April 1st, 1998
ON CHRISTMAS EVE, 1989, the american ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock Jr., slipped inside the Soviet Foreign Ministry in Moscow and posed a surreal question to Kremlin officials. Would it be possible, Matlock politely inquire d, for the Soviet Union to dispatch troops into Romania and assist the rebels attempting to overthrow Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu? This extraordinary appeal came two years before the official dissolution of the Soviet Union and flatly contradicte d a half century of American outcries over the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe. Yet scholars eager to examine Matlock’s request won’t find anything about it in U.S. archives, which remain strictly classified. A Russian bureaucrat’s vivid account of Matl ock’s request, however, appears in the latest bulletin of the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP), an organization that, since its founding in 1991, has unearthed countless documents as arresting and mysterious as this one.
At first glance, the CWIHP itself appears rather mysterious. To reach its offices in Washington, D.C., one must climb a steep, winding staircase to the top of the North Tower of the Smithsonian Castle, an old medieval-style fortress overlooking the Mall. There, in a cramped, dimly lit chamber, scholars are sorting through a vast trove of documents gathered from the ruins of the former Soviet empire, some detailing the deepest secrets of Communism.
For fifty years, Western scholars were denied access to this paper trail, making do with a smattering of public speeches, memoirs, and “official” biographies. Then came the liquidation of the Soviet empire — and a torrent of new information. “It suddenly became clear that you could no longer write Cold War history based only on the Western sources,” says James Hershberg, a historian at George Washington University. “An unprecedented opportunity was emerging to get sources and perspectives from the other side.”
Hershberg should know: From 1991 until last year, he served as the CWIHP’s founding director, assuming responsibility for, among other things, publishing its ever expanding bulletin. Within a few years, this indispensable guide to the latest archival rele ases has mushroomed from a meager review into a four-hundred-page tome crammed with eye-catching entries — including, recently, the full transcript of a top secret 1981 meeting in Mexico City between the Cuban vice president, Carlos Rodriguez, and that c onsummate cold-warrior, Alexander Haig. (Straining to convince Haig that the Sandinista Revolution was not a product of Cuban meddling in Central America, Rodriguez plucked an axiom from the philosopher David Hume: “The factual appearance of ‘B’ following the appearance of ‘A’ does not signify that ‘A’ necessarily is the cause of the appearance of ‘B.’”) The CWIHP has already amassed enough material for “roughly fifteen books,” estimates Hersh berg. “I can’t tell you how many all-nighters I spent trying t o get those bulletins out,” he explains with a half-pinched smile.
As one might expect, scholars have already begun sparring over what these newfound documents reveal. John Lewis Gaddis, the dean of Cold War scholars and one of the CWIHP’s founders, argues in his latest book, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (Oxf ord), that the new discoveries starkly expose Soviet totalitarianism as the Cold War’s fundamental cause. Not so, counters University of Virginia historian Melvyn Leffler, who recently argued in Foreign Affairs that the archival evidence is far more ambig uous — and by no means absolves Washington of responsibility.
The tussle between Gaddis and Leffler echoes the passionate quarrels that once divided orthodox American scholars of the 1950s (who blamed the Cold War on Moscow) from revisionists of the next generation (who put equal blame on Washington). Indeed, the Co ld War’s cessation has only slightly reduced the acidity of these debates: While Gaddis re cently berated the revisionists for closing their eyes to the “odious” horrors emerging from the archives, Leffler has accused Gaddis and others of “turning the Col d War into a morality play.”
Meanwhile, as old battle lines are drawn, a new generation of CWIHP scholars — including Vladislav Zubok of Russia, Chen Jian of China, and Christian Ostermann of Germany — is asking questions that challenge the assumptions of both camps. Understanding the Cold War, these scholars suggest, requires incorporating the insights of those who actually lived behind the Iron Curtain. How, they ask, were Western initiatives like the Marshall Plan received by the other side? Did factors other than Marxism — in particular, the peculiarities of Russian and Chinese culture — play a pivotal role in shaping foreign policy? And how did the Cold War look to ordinary people on the streets of Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest? In refocusing the scholarly spotlight, this new crop of historians may be turning the subject of the Cold War — at long last — into a truly international field of study.
THE ORIGINS of the Cold War International History Project date back to the initial stages of glasnost, in the mid-1980s. At that time, James Hersh berg was a young Tufts University graduate student toiling away on a dissertation that exp lored the life and times of former Harvard president — and Manhattan Project overseer — James B. Conant. (The fruits of his research became the widely acclaimed 1993 biography James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age.) In the fall of 1986, Hershberg received a call from his undergraduate thesis adviser, the historian Martin Sherwin, who was about to launch an experimental program offering jointly taught courses at Tufts and Moscow State University. Hershberg signed on as a teaching assistant and, a short while later, began accompanying Tufts students on pioneering trips to Moscow. One time, he recalls, “we had the surreal experience of showing the Soviet students Dr. Strangelove. There’s a two-minute segment of the film in Russian where the Soviet ambassador is talking to the premier about the threat of a mistaken U.S. nuclear attack. The Russian students were in total hysterics, sharing our sense of the absurd aspects of the nuclear predicament.”
While this was happening, scholars in America were also sensing that relations with their Soviet counterparts were entering a new phase. In 1988 John Gaddis, then at Ohio University, hosted a conference where — to his surprise — several young Russian sc holars pointedly departed from the official Kremlin view on a number of key historical questions. “This was the first time we saw internal divisions in the Soviet delegation,” recalls Gaddis. Seeking to widen these cracks in the wall, Gaddis petitioned th e Wilson Center, the Smithsonian’s in-house think tank, for help establishing a program that would sponsor fellowships for young Communist-bloc scholars, host conferences, and publish new materials as they became available. Together with Gaddis, Wilson Ce nter officials solicited funds from the MacArthur Foundation; the money soon came through. Later that year, Hershberg was named director.
“I initially wanted to focus on Eastern Europe,” recalls Hershberg, who assumed the archives would be most accessible there. But history would radically alter his plans. Two weeks before Hershberg assumed the job, hard-line Communists launched their Augus t 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev. On August 24, the newly empowered Russian leader Boris Yeltsin excoriated the Communists and issued a decree removing the archives of the Communist Party and KGB from the control of old-line bureaucrats. Duri ng the next twelve months, as Hershberg zoomed back and forth from Moscow to Washington to meet with Russian archival officials — and as Yeltsin strategically released documents to embarrass his adversaries — Western scholars basked in the glow of what is now viewed as the “Golden Period” of Russian archival openness.
“I assumed I would have to fight constant battles to get the documents I wanted,” explained Mark Kramer, a fellow at Harvard’s Russian Research Center. His problem turned out to be just the opposite, namely, “how to cope with the thousands of pages of mat erials archive officials were quite readily bringing me.” Kramer was not alone in his good fortune. In January 1993, he attended a historic conference in Moscow co-sponsored by the CWIHP and the Moscow-based Institute of Universal History. About forty pap ers based on archival revelations were delivered, and an array of new voices was heard, among them Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, Russian scholars at work on the early stages of a book on Soviet foreign policy. According to their 1997 study, I nside the Kremlin’s Cold War (Harvard), Moscow did not merely follow a Marxist blueprint for conquering the world, as orthodox scholars have argued, nor did the Kremlin merely react to Washington’s machinations, as Western revisionists have claimed. Rathe r, they argue that Soviet behavior reflected a peculiar mix of Peter the Great-style messianism and nervous trepidation — an incendiary (and unpredictable) combination that made the Kremlin eager to project its power, yet terribly fearful of actual confr ontation with the technologically superior West. Praising the book for situating Soviet strategy squarely in the context of Russian culture, Foreign Policy recently hailed it as “the most significant addition to the literature on foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.”
THE Moscow conference was the first of many stirring CWIHP symposia — others would follow in Prague, Buda pest, and Hong Kong — but the euphoria it generated was soon tempered by more sobering developments. Some of the chaotic Russian archives, for one thing, lacked accessible catalogs, making scholars entirely dependent on the personal assistance (and bureaucratic whims) of archival officials. Kathryn Weathersby, a visiting scholar at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo who was on t he cusp of making major new discoveries on the origins of the Korean War, recalls how, at this key moment, officials at the Russian Foreign Ministry archive demanded she sign a statement promising “to submit my notes at the end of each day so that they co uld be ‘corrected.’” (Fortunately for Weathersby, the authorities never checked her portable computer, onto which she logged most of her notes.)
More important, the Golden Period proved exceedingly shortlived. A few months after the Moscow conference, officials in the Russian Security Ministry (the successor to the KGB) initiated a sudden clamp down on scholarly ac cess, charging that hordes of f oreign researchers were looting Russia’s “national patrimony.” Their frustration was, in part, understandable, since many Russian ar chivists, devastated by the disappearance of state subsidies, had begun auctioning off documents to foreign television sta tions, often granting them exclusive access to materials that Russians had never seen. Compounding the problem, some publishing houses — notably Crown, which shelled out $1 million for a book series to be based on exclusive access to KGB documents — st ruck similar deals. The CWIHP, for its part, refuses to enter these bidding wars and vows that any documents it obtains will be open to the public. But rectitude has its price. At one point, an official tauntingly asked the CWIHP, “Why should I bother to talk to you when German television will offer us $20,000 for one file?”
The main reason for the Russian backlash against openness was not greed, but embarrassment over unseemly revelations. Months after the Moscow conference, the Western press published stories on a sensational document discovered by an Australian researcher that, if authentic, meant there were substantially more American prisoners of war in Vietnam than Hanoi had officially claimed. The document, whose accuracy is still contested, led to pointed inquiries from the Clinton administration. Defensive Russian of ficials soon abandoned their open-drawer policy. Some even began to suggest that certain CWIHP scholars were CIA agents in academic disguise.
The CWIHP tries to avoid such skirmishes by showing that the benefits of openness can flow both ways. “When beginning dialogue with the Lithuanians or Vietnamese,” explains Hershberg, “we’ve always brought along lots of declassified American documents to show that this is a two-way street.” To that end, the project works closely with the National Security Archive (NSA), which was founded in 1985 to help journalists and scholars declassify American records. While collaborating on numerous conferences with the CWIHP, the NSA has opened its doors to dozens of foreign research fellows, some of whom have returned home to promote Western standards of openness. Csaba Békés, for example, a Hungarian scholar who completed a CWIHP fellowship in 1993, now spearheads Budapest’s “1956 Institute,” an organization working to declassify documents.
But sometimes a smiling face isn’t enough. The release of materials in the former Communist bloc remains profoundly fraught, largely because, as Tina Rosenberg poignantly illustrates in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Haunted Land (1995), the transit ion to post-Communism has elicited as much of a desire to conceal history as to expose it. In Germany, for example, the archives of the former East German Socialist Union Party (SED), which disbanded shortly after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, are comp letely open — yet the East German Foreign Ministry archives, which many believe will shed light on West German appeasement and collaboration with the East, remain tightly wrapped under a thirty-year waiting period. While Western scholars regard such mate rials as crucial to filling out the historical record, in Eastern Europe and Russia their impact is often felt in far more visceral and immediate ways. “You have to understand,” explains Christian Ostermann, a German historian currently working as the CWI HP’s acting director, “all of these issues may be of academic interest in America. In Europe, they are of acute political importance today.”
NOTHING illustrates this point more dramatically than the conference on Poland’s martial law crisis, which the CWIHP, the NSA, and the Polish Academy of Sciences co-sponsored last fall in Jachranka, a small town outside Warsaw.
Hershberg and his fellow organizers adopted a “critical oral history” format for the symposium, juxtaposing the latest documentary evidence with recollections of actual participants. At one end of the conference table sat Marshal Viktor G. Kulikov, the on ce-despised Soviet commander who, throughout the 1980-81 Solidarity uprising, regularly reminded Polish officials that Soviet troops were poised to pummel the anti-Commmunist movement. Still a devout Communist, Kulikov strode into the conference decked ou t in full Soviet regalia. Meanwhile, next to him, veiled by his trademark dark glasses, stood General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the former Polish Communist head of state who, on December 13, 1981, somberly informed his people that he had issued an order to imp ose martial law. Ever since, Jaruzelski has maintained his political legitimacy — and avoided going to prison — by claiming that he did so only to stave off the Soviets, whom he feared might invade. Did Jaruzelski, in fact, act patriotically? Marshal Ku likov and the Soviets have maintained that, despite their threats, they never had any intention of invading at the time and that crushing Solidarity was a strictly Polish affair. Sixteen years after Jaruzelski’s decision, in the presence of historians, fo rmer Solidarity firebrands, and Carter and Reagan administration officials (including Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under Carter), these various players gathered in a single room to air their elaborate — and, of course, irreconcilable — stories about the past.
“Just organizing that conference was like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube,” says Hershberg. “Whenever one side fell into place, the other sides would object because they had their own political agenda and demands.” Indeed, the conference, originally schedu led for June, had to be delayed several months until after Polish elections, since the issue of past Communist misdeeds was being hotly debated by candidates.
The meeting’s most dramatic evidence emerged from an unexpected source: General Viktor Anoshkin, a Soviet adjutant who, unbeknownst to the conference organizers, brought with him a copy of his own, never-before-seen diary, which contained detailed notes f rom top-level meetings that had transpired in Warsaw throughout the 1981 crisis. As the conference participants learned, on December 11, 1981, just two days before the imposition of martial law, Anoshkin’s diary shows that Jaruzelski explicitly asked Mosc ow whether Soviet troops would back up Warsaw’s effort to crush Solidarity. “We will not introduce forces,” the Soviets responded. Jaruzelski’s reaction, carefully recorded in the diary, reads: “This is terrible news for us…. There has been a year and a half of prattling about introducing forces — and now everything has been dropped.” In other words, Jaruzelski, far from relieved that the Soviets were staying away, was severely disappointed. Two days later, the man who claims to have had no other choic e ordered tanks to roll through the streets and trample Solidarity.
The disclosure sent shock waves through the conference hall. After a break in the session, a shaken Jaruzelski reportedly approached Marshal Kulikov, head bowed and face ashen. “How could you let them do this to me — in front of the Americans!” he whispe red in Russian. Kulikov responded by tenderly embracing his former comrade and kissing him on the cheeks.
In the end, the meetings raised fresh doubts about whether Jaruzelski’s decision to crush Solidarity was necessary. It also exposed the ambiguities of Warsaw’s relationship with Moscow, puncturing the myth, which much of the new Cold War history is explod ing, that all the important decisions during the Cold War were made at the Kremlin. Brzezinski and other U.S. observers admitted to being surprised. Even Harvard’s Richard Pipes, an inveterate cold-warrior who served as Reagan’s chief adviser on the Sovie t Union, admitted to Hershberg and others at the conference that events in Poland “were far more complicated than I had thought at the time.”
FOR ALL the bombshells unloaded at CWIHP conferences, the gatherings themselves have been equally crucial for forging an international network of scholars. “Perhaps the most important thing we’ve done is bring together scholars who speak different languages and work in different areas and who would otherwise be working in total isolation,” reflects Hershberg. “A number of contacts and friendships have formed. We’ve even had our first project marriage.” (In January, Vojtech Mastny, a Czec h-born scholar, took the hand of Kathryn Weathersby.)
Such fraternizing can yield important scholarly rewards. Piero Gleijeses, a historian at Johns Hopkins, for example, spent several years researching a book on Cuban foreign policy in Africa, but had little luck acquiring internal Cuban records. Through th e CWIHP, he got in touch with Odd Arne Westad, a Norwegian scholar halfway around the globe who had obtained a trove of Soviet documents on the same topic. Gleijeses traveled to Havana with a paper on the subject by Westad and showed it to Cuban officials , who were incensed that Soviet records depicted Havana as Moscow’s submissive proxy. Goaded by Westad’s claims, the Cubans promptly showered Gleijeses with hundreds of internal documents suggesting this was not the case.
Of course, the pro spect of holing up in far-flung libraries to wade through messy, jumbled archives does not appeal to everyone. CWIHP senior scholar David Wolff describes himself and his colleagues as arkhivoedy, a Russian term meaning “archive eaters. ” In addition to Russian, the globe-trotting Wolff is fluent in French, German, and Chinese. “The joys of just getting these fresh archives that no one has ever seen before is pure excitement,” Wolff says. “Pure juice.” Even arkhivoedy, however, occasiona lly feel the strain of such work. During a tear through the Baltics last summer, Wolff confesses that at one point he turned to Hershberg and Mark Kramer — who has mastered most Eastern-bloc languages and is notorious for staying up all night translating documents while subsisting on popcorn — and asked, “What am I doing spending my summer with you nuts?” Later, however, the trio bumped into some Latvian computer hackers, who tipped them off about a computerized database filled with top secret intellige nce information that the KGB had accidentally left behind before fleeing the Baltics. The arkhivoedy could feast at last.
HUNTING down documents breeds camaraderie, but interpreting them is a different matter. In the case of materials locked behind the Iron Curtain for a half century, the rush to judgment is especially tempting — yet perilous. Recently in Germany, for example, several major newspapers ran prominent stories heralding the discovery of notes from a 1945 meeting among top Soviet officials. The notes contain the proclamation, “There will be two Germanys — despite all the unity among the Allies .” This was proof, the papers excitedly reported, that the Soviets had planned to partition their country all along. The trouble is, as the Stanford University historian Norman Naimark explains in The Russians in Germany (Harvard, 1995), this interpretati on is unfounded. Elsewhere in the document, the notes suggest that Stalin clearly voiced his opposition to dividing Germany at this time. The “two Germanys,” Naimark concludes, likely refers to a competition between “progressive” and “reactionary” politic al forces that the Soviets did view as inevitable. So much for the hype.
In such cases, it’s nice to have a historian on hand to clear the air. But in other places, the air has been clouded by the historians themselves. At an April 1996 gathering of scholars at Temple University, John Lewis Gaddis presented a preliminary versi on of the concluding chapter to We Now Know. As the dust settles on the collapsed Soviet empire, argued Gaddis, and as light pours in from the archives, “Stalin’s centrality to the origins of the Cold War becomes quite clear.” According to Gaddis, Stalin’ s “brutal romanticism” and the supremely totalitarian system he erected not only inflicted immense human suffering on millions — but made conflict with the United States throughout the world “unavoidable.” As historians awaken to this realization, Gaddis maintains, America’s valiant role in “resisting authoritarianism” will occupy a central place in the new Cold War history.
Yet when Gaddis presented these conclusions at Temple, a number of scholars in the audience vehemently disagreed. “We had all read the same evidence in the bulletins,” says Hershberg, “but there was no consensus on what it all meant.” Indeed, in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, Melvyn Leffler contends that while the archives do reveal the brutality of the Soviet regime, they also illuminate its fundamentally cautious, defensive foreign policy. Soviet officials, he claims, “did not have preconceived plan s to make Eastern Europe Communist, to support the Chinese Communists, or to wage war in Korea.” While Gaddis chides revisionist scholars for their “shallow, shortsighted, and antiseptic” treatment of Soviet totalitarianism and their myopic obsession with America’s Cold War blunders, Leffler disapproves of the triumphalist tone in Gaddis’s reading of the evidence, warning that self-congratulation risks obscuring U.S. actions that “contributed to the arms race and the expansion of the Cold War into the Thi rd World.”
How Leffler and Gaddis can arrive at such opposing viewpoints is explained, in part, by the richness and variety of the new material. There is, for example, ample evidence that, as Gaddis puts it, “what is emerging from the archives are stories more horri fying than most of the images put forward…by the Soviet Union’s most strident critics.” Stalin, for example, seems to have played a direct role in mass repressions on a larger scale than even the higher earlier estimates had posited, severely undercutti ng a school of revisionist Sovietology that had claimed otherwise. Among the most chilling documents to emerge is a Stalin memorandum ordering the mass execution of fifteen thousand Polish prisoners of war in the Katyn Forest in 1940 — definitive proof o f a breathtaking crime long suspected yet shrouded in secrecy and denial. For Gaddis, such revelations illuminate the murderous intentions of a man who “waged Cold Wars” on all fronts and could never have been trusted. Leffler, however, counters that Stal in’s savagery cannot explain crucial aspects of Soviet foreign policy — and here, too, new evidence has emerged to bolster the claim. For example, Naimark’s The Russians in Germany concludes that Stalin, far from wishing to divide Germany after World War II, in fact wished the country to remain neutral and unified, in part because he desired access to western Germany’s rich mineral resources. Says Leffler: “Was all Soviet behavior pure aggression? That’s a gross simplification. One has to consider the se curity concerns of a nation that had just experienced occupation, economic devastation, and the destruction of twenty-seven million of its people in war.”
SCHOLARS invariably emphasize different pieces of evidence to illustrate their points. What’s more surprising is that some important new discoveries have been cited by both Leffler and Gaddis as proof of their respective interpretations — which only underscores the fact that the evidence does not fully confirm either of their views. No case illustrates this more strikingly than Kathryn Weathersby’s explosive new findings on the origins of the Korean War.
In the early 1990s, Weathersby began “groping through the dark” in Moscow, as she describes it, searching for new archival materials on Korea. In January 1993, she came upon her first major discovery: a 1966 report on the Korean War compiled for the Sovie t Foreign Ministry. (The report was first unearthed by two Russian archivists researching a separate matter.) Written by unnamed Soviet officials, the report explicitly referred to Stalin giving “final agreement to support the plans of the [North] Koreans ” to launch an attack on the South — a disclosure that, if true, shattered four decades of Soviet denials that it had ever given North Korea a green light for the southern invasion, while putting to rest the fierce debate over who actually started the wa r. A year later, the picture was rounded out when, during a visit to Moscow by South Korean president Kim Young Sam, Boris Yeltsin handed Kim hundreds of previously classified Soviet documents on the Korean War that reveal that, in early 1950, Soviet and North Korean officials together planned an offensive against South Korea.
At first glance, Weathersby’s findings would seem to blow a hole through a hulking body of revisionist scholarship on the subject. In recent years, a rich array of work on Korea, including a monumental two-volume account by University of Chi cago historia n Bruce Cumings, has cast considerable doubt on the traditional view that the Korean War was a simple matter of Communist aggression overseen and orchestrated by Moscow. The revisionists counter that the Korean War was primarily a civil war, one preceded by a disastrous American military intervention, beginning in 1945. In this view, the Americans are blamed for undermining a popular left-leaning government, based in Seoul, that represented Korea’s best hope for peaceful unification. “No one and everyone” was to blame for the war’s outbreak, argues Cumings in his detailed and illuminating account, which documents a chain of border raids and provocations on both sides well before 1950.
Weathersby agrees that the Korean War had much to do with internal tensions. But, she adds, “I think it’s erroneous to argue that the war would have happened without Stalin’s approval…. The revisionists downplay the Soviet role. The documents are clear about how the decision was made.” In a recent heated exchange between Weathersby and Cumings in a CWIHP bulletin, Cumings stubbornly maintains that historians should wait until documents are released in North Korea and China before submitting any final ju dgments. Weathersby won’t have it: The question of who started the war, she writes, has already “been resolved.”
Orthodox scholars have embraced Weathersby’s conclusions. Gaddis, for example, touts her findings in We Now Know, claiming they conclusively undermine revisionist speculation that the North Koreans and Soviets were somehow “maneuvered” into attacking Sout h Korea so that Washington could justify an immense boost in U.S. military spend ing (which tripled after the United States intervened).
A point scored, it would seem, by the traditionalist camp. And yet, despite all of this, Weathersby’s findings by no means hew to a strictly orthodox perspective. In fact, in a 1993 article for the CWIHP bulletin, she notes that although Stalin approve d the launch ing of the war, he did so only “after persistent appeals (48 telegrams!)” from North Korea’s Kim Il Sung and “only because he calculated it would not involve military conflict with the United States.” In other words, what comes across in the documents, says Weathersby, “is a tremendous appreciation for the vulnerability and weakness of the Soviet Union…. The ortho dox scholars see Korea as a probe by Stalin before going further to Turkey or West Germany. There’s absolutely no evidence for t hat. He actually saw this as security against a renewed Japanese threat…and was deeply reluctant.” In his essay in Foreign Affairs, Leffler proceeds to weave Weathersby’s analysis of Stalin’s motivations into the broader tapestry of his own argument abo ut Soviet caution and insecurity — exactly the opposite conclusion that Gaddis extracts from the same evidence.
FOR Weathersby, the lesson is that the new archival evidence throws into question both orthodox and revisionist assumptions. “It makes the old camps seem less relevant,” she explains. “The old debate took place in a vacuum — it revolved around America. As we get deeper and deeper into the archives, the questions will become much more subtle and refined.”
The questions will also, invariably, begin to revolve around whole new subjects. Since so many of the scholars now digging through the archives themselves grew up under Communist regimes, their work is, for one thing, bound to deal in a more nuanced fashi on with tensions and conflicts within the Communist world — which in many Western accounts has been painted in broad, monochromatic strokes, as though all Communists looked and thought alike. Pawel Machewicz, a thirty-two-year-old Polish historian who co mpleted a CWIHP fellowship in 1994, has published a social history of the 1956 anti-Soviet uprisings in Poland. Basing his account on the new archival evidence, Machewicz examines the conflict not through the familiar lens of East-West superpower conflict but from the perspective of protesters and grassroots organizers on Poland’s streets — providing, in the process, a class analysis of the supposedly classless Stalinist system. The new Cold War history, it seems, will be written not just from the other side — but from the bottom up as well.
“The new scholarship is revealing the enormous complexity and subtlety of Communist relations,” explains Chen Jian, a Chinese-born scholar now at Southern Illinois University and the author of China’s Road to the Korean War (Columbia, 1994). In his book, which is based on an unprecedented range of Chinese sources, Jian pointedly distinguishes his approach from earlier “American-centered” scholarship that “viewed China’s entrance into the Korean War as a reflection of a well-coordinated Communist plot…un der the control of Moscow.” Chinese culture and psychology, he contends — in particular, the desire to restore the Chinese “Central Kingdom” to its glory days — profoundly shaped Mao’s decision to enter the Korean War. Moreover, he maintains, whereas so me scholars have portrayed Mao and Stalin as birds of a feather, their relationship was in fact deeply charged and complex.
Not as complex as the archival record itself, however. Consider the following example: Ten years ago, a cable from Mao to Stalin, dated October 2, 1950, was published in an official Chinese document marked for internal use only. (Word soon dribbled out to the West.) In the telegram, the Chinese ruler informs his Soviet comrade that China is ready to enter the Korean War: “We are prepared to annihilate the invaders from the United States,” crows the swaggering chairman. Until the release of this cable, his torians had known only that, after U.S. troops crossed the 38th parallel into North Korea on September 30, China had issued continuous warnings to the United States not to provoke it into entering the war. The Truman administration ignored these warnings and marched U.S. forces directly toward China’s border, at which point China launched a massive counteroffensive, turning Korea into a prolonged three-year conflagration. Did America’s reckless push to the Chinese border force China reluctantly to declare war? Or were the Chinese planning on war from the moment that U.S. troops entered North Korean territory? The October cable to Stalin seemed to confirm the latter view, and from the moment of its appearance, scholars treated it as a major revelation.
But was it? In 1995, after obtaining a collection of Russian archival documents, James Hershberg and colleagues at the CWIHP discovered a stark discrepancy in the Soviet account of the October 2 communication. According to Soviet records, Mao sent a messa ge that day expressing his firm reluctance to enter the war. “This will provoke an open conflict between the USA and China,” worried Mao, “as a consequence of which the Soviet Union can also be dragged into war.” To which an irate Stalin thundered, “Then let it be waged now!”
So what gives? Is the October 2 telegram in the Chinese archives a fake? Or is the Soviet account inaccurate?
A scholarly uproar ensued. To resolve it, Chen Jian traveled to Beijing and asked to check the authenticity of the Chinese cable himself. What Jian learned is that, while the Chinese cable was indeed in Mao’s handwriting, it lacked an office staff signatu re indicating when it had been dispatched. The cable, it seems, was drafted but never sent. To some historians, this raises new questions about America’s responsibility for provoking the Chinese. Chen Jian, for his part, believes that China would have int ervened regardless. He bases this judgment on…other archival evidence.
THE DETAILS of all this are enough to make even an archivist’s head spin, but the incident also brings to mind a larger, more significant matter once raised by E.H. Carr. Historians, Carr cautioned thirty-five years ago, must strain to r esist “the fetishism of documents” — that blinding affliction that spread amid the nineteenth century’s equally seductive “fetishism of facts.” Documents, warned Carr, “were the Ark of the Covenant in the temple of facts.” He continued:
The reverent historian approached them with bowed head and spoke of them in awed tones. If you find it in the documents, it is so. But what, when we get down to it, do these documents…tell us? No document can tell us more than what the author of the doc ument thought…or perhaps only what he wanted others to think he thought, or even only what he himself thought he thought.
The point is not, of course, that documents are meaningless but that they can blind those who reflexively treat them like the sacred truth, leading to work that is archivally original and theoretically naive. As the flood of material from enemy archives l aps onto the shores of academia, the challenge, it seems, will be not merely to sort, translate, and publish new documents, and not merely to revel in their significance, but to keep them in perspective, assess what’s still missing and — most importantly perhaps — continue to insist on debating, rather than merely invoking, their significance.
The last of these injunctions is almost certain to be met by Cold War scholars, whose robust disagreements show no signs of abating. CWIHP is, meanwhile, ambitiously expanding its agenda — planning conferences on the revolutions of 1989, launching a spec ial project on Stalin’s foreign policy — but in a way that suggests a humble awareness of the immensity of the task.
“We’ve just scratched the surface,” concedes Christian Ostermann. “Yes, we know a lot about certain key events, like the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. But the years in between the crises remain a gray zone.” In particular, he adds, while scholars have unearthed a vast mountain of documents on diplomatic affairs, they’ve barely begun digging into the rich veins of social and cultural history. “We’ve gathered almost nothing on the social and economic history of the Cold War. But the material is so rich. Take the spread of ‘blue-jean culture’ among East German youth: In the 1950s, the East German politburo wrote up anxious reports about the threat posed by denim! Diplomatic scholars love to read transcripts of Kremlin meetings , but when it comes down to it, pop culture — blue jeans, television, McDonald’s — had an explosive impact.”
Ostermann pauses. “When you think about how much is out there, you realize that this whole project has just begun.”