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I was a member of the “cold war” generation; the omnipresence of the cold war was a fact of life. There were the nuclear bomb drills (under desks, I presumed, that could withstand a blast at ground zero, per government specs), the lessons of cause and effect (the Soviets began the Warsaw Pact, then the US formed NATO), the justice of our cause and the ruthlessness of the communist cause, etc. Then I became a historian and things once clear, were clear no longer.
At the end of the second world war, the US was the supreme superpower in both economic and military spheres, a truly global power with interests in Latin America, Europe, Asia, and in the world’s oceans. The Soviet Union was, at best, a regional power, victorious but bloodied and worn by war. The advent of the cold war led to the forming of NATO in 1949, six years before the Warsaw Pact. And, given US policies in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, the issues of justice and ruthlessness were less easy to discern.
The question of when the war’s origins began is an interpretive one – if it began in 1917, was the cold war largely ideological?; if in 1941, was it mainly a difference in interests and approaches?; if in 1947, was it driven by political agendas at home and diplomatic incidents abroad? The debate over the origins of the cold war has been a heated one for the last sixty-plus years. Important government files in the United States, the former Soviet Union, Great Britain, and other participants have been declassified and made available to historians. New motivations have been discovered and new interpretations advanced. And, in light of many events of the post-cold war era, questions regarding the use of power and the stability of the cold war “system” have been posed. I recommend two documents, from the US diplomat George F. Kennan – the 1946 “Long Telegram” and the 1947 Foreign Affairs “X” article.
Gene Beiringer led a Newberry Teachers’ Consortium seminar, “Origins of the Cold War” on November 29th, 2012.
By Gene Beiringer, DePaul University