Scholarship is not only about discovery of the new. It is also about challenging the old, or rather, what we think we already know. This can be difficult, even controversial, and never more so than when the subject being reexamined and revised is our own history. It is easy to forget that history is not simply a recounting of what has happened, but also the way we decide to remember, recount, and make sense of the past.
We often hold stylized narratives of the past in our heads that we believe to be unassailable. Ask an intelligent observer to outline the story of America’s engagement with the world after 1945, and he or she might offer a clear, bifurcated story: There was the Cold War and the post-Cold War era. The Cold War would likely be identified as an uninterrupted geopolitical and ideological conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States that began soon after World War II was over and ended with the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989. The analyst might suggest that the United States prevailed by relentlessly pursuing the decades-long strategy of containment, articulated by George Kennan in his 1946 “Long Telegram.” With the collapse of the Berlin Wall and eventually the Soviet Union itself, the United States rapidly switched, like the film The Wizard of Oz, from black and white to color and to something completely different: America’s hegemonic, unipolar moment and the rise of liberal internationalism.