History is most useful when approached as a series of decisions rather than events. Choices made can be analyzed in hindsight and assessed as to their wisdom or faults. At certain times, decisions can have long-lasting and profound effects.
One such time was the 1945-1947 period, when the Truman administration adopted policies and attitudes that set the stage for a long Cold War. Another was the 1989-1991 period, when the Cold War ended and the possibility of building a new world order was at hand. In both cases, the “peace dividend” that many citizens sought – a transfer of funds from military to domestic programs such as education and health care – evaporated. Instead of mutual aid and support, a vicarious “empire identity” was parlayed as the glue to unite Americans.
Two recent essays on the U.S. Foreign Policy History & Resource Guide website, "Cold War interventionism, 1945-1990," and "Post-Cold War era, 1989-2001," delve into the decisions made in Washington at the outset of these periods. In the case of the Cold War, six possibilities are laid out from which President Harry Truman could have chosen, the first three being on the peaceful side (he chose the fourth and fifth):
- A global New Deal as suggested by former Vice President Henry A. Wallace;
- Cooperative internationalism and full support for the United Nations as advocated by Eleanor Roosevelt;
- Peaceful coexistence, or détente, which emerged twenty-five years later;
- Containment or encirclement of the Soviet Union and opposition to “communist” movements around the world;
- Rollback or subversion of “communist” governments and movements; and
- Nuclear attack, the most aggressive option for which plans were drawn up but never implemented.
Having examined the decision-making process, the Cold War essay moves on to assess results. Viewed from a peace-oriented value perspective, these results are examined not primarily in terms of military success and national prestige but in terms of ethical considerations and international norms. Was it a war of aggression? Did the U.S. intervention contravene international law? Were the Geneva Conventions respecting civilians observed?
Apart from the Korean War and the Vietnam War (examined in separate essays on the website), most U.S. interventions during the long Cold War were covert. The international relations scholar Lindsey O’Rourke, in Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War (2018), identifies 70 “regime change” interventions during the Cold War, of which 64 were conducted clandestinely through the CIA. Of these 64, five involved assassination plots, 13 involved U.S.-backed military coups and insurrections (9 succeeded), 16 were directed at manipulating elections (12 resulted in the U.S.-backed candidate winning), and 14 instigated sabotage and destabilization operations in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Astoundingly, according to O’Rourke, “The United States supported authoritarian forces in forty-four out of sixty-four covert regime changes, including at least six operations that sought to replace liberal democratic governments with illiberal authoritarian regimes.”
The contradiction between stated U.S. principles and actual policies leads us to a third component of peace history – unpackaging official rationales and ideological presumptions. In the case of the Cold War, this entails a lengthy section on the origins of socialist and communist philosophies and movements, and the manner in which anti-communism has been used to support right-wing authoritarian governments. In the conclusion of this essay, I offer a succinct summary of lessons that may be drawn from this study:
If there is a paramount lesson to be learned from the Cold War, it is that the United States should shed its imperial identity and become a team player on the world stage, pursuing cooperation rather than military preponderance. Let Pax Americana follow Pax Britannica into the dustbin of history. American citizens need to be aware of the history and effects of U.S. foreign policies, cross-examine official rationales, and strengthen mechanisms of democratic accountability, thus enabling critical assessment of current U.S. policies and actions in the world. Ethical standards of behavior should apply to the United States no less than to other nations.
The "Post-Cold War era" essay takes a similar approach: (1) highlighting the choices at hand at a crucial time (and the missed opportunities for creating a more peaceful world), (2) assessing policy results, (3) critiquing official rationales, and (4) probing lessons that might be drawn. I have come to view these four elements as a general peace studies approach to foreign relations and wars. The Post-Cold War essay covers the U.S. invasion of Panama in December 1989, the Persian Gulf War in early 1991, “humanitarian interventions” in Somalia, Bosnia, and elsewhere, and the failed American crusade to remake Russia.
As with all essays on this open resource, non-commercial, educational website, the Cold War and post-Cold War essays are written for students and the general public, offer coherent and well-organized narratives, and are accompanied by many photos and images (125 and 119, respectively). The essays synthesize and build on the work of expert scholars, offer analyses based upon available primary sources, and provide copious endnotes for independent examination of primary documents. Professors, instructors, and teachers are encouraged to assign the essays, all or in part, to their students. All essays may be downloaded in PDF format, with or without images.
The U.S. Foreign Policy History & Resource Guide is an open resource, non-commercial, educational website sponsored by the Historians for Peace and Democracy and the Peace History Society. If interested in assisting this website project (research and production of essays or public outreach), please contact Roger Peace, website coordinator, firstname.lastname@example.org.