Thursday, October 14, 2021

Cold War Revisionism

When people want an idea to be true, they will continue to believe it even after it has been exposed as untrue. 

The popular American view, and the one put forth officially, was that the US was intervening around the world only to contain the Soviet threat. But historians can never let a popular view stand.  Something else must always be true, because they need to demonstrate that they understand these things better than the masses. The revisionist historians of the 1950s and especially 1960s asserted that the US was intent on aggressive spread of capitalism, so that it could dominate extractive trade more easily. The Soviet Union was never going to invade America and wished only regional influence.  It was the aggression of the Americans, in fact, that caused the Soviets to become so deeply involved around the world, propping up freedom movements trying to resist the US hegemony.

Let me note that this revisionist view is not entirely untrue. We did want to promote trade (I call that a good thing), but we did some terrible things in support of that. Most commonly, we supported leaders and parties in foreign countries who were oppressive bastards because they looked more favorable to trading with us.  We also took unfair advantage in many places. Their opposite numbers, supported by the communists, were usually worse, and there were seldom any decent parties available with a ghost of a chance of wielding power. I think it is a fair discussion to examine harshly what America did and if there were better choices, as there usually were choices that were at least somewhat better. The difficulty is that this discussion itself rapidly became unfashionable among historians. The accusing narrative became the preferred, set against the exaggerations of goodness that most Americans told themselves. Certainly, there were exaggerations of goodness.  Still are. But the destruction of those popular myths, not the uncovering of truth, became the real aim.

You will note that this coincides with the rise of the belief that there is no truth, only competing power narratives.  That has always struck me as a convenient philosophy for them, as it steers away from gathering information and understanding it, preferring instead to engage in conflict based on accusation of bad motives.

Robert James Maddox was (is! I find he is still alive at 90 years old) an anti-revisionist historian who came out with a book about The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War in 1973, which challenged the revisionist view. Included in this challenge - indeed the heart of the challenge - was that when one checked the footnotes of the revisionist historians, they not only did not support the claimed thesis, but often directly contradicted it. They built it brick by brick and looked impressive, but a great many bricks were not themselves solid. Yet they all told each other how correct they were, and how clearly they were onto something. Maddox had just previously written in criticism of a NYTimes essay "Did Anyone Start the Cold War?" and was already under fire from other historians.  But the NYTimes reviewed his 1973 book quite positively. And while we could not expect that this should have put an end to the matter, it should have been the beginning of the end for the revisionists. Misrepresenting (though perhaps only misunderstanding) one's sources is damning in academic writing.

Yet everyone went blithely on.  Maddox, though eventually professor emeritus from Penn State, was simply outnumbered and had ideas that were unpopular.

Relatedly, here is Maddox on the myth that the Japanese wanted to surrender, but Truman was intent on sending the atomic bomb "message" to the Soviet Union, resulting in hundreds of thousands of needless deaths. Notice that when he is arguing with the revisionists, challenging them to find even wisps of facts to support the thesis, they accuse him of ignoring "a huge body of distinguished scholarship."  But that was the professor's point. That huge body was based on nothing but a desire for it to be true.

I recall in the 90s, as I was shedding the last of my liberalism, that our behavior after the collapse of the Soviet Union was good evidence in favor of the originally popular view. When the USSR could no longer afford to prop up leftist movements, we departed as well, leaving countries to rule themselves, even if they didn't do as we wished.  I thought we had made good on our claim. A reasonable discussion at least. 

But my main point is about the footnotes, and the refusal to abandon treasured idea just because it has been exposed.


Mike Guenther said...

At 90 years old, Professor Maddox lived through World War Two and saw it first hand. How many of these other academics can say the same?

As a child of the 60's, I had teachers that were WW2 and Korean War veterans. So often enough, we were regaled with stories about the wars. Not personal stories, as such, but overall perspectives on the history of some of the battles.

In my limited experience, the "Domino Effect" was a real worry. Communists trying to "reunite" split countries, ie. Korea and Vietnam, and the Soviets installing a missile base in Cuba after backing Castro.

I bumped my head several times during Duck and Cover drills as a kid, cowering under my desk as we waited for the all clear signal.

And I was in the military during the beginning of the as yet unspecified "War on Terror." The Red Brigade was terrorizing Western Europe and Muslim extremism was raising it's ugly head. (I was discharged right before the Iran hostage crisis.) And of course, the IRA had been terrorizing Great Britain and Northern Ireland for years.

That's not to say that our government with the help of the CIA didn't make mistakes and support despicable foreign government leaders and political movements. Some of the leaders we propped up were horrendous actors on the world stage.

But hindsight is 20/20, right?

engineerlite said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
engineerlite said...

Actually, the point is that hindsight is NOT 20/20; rather, it is exactly what you want to see to support your current quest for power.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Mike. Thanks for that. Let me add another bit of perspective. We are now used to the idea of ideologically-driven movements with intent for world power and influence, or at least domination beyond the merely regional. It is the water in the aquarium we live in. There were the British and other empires which wanted to spread around the world...well,C of E or Roman Catholicism; rule of law and treating the other chap decently; wearing pants...that sort of thing. But not quite ideological in the same sense. The -isms of the 20s and 30s were a new thing, and we had gotten in too late trying to stop the Nazis and were darn well not going to get caught making that mistake again with the commies. The Japanese were not ideological in the same sense. Their ideology was that they were superior and they should rule the Pacific Lake. More like the Romans centuries before.

Were we trying to spread our POV? Yes, but spreading free trade and self determination is more than a bit different.

Well, I will quickly get out of my depth re-arguing the Cold War. I return to my strength here, noticing who is fighting fair in the argument and who is being sly.

Mike Guenther said...

I didn't know I had a Quest for power.

I don't hide behind a psuedonym. In my comment, I told about some of my life experiences and some of those told to me by people who were part of historical events. One of my teachers survived Pearl Harbor. He was stationed on the USS Nevada. A good friend fought through North Africa and into Italy. A family friend flew P-51s over Europe and became an Ace.

Several years after my military service, as a carpenter foreman, I built homes for two former Marine Corps Commandants and Army General William Wes Westmoreland. During the process, I became very well acquainted with them and had a few extended conversations with them. They were there during historical events.

I'm going to believe someone that "was there" before I'd listen to some leftwing academic with ulterior motives to change history to something more palatable to their interests.

History can be and is ugly, but trying to rearrange the facts doesn't make it go away and in fact, hinders future generations from learning from the mistakes of their forebearers.

engineerlite said...

@Mike. In no way was my comment intended as a criticism of yours. Rather, I attempted a succinct restatement of the meaning of revisionist history. Seeing 20/20 means we see truth; seeing what we want to see would be a skewed vision, not 20/20.

It used to be that history was a common truth, about which people could reflect and debate better choices. Most recently, the truth of history has become malleable, often shaped to support a desired agenda. 1619 Project is one such prominent example. When we lose a common agreement on truth, and we lose a common moral base, there is no longer a common good, only the desire for one side to prevail.

David Foster said...

"The Japanese were not ideological in the same sense. Their ideology was that they were superior and they should rule the Pacific Lake. More like the Romans centuries before."

I don't claim much expertise in Roman history, but I believe anyone, regardless of ethnic background, could become a Roman citizen. The Japanese Empire was certainly not going to admit Chinese (for example) to citizenship on equal terms.

Zachriel said...

Assistant Village Idiot: The popular American view, and the one put forth officially, was that the US was intervening around the world only to contain the Soviet threat.

America is not necessarily all of one mind. As in any society, there are a multiplicity of forces.

However, containment was the overarching strategy, as delineated in George F. Kennan's Long Telegram: the insecurity of the Soviet regime could lead to dangerous miscalculations; the West was inevitably stronger and just had to maintain the courage of their values to contain and overcome the Soviets; and "The greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping."

james said...

"Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books."