St. Mary’s University
The gap between the Cold War’s history and its new historiography spanned only about a decade and a half. The Cold War concluded during the George H.W. Bush presidency, but for the field we now call “the US and the world,” the Cold War paradigm reached its terminus, if we have to be specific, in 2005. That year saw the publication of two books that together marked a milestone in how scholars would write about the Cold War. John Lewis Gaddis’ The Cold War: A New History told its story through engaging prose and a top-down approach that gave pride of place to Washington and Moscow as the centers of a bifurcated world. For its part, Odd Arne Westad’s The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times offered a triangular model in which empires of liberty and of justice interacted with Third World revolutionaries who led campaigns for decolonization that shifted into high gear after World War II. Gaddis’ survey represented a culmination of the traditional two-camps schema which tended to reflect self-understandings of the US government but which, after Westad’s concurrent synthesis, could no longer stand without qualification, without reference to the colonial dimension of the Cold War itself. In this sense, 2005 was a before-and-after historiographical event.
The classic Cold War concept, in which the governing and formal decolonization of Western Europe’s empires was one thing, and the rivalry between the superpowers something altogether else, has become diminished, but not because of one book alone. Various social movements have rejected the tenets of the Cold War at different times, and as far back as 1972, historians Joyce and Gabriel Kolko argued that “The so-called Cold War…was far less the confrontation of the United States with Russia than America’s expansion into the entire world.” In 2000, Matthew Connelly called attention to the distortions accompanying attempts to have postwar history fitted to the constraints of the Cold War paradigm. The “Cold War lens,” as Connelly memorably called it, had obscured racial and religious realities. As more scholars began to push the weight of culture, decolonization, gender, public opinion, and more against the Cold War paradigm’s once stable conceptual walls, the foundations faltered. And since Westad’s 2005 landmark, a notable tendency has developed across the disciplines in which scholars – notably Mark Philip Bradley, Jodi Kim, Heonik Kwon, and the authors (including Westad) contributing to Joel Isaac and Duncan Bell’s volume on the Cold War idea – have further troubled the notion that what followed World War II is best understood by focusing on how the leaders of the US and USSR saw the world.
It’s also worth noting that the recent literature’s rough division between works that sit more comfortably within the Cold War paradigm and those that prompt a rethinking of its foundations does not map neatly onto the difference between local and globally-oriented studies. Melvin Leffler’s 2008 transnational history of US-Soviet relations and Samuel Zipp’s New-York focused book on urban renewal of 2010 both fit within Cold War studies, for example, while Masuda Hajimu’s global reinterpretation of the Korean War and Yuliya Komska’s cultural genealogy of the West German-Czech borderlands (both published in 2015) render suspect what we thought we knew about the Cold War. All four books are excellent, and it would be unhelpful to make a “without paradigm good, within paradigm bad” argument across wide swaths of insightful scholarship. The point is, rather, to note that The Cold War: A World History arrives at what Federico Romero calls a historiographical crossroads, on a conceptual terrain conspicuously remapped since the publication of The Global Cold War. Continue reading “The Cold War’s World History and Imperial Histories of the US and the World”