Beginnings of the Cold War Arms Race: The Truman Administration and the U.S. Arms Build-Up (review)
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Reviewed by
Gregory Mitrovich, Independent Scholar
Raymond P. Ojserkis, Beginnings of the Cold War Arms Race: The Truman Administration and the U.S. Arms Build-Up. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2003. $65.00.

The mobilization of U.S. military power initiated by President Harry S. Truman in 1950 was one of the most crucial decisions in American history, a decision that led in a remarkably short time to a profound transformation of U.S. national security policy. Prior to 1950, the United States premised its military strategy on the insularity afforded by two wide oceans, on the invulnerability of the continental United States to direct attack, and on the vast strength of what George Kennan (in PPS 33, "Factors Affecting the Nature of the U.S. Defense Arrangements in the Light of Soviet Policies") labeled the "North American Industrial Potential." Until 1950, U.S. leaders assumed that in any global conflict the United States would have the time and resources needed to build its military capabilities from scratch, as it had in World Wars I and II. They were confident that U.S. security could be maintained without a large peacetime military establishment that itself might pose the risk of creating a "garrison state" and undermining democratic institutions and values.

Beginnings of the Cold War Arms Race by Raymond P. Ojserkis ably captures this tumultuous period in American history. Ojserkis, who completed his doctorate at the [End Page 120] London School of Economics, synthesizes a wide array of sources, both archival and secondary, to analyze the diplomatic, military, and economic impact of the post-1950 military mobilization. He lays out a series of seven questions but quickly focuses on the most important one: Why could the Truman administration not initiate the mobilization called for by NSC 68 in April 1950 without the intervention of the Korean War? This is not a new question, but it is a crucial one. For decades, the Korean War and NSC 68 have been fused together, so much so that Korea is often considered an extension of NSC 68. Ojserkis does an excellent job of separating the two. He demonstrates that the scope of the mobilization called for in NSC 68 went far beyond the needs of the Korean conflict but that the outbreak of the war was a necessary condition to break the bureaucratic logjam that would have strangled the effort.

Ojserkis divides his narrative into six main chapters: Demobilization, Consolidation, Reconsideration, Transformation, Globalization, and Actualization. The first two chapters discuss the rapid contraction of the early postwar military establishment, as the vast World War II force of 1945 shrank to a rump organization in 1948 that was heavily dependent on a limited stockpile of nuclear weapons. The remaining four chapters study the origins, implementation, and impact of the arms buildup. After recounting the initial calls for rearmament in 1949 in the aftermath of the Soviet nuclear bomb test and the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war, Ojserkis discusses the struggles between Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson during the NSC 68 deliberations, the impact of the North Korean attack on South Korea, and the radical shift of Truman's foreign policy outlook.

Ojserkis conveys well the sense of shock and alarm that suffused the U.S. government in the aftermath of the North Korean attack and how it led to fundamental changes in the U.S. force posture. The tables he provides in his final chapter, "Actualization," are powerful indeed. Before 25 June 1950 the U.S. military was composed of 10 Army and 2 Marine divisions, 48 Air Force wings, approximately 200 warships, and 7 carrier groups. By 1 January 1953 that force had doubled in size to 21 Army and 3 Marine divisions, 100 Air Force wings, 400 warships, and 16 carrier groups. Ojserkis is quick to remind us that the numerical increases tell only part of the story. He contends, correctly, that the mobilization led to a total technological transformation of the U.S. military, as jet aircraft quickly replaced World War II–style turboprop planes, new and faster tanks overcame the threat posed by Soviet-made T-34s in Korea, and the 76...