Analysis of the causes of the Cold War has been a favorite topic of historians for more than a decade. Each successive study attempts to delve deeper into the original sources in an effort to achieve the definitive explanation of this complex phenomenon. Daniel Yergin has probed more deeply and more widely into the American sources than any of his predecessors, and has written his account with skill and grace.
Cold War historians can generally be divided into orthodox or revisionist schools depending on the degree to which they assign the responsibility for the breakdown of wartime unity to the Soviet Union or the United States. Those historians who experienced the early years of the Cold War rarely questioned the seemingly obvious conclusion that the tensions resulted from Stalin’s effort to expand the Communist world. Later historians, conditioned by the Vietnam War, were much more likely to suspect the actions and motivations of the United States. As a result, the orthodox and revisionist historians typically belong to separate generations. In this sense, the thirty-year-old Yergin is very much a product of his times. Writing in the mid-1970’s, however, he is much more moderate in his assessment of blame than were the strident accounts written at the height of the Vietnamese adventure.
Revisionist historians usually follow one of two lines of analysis in explaining American hostility toward the Soviet Union. One group sees the origin of American motives in capitalism, the Depression, and the Open Door. The conflict with the Soviets arose when the United States sought economic advantages in Eastern Europe—an area which the Russians considered their sphere of influence, and one vital to their security.
The other school of revisionists seeks to demonstrate that American aggressive actions began with the death of Roosevelt and the accession of the Redbaiting, inexperienced Harry Truman. There is little doubt that Yergin’s interpretation falls into this category. Roosevelt is depicted as the wise, experienced statesman pursuing a complex dual foreign policy of realism when dealing with the great powers while pretending a devotion to Wilsonian principles for domestic consumption. From this perspective Roosevelt’s major blunder in foreign policy was his failure to train a successor. Instead, he met only two times with his Vice President, and these conferences were not devoted to foreign policy problems. In part this lack of intimacy was due to time constraints, since Roosevelt spent only a third of the eighty-two days of his fourth term in Washington. But given Roosevelt’s personality, it was not surprising that he devoted so little effort to preparing to pass the torch. He probably did not believe that anyone could really replace him, and he was always very protective of his own position of power. There was also the very human reluctance to admit his own mortality.
Yergin very effectively introduces a dramatic tension into his story by organizing his analysis around two conflicting ideologies which he labels the Yalta and Riga axioms. While history is much too complex to fall neatly into two such well-defined categories, this device does provide a useful framework which helps the reader to keep the trees distinct from the forest. The only danger is that one must constantly be on guard not to assume that these constructs are reality rather than merely a mechanism for historical interpretation.
The Riga axioms came first and derived their name from the capital of Latvia, which served as a State Department observation post for Russian affairs during the period between the Bolshevik Revolution and the recognition of Stalin’s government by the United States in 1933. The Russian section of the American mission in this medieval city was established during the 1920’s as the United States center for research on the Soviet Union. On this site the Department’s Russian experts were trained and their fundamental attitudes formed and nurtured. The section was unique among our diplomatic posts. It believed itself the equal of any of the world’s leading academic research institutions, especially in economic matters. Within its walls the men who shaped the Department’s postwar Soviet policy went through a study program in Russian language, culture, and history. The first contact many had with Russians was with anti-Communist, highly cultured émigrés from the Soviet Union who created in the city an ambience of the Czarist past. In this environment, the diplomats...
(The entire section is 1853 words.)