East-West tension defined the Cold War, but its legacy is the victory of hope over fear
November 1949: Joseph Stalin is alive and in command inside the Kremlin, while Harry S. Truman is president of the United States. The Soviet Union has consolidated its post-World War II sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, forcing the United States to respond with the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and most recently the North Atlantic Treaty Organization--an unprecedented peacetime commitment to the defense of an increasingly desperate Western Europe. The Russians have just exploded their first atomic bomb, several years earlier than expected, and Truman is under pressure to respond by building thermonuclear weapons with a thousand times the destructive power of the device the Americans had dropped, only four years before, on Hiroshima. Mao has proclaimed the People's Republic of China and will soon depart for Moscow to forge a Sino-Soviet alliance, thereby confirming communist control over most of the Eurasian continent. Allegations of espionage within the United States are creating an atmosphere of near hysteria, which Sen. Joseph McCarthy will soon exploit and which his critics will name for him. Meanwhile, George Orwell has published 1984, a profoundly pessimistic vision of survival in an apparently endless Cold War.
What this brief trip through time suggests is that for anyone living in November of 1949, 1959, 1969, or 1979, the Cold War's outcome would not have been at all clear. If anything, it looked as though the Soviet Union and its allies might win: There was a remarkable gap between what people thought was happening and what we now know to have happened. Fears outweighed hopes for so long that when the latter actually prevailed it was a completely unexpected development.
It's now the historians' task to explain this triumph of hopes over fears. It helps to have partial access to Soviet, Eastern European, and Chinese archives. Before the Cold War ended, the American public had more than enough information from Western sources to expose the shortcomings of the United States and its allies, but historians could only hint at those that may have existed on the other side. We now know much more, and what emerges is a pattern of brutality, shortsightedness, inefficiency, vulnerability, and mistrust within the Marxist-Leninist world that dates back to the earliest days of the Cold War.
Just as important, though, is our knowledge of how the Cold War turned out. The view from inside any historical event is bound to be limited--and the Cold War was an unusually protracted event. We have a better sense now of where it's going to fit within the long sweep of history. And we can see, more clearly, why so much of what the West feared never came to pass.
A list of such fears, for an American at the end of 1949, might well have included the following: that, as Orwell's novel suggested, authoritarianism could be the wave of the future; that, as the Marshall Plan and NATO implied, Europe was in danger of becoming a Soviet sphere of influence; that, as Mao's victory seemed to indicate, international communism was a coordinated, monolithic movement; that, as the Soviet atomic bomb appeared to show, a new and far more devastating world war loomed on the horizon; that, as the spy cases revealed, the nation's most closely held secrets were transparent to the enemy. Today, half a century later, we can see how each of these fears became hopes, and then accomplishments, and then the means by which the West prevailed in the Cold War.