Lessons of the Cold War

Historian Cronin's new book puts the US-USSR's four-decade confrontation into perspective

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

The dust raised by the Cold War's swift and dramatic end has settled somewhat in recent years and Prof. James Cronin (History) has begun to bring the four-decade confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union into sharper focus.

Cronin's new book, The World the Cold War Made: Order, Chaos, and the Return of History , does not simply chronicle Cold War events. It examines the economic, political and social structures that emerged from the post-World War II settlement, how their development over time affected the US and the Soviet Union and, in turn, the international community.

For better or worse, Cronin says, the Cold War provided the governing framework for most aspects of international relations. While its end has spurred unrest and uncertainty among some nations and industries, he says, it also has allowed some previously disenfranchised peoples an opportunity to build new futures.

Cronin feels the time is ripe to offer an historical reflection on the Cold War, even though it is relatively fresh in peoples' collective memories and can still trigger strong feelings.

Prof. James Cronin (History)-"Only by understanding how the Cold War shaped our world can we make sense of what it has left behind."

"Historians have debated for a long time as to how far forward one should research into contemporary history," Cronin said. "Where the Cold War is concerned, however, there is a debate looming about who won, who lost and what it all meant. There will be many participants in this debate and so historians should be there to lend their own scholarly perspective. Only by understanding how the Cold War shaped our world can we make sense of what it has left behind.

"One thing that makes the Cold War so compelling for historians is its uniqueness," he added. "You have these two behemoths, the US and the USSR, dominating huge chunks of the world and its resources. The Cold War was the world order, the structure through which political and domestic coalitions and economic systems functioned. It had an unusual strength and resilience, as well as a far greater scope and dimension than earlier post-war settlements."

Cronin recounts the severe economic and social upheaval at World War II's conclusion that helped set the stage for the US-Soviet domination - political and labor unrest, for example, and the rapid decolonization of what would become the Third World. He also describes and analyzes one of the Cold War's salient features, the merging of politics and economics in both capitalist and socialist states. Over time, however, other forces began to erode the Cold War influences.

"By the 1980s, the Cold War, as a way of understanding the world, was becoming increasingly outdated," Cronin said. "The big political developments of the '60s and '70s helped us move away from that thinking, but the structure of international thinking did not change as fast. Political behavior remained stuck in the Cold War mode longer than it took public opinion to evolve."

Another reason Cronin gives for writing the book is to affirm the Cold War's fundamental characteristic as a battle between capitalism and communism. Scholars have often portrayed the US-Soviet Union confrontation as more of a classic great-power struggle than a clash between two ideologically and philosophically opposed systems, he said. But doing so does not explain adequately the intensity of the Cold War.

"I wanted to restore a sense of integrity to those who saw the differences between the US and the Soviet Union," Cronin said. "It's wrong, I think, to believe that all that was at stake were geopolitical issues. This does not mean we should accept the rhetoric which came with the Cold War. Some people got carried away and read too much into the military aspects of the Cold War.

"But it also does not mean the ideological commitments were ignoble or irrational," he said, "or that underneath the excess there were not some fundamental choices and conflicts at issue."

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