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Origins Of The Cold War Essay, Research Paper

The purpose of this paper is to explore the origins of the Cold War. To accomplish this exploration, the works of W.A. Williams, Robert Jervis, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. serves as the foundation. Before a closer examination of these works, a short explanation of the three common viewpoints regarding the study of the Cold War is warranted. These viewpoints are Attribution, Structural, and Misperception. With these viewpoints to guide the way, the above authors look at the origins of the Cold War. I will make my own points about the origins later.

Following World War II, the United States and the Former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) changed roles from Allies to enemies. The standoff between the two never came to direct blows but instead remained “Cold” for the better part of fifty years. The end of the Cold War in 1989 caused the International Relations community and the world at large to pause and think about what caused this Cold War. There had been beliefs during the “war” as to why it happened, but now with the pressure off and the future uncertain, everyone wanted to know what was (is) in store for the world. The three main explanations for the Cold War are diverse and strongly supported by their faithful followers. The Attribution viewpoint is supported by W.A. Williams, the Structural viewpoint by Spanier (do you mean schlesinger?)and Misperception by Jervis.

The idea of attribution belongs with actors. The attributes of the actors involved produce the biases and perceptions found throughout policymaking and decision making. The USSR was treated as a unitary actor during the Cold War. It was expected that as a monolith with an aggressive nature and a very expansive ideology (Marxism translated by Lenin), it would seek to dominate the world. The grab for Eastern Europe was only a prelude to the seizing of all of Europe.

The Structuralist view contends that the international system created the Cold War Following the war, all the former great powers were destitute; the two strong powers emerged to fill the vacuum. The European Balance of Power system was replaced by a stable (many would argue that it wasn’t all that stable, just relatively predictable..just food for thought out of my notes, maybe ‘relatively stable’ is a better word) bipolar system that put the US in direct opposition to the USSR following WWII.

The Misperception view believes in just that, misperception between the two belligerents. The perception of each nation viewing the other was actually a misperception. The effect of “mirroring” caused many misperceptions between the two nations. Mirroring is seeing the other as we see ourselves in the mirror, implanting our logic, beliefs, values, and perceptions on the other instead of looking at the other as they see themselves.

William Appleman Williams is considered to be an attributionist (missed a couple letters, I respelled it fur ya). Williams considered the US the aggressor in the COLD WAR. The policy of the “Open Door” created the environment that “closed the door to any result but the cold war” (Williams 1972, 229). This environment was perpetuated by Roosevelt’s successors who “rapidly embarked upon a program to force the Soviet Union to accept America’s traditional conception of itself and the world” (Williams 1972, 206). As the aggressor in the COLD WAR, Williams points out that this environment also affected everyone because if you did not think along the same lines as the US and its open door policy, you “were not only wrong but also incapable of thinking correctly” (Williams, 1972, 206).

Confronted by the nuclear armed US, it is easy to understand in retrospect that the USSR would feel threatened. .The US, in remaining firm in its policy of the Open Door, backed by atomic weapons, “crystallized” the COLD WAR. The Soviets really had only one option: (insert a colon) submit to US demands or face their “power and hostility” (Williams 1972, 206). While individual attributes explain a lot of how the COLD WAR originated, it is not complete in the argument. Perceptions and more specifically, misperceptions fill in some of the missing elements.

Robert Jervis, in an excerpt from his book Perception and Misperception in International Politics, 1976, explains the origins of the COLD WAR from the Misperceptionist view. Jervis presents a two step model; actors perceptions as immediate cause of actions and relating the images held, if not to reality, then to the data available at the time (Viotti and Kauppi 1993, 299). Jervis explains that “it is often impossible to explain crucial decisions and policies without reference to the decision-makers’ beliefs about the world and their images of others” (Viotti and Kauppi, 1993, 298). The interaction between the US and the USSR was problematic from 1945 on. Both had security concerns but these were mutually exclusive. The US wanted to pursue the Open Door policy to ensure the availability of open markets. The USSR felt the need for security from the West, the avenue of invasion for centuries. To eliminate this avenue, the USSR sought to protect its borders with a “buffer zone” consisting of friendly states to them ( maybe better term is ‘communist sattelites’, Stalin wasn’t really interested in friendship, just the ability to control). The resulting perception of each was that the other state was being aggressive. The COLD WAR saw escalation on both sides in the form of weapons, troop strengths, and activities, all to counter what was happening on the other side.

The projection of ones own perceptions onto another is known as mirroring (Rinehart 1998, classnotes). A prime example of this is the arms race joined (created) by both the US and USSR. Both saw the other in terms of themselves (awkward?perhaps ‘their own cognitive maps”) and applied the logic of how they perceived the threat instead of looking at the problem from the other side. This misperception continuously led to actions that perpetuated the COLD WAR. Misperception and attribution answer some of the questions of the origins of the COLD WAR. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. has another perspective that also answers some of the questions.

Schlesinger presents a combination of attribution and structural argument for the origin of the COLD WAR. He out( outright) of hand rejects the misperceptions view because the mirroring effect does not apply. This is because of the ideals of the USSR are so diametrically opposed to the US (Schlesinger 1994, 401). Schlesinger focuses on the intransigence of Leninist ideology, the sinister dynamics of totalitarian society, and the madness of Stalin.

For Schlesinger, the two competing views are “universalist” and “sphere-of-influence.” While the US maintained the Open Door policy, which is Universalist, it rejected the sphere-of-influence view because of the reliance on a balance of power. This fundamental difference in ideologies was a major factor in the COLD WAR.

The USSR was a totalitarian state. It was run by leaders who saw the capitalist world as a threat to the existence of the state. Nothing short of total annihilation of the US and what it represented would suffice in its quest for the Marxist-Leninist nirvana (Schlesinger 1994, 401-402).

All The dictators of the 1930s and 40s did all that they could to stay in power. Stalin was no exception to this rule. Stalin not only saw the US as a threat to his rule but also saw others within his regime as a threat as well. also. His paranoia became so great that his attributes directed the way the USSR was seen by the world. Stalin was a madman (Schlesinger 1994, 402).

These three authors provide some answers to the origins of the COLD WAR. While not rejecting any of the views of attributism, structuralism, or misperceptionism, I find that the answers given do not answer definitively the whole question of what were are the origins of the COLD WAR. I bring forth the theory that all three views are viable and that a combination of the three is where the real answer lies.

Structurally, the entire system was created out of the ashes of the European balance of power system. Without the previous system there would be no foundation to create a bipolar system. While there is linearity to this, there is a causal relationship here.

The attributes of the major actors played a large role in this war. Without the ideals of the players, the deals struck would have been very predictable and lifeless. Attributes bring the human dimension into the world of politics up front.

Misperception between states is reality because the politicians are human. Without people applying their own skew on things there would never be a misperception or perhaps a perception. Applying the mirror image of yourself onto another is natural in the human world. It is quite natural for an actor with strong attributes to apply personal perceptions onto another.

The three views brought together make up a human story of the COLD WAR. Without all three, there is a piece missing as in Schlesinger’s view. I see no reason why all three cannot coexist logically and realistically. All three views are necessary for the whole picture of what the origins of the COLD WAR were.

The origins of the COLD WAR are brought out in three different views, attribution, structural, and misperception. W. A. Williams in his book exemplif ies the attribution view. The misperception view is put forth by Jervis, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. presents his view of attribution and structure. I propose (brought forth-kinda awkward) the view that all three views can exist at once to explain the origins of the COLD WAR.


Schlesinger, Arthur Jr., “The Origins of the Cold War”, in Phil Williams, Donald M. Goldstein, and Jay M. Shafritz, eds., Classic Readings of International Relations (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1994) 395-402.

Viotti, Paul R. and Mark V. Kauppi, 1993. International Relations Theory: Realism, Pluralism, Globalism. 2d ed. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Williams, William Appleman, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, New Ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1972).

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