How does each of these historians see American and Soviet motives in the Cold War, and on what basis does each assign primary responsibility for initiating Cold War conflicts? Walter LaFeber, who viewed the United States as primarily responsible for the Cold War. John Lewis Gaddis, who viewed the Cold War as caused primarily by Soviet aggression.

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YWalter LaFeber is a distinguished professor of history at Cornell University, and one of the leading proponents of the “Wisconsin School” of diplomatic history. The Wisconsin School holds that the majority of US foreign policy, both in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was the result of American economic interests abroad....

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YWalter LaFeber is a distinguished professor of history at Cornell University, and one of the leading proponents of the “Wisconsin School” of diplomatic history. The Wisconsin School holds that the majority of US foreign policy, both in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was the result of American economic interests abroad. Adherents to this paradigm argue that because the United States had been expanding its own economic systems throughout much of the world (through the acquisition of the Philippines, the Spanish-American war, US involvement in Latin America, etc.), America had made it difficult for other states to maintain their own economic autonomy. This was especially true in those cases in which states willingly opened their markets to US investment.

During the Vietnam War, the Wisconsin School gained even more credibility as anti-war activism generated a new critique of American imperialism. Therefore, historians like LaFeber were naturally drawn to the idea that the Cold War materialized primarily because of the unwanted intrusion of the United States into the economies of the Third World. In a famous essay he wrote for Diplomatic History in 1992, “An End to Which Cold War?,” LaFeber identified a number of factors that led to animosity between the US and USSR in the first place. The success of the Marshall Plan, the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the rising influence of US multinational corporations all helped generate relief for Europe’s devastated economy. But more than that, as LaFeber says, these programs were

“also designed, as the well-known saying had it, to keep the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in.”

Rising American arrogance, combined with its near hegemonic control over Western capitalist markets, its stockpile of nuclear weapons, its monopoly over an enormous reserve of steel and oil, and the global exportation of American culture, all contributed to the US-Soviet conflict. Thus, LaFeber places much blame on the United States for precipitating the Cold War.

John Lewis Gaddis, as you have indicated, offers a response to the revisionist history of LaFeber and other Wisconsin-School scholars. In The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, Gaddis argues that US policymakers actually had a lot less freedom to make decisions than Soviet apologists admit. Specifically, he points out four policy decisions that revisionist historians (like LaFeber) use to criticize the United States for its role in stimulating Cold War animosities: the failure to launch an invasion of France in 1942 with the other Allied Powers, the refusal to recognize Eastern Europe as a part of the Soviet sphere of influence, the decision not to include the USSR in the list of Marshall Plan recipients, and the amassing of an enormous nuclear stockpile.

Fundamental to Gaddis’ argument is that, given certain geopolitical considerations,

"Policy-makers operate within a certain range of acceptable options, but they, not historians, define degrees of acceptability. It is surely uncharitable, if not unjust, to condemn officials for rejecting courses of action which, to them, seemed intolerable.”

He points out that a failed joint-invasion of France in 1942 would have diminished public support for the war effort, and may have actually aided Nazi consolidation of power in the long run. Recognition of East Europe as a part of the USSR would have jeopardized the United States’ political clout in the UN. Finally, given the necessities that were generated by the arms and space race, the US could not loan money to the Soviet Union or reduce its nuclear stockpile, as this would have irreparably put it behind in a competition that had already gained considerable momentum.

Whereas LaFeber sees American economic greed and imperialism as the catalyst of the Cold War, Gaddis argues that irreconcilable ideological differences, combined with the pragmatic necessities of US-Soviet realpolitik, places the blame more squarely on the Soviet Union for perpetuating hostilities.

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