Stalin the Aggressor: Account for the influence of the orthodox school in Cold War historiography.

What is the first thing that usually comes to mind when you and your friends talk about the Cold War? Stalin…right? Stalin and his aggressive mannerisms. Stalin and his expansionism. Stalin and his spread of communism. The idea of Stalin as an instigator and catalyst (or in other words, the bad guy) in the outbreak of the Cold War dominated the approach and interpretations of the Cold War by traditional historians during the 1940s, up until the 1960s. Stalin and his aggressive expansionism, along with his hostile attitude towards the US and the West became the crux of the traditional orthodox approach to interpreting the Cold War. Despite attempts to challenge the orthodox interpretation of the Cold War, evidenced in the revisionist movement in the 1960s and the subsequent schools of interpretations such as the post-revisionist and realists in the later decades of the twentieth century, the traditional orthodox approach continued to play a dominant role in Cold War interpretations. The lack of Soviet documents and records in conjunction with the events which took place in the lead up to the Second World War and the immediate post-war period from 1945-1948 resulted in the domineering nature of US orthodox accounts of the Cold War.


Traditionalist views:
Orthodox constructions of the Cold War depicted Stalin and communism as the main antagonists in the outbreak of the Cold War. In essence, according to traditionalists such as George Kennan and Thomas Bailey placed the responsibility of the deconstruction of post-war peace and the outbreak of the Cold War on Stalin’s post-war policy and his expansionism. The orthodox accounts of the Cold War played a major contributing factor in both Cold War scholarship and the US hostile stance against the USSR: hence why it still holds an influential role in Cold War historiography today. Politically, this portrayal of Stalin and fear of communism led to the developments of the Truman doctrine of containment in 1947 as and the Marshall plan in what was perceived to be the physical aspect of the Truman doctrine. The hardline approach by the US in the containment of communism was further reflected in the subsequent works of traditional historians. By the 1950s, the outbreak of the Korean War, the emergence of Communist China and McCarthyism again identified the dominate role of the orthodox account. These events were viewed within the scope of Truman’s containment policy which as mentioned before was the result of the orthodox perspective of Stalinist aggression and communism. Despite revisionist challenges to the orthodox accounts of the Cold War in the 1960s in which historians focused on American policies as a catalyst in the outbreak of the Cold War, the idea of Stalin’s aggression in his expansion of communism was revived in the post-revisionist interpretations of the Cold War and continues to play a dominant role in the way the Cold War is constructed today.

Europe during the 1920s and 1930s saw changes in political relations between European nations: to put it bluntly, it was a bit of a mess. The creation and consolidation of Communist Russia and the political distrust and hostility between Russia and the West grounded the traditional perspective of Cold War interpretation. Along with the pre-existing hostility, the interplay between the events which took place during 1945-1948 sparked the influential traditional construction of the Cold War. Wartime conferences such as Potsdam in the concluding stages of WWII reignited the pre-existing notions of distrust and hostility between the allied parties (The Big Three) evidenced through the division of Germany and the Stalin’s reluctance in the withdrawal of the Red Army within Poland. Differing post-war aims and ideals and in particular Stalin’s push for his buffer zone across Eastern Europe led to the eventual breakdown of East and West relations within Europe. Despite the fact that US stance and position on the growing tensions within Europe were still uncertain at the conclusion of WWII, by early 1946, as a result of George Kennan’s Long Telegram in February and Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech consolidated US position and their distrust towards the USSR. Kennan’s dislike for communism and opinion of Stalin validated US response and mechanisms to Stalin’s expansive policies into Eastern Europe. downloadTo top it all off, Churchill’s statement of the divide within Europe “…an iron curtain has descended across the Continent…this is certainly not the liberated Europe we sought to build up…” further pushed the idea of the aggressive Stalin. The Berlin Blockade in 1948 was a critical point in the historiography of the Cold War as it not only saw the policy of containment in action but also concreted the orthodox illustrations of Stalinist aggression and his disruption of post-war peace.

1945-1948 was a critical time period in Cold War history- the tides were changing and tensions were heightening. Stalin and the Red Army were rising: and even today, almost 22 years after the fall of the USSR, this view continues to dominate Cold War historiography.

Further Reading:
Dobson, Alan. Deconstructing and Reconstructing the Cold War. Brookfield: Ashgate, 1999.

Feis, Herbert. Churchill Roosevelt Stalin: The War they Wages and the Peace they Sought. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1967.

Gaddis Lewis, John. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1997.

Jensen, Kenneth. Origins of the Cold War: The Novikov, Kennan, and Roberts’ Long Telegrams of 1946. Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace, 1991.

Kennan, George. Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.

Kennedy Pipe, Caroline. The Origins of the Cold War. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2007.


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