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 COLD WAR REVISIONISM REVISITED   [https://portside.org/node/16173] 

 

 Harry Targ 
 December 1, 2017
Monthly Review
[https://monthlyreview.org/2017/12/01/cold-war-revisionism-revisited/]


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 _ In the early years of the Cold War, the academic study of
international relations was an ideological tool serving the foreign
policy of the United States and its allies. But in the 1960s, a new
generation of scholars began to challenge the reigning orthodoxy. _ 

 Kans. U.S. District Court for the Second (Wichita) Division of the
District of Kansas. (06/09/1890 - )., Vietnam War protesters. 1967. 

 

Since the end of the Second World War, undergraduate and graduate
education in international relations has been largely shaped by four
theoretical approaches. As an undergraduate in the 1950s, I was
exposed to the logic and rhetorical elegance of theories of political
realism. The textbook used in my first course in international
politics was a later version of Hans Morgenthau’s _Politics among
Nations_, and in my subsequent courses, Morgenthau’s version
of _realpolitik_ was supplemented by the work of realist writers
such as George Kennan, Reinhold Niebuhr, Henry Kissinger, and E. H.
Carr. While varying widely in their politics and background, all saw
the root causes of violence and war as grounded in “human nature.”

As a graduate student in the 1960s, I was inspired by the new science
of international politics and the claim that by gathering enough data
and analyzing it carefully, using the latest statistical techniques,
scholars could develop an integrated theory of international politics
that could replace limiting assumptions about human nature. We could
study war, intra-state violence, revolution, economic cooperation, and
institution-building with rigor. At last, scholars could develop a
science of human behavior that would parallel the natural and physical
sciences.

Based on the lingering assumptions of realism and the passion for
constructing a science of international relations, two areas were
subjected to specific inquiry: national security and modernization.
Security studies was designed to use the tools of science to determine
how nations could best defend their physical space and deter
aggression. Modernization studies emphasized processes of economic
development that could improve living standards, particularly through
markets and democratic institutions. In the end, the American field of
international politics was dominated by this nexus of realism,
behavioralism (the quasi-scientific study of international behavior),
security studies, and modernization.

Not coincidentally, these approaches to research and education in
international politics arose at the height of the Cold War. The United
States was embarking on a dramatic escalation of its adventure in
Southeast Asia, and defense spending was expanding such that President
Eisenhower warned of a growing “military-industrial complex.” As
the war in Vietnam grew more controversial, the prevailing
international-relations perspectives were increasingly challenged,
both in the classrooms and the streets. But for the most part, studies
based on paradigms of realism, behavioralism, security, and
modernization remained disconnected from broader debates about the
world.

To the era’s activists and radicals, the cause of this disparity
between the academic study of international politics and the social
reality of the anti-war movement was obvious. The former was
influenced and supported by governmental institutions, including the
Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency, and in the
main, its theories and approaches served intellectually to justify
U.S. foreign policy—from nuclear buildups and military interventions
to sponsoring coups and assassinations. In sum, the midcentury
American science of international politics, which shaped a generation
of students, was an ideological tool serving the foreign policy of the
United States and its allies.

Political Economy and Foreign Policy

Anti-imperial sentiment has had a long history in public discourse on
U.S. foreign policy. But by the 1950s, the virulently anti-communist
and conformist environments of academia, the media, and electoral
politics had caused discussion of the United States as an imperial
power virtually to disappear. The last prominent political figure to
criticize U.S. Cold War policy was Henry Wallace, the Progressive
Party candidate for president in 1948. A year after Wallace’s
defeat, eleven unions were purged from the Congress of Industrial
Organizations for their leftwing politics, including their support for
Wallace.1
[https://monthlyreview.org/2017/12/01/cold-war-revisionism-revisited/#en1] The
voice of militant labor was silenced, and this was followed, more
famously, by anti-communist purges in radio, television, and the
movies. Prominent progressive figures lost their jobs, livelihoods,
and access to a broad public.

Academic fields were transformed into ideological training grounds in
support of the United States’ mission in the world. In history and
social science, new scholarship portrayed an American politics,
history, and society founded on pluralist democracy rather than
political elitism, consensus-building rather than class struggle, and
groups, not classes, as the basic units of society.

Indeed, in the 1950s, some realists represented the most “radical”
of critics of U.S. foreign policy. While they did not highlight
economic interest, the pursuit of empire, or overreaction to the
Soviet threat, they did argue that U.S. national interests had to be
defined more carefully in security terms. They challenged the view
that moral purpose and global vision should or could guide foreign
policy. Theorists such as Morgenthau claimed that international
relations should be motivated by needs of national security, not some
grand campaign against international communism.

At the same time, however, a handful of historians began to challenge
these dominant narratives. In particular, the history department at
the University of Wisconsin encouraged young scholars to examine the
economic taproots of U.S. foreign policy. In 1959, the university’s
most influential historian, William Appleman Williams, broke new
ground with _The Tragedy of American Diplomacy_. His students and
others began to challenge reigning orthodoxy about international
relations and the historic role of the United States in the world.
Williams documented the rise of an American empire that expanded after
the Civil War, while other historians began to conceive of the
conquest of the North American continent as part of an empire-building
process founded on the slaughter of millions of native peoples and the
seizure of a large section of the landmass of Mexico. Still others
studied the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of Africans as
central to the construction of the Southern cotton economy, and
ultimately to the global capitalist system.

In _The Tragedy of American Diplomacy_, along with _The Contours of
American History_ (1961) and _The Roots of the Modern American
Empire_ (1969), Williams located the origins of U.S. imperial
expansion in the rise of agricultural production and the need for a
growing economy to find markets overseas, particularly after domestic
outlets had been capped with the closing of the “frontier.”
Drawing on Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis,” U.S.
leaders believed that a new, global American empire was needed to sell
products, secure natural resources, and find investment opportunities.

The rift between realist thinking and the newer radical scholarship is
clearly illustrated by their contrasting interpretations of Secretary
of State John Hay’s articulation of a new Open Door policy during
the administration of William McKinley in 1898. In a series of notes,
Hay warned European leaders that the United States regarded Asia as
“open” to U.S. trade and investment, as occasioned by the
disintegration of the Chinese state into civil war and the occupation
of the country’s regions by European states and Japan. The United
States insisted that unfettered access to markets in China be
honored—and by implication, that the closing of such markets to U.S.
goods might lead to confrontation.

For realists, the Hay “Open Door Notes” illustrated the propensity
of policymakers to make threats that far exceeded any likely action.
The strategic gap between rhetoric and reality, they argued, had long
characterized U.S. foreign policy, from the 1890s to the era of
President Woodrow Wilson’s calls for democratization to the vehement
stance against the spread of communism expressed by every Cold War
president.2
[https://monthlyreview.org/2017/12/01/cold-war-revisionism-revisited/#en2]

Revisionists such as Williams instead argued that the Open Door Notes
presaged the emerging U.S. global imperial vision.3
[https://monthlyreview.org/2017/12/01/cold-war-revisionism-revisited/#en3] Hay’s
demands that the world respect the country’s right to penetrate
economies everywhere would become the guiding standard for the U.S.
role in the world.

Some of Williams’s writings seemed to emphasize material
reality—the needs of capitalism—and others the beliefs held by
elites, namely the overriding necessity of new markets. Among the
revisionist school of historians, which also included Lloyd Gardner,
Gar Alperowitz, and Thomas Paterson, was Gabriel Kolko, author
of _The Politics of War_ and, with Joyce Kolko, _The Limits of
Power: United States Foreign Policy from 1945 to 1954_.4
[https://monthlyreview.org/2017/12/01/cold-war-revisionism-revisited/#en4] In
these volumes, the authors laid out in more graphic and precise terms
the material underpinnings of U.S. Cold War policy. The Kolkos
emphasized the material and ideological menace that international
communism, particularly the example of the Soviet Union and popular
Communist parties in the third world, represented to the construction
of a global capitalist empire after the Second World War.

For the Kolkos and other revisionists, the expansion of socialism
constituted a global threat to capital accumulation. With the end of
the Second World War, there were widespread fears that the decline in
wartime demand for U.S. products would bring economic stagnation and a
return to the depression of the 1930s. The Marshall Plan, lauded as a
humanitarian program for the rebuilding of war-torn Europe, was at its
base a program to increase demand and secure markets for U.S.
products. With the specter of an international communist threat,
military spending, another source of demand, would likewise help
retain customers, including the U.S. government itself. The idea of
empire, which Williams so stressed, was underscored by the materiality
of capitalist dynamics.

The historical revisionists thus introduced a political-economic
approach to the study of foreign policy. This frame emphasized
different factors shaping U.S. global behavior than did those that
singularly emphasized national security. The realists referred to
human nature and the inevitable attributes of state behavior,
particularly the pursuit of power. The traditionalists highlighted the
threat to security of certain kinds of states, mostly from
international communism. For them, the modern international system was
driven by a vast ideological contest between free and democratic
states and totalitarian ones. Power, security, and anti-communism were
together central to understanding U.S. foreign policy, not economic
interest.

The revisionist approach emphasized several different components of
policy. First, the new historians saw fundamental connections between
economics and politics. Whether the theoretical starting point was
Adam Smith or Karl Marx, they looked to the underlying dynamics,
needs, and goals of the economic system as sources of policy. These
writers began from the assumption that economic interest infused
political systems and international relations.

While the realists acknowledged economic interest as a factor of some
importance to policy-making, it was considered merely one of a
multiplicity of variables shaping international behavior. By contrast,
revisionists argued that while the forces of security, ideology, elite
personalities, and even “human nature” had some role to play, all
were influenced in the end by economic imperatives. The behavior of
dominant nation-states from the seventeenth through the twentieth
century involved trade, investment, financial speculation, the pursuit
of slave or cheap labor, and access to natural resources. The pursuit
of economic gain drove the system of international relations, and
while sometimes this required cooperation, at other times it
necessitated war, conquest, and colonization.

The revisionists made a further innovation at the level of discourse:
during the Cold War, the mere mention of the word “capitalism”
signaled that the user was a Marxist. Consequently, without naming the
economic system, any hope of analyzing its relation to politics and
policy was foreclosed. And that meant ignoring the possible relevance
of the dominant economic system from the fifteenth century on. But, as
has been suggested, some historians and social scientists who employed
the political-economic perspective recognized that as an economic
system evolved, international relations changed with it. This was so
because capitalist enterprises and their supporting states accumulated
more and more wealth, expanded at breakneck speed, consolidated both
economic and political power, and sometimes built armies to facilitate
further growth.

Some historians, borrowing from Marx, studied the evolution of
capitalism by analyzing the accumulation of capital and newer forms of
the organization of labor. At first, theorists wrote of the rise of
capitalism out of feudalism. Marx called this the age of
“primitive” or “primary” accumulation, because profit came
from the enslavement of peoples, the conquest of territories, and the
use of brute force. Subsequently, trade became a significant feature
of the new system, and capitalists traversed the globe to sell the
products produced by slave and wage labor.

This era of commercial capitalism was dwarfed, however, by the
emergence of industrial capitalism. New production techniques
developed, particularly factory systems and mass production. The
promotion and sale of products in domestic and global markets
increased. By the 1870s, the accumulation of capital in products and
profits created enormous surpluses in the developed countries. These
required new outlets for sale, new ways to put money capital to work,
and ever-expanding concentrations of capital in manufacturing and
financial institutions. By the mid-twentieth century, some theorists
wrote of a new era of “monopoly capitalism,” a global economic
system in which most commercial and financial activities were
controlled by a small number of multinational corporations and banks.5
[https://monthlyreview.org/2017/12/01/cold-war-revisionism-revisited/#en5]

The revisionists of the 1960s argued that much of this economic
history was ignored entirely by mainstream analyses of international
relations. They responded by uncovering the reality of the U.S. role
in the world, concentrating on specific cases of links between
economics and politics. These included the influence of the
country’s largest oil companies on the U.S.-managed overthrow of
Mohammed Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953 or the coup in Guatemala in 1954
after president Jacobo Árbenz threatened to nationalize lands owned
by the United Fruit Company. And while some revisionists did see the
Soviet Union as a security threat to the United States, the broad
consensus of the political-economy approach was that socialism as a
world force threatened the continued global expansion of capitalism.
As the nature of the anti-capitalist forces and challenges in
particular countries changed, so too did the needs and tactics of U.S.
foreign policy.

The political-economy approach also regarded class structure as
central to the understanding of the foreign policy of any nation. Some
classes dominate the political system at the expense of others. In
capitalist societies, those who own or control the means of production
dominate political life. Therefore, while realists and traditionalists
prioritize states as the most important actors in world affairs,
political economists see states and classes as inextricably connected.
Writers of all schools write about rich and poor states and powerful
and weak states. Most, however, stop there. The state is central.
Political economists and historical revisionists connected states to
classes, and vice versa.

Finally, while revisionist historians worked on the principle that
class interest controlled the foreign policy process, they tended to
take a “hegemonic” view of that control, leaving little room in
their theoretical frame for counterforces of resistance. The resulting
analyses often seemed to imply that the United States was omniscient,
all-powerful, unbeatable, and unchangeable in its conduct. After the
Cuban Revolution and the Vietnam War, however, some analysts began to
focus on challenges to U.S. hegemony around the world, especially in
the global South. However, in the main, the historical revisionists
developed a top-down understanding of international relations. Much of
the anti-American ferment in the world, including anticolonial
struggles, revolutions, and third world coalition-building, received
insufficient attention.

The Revisionist Legacy

Ways of thinking have consequences. Generations of students in the
twentieth century were exposed to analyses of international relations
that emphasized certain purportedly iron laws of state behavior.
Others were taught that international politics was best understood by
embarking on statistically based studies that disaggregated political
reality into a complex array of discrete variables. Still other
students of international relations were encouraged to specialize in
security studies or modernization and democratization. As the Vietnam
War escalated, activists began to turn to a small group of historians
for an alternative understanding of U.S. involvement in the country.
The activism and scholarship of the Vietnam era began the process of
challenging the hegemony of intellectual systems that had generally
supported the U.S. role in the world.

Although that hegemony has been weakened, the traditional ways of
studying international relations in the United States remain
influential. Many studies are ahistorical, atomizing political reality
while marginalizing the causal role of economics, and ignoring the
effect of class interests in the making of foreign policy. The old
enemy, international communism, is gone, but a new one, international
terrorism, has taken its place. And like their Cold War precursors,
mainstream theorists of international relations normalize war, regime
change, and an ever-expanding military and security state.

Hegemonic thinking during the Vietnam era was questioned by scholars
who challenged professional barriers and ideological taboos. Social
movements demanded new thinking about world affairs. And
scholar-activists began to revisit the work of maligned theorists such
as Marx and V. I. Lenin. Historical curiosity increasingly led them to
ask not only what happened, but why. Breaking through hegemonic ideas
remains a vital task today.

Notes

	* ↩
[https://monthlyreview.org/2017/12/01/cold-war-revisionism-revisited/#fn1]An
old but still compelling history of U.S. labor struggles and
anti-communism in the early years of the Cold War can be found in
Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais, Labor’s Untold Story (New
York: United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, 1955).
 	* ↩
[https://monthlyreview.org/2017/12/01/cold-war-revisionism-revisited/#fn2]See
George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy, 1900–1950 (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1969).
 	* ↩
[https://monthlyreview.org/2017/12/01/cold-war-revisionism-revisited/#fn3]William
Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York:
Delta, 1962).
 	* ↩
[https://monthlyreview.org/2017/12/01/cold-war-revisionism-revisited/#fn4]Lloyd
C. Gardner, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Hans J. Morgenthau, The
Origins of the Cold War(Waltham, MA: Genn, 1970); Gar
Alperowitz, Atomic Diplomacy (New York: Vintage, 1965); Thomas G.
Paterson, Soviet-American Confrontation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1973); Gabriel Kolko, The Roots of American Foreign
Policy (Boston: Beacon, 1969) and The Politics of War (New York:
Vintage, 1968); Joyce Kolko and Gabriel Kolko, The Limits of
Power (New York: Harper, 1972).
 	* ↩
[https://monthlyreview.org/2017/12/01/cold-war-revisionism-revisited/#fn5]Paul
A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital
[https://monthlyreview.org/product/Monopoly_Capital/] (New York:
Monthly Review Press, 1966).

____________________________________________________

Harry Targ is a professor in the department of political science at
Purdue University.

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