U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Landscape of Diplomatic History

caspar-david-friedrich-wanderer-thumbIn graduate school, I would have held Perry Anderson’s essays “Imperium” and “Consilium” with trembling hands. Essays of such historiographical breadth and theoretical depth would have ignited discussions in coffee shops and bars and debates across seminar tables and classrooms. As readers have witnessed at this blog, responses that build upon Anderson’s arguments flow easily in a variety of productive directions. For me, though, there are additional professional/personal reasons Anderson’s work would have struck me hard in graduate school. I did my doctorate in U.S. history at Ohio University in large part because I wanted to study with John Lewis Gaddis, who had been in Athens from the late 1970s through the late 1990s before he moved to Yale. Furthermore, I had completed an M.A. thesis on George F. Kennan, and for reasons related to my writing on Kennan, went to live and teach in Tula, Russia for six months. I chose Ohio University because Gaddis by that time had been Kennan’s official biographer for over a decade and who, by a sort of academic consensus, was regarded as one of the deans of Cold War history. So I read Anderson excoriation in his essay “Imperium” of both Gaddis and Kennan with keen interest, in part because I learned under Gaddis but also because Anderson’s arguments reminded me of one of the reasons I moved away from diplomatic history.

I called my thesis on Kennan, “A Man Lost Within His Own Time.” In hindsight, I should have called it “A Man Lost”,” for many of the reasons that Anderson provides in his essay. I came to learn from reading Kennan’s impressions (never really analysis) of the American scene that the foreign policy guru was thoroughly displeased with just about everything most of the time. Neither a prophet nor a patriot, he was instead a remarkable writer and, in some ways, a historian. His gift to his time (for surely his time ‘gave’ him very little that he liked) lay ultimately in his ability to articulate better than many others at a particular moment—1946-1947—the course on which the United States had apparently embarked. My sense from reading Anderson and knowing what Anders Stephanson (whose work Anderson relies on heavily) has contended for many years about both Kennan and the Cold War, is that post-war American foreign policy didn’t depend on the actions of the Soviet Union, but, rather, relied on a particular illusion of Soviet power and, more generally, an expansive belief in a dangerous world. Kennan the wordsmith, rather than Kennan the grand strategist, played a crucial role in creating that era (and according to Anderson, error) of illusion.

What is interesting to me in light of Anderson’s essays is that I had reached a similar conclusion because I studied with Gaddis. For those who have read some of Gaddis’s work you will know that he is quite fond of using metaphors, especially from natural science, to show how historical consciousness is “like” something else. His short book on the practice of history, The Landscape of History, demonstrates the full array of metaphors and analogies he has employed in his own work as well as those he used to create the intellectual foundation of the Contemporary History Institute, a scholarly center at Ohio University that fostered interest in mixed methods for the study of the past and the understanding of the present. Gaddis intended for his students to understand that as historians, conclusions and even more so judgments about the past had everything to do with a matrix of forces—physical, ideological, intellectual—influencing one’s vision within any particular project. Gaddis used Capar David Friedrich’s painting, The Wanderer (1818) as the cover image for his book to make this point: “Like Friedrich’s wanderer, you dominate a landscape even as you’re diminished by it. You’re suspended between sensibilities that are at odds with one another; but it’s precisely within that suspension that your own identitywhether as a person or a historiantends to reside. Self-doubt must always precede self-confidence. It should never, however, cease to accompany, challenge, and by these means discipline self-confidence.”[1]

But this is not the Gaddis that appears in Anderson’s essay. Rather, Anderson sees Gaddis as the creator of a second illusion, this one within American historiography, that defended the first illusion of the Soviet threat. Anderson asserts boldly: “Leading the reaction [the illusion] was John Lewis Gaddis, who over four decades has tirelessly upheld patriotic truths about his country and the dangers it faced…. Responsibility for the conflict fell on a Soviet dictator who was not answerable to any public opinion, and so could have avoided a confrontation that democratic rulers in Washington, who had to heed popular feelings outraged by Russian behaviour, could not. The domestic political system, rather than anything to do with the economy, determined the nation’s conduct of foreign affairs. If there was such a thing as an American empire…it was one by invitation, freely sought in Western Europe from fear of Soviet aggression, unlike the Russian empire imposed by force on Eastern Europe.”[2]

No one would be surprised, least of all Gaddis I imagine, to witness yet another attempt at such a take down. It seems that the field of diplomatic history itself moves by the force of conflicting grand theories of empire—in this instance, Gaddis represents one of those theories. And so with Anderson, we see a straight line from Kennan to containment to the CIA to Vietnam to neoliberalism to George W. Bush—the greatest (or worst) hits from the Cold War to the present day. To explain American blindness to this declension narrative, Anderson finds that the industriousness of a historian (or does he see him as hack?) such as Gaddis is required to whitewash Kennan, containment, the Cold War, and hot wars, while actively avoiding economic motivations for the history he relates. To top it all off, Anderson accuses Gaddis of writing speeches for Bush—a transgression that must be, in Catholic parlance, nothing less than a mortal sin.[3]

I don’t think a reference to morality is out of place here for while Anderson effectively demolishes the notion that there was anything justified in policies that created the Cold War, he channels the moral righteousness of historians and social critics, especially, Walter Lippmann, William Appleman Williams, and Gabriel Kolko, in pressing the imperative to see the American empire as a one determined by the requirements of capitalism rather than the security of the nation, the defense of vulnerable populations abroad, or the cause of freedom in history.

Thus, at his best, Anderson has weaved together an impressive array of scholarly threads to demonstrate how tangled the prevailing understanding of American foreign policy has become. In this sense, his work is similar to those state-of-the-field essays that appear periodically in diplomatic history and often announce a shift in scholarship.[4] His purpose in these two essays, it seems to me, is to bury the myth of America as a moral force in history by playing one set of historiographical arguments against all others thus demonstrating that at least since the 1920s, the nature of American foreign policy relies almost exclusively on the demands of capitalism. In short, Anderson replaces the grand strategy of security with a grand theory of capitalism.

Yet unlike the historians whom he refers in his essays, Anderson has not necessarily rummaged through archives for the past decade to build his case. Though he does use a variety of Kennan’s memos from his time on the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department to confirm the wickedness of Kennan’s intentions.[5] And his command of some of the literature in the field is impressive. But in a way the essay seems to miss the mark it sets out to hit.

On the one hand, Anderson can call upon at least forty years of scholarship to substantiate his case for capitalist determinism. On the other hand, without adding anything substantially new historically, he is left to address either why the case for capitalist determinism has not supplanted all other arguments or how it should. To prove the latter, he simply joins scholars from Williams and Kolko to McCormick and Hogan in pressing the validity of this argument. Proving the former, though, requires saying something about the historians he opposes and, more significantly perhaps, explaining how generations of Americans believed that expanding national economic power, in addition to national security, was right and good. I don’t mean to conclude that there is nothing new in Anderson’s essay—his ability to trace historiographical arguments across time demonstrates an intellectual tradition that demands recognition and engagement. However, to make his argument land with the force he desires, he has link two conspiracies of ideas—one within the foreign policy elite and the other among the historians of that elite. Thus tackling the Kennan-Gaddis axis would seem a good idea, though I just don’t think hammering that nail until it is through the wood makes Anderson’s case any stronger.

This is where my personal/professional contact with the subject has some relevance, I think. Sitting through a few years of doctoral training with Gaddis on the study of history and the field of diplomatic history at the very least provided me a great seat to the debates he constantly had with the historians Anderson pits against him. What I witnessed and what I read throughout that time gave me a sense of the messiness that ensues when diplomatic historians attempt to create a synthesis for the field. But it also demonstrated the political divisions of that project. And Anderson illustrates those politics well. It seems to me, he rejects the idea of ambiguity in diplomatic history and finds attempts at synthesizing different branches of the field as overly generous to explanations that choose to focus on something other than capitalism. It is difficult to contest Anderson’s essay because he has marshaled argument rather than evidence and by doing so taken out the sense that choices existed within the history he relates. One either understands the argument he has presented or one continues to live in ignorance. Perhaps some day, we will get an account of the choices diplomatic historians made when constructing their various positions, but for now we study how the messiness of their work has shaped our collective understanding of the messiness of choices made by those they have studied.

[1] John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 8.

[2] Perry Anderson, “Imperium,” New Left Review, 85: September-October (2013), 35.

[3] For Gaddis’s account of his contact with Bush see, Gaddis, “Reply to Commentaries,” Journal of Cold War Studies, 15 (Fall 2013).

[4] For example, two quite different but very influential essays in this vein are: Thomas McCormick, “Drift or Mastery? A Corporate Synthesis for American Diplomatic History,” Reviews in American History (December 1982) and Andrew Preston, “Bridging the Gap between the Sacred and the Secular in the History of American Foreign Relations,” Diplomatic History, 30 (November 2006).

[5] See footnoted 80 on page 46 of “Imperium.”

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I think I’ve experienced firsthand what you’re getting at, Ray. My first year at Purdue, I took classes on diplomatic history with Pat Hearden, a student of Williams and the Wisconsin school. His lectures were so tight, in terms of causality, that we all learned when to insert “world capitalist system” about 5 or 10 seconds before he invoked it. I then read Williams, Wallerstein, McCormick on my own to see where Hearden was coming from. As much as I’ve tried over the years to break out his grasp–with the help of Frank Nincovitch, Gaddis, Leffler, Tony Smith, Kaplan, de Grazia–my classes and scholarship still come back to some variant of “world capitalist system”–and that’s not necessarily a bad thing (Anderson’s noting of Truman’s rewriting of the Truman Doctrine speech to make it less of a “financial prospectus” is, I think, revealing).

    So, two questions: Is DH really all that messy, or is it just repeated efforts by scholars (including Gaddis or, more recently, Cobbs-Hoffman) to challenge the resilience of the Wisconsin School? Isn’t the messiness the thing that keeps DH one of history’s most seductive and productive subfields?

  2. Anderson’s portrait of Kennan in ‘Imperium’ struck me as somewhat selective, as I mentioned in the comment thread to Nick Witham’s essay in this roundtable.

    Anderson doesn’t mention that Kennan opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb, in a long, eloquent memo to Acheson. Anderson slights Kennan’s opposition to the Vietnam war (if he mentions it at all; I don’t recall offhand), and Anderson doesn’t mention Kennan’s writings in the 80s about the dangers of the nuclear arms race.

    Accepting Stephanson’s argument that Kennan was an ‘organicist conservative’ deeply estranged from what he saw as the vulgarities etc. of American society, and further accepting that Kennan had little other than contempt for the Third World (per Stephanson and also David Milne in his discussion of Kennan in Milne’s bk on Walt Rostow), and further that Kennan was probably close to racism in some of his attitudes (the notorious early unpublished piece in which he advocates, or at least ruminates about, restricting the right to vote on racial grounds) — all that would point toward a negative view of Kennan, as might the ‘X article’ and the Long Telegram depending on one’s point of view.

    But there’s a difference between saying (1) “the negatives outweigh the positives” and (2)Kennan was the devil incarnate. Based on what I know about Kennan, I’d be inclined to go with (1) rather than (2).

    I’ve read some reviews of Gaddis’s Kennan biography and I also heard Gaddis give a talk about the book (during which talk, btw, Gaddis said bluntly “Stalin caused the Cold War” in response to a rather silly question from an audience member “did Kennan cause the CW?”) But I have not read the biography itself nor, frankly, do I have any concrete plans to do so, given its length and the fact that there are too many other things I want to read.

    (Though a non-historian, I also have some thoughts about DH and Cold War historiography, but I think this comment is long enough as it is.)

    • p.s. Of course that Kennan piece from the 1930s was written at a time when the right to vote in the US was restricted by race, at least in the South. (But maybe he was focusing on the North; I’m sure others may recall the details of this better than I do, as it was the source of some renewed discussion and controversy when the Gaddis biography came out, and Menand referred to it in his review of Gaddis in the New Yorker, if I recall correctly).

  3. Re Ray Haberski’s remark in his post:
    “[Anderson] rejects the idea of ambiguity in diplomatic history and finds attempts at synthesizing different branches of the field as overly generous to explanations that choose to focus on something other than capitalism.”

    Well, yes, I think that is one way one could characterize what Anderson says about, for example, Leffler’s A Preponderance of Power: basically, as I recall, Anderson says it’s an impressive work, but Leffler doesn’t quite ‘get it’ because he gives attention to not just economic factors but other ones as well. Anderson says something similar about O.A. Westad.

    (The Leffler book I think is impressive, though I unwisely decided at some point it was taking up too much space on the shelf, so it’s no longer there.)

  4. Mark: I think the DH is productively messy and I have been consistently impressed by the detailed historiographical (as well as historical) battles in its pages. Anderson’s essay reads somewhat like one of those DH essays but I think it would have benefited from the kind of vetting that DH does when scholars publish that kind of piece. If you go back and look at the debates over corporatism in DH, the exchanges were tough but often revealing even if they did not bring anyone closer to some new kind of consensus.

    Louis: your remarks about Anderson’s opinion of Kennan seem about right to me, though I found his use of Kennan to be odd given his focus on how historians have characterized the Cold War. Using Acheson or Nitze or Rusk and on and on would have provided a deeper context in which to see Kennan’s influence but that wasn’t Anderson’s intention. Your comment regarding watching Gaddis field a question about Kennan is pretty standard, I’d say. Gaddis has tussled with his able colleagues in print, across seminar tables, and from stages for years, and I have found the debates among these scholars and many of their students to be fascinating. Part of that fascination for me, though, is that the debates seemed to pit grand theories against each other, probably because these historians were attempting to explain events ranged across a great deal of time and space and, as Gaddis never tired of saying, varieties of people. What I found lacking Anderson’s piece, though not from his other works, was insight into the people and the decisions they made.

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