Cold War Thaw Leads to Hot Debate Over Origins

As secret Soviet archives open, scholars get set for lively disagreements

AS the cold war fades, a hot war of ideas may be starting over questions such as: Who started the superpower stare-down, anyway? What caused the United States and the Soviet Union to rattle their weapons at each other for 45 years? Historians expect to soon have access to piles of previously secret Soviet papers, launching a boom in cold-war studies. At an unusual conference of Soviet and American scholars here, sponsored by the US Institute of Peace, it was clear that academics will have plenty to argue about when the archives open. The only thing participants agreed on was that Stalin was not a nice guy.

``The US and the Soviets have stereotyped each other. It's very difficult to get beyond that historically,'' said Gaddis Smith, a Yale professor of US foreign policy.

Consider the question of Eastern Europe. Everyone agreed it is an area the Soviets are leaving; but there was less harmony about how Moscow came to dominate it in the first place.

The mainstream US view has long been that Stalin seized control over the ground occupied by the Red Army at the end of World War II. He set up puppet communist regimes, ignoring promises of free elections.

Some Soviet historians have a different perspective, arguing that Eastern European politicians, backed by the US, were themselves less than savory.

In a number of cases, the ``US didn't support true democratic forces, but rightist forces,'' said Dr. Igor Orlik, a professor in the Diplomatic Academy of the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

There was a similar difference of opinion over the role of US nuclear weapons in the early years of the cold war, when the Soviets had yet to build their own atomic arsenal.

Soviet historians accused the US of using its nuclear threat as a main means of applying political pressure. To the US scholars, nuclear weapons were just one part of the postwar struggle for Eastern Europe.

``Each scholar has his own point of view. We are agreed that the cold war is a complex geopolitical phenomenon,'' said Ambassador Vladimir Shustov, director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Research Coordination Center.

Within the USSR, President Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost has already launched a wave of revisionist thinking about cold-war policies. The trend has gone so far that even some of its proponents are grumbling.

At one time, all US actions were considered wrong. Now, ``everything which was done by the Soviet Union is bad,'' complained Dr. Konstantin Pleshakov, research fellow at the Institute of USA and Canada Studies.

IN the US, the origins of the cold war have been hotly debated for decades.

On one side are traditionalists, who argue that Soviet expansionism plus US waffling equaled acute superpower tensions. On the other side are revisionists, who hold that NATO encirclement scared a defensive Soviet Union into a militaristic response.

The conference of Soviet and US historians, which involved three days of discussions in Washington last week after three days in Moscow in June, pointed out a number of basic questions about the cold war that all sides have yet to settle.

When the Soviet archives open - an event all conferees said they were awaiting - a new generation of graduate students will likely chew on such topics as:

Did US indecision allow the USSR to tighten its grip on Eastern Europe?

A classic of cold-war historiography, this has sparked bitter disputes among US scholars for years. The traditional view is that by not standing up more firmly to Stalin's blatant land grab, the US committed a ``sin of omission,'' in the phrase of Prof. Adam Ulam, director of Harvard University's Russian Research Center.

Scholars eagerly await any Soviet documents that shed light on Stalin's actions. Were there actions the US could have taken to cause him to back down?

Was the cold war inevitable?

In hindsight, it is easy to believe that major historical events were unavoidable. Was that really the case with the US-Soviet standoff? Will Soviet documents show that Stalin and subsequent Soviet leaders were determined to force confrontation, or will they reveal a story of miscalculations on both sides?

``Some unraveling of the wartime alliance was inevitable. What was not inevitable was that it took 45 years to get over this confrontation,'' said Dr. Sergei Plekhanov, a Soviet historian of US politics.

Whose fault was it?

This question will not foster international academic harmony. While Soviet scholars seem willing to look realistically at their country's role, most appear unwilling to be saddled with all the blame - the cold war was not ``one hand clapping'' said Dr. Pleshakov. US traditionalists, however, feel recent events have only confirmed their view of Soviet responsibility.

In the end, ``the guilt factor is interesting but it doesn't get us very far,'' said Elspeth Rostow, a professor of government at the University of Texas.

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