In We Now Know, Gaddis, who had previously argued that the Cold War was the result of complex factors acting on both sides of the Cold War struggle, argued that after reading translated documents available from former-Soviet archives for a short time in 1992-1193 that as long as Stalin led the Soviet Union that the Cold War could not be avoided, thus, the long conflict was Stalin’s fault. According to Gaddis, Stalin’s post-war strategy required the Soviet Union to develop nuclear weapons, dominate Eastern Europe, and foment revolutions throughout the Third World. Gaddis further argued that Stalin pursued this course for ideological reasons, and that American policymakers had little choice to resist. In this analysis, George Kennan’s policy of containment and the Truman doctrine represent the earliest and most obvious examples of American resistance to Stalin’s plans, and were taken at the request of other nations who requested American protection leading the United States to develop a democratic sort of empire.
Over the course of the Cold War, Gaddis contends, the United States tragically overestimated the need to defend its credibility in Guatemala and Vietnam, spent too much on nuclear weapons, and allowed the focus of Cold War competition to shift to the numbers of nuclear weapons each side possessed after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although the Soviet system had started to collapse early in the Cold War, Gaddis believed that the shift made the Soviet Union more dangerous than it really was, a technicality that many analysts missed after 1963 because the bipolar system kept them from examining multidimensional aspects of power like economic factors.
Gaddis is seemingly joined in his apparent revival of orthodox or traditional Cold War historiography by Vladislov Zubok, Constantine Pleshakov, Vojtech Mastny, and Mark Mazower, who argue that Stalin was ultimately responsible for the Cold War for reasons including his desire for security, ideology, and misunderstanding potential Western responses to his actions and goals. Zubok and Pleshakov provide an inside account of the Soviet role in the Cold War through the Cuban Missile Crisis that focuses on the human element of the Cold War. They argue that Stalin’s poor statesmanship and false expectations, especially regarding his attempts to pull Germany into the Communist camp, caused the Cold War. They believe that Stalin stumbled into the conflict rather than planning it, though he expected renewed war with capitalist countries within 25 years of the end of World War II, and was surprised when his activities kept the West United against him rather than ending up in conflict with one another as Leninist ideology said they should.
Zubok and Pleshakov extend this analysis through the Cuban Missile Crisis by arguing that Nikita Khrushchev agreed to send missiles to the island due to his ideologically motivated desire to protect the island from new American invasion attempts. Ultimately, they argue that Soviet behavior was ideologically-based rather than geopolitically, and that Stalin acted based on the combination of communist revolutionary ideology and a messianic complex that derived from Tsarist traditions flowing from the fall of the Byzantine Empire during the Fifteenth century. Combining Russian belief that they were the defenders of the West and the inheritors of the traditions of the Roman Empire with Marxist-Leninist ideology led Stalin to embark on the Cold War.
Vojtech Mastny continues this trend, arguing that Stalin’s despotism was worse than ever imagined. The Cold War, Mastny asserts, was predetermined by Stalin’s sense of insecurity, which was based on factors internal to the Soviet Union. Stalin needed Cold War tensions to continue to justify his tyranny over the Soviet Union. Because of this, the West had no way to avoid the Cold War. Stalin, in this interpretation, did not hope for Communism in Western Europe, but a set of weak and divided states that fit his needs to keep control. Stalin’s foreign policy blunders stemmed from his idea that Soviet security required all of Eastern Europe to be Communist, which caused strange foreign policy decisions in Germany, rejection of the Marshall Plan, the break with Tito, and his acquiescence in the Korean War.
Paul Mazower similarly views the Cold War conflict as Stalin’s fault, but not for ideological reasons. In this case, Mazower argues that the Cold War grew out of Soviet demands for total control of geographical areas that he deemed critical to Soviet security. After 1947, Stalin adhered to the informal sphere of influences policy he agreed to with Churchill and FDR at Yalta, avoiding direct violent confrontations from that point onward.
These arguments fly in the face of earlier revisionist and post-revisionist historiography of the Cold War, and also ignore the roles of Germany, France, China, Vietnam, and Cuba (not to mention the United States) in the greater Cold War conflict. William Applebaum Williams led the revisionist efforts of the 1950s and 1960s, arguing that the Cold War developed due to American economic expansion after World War II, which forced Moscow to react defensively to American encroachment in Eastern Europe. Williams blames the American Open Door policy for the conflict, dating U.S. economic expansion in this manner back to the conflict in Cuba of the 1880s and 1890s. In his view, American expansion into foreign markets required them to defend them from foreign competition, including the Soviet Union. Containment, then, was merely an extension of the Open Door policy. Thomas McCormick joins Williams in the revisionist camp, arguing that American economic imperialism started the Cold War, as American leaders believed that they needed U.S. economic expansion into new markets to ensure domestic peace. The Soviet Union and the revolutionary movements of the Third World were a barrier to the needed expansion, necessitating the policy of containment.
Post-revisionists, operating in the historiographical school pioneered by Gaddis offer a more complex view of the Cold War. Marc Trachtenberg argues that both sides of the Cold War pursued their traditional interests and recognized the other’s hegemony in their own sphere of interest. This informal organization of the world was influenced by the discussions of Churchill, FDR, and Stalin at the Yalta conference at Churchill’s suggestion. Trachtenberg argues that Churchill suggested the idea in order to confine Stalin’s expansion to certain areas, and that the only place that it was seriously contested was in Germany, where the powers security interests clashed most directly. Trachtenberg argues that Germany was the central issue of the Cold War, and driven by the need for both the Soviet Union and the United States to control and exploit the country economically.
William Hitchcock focuses his analysis of the Cold War on economic issues, and argues that FDR wanted the Big Three and China to guarantee security in their areas of influence under the auspices of the United Nations. He argues that the Marshall Plan helped industrial recovery, the development of Keynesian economics in Western Europe, and funded the development of the welfare state. American money and military presence provided stability in Europe, and the division of the continent into two competing camps provided the cohesion needed for the creation of the ECSC, EEC, and bound West Germany to the West in the 1950s.
James Gormly joins this group, arguing that at the end of World War II, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States self-consciously set out to create a new world order. President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State Byrnes believed that the Potsdam Conference had settled the remaining issues for the post-war settlement, only to have Vladislav Molotov regularly disrupt meetings of the Council of Foreign Ministers to delay progress or wring out new concessions. The Truman Doctrine developed in the resulting atmosphere of contention between the two superpowers resulting for Molotov’s antics. Gormly believes that the Big Three originally set out to create a durable peace like that fashioned in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, but the failure of the Moscow agreement led to a bipolar Cold-War conflict. Rather than settling on a side, Gormly offers two options for the blame for the Cold War. He argues that Stalin should have clearly stated his goals and security needs to Truman and adjusted to American objectives, but needed a hostile international environment to maintain control at home. The other option is to blame the United States for not being willing to accept Soviet defensive needs and show Stalin that he was a trusted ally. The Open Door economic policy simply made this problem worse.
These are obviously not the only interpretations of the Cold War. James Cronin argued that the West’s victory in the Cold war was a pyrrhic one, with a brief golden age for capitalism during the 1950s and 1960s, but that the oil crisis of the 1970s and antilabor laws led to growing income inequality during the 1980s while Soviet oil industries continued to prop up the Soviet economy with high wages and job security to head off discontent.
Jeremy Suri moved away from the issue of why the Cold War started, to look at the development of détente. He contends that détente was a reaction to Third World revolutions and the youth revolt of 1968. While the nuclear deterrents of the United States and Soviet Union prevented large wars, it created a feeling of angst among world leaders. Charles de Gaulle and Mao Zedong attempted to shift geopolitics away from the bipolar mode by acting as charismatic leaders, but really just added to the number of nuclear weapons in the world and raised false expectations of change. The resulting protests brought on by false promises and the humanitarian crisis caused by the American war in Vietnam force the great powers to work together to create stability and preserve their authority in the face of domestic and international turmoil.
Within this ferment, Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik helped forge détente in its responses to student protests. Brandt wanted increased trade and contacts with the East to make the divisions seem more natural. Détente gave Communist leaders a greater aura of legitimacy due to their contacts with the heads of state of the West. Brandt was no fan of American policies in Europe and hoped to use personal diplomatic contacts after 1966 to reduce tensions and resolve issues while the United States was distracted with the Vietnam War.
Gaddis’ work also ignores the role of China in the early and middle stages of the Cold War. During the early years of the Cold War, China played an important role in aggravating tensions between the two camps, but by the late 1960s and early 1970s it was developing closer ties to the United States as a result of the Sino-Soviet split. In this, Nancy Tucker argues that Mao Zedong’s virulent anti-Americanism played a key role in preventing an early American and Chinese normalization of relations, and then required that he be the one to work for closer ties. In general, on effect of Mao’s anti-American stance was to work with the Soviet Union. Only the failure of the Sino-Soviet alliance, which included border clashes, led Mao to seek closer ties to the United States to balance the power of the Soviet Union. For its part, Tucker argues that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sought closer relations with China as a means to ease American withdrawal from Vietnam. Kissinger, according the Ticker believed that by developing ties with China, not only would the Soviet Union become more isolated, but Japan would remain comfortable with the United States providing its security, preventing it from developing nuclear weapons or strong armed forces.
Even the history of the Chinese Civil War is bound up in the early stages of the Cold War conflict. Chen Jian argues that in order to maintain a good relationship with the United States, Stalin acted in ways to delay the Chinese revolution, including agreeing at the Yalta Conference that he would recognize the government of Chang Kai-shek in exchange for restoration of Soviet privileges lost during the Russo-Japanese War. The eventual Sino-Soviet Treaty came after the United States recognized Soviet privileges in Manchuria and occupation of Port Arthur. Chen’s analysis does not end here, though. He argues that a positive relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China was simply not possible because assumptions that China wanted recognition from the United States for economic reasons were false. Mao pushed other Chinese leaders to not pursue relations with the West for an extended period after the Communist victory in 1949 because his conception of continuous revolution to return China to its previous glory required an external enemy, a role that the Nationalists and the United States fit perfectly. Mao regularly used the threat of the United States, especially in its role of supporting the Nationalist government on Taiwan to push change and maintain control within China.
Gaddis also ignores the key role of France in determining the course of the Cold War. Helga Haftendorn argues that the triangular relationship between France, Germany, and Great Britain determined the course of the Cold War, not just early on, but because they shared strategic objectives from for 30 years. French objectives focused on maintaining its relationship with Germany and in balancing the power of the United States. During the 1950s France focused on creating ties to Germany to bind it to the West. Haftendorn argues that only this explains French foreign policy during the Cold War – the goal was to integrate Germany into the economic and political systems of the West while getting the United States to guarantee European security from both Germany and the Soviet Union.
John Gillingham argues that the ECSC was part of this process of binding Germany to the West, ensuring peaceful access to the resources of the Ruhr valley, and developing trade after the end of the war. The ECSC was Jean Monnet's effort to get a supranational agency to allocate resources that France and other European countries needed to modernize their industries after the war. Marc Trachtenberg argues that France continued to push German integration into Western Europe with Pierre Mendes-France’s proposal for a European Defense Community that included Germany, with a looser relationship with England. In this way, German troops and resources could be used to defend Europe without allowing Germany itself to re-arm. Trachtenberg believes that these ideas built on de Gaulle’s earlier acceptance of NATO despite his hatred of supranational organization because de Gaulle feared the Soviet Union more than he feared Germany.
British historians also provide a valuable counter to Gaddis’ thesis in We Now Know because during the 1970s and 1980s they focused on the British role in the Cold War. Alan Bullock and Anne Deighton argue that Great Britain initially suggested the policy of containment, while John Kent and John Young argue that Great Britain initially sought to be a third force in the balance of power before its economic and military weakness forced it to ally with the United States.
Several historians have argued that the culture of the Cold War’s leaders led to the competitive and divisive nature of the conflict. Robert Dean argues that the socialization of the men who dominated the American Foreign Policy establishment through the end of the Cold War led to the decisions that they made regarding the Soviet Union. Dean argues that the hypermasculine environment of elite boarding schools and Ivy League fraternities, along with military service during World War II led men like George Kennan, Dean Acheson, and McGeorge Bundy to pursue options predicated on conflict and violence, as these were the solutions that they had been socialized to accept. Gender is the key to analyzing their decision-making, especially in the McCarthyite environment that equated negotiation with femininity and homosexuality, which could end careers. This analysis combined Hoganson’s discussion of masculinity during the Spanish-American War and Isaacson's portrayal of the generation that started the Cold War. Even Presidents Kennedy and Johnson made policy decisions based on their impressions of masculinity, which Dean argues drove their responses to the Vietnam War.
Stephen Whitfield And David Caute also focus on the cultures of the Cold War. Whitfield argues that American culture of the Cold War was dominated by a visceral fear of anything that seemed un-American, and affected political, social, and educational institutions. Fear of Communism weakened American institutions and traditions of an open society, culminating in the McCarthyite purges of government and the entertainment industries. Caute argues that politics drove politicians anticommunist frenzy that affected regular workers as much as it did politicians and actors.