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6 - Tracking the Cold War consensus

from PART II - Narrative at war: politics and rhetorical strategy in the military crucible, from Korea to Iraq

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2015

Ronald R. Krebs
Affiliation:
University of Minnesota
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Summary

The conventional view is that a dominant Cold War narrative took shape in the late 1940s. Lasting around two decades, it unraveled during the Vietnam War, and it failed to re-emerge even as détente flickered in the mid 1970s. Although intellectuals and activists began to rebel against Cold War orthodoxy by the end of the 1950s, scholars and contemporary observers alike identified Vietnam as “the acid that dissolved the postwar foreign policy consensus.” A minority, however, believes there to have been no substantial change throughout the post-1945 period. Such opposed stances persist because we lack systematic evidence regarding what the consensus was, when it consolidated, and when it collapsed. Yet, a shared public narrative is necessarily observable. The evidence I have gathered suggests that there was an authoritative Cold War narrative that defined the boundaries of legitimate politics in the United States, but that its content and dynamics were quite different from the usual account.

What was the Cold War consensus?

The Cold War consensus was a dominant narrative to which American elites – from policymakers to pundits to even professors – felt compelled to adhere in their public pronouncements, regardless of their private qualms. This is what Leslie Gelb meant when he blamed the consensus for driving the United States into the Vietnam fiasco; he knew many Washington insiders had severe misgivings about key pillars of the consensus and its application to Southeast Asia, but he also saw few willing to give public voice to their private dissent. Despite persistent doubts at the highest levels of government that global Communism was “a highly coordinated, conspiratorial, malevolent force” and that local Communists were mere ciphers doing Moscow's bidding – to the point that John Lewis Gaddis has claimed that no US statesman ever really “believed in the existence of an international communist monolith” – rare was the policymaker who openly challenged this representation of global Communism before the early 1960s. They could not say otherwise if they wished to be taken seriously, or so they thought. As a dominant narrative, the Cold War consensus limited the range of policy options that could be legitimately articulated: Riga and Yalta, to employ Daniel Yergin's famous categories, were both approaches within the consensus.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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