Melvyn Leffler: Compared with John Lewis Gaddis

Historians in the News

John Lewis Gaddis of Yale University-where, more fittingly now than when he left Ohio University for Yale, he holds the Robert A. Lovett chair in history-may be dean of the Cold War historians, but Melvyn Leffler, the Edward Stettinius professor of history at the University of Virginia, is in a position to compete with Gaddis. Both scholars have written landmark books-Strategies of Containment and The United States and the Origins of the Cold War by Gaddis and A Preponderance of Power by Leffler-and their work has informed much of the American academic debate about U.S. foreign policy in the Cold War.

For those readers who are unfamiliar with the debate, here is a quick overview of the four main schools of Cold War thought (with occasional blending thereof). Realism, the oldest approach, holds that the Cold War arose out of the power vacuum at the end of World War II and that American and Soviet leaders pursued their respective national interests because of power politics. Rising to ascendancy in the 1960s and 1970s, revisionism counters that American presidents' policy choices, along with the market structure of capitalism, caused the East-West conflict, while the Soviet Union was a revolutionary power seeking political and economic equality. Starting in the 1970s with newly available materials from the Truman Presidential Library and other U.S. sources, post-revisionism aims to make realism more nuanced and presents the Cold War as a series of mutual misunderstandings between the United States and the Soviet Union. Finally, from the late 1980s to the present, corporatism merges the power politics of realism with the core economic arguments of revisionism, portraying the United States, the USSR, and their respective leaders as rational actors who constantly sought security through their strategic and economic policy choices. Although historians have dominated the debate between and among the four schools of thought, political scientists have weighed in heavily over the years. Indeed, none of these approaches would be possible without political science, since realism and neo-Marxist revisionism originated in that discipline. And it should be noted that the roots for these schools are found in practical politics rather than scholarly writing: witness the work of diplomat-scholar George F. Kennan, diplomat Charles Bohlen, and journalist Walter Lippmann for the realists and progressive politician Henry A. Wallace and, to an extent, Lippmann (again) for the revisionists....

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