Anti-Liberalism

Alan Brinkley

  • Armed Truce by Hugh Thomas
    Hamish Hamilton, 667 pp, £14.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 241 11843 3
  • The Wise Men by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas
    Faber, 853 pp, £15.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 571 14606 6
  • Ike by Piers Brendon
    Secker, 478 pp, £12.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 436 06813 3
  • May-Day by Michael Beschloss
    Faber, 494 pp, £14.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 571 14593 0

The history of the United States since the close of World War Two has so far produced relatively little in the way of academic scholarship and even less in the way of serious scholarly argument. There are, however, two major issues that have produced both: the origins of the Cold War and the Eisenhower presidency – issues that have been the subject of extensive literature and extensive controversy and for which there are now not only well-established orthodox views but fully-developed revisionist stances as well.

Cold War revisionism first appeared in the early Sixties, gathered strength during the controversy over America’s involvement in Vietnam, and by the mid-Seventies had itself become something very like an orthodoxy, inspiring its own scholarly reaction post-revisionism. The essential arguments of Cold War revisionism are familiar enough: the Cold War was not simply the result of Soviet expansionism and the West’s natural desire to stop it; the United States was substantially (and, in the opinion of most revisionists, principally) to blame for the breakdown of the war-time alliance; the American desire to re-shape the post-war world in its own image was no less a form of imperialism than the territorial expansion of the Soviet Union. Cold War revisionism enraged – and continues to enrage – not only conservatives, but many mainstream liberals. It was, among other things, an assault on assumptions which had dominated the political and intellectual life of American liberals (and many others) for a generation: belief in the essential decency of American democracy, confidence in its adaptability to other societies, and the conviction that the United States had the right and duty to protect (or create) democratic institutions in other countries.

Eisenhower revisionism began to appear somewhat later, in the mid-Seventies, and is only now reaching full flower. Its origins lie more in the conservative revival of those years than in the leftist climate which produced the re-interpretation of the Cold War. But the new view of Eisenhower has been no less a part of the broad assault on mainstream liberalism than the new view of the Cold War, and no less infuriating to liberals. Eisenhower was widely scorned in the first decade after his retirement as a genial nonentity whose Administration slumbered through the Fifties, ignoring social and international problems and postponing necessary action. According to the revisionists, however, he was a shrewd and capable leader whose restraint and prudence offer an attractive contrast to the reckless domestic and international adventurism of his liberal successors. Admirers of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and of the dynamism of their years in office interpret the new defence of Eisenhower – correctly – as an assault on their own belief in active, affirmative government, an assault different in its origins but oddly similar in its conclusions to the leftist attack on liberal foreign policy.

Liberal historians have waged a continuing and, it has sometimes seemed, rearguard battle against both these revisionist schools for years. A vivid recent example is Arthur Schlesinger’s The Cycles of American History, an important and provocative new collection of essays that displays their author’s famous eloquence and erudition, and his equally famous liberal politics. Prominent among them are a lengthy defence of the traditional view of the Cold War and a sharp attack on the new, more approving picture of Eisenhower.[*]

Schlesinger and others might well take comfort from the appearance of four new books concerned with the Cold War, the Eisenhower presidency, or both. All are aimed at general, rather than scholarly audiences; all are by writers who work largely or wholly outside academia; and all suggest that, whatever the impact of revisionism on scholars, it has had relatively little lasting effect on how the larger public views the recent past.

Neither the length nor the argument of Hugh Thomas’s exhaustive history of the beginnings of the Cold War (the first of several volumes, he promises) will surprise anyone familiar with the author’s previous career. Best known for his enormous histories of the Spanish Civil War, the Cuban revolution, and – most recently – the world, he has also for some years been an admirer of and occasional adviser to Mrs Thatcher. Armed Truce is too long, ponderous and detailed to be properly described as ‘popular history’. But neither is it original scholarship. Almost nothing in this volume will be new to historians working in the various fields it explores; virtually everything is derived from published secondary sources (and, on the whole, rather old ones at that). But Thomas is certainly correct in saying that while the ground of this book has perhaps been covered already ‘in separate volumes’, it has not been ‘done in combination’. And it is the combination, he explains, ‘which appears to me to be interesting’.

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[*] The Cycles of American History was published by Deutsch on 30 April 1987 (498 pp., £14.95, 0 233 98052 0).