ONE BIG RIVALRY: A Historiographical Analysis of the Cold War and What They Overlooked.

Earthrise, December 1968

Earthrise, December 1968

Cold War interpretations of the past were shaped by the contexts in which the historians presenting them lived. This is true of most historical interpretations. But imagine if there was a historian that looked at the history of the Cold War from the surface of the moon. How would they interpret it differently to those who lived on Earth? Most likely, the Cold War as an event would be examined within in the context of the entire history of humanity and the planet, rather than the comparatively narrow and subjective views offered by Earth historians.

Currently there are no historians on the moon. However such understandings regarding potentially overlooked interpretations allow historians to uncover the contexts that framed fluctuating interpretations through analyses of Cold War historiography, as well as consider broader interdisciplinary scales in an attempt to determine the wider implications of the Cold War on humanity, the planet and the universe.

Orthodoxy and Revisionism

During the post war period, both American and Soviet historians interpreted the Cold War biasedly through official binary fashions known as the Orthodox understandings. This phenomenon is understandable in that it was both unwise and dangerous to oppose official doctrine in both countries during this time as well as difficult given historians’ lack of access to primary sources from the other side.

In the United States Revisionist anti-American interpretations of the Cold War emerged as a result of popular opposition to the Vietnam War. It was not until the fall of the Soviet Union that Russian historians could make similarly anti-Soviet interpretations due to state censorship. However, Revisionist-like histories were expressed through underground publications that seemingly mirrored the Revisionist writing of US historians.

Given the context of the interpretations, both Orthodox and Revisionist understandings of the Cold War were largely expressed without access to sufficient primary sources making such understandings opinion-based rather than academic.

Post-Revisionist Consensus

When the Cold War ended, historians began to have unparalleled access to the other side’s archives regarding Cold War activities. Collaboration between Russian, American and international historians became common and as a result a Cold War Post-revisionist interpretation emerged, which enjoyed academic consensus.

Simply put, this interpretation argues that the actions of both superpowers and the perpetuation of the Cold War was a result of the superpowers’ respective anxieties regarding the perceived aggressive expansionism and nuclear capabilities of the other. Post-revisionist historians agree that far from global hegemony the main objective of both superpowers during this period was maintaining their national security whilst limiting the sphere of influence of their opponent.

Through the work of Duara, Gould-Davis, Patterson, Viola, Mastny and Gaddis, Post-revisionism has corrected many of the disparities within opposing interpretations of Cold War historiography. That being the case, such historians have maintained, that a broader interdisciplinary view of the Cold War is required to determine the grander implications of the Cold War as a single event.

Big History of the Cold War

So what Big History can be learned about the Cold War from the surface of the moon? One interpretation, which is gaining popularity, is the implications of the Cold War on the biosphere. Disregarding the conflict’s effects on Carbon emissions and climate change, the nuclear arms race generated by the Cold War placed an imminent danger on humanity and life on Earth as a whole and still does. Never before in the known universe has a single species had the capability to destroy their biosphere through one singe action.

Nevada Nuclear Test 1952

Another interpretation considers what the Cold War reveals about humanity as a species, the nature of our interactions and the repetitive trends that have shaped them. Evidence of hegemony, culture, conflict and weapon evolution can be seen in nature and is traceable to agrarian civilizations of the past and beyond. Consideration that the same ideas are still shaping world events today could potentially answer questions regarding the nature of humanity and where in the future we as a species are bound.

One final interpretation of the Cold War worth reflection is its effects on mankind’s ability to travel into space. Though not a direct product of the Cold War, it was undoubtedly advanced as a result of the ideological competitiveness inherent within the conflict. The full implications of this ability are not yet known and so, arguably, neither are the Cold War’s. Man may one day gain the ability to move entire populations to other worlds and so the effects of the Cold War will have reached beyond our planet and moon and out into the universe.

This is for the consideration of future historians but what is important for today is the realisation that interpretations of history are based on context; how one look at an event and on what scale. By looking at the Cold War on these grader scales that were overlooked by past historians one does not only gain a greater understanding of the Cold War but collaborates in crafting the modern creation story of humanity, the universe and the Big History of everything.

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2 comments on “ONE BIG RIVALRY: A Historiographical Analysis of the Cold War and What They Overlooked.

  1. Liam McCann says:

    Hi Dominic,

    I think this is a really intriguing idea, and something that will be explored in the next 30-40 years as historians develop a distance from the Cold War and it moves from living memory into history. |

    You make a really interesting point about how the Cold War shows us about humanity as a species, with the development of weapons etc. I was just wondering if you think the looming threat of nuclear warfare would have forced people to move back to more primal instincts in the period of the Cold War, or whether there was no distinct shift in people’s attitudes from the 1920s (the last pre-WWII boom period) and we just carried on with our daily interactions as we always did?

  2. dominicsmith1 says:

    Im not sure i know what you mean by primal instincts. From a domestic perspective, i think people were effected by the idea of nuclear holocaust. Self preservation would have kicked in seen through the prevalence of bomb shelter and food hoarding, but i think this same attitude can be seen on a larger national scale were the treat of nuclear war actually prevented direct conflict. It is important to remember that while these weapons’ existence threatens humanity it is also their proliferation which to this day prevents them from being used. I don’t think the US didn’t bomb the soviets or visa-versa out of any sense of humanity but rather out of self preservation and mutually assured distraction. Nuclear weapons did result in the formation of new methods of warfare, often covert in nature since direct conflict was very dangerous. This is another new phenomenon of the cold war which i didn’t get a chance to talk about in the blog. Hope that answers your questions, and thanks for the comment.

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