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Decline, Fall, Victory, and Other Cold War Myths

Decline, Fall, Victory, and Other Cold War Myths March 12, 2021

How you phrase a question goes a long way to determining the answer. That comment is particularly true in terms of the categories we commonly use to frame historical problems, and indeed, current realities.

That general point is much in my mind right now, as I complete a book I am writing on the history of the Cold War, in the era 1945-1991, and I focus on issues of historiography. We devote a lot of attention to determining why historical events resulted in outcome X rather than Y, and we often deal with the questions of “decline and fall.” Why did the Cold War end? Why did the Soviet Union collapse? In each case, we are probably asking the wrong questions.

Let me give a parallel. You could build a mighty stack of books on the question of why the Roman Empire collapsed, and you can come up with many reasons, from the  highly plausible to the totally ludicrous. Many of these explanations have a strong ideological edge, for instance in the idea that a paramount cause was conversion to Christianity. But whatever explanation we are considering, two problems are obvious enough. First, what do we mean when we say the Roman Empire collapsed? It did in Western Europe, but it continued quite happily in the eastern Mediterranean for long centuries afterwards, waxing and waning over time. Which “fall” are you talking about?

At least as important, do we have the question upside down? Should we not really be asking why the Empire lasted as long as it did? By all rights, it should have collapsed in the mid third century, as indeed by all measures it really did – the economic history of that era is horrendous. Only a near miracle allowed it to persist and reconstruct after the 270s. If the rebuilders of that era had not been such adamant pagans and persecutors as Diocletian, Christian authors would undoubtedly have attributed this survival to evident divine intervention. By that standard, the fourth and early fifth centuries AD are not the “decline and fall” of the Roman Empire, they are the rather the time of restoration and rebuilding. And a very successful act of restoration it was, which ensured long survival, in the east at least. That is, in the bits that really mattered.

To take another example, many years ago I was in the same department as Gary W Gallagher, an outstanding historian of the American Civil War. In his landmark work on the Confederacy, he encountered an issue much like what I have sketched here. In the face of all the writers who debated why the Confederacy failed and fell, he asked a more basic question: how on earth did it last as long as it did?

All of which brings me back to the Cold War. Instead of asking why did it end, another excellent question might be to ask how it lasted as it did. In 1952-53 and again in 1962, the Soviets made surprising overtures to settling all major questions at issue, and defusing the global confrontation. Particularly in the earlier era, the US was rightly suspicious of Soviet sincerity, but the opportunity after the Cuba crisis was quite genuine. Each successive crisis brought home to the Soviets just how far they were lagging behind the West, militarily and economically, and they really, seriously, desperately, needed to end the struggle. If only that had been achieved, the horrors of the 1970s and 1980s might well have been avoided. (Do not by the way read that as a denunciation of unreasonable Western attitudes, there were plenty of practical obstacles on both sides).

Put another way, it is astonishing that the Soviet economy lasted as long as it did, when by all rights it should have gone into meltdown in the mid-1970s, at the latest. Again, we are asking the wrong question.

Drawing on that Roman analogy, you might also frame the Cold War question another way. Did the Cold War really end in 1991, or did it just go into hiatus for a couple of decades, until it came roaring back under Vladimir Putin? Maybe a realistic history of the Cold War should be in (at least) three parts, or shall we call them Acts:

  1. The European-Soviet Confrontation 1917-1941
  2. The First American-Soviet Phase 1945-91
  3. Back to Normal: The Cold War Resumes, 2010-???

That also speaks to the question of who won that larger conflict, just when and how. So who did win the Cold War? Well, which one do you mean? I can tell you unequivocally who won the second phase, but as to the third, it’s far too soon to tell. As we stand presently, the US is scrambling to maintain its strength and status in the face of one surging Communist superpower, China, and still faces grave dangers from a severely reduced but still militarily lethal Russia. During the decade of the 2010s, Xi Jinping very successfully fulfilled his goal to Make China Great Again. If I went back in time to (say) 1980 and told policymakers back then the shape of the world in 2021, they would find it very difficult to accept any talk of the Cold War having ended, still less of the US having won outright. And please pardon my frequent internal mistakes and self-corrections here, but I am just so conditioned to write “Soviet Union” when I should say Russia. I am sure Mr. Putin makes the same Freudian/Leninist slip.

In The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner wrote that: “No battle is ever won … Victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”

So when we do have a historical event that we describe as a collapse or decline, there are often lots of alternative ways of looking at it. That applies to a great many possible examples. If, as I suspect, the US becomes significantly more secular in coming years, many people may strive to explain that decline. My own question would rather be: how did the US, alone about comparable advanced nations, retain that religious character as long as it did?

To reframe the question is to reshape the answer, often quite radically.


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