The precise period of the Cold War is difficult to limit since it cannot be linked to a particular starting and ending event. For ease of understanding we can define the Cold War as taking place between 1945 (the end of the Second World War) and 1991 (the collapse of the Soviet Union). It is important to note, however, that some historians argue, perhaps convincingly, that the Cold War era actually commenced in 1917 with the Bolshevik take-over of power in Russia. Other historians have argued that the Cold War commenced slightly later during the Allied War of Intervention in Russia in 1918 (when British, American and other “western” forces fought alongside the White Armies as anti-Bolshevik allies during the Russia Civil War).
- What is meant by the term “the Cold War” as it is used by historians?
For the purposes of clarity in our studies this semester, the term “The Cold War” will be used to refer specifically to the tensions that existed between the Capitalist/Liberal Democratic world (led by the USA) and the Communist/Marxist-Leninist world (led by the USSR and to some extent China) in the post-1945 era.
- How does a “cold war” differ from other wars?
Cold wars (generally) can be understood as periods of international tension and hostility between nations that fall short of actually breaking out in open, large-scale warfare between them.
The Cold War, therefore, was a period of confrontation between the post-1945 superpowers that never amounted to direct open warfare between them. Rather their confrontation was often by “proxy”, confined to “incidents” or other military, political or economic actions.
- How do historians study the Cold War?
After consideration of key terms and issues of historiography, the Cold War is often studied through the use of incidents as case studies that give examples of the policies of the superpowers. A wide range of international “incidents” took place during the period and historians tend to choose from these numerous examples of tension to illustrate their perspectives on issues relating to the Cold War.
- What is the historiography of the Cold War?
Historiography is essentially the study of the way that history is written. Effectively, historiography can be thought of as “the study of the study of history”. The Cold War period is an excellent time frame to consider in terms of historiography as historians studying the period have involved themselves a series of clearly articulated and documented debates regarding key issues of the period.
For example, historians argue as to the precise origins of the Cold War. Generally speaking, they offer three broadly differing perspectives as to the causes and responsibility for the tensions between the USA and the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1991. These three differing historical “schools” are known as the “orthodox”, “revisionist” and “post-revisionist” schools of thought and represent the three main perspectives offered by historians on the study of the Cold War.