As I have shown in the poster, the root causes for the bipolar realignment of world politics after the end of the Second World War can be grouped into three interrelated categories. First, the orthodox or traditionalist view, which maintains that the onset of a bipolar international order after the end of World War Two can be attributed to the expansionist stance of the Soviet Union. The most important bargaining chip that Moscow had after the capitulation of Germany was the presence of the Red Army throughout Eastern Europe.
In addition, since the point at which the war ended, the Soviet Union actively worked for the sovietisation of the countries occupied by the Red Army. According to the orthodox view, Stalin could have taken a more cooperative approach to the overriding question of security. In addition, the West might have averted the Cold War by acting ‘with fewer scruples’. (Mastny, 1979: 360) The Western powers were slow to react to the realignment of the international political order (Raack, 1995: 159), failing to see Stalin’s expansionist intentions. In any case, the orthodox view suggests that a long term accommodation with Moscow after the defeat of Germany would not have been possible. The Western leaders failed to identify the impossibility of long run cohabitation with Moscow. At the same time, the Soviet leadership was labouring under the assumption that any accommodation with the West was only temporary (Schlesinger, 1967: 50).
Revisionists argue that the United States conducted an aggressive foreign policy, epitomised by the promulgation of the Truman Doctrine, the European Recovery Plan and the creation of the national security establishment. The most peremptory concern of the United States in the post-war scenario was to avoid another economic depression by creating a free market trading area able to absorb the surplus goods manufactured in the United States. This free market trading area would be situated in the world’s ‘industrial perimeter’ (the Rhineland, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States) and was to be guarded from Soviet interference by implementing the policy of ‘containment’ (Kennan, 1967: 359). This foreign policy was carried out with massive projection of power, motivating Moscow to create a security zone in Eastern Europe for the purposes of avoiding an encirclement by the West. After the capitulation of Germany, the actions of the United States vis-a-vis Japan (namely, the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) had been informed by the overall strategy to be followed towards Moscow (Alperovitz, 1995: 127-9). Truman’s attitude towards the Soviet Union was fundamentally different from Roosevelt’s. The President’s policies, like the Marshall Plan, were deemed essential in order to ensure the prosperity of the United States (Williams, 1972: 14), as the exportation of dollars was necessary in order to achieve equilibrium in world trade and to facilitate US exports (Kolko, G. and Kolko, J. 1972: 360).
The post-revisionist position is to forge a synthesis between the two other schools, not by blaming either side but by looking at the motivations of the two superpowers, as well as examining the extent of their responsibility and input in the onset of the confrontation. On the one hand, post-revisionists reject the assumption put forward by revisionist authors that the policy of ‘containment’ was implemented against the will of the American public. At the same time, post-revisionists argue that American policy-makers probably overestimated external threats in order to attain domestic goals (Gaddis, 1983: 179-181). There are a number of aspects which need to be taken into account. The arrival of Harry Truman at the White House (and subsequent change of attitude towards the Soviet Union) and the nuclear attack which put an end to the war against Japan and the future of Germany are amongst the most important ones. According to this school of thought, Washington was interested in curtailing Moscow’s influence in Eastern Europe, triggering a response on the part of the Soviets which entailed the building of a buffer zone (Paterson, 1973: 36). It has been argued that geopolitical circumstances and the nature of the American and Soviet political systems compelled Washington and Moscow to take part in a confrontational situation (Gaddis, 1972: 361). In this regard, it is possible to argue that the fate of Germany was the most overriding issue that the superpowers had to deal with. The decision on the final settlement concerning Germany exposed the inherent incompatibilities between the communist and capitalist systems. Simultaneously, the superpowers were compelled to grab a foothold in Germany in order to safeguard their vital interests. In the case of the United States, these interests revolved around the creation of a Western European free trade area with its base in the Rhineland. In the case of the Soviet Union, it entailed securing a foothold in Germany in order to shore up the security zone in Eastern Europe and to prevent the possibility of another German invasion.
Alperovitz, Gar (1995) The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth (Alfred A. Knopf: New York)
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Gaddis, John Lewis, The Emerging Post-Revisionist Synthesis on the Origins of the Cold War, Diplomatic History (1983) 7(3): 171-190
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Mastny, Vojtech, Russia‘s Road to the Cold War. Diplomacy, Warfare, and the Politics of Communism, 1941–1945 (Columbia University Press: New York) (1979)
Paterson, Thomas, (1973) Soviet-American Confrontation: Postwar Reconstruction and the Origins of the Cold War (The Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore and London)
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Schlesinger Jr., Arthur M., “Origins of the Cold War,” Foreign Affairs 46, No. 1 (October, 1967), 22-52
Williams, W.A., (1972) The tragedy of American diplomacy (W.W. Norton: New York)