditional interests and Marxist-Leninist ideology. The United States in response acted prudently and pragmatically to defend its interests against this obvious security threat. This view did not go unchallenged. Although initially an advocate of containing the Soviet Union, George Kennan soon joined another realist critic, Walter Lippmann, and turned against his creation. Kennan argued that the Truman Doctrine overcommitted the United States by defining American interests in ideological and expansive terms. For Kennan and Lippmann both, ideology influenced not only Soviet but also American policymakers. Beginning in the 1960s revisionist scholars turned traditional scholarship on its head, arguing that American, not Soviet, policy was ideological, and that the Soviet actions in the immediate postwar period were motivated by legitimate security needs.
In reaction to the sharp disjunction between revisionist and traditional scholarship, historians working in the 1970s and 1980s set aside ideology altogether and redefined the Cold War as a traditional conflict of interests between two great powers. This conflict came as the inevitable out-growth of World War II and particularly the power vacuum in central Europe resulting from the destruction of Germany. Louis Halle in The Cold War as History famously describes the two superpowers as scorpions in a bottle. They could not help but come into conflict. Writing very much in this tradition, Melvyn Leffler argues in his award-winning account of the Truman administration, A Preponderance of Power, that American policymakers were driven by national security considerations and sought to increase American power in the postwar world. In A Preponderance of Power, ideology has little to do with American policy. Instead, American policymakers acted out of fear for American security. Truman and his advisers were prudent in reacting to the possibility of Soviet aggression, yet they were foolish to seek so exaggerated a security for the United States. Although the wisdom of American policy-makers and the question of Soviet intentions remained a subject of scholarly disagreement, ideology seemed to fall out of the picture. For a time, there the debate rested.
But in the 1990s newly available archival sources from the Soviet side of the conflict reopened the question of the relationship between ideology and the Cold War. Writing in 1997, John Lewis Gaddis declared in We Now Know that the new Cold War history must of necessity concern itself with ideology. Similarly, Martin Malia in The Soviet Tragedy, an account of Soviet foreign policy, places ideology at the center of the conflict between East and West and argues that the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution virtually guaranteed the Cold War that followed. The Russian scholars Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov also emphasize ideology in their interpretation of Cold War Soviet foreign policy, though in their account Marxist-Leninism and self-interest combined to shape Stalin's decision making.
American ideology has received less attention, but the arguments of this new scholarship implied a role for American ideology as well. Two scholars in particular, Odd Arne Westad and Anders Stephanson, emphasize the importance of American ideology during the Cold War. As Westad states in his 2000 Bernath Lecture, "It was to a great extent American ideas and their influence that made the Soviet-American conflict into a Cold War. " Meanwhile, Stephanson finds in Cold War documents a particularly American language of politics built around the opposition between "freedom" and "slavery." The kind of ideological absolutism embodied in Patrick Henry's famous "Give me liberty or give me death" lived on in America's conceptions of the Cold War world. Ideology thus seemed to have returned to a central place in the analysis of the Cold War.
Amidst this rediscovery of ideology, however, Marc Trachtenberg, in an important 1999 book, A Constructed Peace, argues precisely the opposite: the Cold War in fact had little to do with ideology at all. In Trachtenberg's view the central problem of the postwar world was power, specifically German power. Soviet and American leaders in the postwar period understood this reality, and far from being influenced by ideology pursued their interests with cool calculation. This is not to say that the superpowers did not distrust one another, or that there were not very real conflicts of interest between them. But the conflicts were precisely that: of interest, not of ideology. Trachtenberg argues that the Cold War began as a result of Soviet actions in Iran in April 1946, actions that American policymakers perceived as signaling expansive intentions. In response the United States tightened its hold on western Germany, and the Cold War rivalry ensued. The crucial question of the Cold War continued to be the problem of Germany, although much of the actual conflict took place on the periphery. Once the superpowers reached a settlement on Germany, which Trachtenberg argues occurred in 1963, the Cold War was for all intents and purposes over.
The gap between those who write in terms of national security and those who emphasize ideology remains wide. The relationship between ideology and national security is often portrayed as an either-or proposition: either ideology or national interest motivates policymaking. Ideology tends to be associated with irrational or particularly aggressive actions. And in fact the literature has tended to portray the more aggressive side of the Cold War rivalry as the more ideological. For traditionalists this meant the Soviet leadership acted according to the tenets of Marxist-Leninism, while for revisionists it was American policy that had fallen victim to the siren song of ideology. In this respect the literature treats ideology as a kind of pathology of policymaking. Moreover, national security is often treated as a given, a kind of objective truth that exists unchanging across time and space. By this logic leaders on all sides of the Cold War conflict understood the risks and opportunities they faced in much the same way. Each calculated his (and they were all men) options and reactions carefully and rationally and shared similar goals of ensuring territorial security and increasing state power. Calculations complete, policymakers reached into the same toolbox for the means to achieve their goals. Perhaps they did.
But as Tony Smith asserts in his study of twentieth-century American foreign policy, America's Mission, "security definitions arise out of particular domestically engendered perceptions of foreign affairs." Ideology acts to define the boundaries of legitimate action and to define what is dangerous and what is not. It is thus complicit in the process of creating interests and defining national security, because ideology provides the context within which policy decisions are made. As a result we must take seriously historical experience, the language policymakers use, and the very different tools on which they rely to pursue their ends. Foreign policy decisions are rarely made in a vacuum, and domestic political debates influence the process. During the Cold War, and particularly in the United States, ideological context conditioned foreign policy outcomes. Ideology defined the issues at stake.
For Americans the issue at stake became the survival of freedom, and Soviet communism became the primary threat. This view did not come all at once. Although suspicious of Soviet intentions, to be sure, Truman and especially his secretary of state James Byrnes remained open to efforts at accommodation and compromise with the Soviet Union throughout 1945 and the early months of 1946. Meanwhile, officials like Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal and George Kennan, chargé d'affaires in Moscow, were raising the alarm, prompting debate within the administration over how to deal with the Soviets in the postwar world. In February 1946, Kennan telegraphed some eight thousand words from his post at the embassy in Moscow. His Long Telegram offered one of the first interpretations of Soviet policy. Similar views were already floating around the corridors of Washington policymaking bureaucracies, but Kennan, as he would do several more times in the early Cold War, put American attitudes into articulate form.
Kennan described the Soviet Union as committed "fanatically" to the belief that there could be "no permanent modus vivendi" between East and West. In Kennan's view the Kremlin's perspective resulted from a combination of Marxist-Leninist ideology and a traditional and instinctive insecurity. Marxist-Leninist ideology and the closed society that limited contact with the out-side world had a hypnotic effect on Soviet officials, leaving them unlikely and unable to question their assumptions about the West. Kennan argued that Soviet policy could not be changed by talk; it was "highly sensitive to the logic of force." He warned that much depended upon the "health and vigor" of American society and urged his colleagues in Washington to have the "courage and self-confidence" to protect American traditions. "World communism is like a malignant parasite…. This is point at which domestic and foreign policies meet."
The Long Telegram echoed earlier traditions of exceptionalism and mission, which likely in part explains its appeal to official Washington. Kennan's analysis made the rounds (it appears in the personal papers of nearly every major figure in the Truman administration), and most agreed with its analysis. The Soviet Union represented a clear threat to American values and to freedom at home and abroad. The Kremlin sought to expand communist influence throughout the world, and it would not be deterred by negotiation. The American way of life increasingly appeared under siege to many of these officials. Soviet actions in eastern Europe, particularly in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland, as well as the April crisis in Iran, seemed only to confirm these fears. So too did the emergence of strong communist parties in France and Italy. At the same time, however, the crisis in Iran proved resolvable by diplomacy when Iran made a protest to the United Nations. Even better, the apparent Soviet acceptance of the UN's decisions in the case suggested that the new organization was not doomed as many had feared. Moreover, in July 1946 the Paris Peace Conference began and by the end of the summer successfully concluded peace treaties with the Axis powers, though a German peace treaty and particularly the problem of reparations remained on the table. Despite the alarmist language of many administration officials in their private memos and growing public suspicion of Soviet intentions, the possibility of postwar settlement was not yet foreclosed.
But the limited diplomatic successes of the Council of Foreign Ministers and the Paris Peace Conference could not erase the growing fears of the threat Marxist-Leninism posed to American society and interests. A September 1946 report prepared by White House staffers Clark Clifford and George Elsey reveals that the perspective expressed by Kennan's Long Telegram was taking hold throughout the administration. The Clifford-Elsey report expressed the opinion of its authors to be sure, but the two officials drew on documents prepared by all of the major policymaking institutions, and their views were thus informed by the combined wisdom of the Departments of State, War, Navy, and Commerce. The report placed the U.S.–Soviet relationship at the center of American foreign policy. It expressed no ambiguity about Soviet intentions: "Soviet leaders appear to be conducting their nation on a course of aggrandizement designed to lead to eventual world domination by the U.S.S.R." This aim could not be turned aside by conventional diplomacy, and the authors borrowed Kennan's interpretation that the Kremlin leadership believed in the impossibility of peaceful coexistence between Marxist-Leninism and capitalism. Like Kennan, Clifford and Elsey took Soviet rhetoric and ideology seriously. The pronouncements of Kremlin leaders such as Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov represented the reality of Soviet policy. The United States must prepare itself for total war, the authors declared. Economic aid programs and an information policy (propaganda, like ideology, was something the other side had) articulating the benefits of American society and the goals of U.S. policy should not be neglected. But the United States should never lose sight of Soviet preparations for eventual war with the "capitalistic powers," preparations that represented a direct threat to American security. By autumn 1946 the language and content of the Clifford-Elsey report was emblematic of the emerging consensus held by official Washington.
The fate of Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace signaled perhaps more than anything else the hardening of this new perspective. Wallace had long argued for negotiations with the Soviets, and in September 1946 he expressed his views publicly in a speech at Madison Square Garden. Wallace argued that the United States should work to allay Russian suspicions and distrust and recognize Soviet security needs in eastern Europe as legitimate. In retrospect there seems to be little in Wallace's speech that is particularly radical. But his apparent support for a Soviet sphere of influence in eastern Europe set off a firestorm of controversy. The tone of the speech created a dissonant echo amidst the increasingly hard-line atmosphere of official Washington. An embarrassed President Truman, who had upon cursory reading endorsed Wallace's address, demanded the secretary's resignation. Arguments that the United States should attempt to resolve the diplomatic disputes that separated the superpowers and that the Soviets acted in eastern Europe out of legitimate security concerns slipped increasingly to the margins of mainstream opinion. Consensus about ideological conflict in the postwar world, the expansive tendencies of Soviet Union, and the necessity for a policy of containment was taking hold, and American policy evolved to match these views.
By the end of 1946 American officials increasingly turned away from negotiating with the Soviets. When Secretary of State James Byrnes returned from a December conference of foreign ministers meeting in Moscow, where he had attempted to conclude agreements on eastern Europe and international control of atomic energy, he faced sharp criticism. To American observers Stalin showed every sign of emulating Hitler in his efforts to expand Soviet power, his allegiance to ideology, and his willingness to break agreements. Both policymakers and the informed public drew on the analogy of the Munich Conference (1938), at which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain bargained away territory in Czechoslovakia in the hope that he could achieve peace for all time. Chamberlain failed. And the lesson Americans learned was that dictators could not be trusted, appeasement only fed greater ambition, and negotiations suggested weakness. It is striking how powerful in fact this analogy became and how often officials referred to it during the postwar period. The decision largely to renounce negotiation and the tools of traditional diplomacy held an appeal linked to the American heritage of exceptionalism and aloofness from the messiness and compromise of European politics. The failed diplomacy of 1939 fit neatly into the existing preconceptions and predisposition of American diplomacy. And the "lessons" of history seemed to lend legitimacy to the desire to contain Stalin's Soviet Union and wait for it to fall victim to its own "internal contradictions."
But containment meant more than a policy of waiting. Beginning in spring 1947 the United States turned ideas into action. In late February the British government notified the Department of State that the British would be forced for financial reasons to withdraw its support from Greece. In the midst of a civil war, Greece had become a site of a great power contest, lying as it did in a strategic corner of the Mediterranean. Anxious to prevent Soviet influence from taking hold in Greece, the Truman administration resolved to take action. The decision resulted from a combination of ideological and strategic interests: Greek geography rendered it significant from a strategic perspective. But American policymakers also feared the spread of communism into Greece and believed that from Greece the contagion would almost certainly spread to Italy and France. Greece offered a test.
It was a test that Harry Truman met with a commitment to defend freedom throughout the world. In a speech before both Houses of Congress on 12 March 1947, Truman asked Congress to fund economic and military aid to Greece and to neighboring Turkey. The president emphasized that the United States had a responsibility to protect freedom worldwide, declaring that "the free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms." Continued peace depended upon American leadership. Truman drew a close connection between poverty and totalitarianism and argued that the United States must provide economic and political support for freedom. The United States should stand on the side of self-determination—by intervention, if necessary. "I believe we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way," the president told Congress. Implicit in Truman's statement, of course, was the belief that most of the world's peoples would choose a way of life compatible, if not identical, with that of the United States. A New York Times article declared that "the epoch of isolation and occasional intervention" was over. An "epoch of American responsibility" was just beginning. The American impulse to withdraw from the world, suggested by the decision to "contain" the Soviet Union, stood alongside the Wilsonian mission to spread democracy. The tension between these two impulses determined the nature of America's Cold War policies.
In part the ideological content of Truman's speech represented a tool of politics. Truman required congressional support to put his policy into action, and the administration needed to head off any perception that the U.S. decision to intervene in Greece represented an effort to shore up the British empire. Yet the ideological content went deeper than public rhetoric, since these were terms that had appeared in confidential government documents such as the Clifford-Elsey report throughout the preceding months. Officials within the administration thought in these terms themselves, and thus public rhetoric matched private perceptions. Subsequently, with the announcement of the Marshall Plan in June 1947, the United States added economic aid to Europe to its arsenal against the Soviet Union. Secretary of State George C. Marshall declared that the policy was not aimed at any particular country but instead against "hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos." But to most observers, the goal was clear. A rebuilt western Europe tied to the United States by a flow of dollars and trade would offer a significant barrier to Soviet expansion. The parasite of communism preyed upon societies weakened by poverty and unstable institutions. The Marshall Plan offered an answer.
The following month in an article published in Foreign Affairs, George Kennan summarized the new consensus for the educated public. The Soviet Union holds within it the "seeds of its own destruction," he declared. Despite Kennan's claims to objectivity, his analysis of "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," as the article was entitled, revealed as much about the ideological content of American conduct as it explained about the Soviet Union. Kennan declared that "the political personality of Soviet power as we know it today is the product of ideology and circumstances." Marxist-Leninism provided the ideology, which together with geography, a history of invasion, and Stalin's personal paranoia resulted in dangerous and expansive tendencies. Kennan argued that Soviet ideology taught that the outside world was hostile and not to be trusted. Capitalism and socialism could not long coexist. Moreover, in Kennan's interpretation, the Soviet Union pictured itself as a center of socialist enlightenment adrift in a dark and misguided world. The logic of history was on its side and in the long run, revolution was inevitable. Here was a rival city on a hill.
To Kennan the challenge that Soviet communism posed to the United States offered a test of faith and an opportunity for reaffirmation. In the closing paragraph of the article he wrote that the Soviet challenge offered "a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations." Kennan believed that American virtue and strength at home translated into power to meet the Soviet threat abroad. By maintaining its free society the United States could best counter the appeal and the promise that Marxist-Leninism offered. The United States stood as a model of freedom for the world, an alternative to totalitarianism, and a shining example in a hostile world. He wrote that the United States should "offer gratitude to providence," which had chosen the United States for the great task of resisting the spread of Soviet communist oppression and protecting freedom at home and abroad. For history had "plainly intended" that the United States bear the burdens of moral and political leadership. The city on a hill must become the leader of the free world. Failing to arrest the spread of communism would lead to destruction and the end of freedom everywhere. Although Kennan came to be identified as the father of containment, he came to question the implications of his creation, criticizing American foreign policy as overly ideological in 1951 in American Diplomacy. Ironically, he failed to realize the degree to which his own worldview was shot through with "the red skein" of ideology.
Realist scholars like Marc Trachtenberg are correct to emphasize that American policymakers reacted to the perceived dangers and opportunities of particular situations. In this respect external conditions drove America's Cold War foreign policy. The problem of Germany, the occupation of Japan, and the future of Europe represented real dilemmas for policymakers. And the global political and economic instability of the immediate postwar period posed a potential danger to American security and prosperity. But American policymakers' interpretations of these threats and opportunities was influenced by American concerns about freedom, independence, exceptionalism, and democracy. For them the source of both economic and political instability came from the Soviet Union and in particular the nature of the Soviet state. Truman and his key advisers defined the Soviet Union in explicitly ideological terms. The threat was not the power of the Soviet state (in fact, most administration officials considered the Soviets the weaker of the two superpowers) so much as the appeal of Marxist-Leninist ideology and the promise of revolution that it held.
Contrast this with the perspective of the British Foreign Office, which in the early months of the postwar period retained its nineteenth-century concern with maintaining a balance among the main European powers and protecting their imperial holdings. For British policymakers, at least initially, the threat to postwar peace came from an unequal division of the spoils and an extension of Soviet power. This distinction between the worldviews of the Foreign Office in London and the Department of State in Washington highlights the role of ideology in providing the context for policy decision making. For realists ideology is an instrument of policy; it serves to rationalize and justify decisions already made. Yet as Stephanson explains in "Liberty or Death," "an instrumental view of ideology as rhetorical means to strategic ends misses the question." Why did policymakers choose the particular language they did and how did they come to "inhabit" it? While the power vacuums and risks of the postwar world may have provided the occasion for a more activist foreign policy, American ideology determined the form American intervention in the world would take, defined the nature of American national interests, and informed the decisions that issued from Washington. Ideological suspicion of communism reinforced distrust of Soviet intentions. Americans viewed all dictators as the same, and all compromise as appeasement. At the same time, these fears warred with traditional American ambivalence toward European affairs and intervention abroad. American Cold War policy grew out of these contradictions. Containment drew from the ideological foundations of liberalism, anticommunism, and American mission.
The superpower conflict soon stalemated in Europe. By the 1960s Soviet and American positions had hardened, and little change seemed likely. Moreover, the ideological rivalry seemed to ease, such that some commentators such as Walter Lippmann began to believe by the early 1960s that the Cold War might be ending. Yet despite signs of a willingness to coexist in Europe and to open the way to a more "normal" diplomatic relationship through arms control and the like, the Soviet-American rivalry continued unabated in the Third World. Throughout the postwar period instability and conflict infected the old colonial areas of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America as the imperial powers retreated. Rapid social and economic change hit the newly created postcolonial states, and they became ripe for outside intervention. Here was a crucial arena of the Cold War conflict.
At times at the invitation of local elites and at times of their own decision, the two superpowers intervened throughout the Third World, playing a violent and risky game of dominoes. And like Wilson in Mexico, American policymakers throughout the postwar period attempted to curb the radicalism of social change and to intervene on behalf of self-determination. Under the Cold War imperative of containing the spread of communism, they argued that the United States was spreading democracy abroad and acting on the side of right. Often, however, the United States supported very undemocratic regimes, such as those of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua and Carlos Castillo Armas in Guatemala. The effort to contain communism more often than not contradicted the lingering Wilsonian heritage. A deep ambivalence toward social change and revolution conflicted with the goal of spreading democracy abroad, particularly in societies long subject to colonial control. Thus, for every Alliance for Progress, the Kennedy administration's economic development program for Latin America, there was a Somoza in Nicaragua or a Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam.
Nowhere did the contradictions among American ideals and the demands of American interests explode so spectacularly as Vietnam. And like the scholarly debate over the Cold War, the literature on Vietnam is rich with disagreement. Two studies of the Johnson administration illustrate this disjunction clearly. Lloyd Gardner in Pay Any Price emphasizes what he sees as the powerful hold that liberal ideals had over President Johnson. For Gardner, Johnson's intervention in Vietnam resulted from a deeply held belief in liberalism and an effort to promote American ideals abroad. A student of Williams, Gardner similarly finds tragedy amidst the ruins of American policy. Johnson's efforts to transplant liberalism and promote economic development amidst social revolution in Vietnam could not but end in failure.
Fredrik Logevall, by contrast, finds that liberal ideology mattered relatively little in Johnson's decision making. The president, Logevall argues in Choosing War, certainly had a vision for the future of Vietnam, a future shaped along liberal principles. But the driving force in his decision making was not that vision but rather his fears for his domestic political as well as his personal credibility. In Logevall's account the president and his advisers were gloomy realists on Vietnam in the key months following the 1964 election. Many of them were pessimistic about the prospects for success in the war, and many privately questioned whether the outcome really mattered to U.S. security. Thus Johnson's liberal rhetoric and economic development programs provided the window dressing for what was in reality a cynical and self-serving use of American power.