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On Moral Equivalency and Cold War History

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 September 2012


The controversies over the “National History Standards” and the Smithsonian's abortive effort to mount a fiftieth anniversary exhibit on the decision to drop the atomic bomb, along with insights drawn from the opening of former Soviet and Eastern European archives, highlight the “moral equivalency” debate being waged over the writing and teaching of Cold War history. Gaddis suggests the need for historians to rethink some of their academic approaches to this subject, using a moral as opposed to a materialist framework.

Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 1996

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1 Rusk, Dean, As I Saw It (New York: Norton, 1990), 7273Google Scholar.

2 Barton Gellman, “Weinberger Victorious in Oxford Debate,”Washington Post, February 28, 1984. See also Weinberger, Caspar, Fighting for Peace: Seven Critical Years in the Pentagon (New York: Warner Books, 1990), 169–70Google Scholar.

3 Robert S. McNamara, with VanDeMark, Brian, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1995), xviGoogle Scholar. For two examples of such Soviet memoirs, see Arbatov, Georgi, The System: An Insider's Life in Soviet Politics (New York: Times Books, 1992);Google Scholar and Dobrynin, Anatoly, In Confidence: Moscow's Ambassador to America's Six Cold War Presidents (1962–1986) (New York: Times Books, 1995Google Scholar).

4 The best single source for these new materials is the Bulletin of the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Smithsonian Institution, indefatigably edited by James HershbergGoogle Scholar.

5 Bibliographies on both of these controversies are already enormous. The most balanced coverage has probably appeared in the Chronicle of Higher EducationGoogle Scholar.

6 This appeared to be the conclusion of a roundtable at the 1995 annual convention of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations on “Culture and Diplomacy,” which featured Emily Rosenberg, Walter Hixson, Robert McMahon, and Jessica GienowGoogle Scholar.

7 See, on this point, Macdonald, Douglas J., “Communist Bloc Expansion in the Early Cold War: Challenging Realism, Refuting Revisionism,” International Security 20 (Winter 1995/96), 152–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 A good recent review of Cold War historiography is Anders Stephanson, “The United States,” in Reynolds, David, ed., The Origins of the Cold War in Europe: International Perspectives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 2352Google Scholar.

9 Malia, Martin, The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917–1991 (New York: Free Press, 1994),Google Scholarstrongly criticizes Soviet studies for neglecting the importance of ideology.

10 The classic texts, of course, are Morgenthau, Hans J., Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (New York: Knopf, 1948),Google Scholarwith five subsequent editions; and Waltz, Kenneth N., Theory of International Politics (New York: Random House, 1979)Google Scholar.

11 See, in addition to Hallett Carr, Morgenthau Edward, The Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (New York: St. Martin's Press; 1939)Google Scholar; and Kennan, George F., American Diplomacy: 190–0–1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951)Google Scholar.

12 For more on the moral relativists, see Gaddis, John Lewis, The United States and the End of the Cold War: Implications, Reconsiderations, Provocations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 5557Google Scholar.

13 Fukuyama, Francis, “The End of History?” National Interest 16 (Summer 1989), 318Google Scholar.

14 Quoted in Himmelfarb, Gertrude, On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (New York: Knopf, 1994), 117Google Scholar.

15 Quoted in Pogue, Forrest C., Marshall, George C.: Organizer of Victory (New York: Viking, 1973), 316Google Scholar.

16 Malia, , Soviet Tragedy, 263Google Scholar.

17 Ashton, Basil, Hill, Kenneth, Piazza, Alan, and Zeitz, Robin, “Famine in China, 1958–61,” Population and Development Review 10 (December 1984), 613–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 A recent example is Leffler's, Melvyn P. justifiably prize-winning A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

19 Raack, R. C., “Stalin Plans His Post-War Germany,” Journal of Contemporary History 28 (1993), 5373CrossRefGoogle Scholar provides a useful overview of Stalin's plans.

20 Naimark, Norman M., The Russians in Germany: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945–1949 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 69140Google Scholar, is an eloquent and compelling account.

21 See the interviews with Red Army officers in part one of the recent British television series “Messengers From Moscow”; also Djilas, Milovan, Conversations with Stalin, trans. Petrovich, Michael B. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 2), 95Google Scholar.

22 Naimark, , Russians in Germany, 120–21Google Scholar.

23 See, for this distinction, Lundestad, Geir, “Empire by Invitation? The United States and Western Europe, 1945–1952,” Journal of Peace Research 23 (September 1986), 263–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 A point now made clear by Holloway, David, Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939–1956 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994)Google Scholar; and Rhodes, Richard, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995Google Scholar).

25 See Gaddis, John Lewis, The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 142Google Scholar.

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