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’.

Thomas begins with a lengthy discussion of policy-makers in the Soviet Union, the United States and Britain just before and after the end of the war; he continues with a detailed country-by-country survey of events in ‘disputed lands’ (which is almost everywhere else in Europe and Asia) in the same years; and he concludes with a discussion of the first tentative Western responses to Soviet obduracy in 1946. Through it all runs a clear, unvarying explanation: ‘The prime cause of the conflict opening up between the Russians and the Americans (and their allies) was the ideology of the Soviet leaders, and their consequent incapacity, rather than their reluctance, to make permanent arrangements with the leaders of capitalist states.’

Thomas rejects outright the revisionist belief (which even many post-revisionists share) that Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was as much an expression of historic Russian insecurity about borders as of any Communist imperative to conquer the world. He pays no heed to those who argue that the United States at times confused local insurgencies with Soviet aggression. He sees no reason to question the American development and use of atomic weapons or to wonder very much about their impact on Soviet policy. All such issues are essentially irrelevant, he suggests, since the post-war actions of the Soviet Union were predetermined by the personal inclinations of Stalin and the dictates of Communist ideology. All that was in doubt was the capacity and inclination of the West to respond effectively to the threat.

Thomas does not endorse the old right-wing attacks on Franklin Roosevelt (attacks newly popular among neo-conservatives) for ‘selling out’ Eastern Europe at Yalta. There was, he concedes, probably little the West could have done to prevent the Stalinisation of most of those unfortunate lands. Nevertheless, he is sharply critical of Roosevelt and most of his advisers for their ‘naivety’: their refusal to recognise the impossibility of any rational dealings with Stalin and their initial reluctance to take a firm stand against Soviet aggression. Enchanted by the dream of a stable, peaceful world, by the internationalist vision of the Atlantic Charter, American policy-makers blinded themselves to the central reality of their time: that the Soviet Union was a regime committed to world conquest, ‘a state which, because of the character of its leaders, its ideology and its internal mood, could not have fitted into any design to create a tranquil world’.

Ultimately, of course, the West came to its senses and abandoned its futile efforts to placate Stalin. In describing the hardening of American policy. Thomas treads familiar and on the whole uncontroversial ground: the influence of George Kennan, the warnings of Winston Churchill, the first steps toward the formation of the containment policy. But here, as elsewhere, there is a one-sided, deterministic quality to the story he tells. Western policy-makers are curiously reactive figures in this story, responding to but in no way influencing Stalin’s designs (except, occasionally, to frustrate them).

Thomas is not alone, of course, in rejecting much of the revisionist interpretation of the Cold War. His savage portrayal of the Stalinist regime is far more in accord with current scholarly and popular assumptions (and almost certainly more in accord with reality) than the naively sympathetic pictures that emerged from some of the literature of a generation ago. The idea that American imperialism forced a generally benign Soviet Union into conflict with the West has been rightly repudiated by most recent scholars, and Thomas is surely justified in directing our attention first and foremost to the difficulty of fitting the Stalinist regime into any international system acceptable to the democratic world.

But Thomas’s account is not, in the end, likely to satisfy even those centrist scholars who have rejected the most extravagant and implausible arguments of the Left. For however much liberals have recoiled from the central arguments of revisionism, they have generally absorbed at least some of its lessons. They have, above all, tended to recognise that the West was not simply reacting to a force it could not in any way change or control, that its own actions and misperceptions played a vital role in shaping Soviet behaviour. William Taubman, one of the most astute recent students of Soviet foreign policy (and himself a critic of many revisionist assumptions), has presented a far more persuasive picture in his excellent book Stalin’s American Policy (1982), which Thomas cites in passing but seems largely to have ignored. Stalin’s policy, Taubman argues, was never likely to assume a form compatible with the basic goals and assumptions of the United States. But neither was it an immutable product of ideology and paranoia. On the contrary, Stalin in the immediate aftermath of the war was a cautious and conservative leader, working to secure a form of détente with the West and seeing no reason for his actions in Eastern Europe to affect Soviet relations with the United States elsewhere. The United States, Taubman argues, abandoned détente before Stalin did; and in lurching abruptly from a hopeless policy of conciliation to an equally unrealistic assumption that the Soviet Union was intent on war, American policy-makers succeeded only in strengthening Soviet mistrust of the West and hardening Stalin’s international position.

Thomas’s account is not, on the whole, really wrong. It is, rather, incomplete: a relentless compilation of Stalinist sins and depredations unleavened by any comparable appreciation of the West’s own role in the breakdown of relations. It presents a picture of the beginnings of the Cold War different from the accounts of the early Fifties only in the level of factual detail now available, a picture that does not so much challenge the arguments of the revisionists as ignore them altogether.

The Wise Men is a graceful and intelligent portrait of the careers of six Americans who for more than twenty years were pillars of their country’s post-war foreign policy ‘establishment’: Dean Acheson, Charles Bohlen, George Kennan, Robert Lovett, John McCloy and Averell Harriman. All were men whose influence derived less from their official station than from their social position, their professional and intellectual accomplishments, their personal prestige and their friendship with one another. All considered themselves, and were considered by others, servants of the national interest who performed their duties at some cost to their private affairs. And together, they were largely responsible for the construction of a policy framework which has governed American diplomacy ever since. Dean Acheson called his own memoirs Present at the Creation. This book makes clear that the title was too modest.

To liberals of the Fifties and Sixties, these men were heroes: selfless public servants who provided a stable, consensual, bipartisan foundation for American foreign policy in the dangerous post-war years. To revisionists, they became symbols of a closed, complacent world in which public and private interests casually mingled and in which wrong-headed assumptions – carefully protected from popular scrutiny by the insular nature of the Establishment – led the United States into a series of international fiascos. Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, until recently colleagues at Time magazine, are relatively young men, educated (at Harvard) in the late Sixties and early Seventies during the heyday of revisionism, and more likely than Hugh Thomas, one would suppose, to have been influenced by its arguments. But while their book is not, certainly, unaffected by revisionism, it is not in any crucial way shaped by it. In their unabashed admiration for their subjects and their general support for the foreign policy structure they created, they express the cherished assumptions of the liberal centre.

It is not difficult to understand why writers observing the tawdry world of contemporary American foreign policy – distorted in countless ways by political ambitions and personal greed – would find these men an inviting contrast. Whatever its flaws, the post-war Establishment brought to the nation’s diplomacy a measure of consistency, intelligence, and protection from immediate political influences that their successors have not been able to match. The ‘wise men’ were, of course, far from perfect either in the way they conceived American policy or in their manner of directing it. But it is easy to imagine far worse – and perhaps difficult, given the circumstances, to imagine much better. Isaacson and Thomas make not only an elegant but a compelling case for the relative advantages of this now largely vanished world.

Yet while their book by no means ignores the failures and limitations of Establishment foreign policy, it seems on the whole to regard them lightly. Isaacson and Thomas do not, for example, seem willing to attribute to their subjects much responsibility for the disastrous American involvement in Vietnam, suggesting instead that a younger and less capable generation was principally to blame for the fiasco. Yet in its crucial early stages at least, the Vietnam commitment was a direct result of assumptions which the ‘wise men’ had helped enshrine and policies they had helped create. Of the six figures considered in this book, only George Kennan – always something of an outsider in this group in any case, and clearly the one to whom the authors are least attracted – openly opposed the war in the Sixties. Most actively supported it. The revisionists undoubtedly drew from the Vietnam disaster an excessively large measure of disillusionment with the accomplishments of the post-war generation: but Isaacson and Thomas make too few connections between the early successes and the later failures, and may thus have allowed the pendulum to swing too far back.

The revisionist case for the Eisenhower presidency has revolved around two related but not identical claims. One is an argument most forcefully presented in (but not original to) Fred Greenstein’s 1982 book, The Hidden-Hand Presidency, which challenges the widespread assumption that Eisenhower was a passive leader, largely uninvolved with the activities of his Administration, always on the golf course, content to allow events to take their course without intervention or guidance from him. Revisionists have argued quite persuasively, on the basis of archival material only recently available, that Eisenhower was, in fact, an informed and capable leader, who was always in command of his own Administration even if he preferred to govern quietly, by indirection.

But as Piers Brendon points out in his engaging biography, the argument that Eisenhower was a clever ‘master of disguise, concealing his political adroitness beneath a cloak of geniality, vagueness, and even ineptitude’ is a curiously substanceless defence of his presidency. ‘It places Eisenhower in a moral vacuum, appraising him on the basis of crafty means rather than worthy ends.’ The second and more controversial revisionist argument is therefore aimed at rehabilitating not only Eisenhower’s methods, but his goals. Stephen Ambrose, whose two-volume biography is the most comprehensive study of Eisenhower yet to appear, provides the clearest version of this case. ‘Dwight Eisenhower,’ he writes, ‘was a great and good man. He was one of the outstanding leaders of the Western world of this century.’ His presidency ‘gave the nation eight years of peace and prosperity. No other President in the 20th century could make that claim.’ By wisely contenting itself with steady, incremental progress both at home and abroad, the Eisenhower Administration avoided the disastrous excesses that crippled its successors.

Brendon’s Ike and Michael Beschloss’s May Day – an absorbing history of the 1960 downing of an American U-2 espionage plane and the consequent collapse of the Paris summit meeting between Eisenhower and Khrushchev – reflect both the extent and the limits of the revisionist assault on older views of Eisenhower. Both authors take appropriate note of new evidence challenging the image of Eisenhower as genial nonentity. Neither, however, seems entirely convinced. Brendon points repeatedly to occasions when Eisenhower’s relative disengagement from the details of his government led to unfortunate and sometimes disastrous consequences. He speaks with appropriate contempt of the extensive use by revisionists of a single incident (Eisenhower’s promise to aides before a press conference that he would deal with a difficult question by deliberately confusing the reporters) as evidence of his masterly guile. Surely the eight years of mangled syntax and rambling incoherence could not all have been a cleverly calculated disguise. Beschloss blames the U-2 fiasco in part on Eisenhower’s inadequate attention to the details of the espionage flights, and he describes in vivid detail Eisenhower’s embarrassing dependence on John Foster Dulles, his Secretary of State, in the conduct of foreign policy. (Khrushchev used to speak contemptuously of the way Eisenhower during a summit meeting responded to questions by reading notes slipped to him by Dulles.)

But Brendon and Beschloss are more directly critical of the larger revisionist claim: that Eisenhower’s ‘prudence’ stands in happy contrast to the reckless activism of later liberal Presidents. Beschloss argues, indirectly at least, that Eisenhower’s celebrated ‘restraint’ in international affairs was in large measure illusory: that he was, in fact, an active, interventionist, and at times (as in his decision to send U-2 flights over the Soviet Union on the eve of the summit) reckless leader who tried to do covertly what other post-war Presidents have done openly. Brendon makes much the same argument and points as well to crucial domestic issues of the Fifties which the ‘prudent’ Eisenhower shamefully ignored or evaded: the power of Joseph McCarthy, which the President was never willing openly to challenge, and the demands of the civil rights movement, which he chose to ignore until events literally forced him to take action.

Eisenhower was, clearly, a shrewder and better informed leader than liberals of the Sixties liked to claim. His ‘restraint’ was often real and was at times immensely wise, as his reluctance to intervene in Vietnam in 1954 and his mistrust of the ‘military-industrial complex’ seem now to demonstrate. But Eisenhower’s newly refurbished image is not simply a product of the ‘new evidence’ and ‘greater detachment’ that revisionists so often cite. His reputation declined in the Sixties in part because liberals found it useful to contrast his ‘somnolence’ with their own dynamism. It has revived in the Seventies and Eighties in part because conservatives find him a helpful model for their own assault on the liberal past. As Piers Brendon points out, ‘those who now eulogise Eisenhower as a great statesman, a brilliant politician and “a genius of the first order” must be aware that they are thereby also assisting the cause of Ronald Reagan.’

These two books, both by skilled and intelligent writers writing for broad, popular audiences, suggest that Eisenhower revisionism is no more likely than Cold War revisionism to find lasting public acceptance in its original form; that already the extravagant claims about Eisenhower’s brilliance are stretching popular credulity in much the same way that the extravagant denunciations of the ‘wise men’ and the containment policy did. And in suggesting that, they illustrate the nearly invariable fate of revisionist scholarship: whatever initial enthusiasm it may evoke, it serves in the end more as a corrective than as a lasting new orthodoxy. Almost inevitably, a comfortable, centrist ‘conventional wisdom’ reasserts itself – chastened, perhaps, but very much alive.

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