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  • Cold War Triumphalism: The Misuse of History after the Fall of Communism
  • Jacob Heilbrunn
Ellen Schrecker , ed. Cold War Triumphalism: The Misuse of History after the Fall of Communism. New York: The New Press, 2004. 346 pp. $27.95.

The Cold War has been fertile territory for revisionist historians. Ever since William Appleman Williams declared that the United States, not the Soviet Union, was the aggressor, revisionists have portrayed themselves as dissidents bravely protesting Cold War orthodoxies. During the Vietnam War, revisionism reached full flower, prompting historians to treat seriously the notion that the United States might have triggered the Cold War. By the 1980s, revisionism had itself become a kind of orthodoxy. The collapse of the Soviet empire, far from inducing circumspection among revisionists, has prompted them to conclude that right-wing ideologues, including William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer, have concocted a conservative triumphalist version of history that has culminated in President George W. Bush's attempt to create a U.S. empire.

At least this is what the revisionist contributors to Ellen Schrecker's volume Cold War Triumphalism appear to believe. Revisionism is central to the historical enterprise. Each generation draws its own conclusions about the causes of war and revolution in previous decades and centuries. But it is hard to avoid the sense that Schrecker and other contributors are not really revising their own views. Instead, much like the conservatives they criticize and condemn, they are mired in past controversies.

Schrecker scores some good points in outlining the conservative catechism of the Cold War in which Ronald Reagan single-handedly destroyed the Soviet empire. As she notes, the dissidents in Eastern Europe and the immiseration of the Soviet empire did more to bring about the demise of Communism than did any U.S. actions. But she goes badly astray in declaring that today "an undemanding patriotic celebration prevails, glorifying Washington's past actions in order to justify its present ones"(p. 2). What patriotic celebration is Schrecker referring to? By and large, the Cold War has slipped off the political radar screen, supplanted by the war against terrorism. The foreign policy doctrines enunciated by the Bush administration, including preemptive war, have little to do with memories of the Cold War. In addition, Schrecker indulges in the hoary myth that the United States, like the Soviet Union, relied on a bogus conflict to control its population.

Then there is Michael A. Bernstein's exceptionally well-written essay on the Cold War economy. Reviving standard Marxist theories of imperialism, Bernstein asserts but does not prove a connection between U.S. capitalism and wars of aggression abroad. The United States, Bernstein contends, has seen conservatives "justify the transformation of the containment doctrine, from an ostensibly defensive foundation to an increasingly aggressive effort to secure the fortunes of the world for American capital" (p. 144). For American capital? Many U.S. businesses have been exceedingly wary of the war, fearful of the economic fallout in Europe and disruptions in the oil supply. Bernstein would have helped his argument if he could have demonstrated a [End Page 150] link between Bush's proclamation of a fundamentally new foreign policy and economic elites.

The most stimulating essay comes from Leo P. Ribuffo, who contrasts Reinhold Niebuhr, William Appleman Williams, and John Lewis Gaddis. Although Niebuhr has largely been forgotten, he, together with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., played a key role in creating what became known as the vital center in the late 1940s. Ribuffo maintains that few observers attempted to rely on consistent moral arguments as opposed to moral judgments when discussing the Cold war, but that this triumvirate, in varying ways, tried to devise such arguments.

In the 1930s, Niebuhr was sympathetic to Marxist doctrine, describing himself as a socialist Christian. By 1940, he embraced New Deal liberalism en route to becoming a Cold War liberal. Niebuhr sketched out a sensible path between U.S. self-righteousness and flaccidity in confronting what was a very real Communist threat abroad.

Williams, by contrast, shunned Cold War liberalism. He did not believe that the United States was inherently evil, as later revisionists would assert, but that it had been beguiled by the temptations...