History Jim Mamer Original

Missing Links in Textbook History: Cold War Origins

35th POTUS John F. Kennedy(left) in front of American Flag and Premiere Nikita Krushchev(right) in front of Soviet Flag.

By Jim Mamer / Original to ScheerPost

Paranoia strikes deep 
Into your life it will creep 
It starts when you’re always afraid 
You step out of line, the man come and take you away 

Buffalo Springfield

“Somethings Happening Here” (1966)

Paranoia may be the major ingredient in American Exceptionalism. Where else can a kid grow up in security and relative wealth and yet learn to fear whatever seems different? 

It started early for me. When I was in grammar school, I remember watching reruns of a black and white series called “I Led Three Lives” about a businessman who was also a Communist and an FBI agent. As a kid, it seemed like a documentary. 

I also remember some of my parents’ friends talking about the Communist Russians as evil-godless-threats. 

That’s why my elementary school classes held monthly atom bomb drills to prepare us for the Russian attack. During the drills we were made to hide under our desks while the nun told us not to look at the windows because our eyes would melt. I was doubtful that being under a desk would help, but I did as I was told and learned to fear the unknown.

In 7th grade I found a copy of J. Edgar Hoover’s “Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America and How to Fight it.” One of our teachers had told us that the book was important, but it turned out to be difficult for me to understand. 

It began ominously: “Many Americans have not stopped to realize what a Soviet America would mean. The communists, however, have no doubts. Their blueprints are already made. So, at the very outset, let us look at their dream and see what it would mean to you and me and all the people we know.” 

Then there were incomprehensible chapters on Marx and Lenin which I skipped. The only chapter I could understand was titled “Who are the Communists?” So, I read it a couple of times and then tried to discover who might fit Hoover’s description of a communist because, as he wrote, anyone could fall victim to “the communist device of thought control.”

Support our Independent Journalism — Donate Today!

By the time I started high school I had given up my search for subversives and, for a while, I thought my classes might help me understand my fears. But everything seemed missing. In our American history class, we did not get much past World War II. In world history, the world was mostly Europe. We learned a little about China, but it was ancient China. To me the world remained a fearful mystery. 

Despite my being in high school in the midst of the Cold War, I don’t remember learning anything about what it was or how it started. Nevertheless, I managed to get the impression that communists, or more specifically Russians, were behind a lot of the world’s problems. 

This was no way to educate young people.

Today, high school history is supposed to teach something about the Cold War, but, especially if the courses are text-dependent, what students learn is not very useful. Textbook content has not changed much since the 1960s. The missing links are more like missing chapters. 

The California State Framework for American History adopted in 2016 is meant to provide guidance for textbook publishers but even that document is vague about the Cold War and Cold War origins, leaving the impression that it happened simply because Stalin had “a plan” that differed from that of the United States. Below is the essence of that advice:

Even before the end of World War II, American leaders sensed that Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, had a plan for the postwar world that did not align with America’s vision of an open-door world. It was soon clear that there would be an ideological and geopolitical struggle with consequences rippling across the globe…

In addition to vaguely worded guidance, the publishers of high school textbooks also face the pressures of a market economy in which textbooks are products produced for profit, and the education system is the sole consumer. As a result, everything in these books, from the materials covered to the writing style, is determined by what has already been accepted in the market.   

The market, however, means a variety of things. The adoption policies vary considerably by state. According to research done by James Loewen, “Publisher pressure derives in part from textbook adoption boards and committees in states and school districts. These are subject in turn to pressure from organized groups and individuals who appear before them.” 

According to the Education Commission of the States, for example, 19 states and Washington D.C. prescribe textbooks at the state agency level, while the remaining states leave it to local education agency level (such as a school district)… State boards of education usually vote on the final textbook and instructional material adoption, but smaller committees may conduct the in-depth review and recommendation of the materials. 

These state boards of education and local committees often hold hearings at which the public is invited to comment. According to Loewen “In Texas and California, at least, these are occasions in which organized groups attack or promote one or more of the selections, often contending that a book fails to meet a requirement found within the regulations or specifications… Since adoption committees do try to please constituents, those who complain at hearings often make a difference.” Textbooks may have been written originally by historians, but they quickly become the creations of school boards and local committees.

On a subject as contentious as the Cold War, abrupt changes are unlikely because such history is difficult to explore honestly without angering interest groups from the PTA and state governments to religious institutions. In “America Revised” Frances Fitzgerald describes the process as attempting to satisfy “the lowest common denominator of American tastes.”

Professional historians all seem to agree on the definition of the Cold War as characterized by perpetual hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union and a mutual determination not to use ultimate force. They all recognize that the Cold War did not actually begin right after World War II, but they differ considerably in how they describe the sources of conflict. This creates more than one school of history. In a general sense, these can be divided into two major schools.

Those in the first group are variously labeled consensus, orthodox or realist; I will refer to them as consensus. Historians in the second group are usually labeled revisionist because they revise what was originally a rather narrow, even nationalistic, focus. 

There are two questions that should show how a book characterizes the Cold War and its origins. 1) What is said of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union before WWII? 2) In the period following WWII, how are American attitudes and intentions characterized and how are Soviet attitudes and intentions characterized?

One admonition is worth mentioning: Taking excerpts from professional historians almost always means taking them out of a larger context that is important to clearly understand what is being explained. So rather than simply quoting, I have tried to summarize what these historians argue. In contrast, excerpts taken from high school texts are usually representative of the entire argument. What you see is what you get.

Consensus Historians: The Russians started it.

The first American historians to analyze international relations after the war are generally considered part of the consensus. These historians tend to see the Cold War as a result of Soviet aggression and, thus they see American policies having been largely defensive. In the postwar period, that view was originally set forth by the American government and in the semi-official writings of former ambassador to the Soviet Union, George F. Kennan. Consensus historians tend to regard the United States as non ideological and assume that a successful foreign policy should be based on what is defined as in the American national interest. 

In Kennan’s 1947 essay, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” he warned that the Russians looked forward to a duel of infinite duration and concluded that Soviet leadership was fueled by “an arrogant and uncompromising ideology.”

In “American Foreign Policy since World War II” John Spanier wrote that the “Soviet style” ensured that the wartime alliance would break up and force the Western allies to return Stalin’s hostility. 

In “The Origins of the Cold War” Hans Morgenthau, wrote that after 1943 (when a Soviet victory over Germany was assured) “…the main purpose of Stalin’s foreign policy changed from assuring security to expansion, beginning in Eastern Europe.”

Revisionist Historians: The Russians weren’t the only ones to blame.

The revisionists, who generally began writing later, tend to regard the United States as another imperial power with an unexamined commitment to capitalism (or what is rhetorically called a commitment to the “open door”). They contend that, as a result of this, the U.S. has required continual economic growth to prevent economic stagnation. To make that point Walter LaFeber quotes Assistant Secretary of State Will Clayton: “No nation in modern times can expect to enjoy a rising standard of living without increased foreign trade.”

Under the initial inspiration of William Appleman Williams (The Tragedy of American Diplomacy) the revisionists offered counterpoints to the charge that the Soviet Union (or communism in general) was solely responsible for the Cold War.

In “America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-1984” Cornell University’s Walter LaFeber saw policies of the U.S. as contributing factors citing, for example, President Wilson’s participation in the counterrevolution against the Bolshevik government from 1918 to 1920 and President Roosevelt’s refusal to respond to Soviet appeals for a second front against the Germans from 1942 to 1944.

In “The Limits of Power” Joyce and Gabriel Kolko clearly defined American policy as expansionist. Initially they argued that U.S. programs abroad were an attempt to integrate all of Europe into one capitalist bloc. Faced with Soviet pressure in Eastern Europe the U.S. concentrated on establishing Western Europe as an “integrated trading bloc” with itself at the center.

High School Textbooks: The Cold War Happened

In “The Americans” and in “History Alive,” there is nothing written about relations between the United States and the Soviet Union before World War II. 

In “The Americans – The History of a People:” “Ever since the Russian revolution of 1917, the United States had refused to recognize that country’s government. This was partly because of opposition to communism, and partly because the Soviet Government had taken over American property and refused to repay loans that the United States had made to the Russian monarchy.”

In “A History of the United States Since 1861,” “The United States and Great Britain had been the allies of Soviet Russia for only one reason – to defeat Adolf Hitler. Since the two Western powers had never trusted Stalin, they had not even told him about the atomic bomb … still American leaders thought that these differences would not have to bring on another war.”

In “History Alive” emphasis is put on U.S. diplomat George Kennan’s claim that “the Soviets were ‘committed fanatically’ to the belief that the U.S. system and way of life must be destroyed ‘if Soviet power is to be secure.’ To prevent this, Kennan recommended that, ‘the Soviet Union must be contained.’ ” 

From “The Americans:” emphasis is put on Kennan’s recommendation of containment, which it defines as “an effort to block the Soviets’ attempts to spread their influence by creating alliances and supporting weaker countries.” That text also quotes Winston Churchill’s 1946 speech declaring that “an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”

From “A History of the United States Since 1861:” “If communism was crammed down the throats of the people in Eastern Europe, what about the lands that bordered those nations? Now a communist tyranny threatened Europe.”

From “The Americans – The History of a People” [Stalin wanted control over a Seaport in the Mediterranean. He also pressured Turkey for bases.] “So, in 1946 Truman sent a naval task force into the eastern Mediterranean [because] if the USSR could bring Iran, Turkey, and Greece under its influence, much of the Muslim world would be threatened. Truman was determined to stop Soviet influence in the area.”

I believe that what lies beneath the arguments of both consensus and revisionist historians is likely to reflect what they assume about the basic nature of international politics in the postwar period. Both schools of history bring something to the table and deserve a place in the textbook narratives. 

Nevertheless, every high school text that I’ve examined adopts a simplified version of the consensus viewpoint in which the post-war Soviets are depicted as ideological and aggressive and therefore largely responsible for the Cold War. Without alternative explanations it is reasonable for students to feel powerless and even paranoid in the face of unseen forces.

So, I am not suggesting that the various state frameworks or the state-approved textbooks adapt any specific school of history to explain the Cold War, but what I want to make clear is that giving students a one-dimensional view of history is not constructive. It may be a way to avoid controversy, but it is not history. 

Students deserve to be aware of various  arguments, especially when these lead to different interpretations of the past. What is missing in these textbooks is more than a few historical events. What is missing is any basis for debate or argument. What is missing is any sense of history.

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

* indicates required
Jim Mamer
Jim Mamer

Jim Mamer is a retired high school teacher.  He was a William Robertson Coe Fellow for study of United States History at Stanford University in 1984. He served as History/Social Science department chair for 20 years and was a mentor teacher in both Modern American History and Student Assessment. In 1992 he was named a Social Science/History Teacher of the Year by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).


ScheerPost.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license. CC-BY-NC-ND only applies to ORIGINAL ScheerPost content.

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments