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  • Making Grand Strategy: The Early Cold War Experience in Retrospect
  • Marc Trachtenberg (bio)

Does the United States need a new grand strategy for the post-Cold War period? Many observers are not happy with the way things are today. They look at how American governments have handled themselves since the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991 and do not see a coherent long-term policy; they do not see a nation that has a clear sense of what it wants to do in the world. They compare this with the early Cold War period, when the United States was able to pursue an effective course of action, and they hold up certain fundamental strategy documents from that period as models. George Kennan’s famous “X” Article, which laid out the containment doctrine, and NSC-68 of April 1950 are the two texts most widely cited in this connection. These texts, it is often claimed, played a key role in shaping the grand strategy that helped the United States deal successfully with the problems of the Cold War period. This claim supports the conclusion that what the nation now needs is something of this sort—a new NSC-68, a new “X” article—to help it find its way through the twenty-first century.

But are such texts really to be held up as models? How important were they in shaping what most people would agree was the rather successful policy the United States pursued during the Cold War? What does our experience with grand strategy during the early Cold War period suggest about how we should proceed today and, in particular, about whether we should focus attention on trying to come up with a new grand strategy for the period we [End Page 33] are now moving into?

What I want to argue here is, first, that the two exercises in grand strategy noted above were both deeply flawed, and second, that this was no accident, but that the flaws in these particular documents derive from problems inherent in the whole grand strategy enterprise. The conclusion is that it is a mistake to think that what we need is a “new Kennan” or a “new NSC-68,” but rather that we should lower our sights and try to do something more modest, namely to develop not a specific strategy but simply a broad intellectual framework that will help us to deal with problems as they present themselves.

Let me begin with NSC-68, which after all is the subject of this symposium. Did it set the course of American policy during the Cold War period? The answer is no: NSC-68 called for an ambitious policy, indeed an aggressive policy, but this policy was never actually implemented. 1

The common view that the NSC-68 strategy was a “strategy of containment”—that is, that it was essentially defensive and status quo-oriented in nature—is simply incorrect. The text of the document is unambiguous. The goal was rollback; the aim of the NSC-68 strategy was “to check and to roll back the Kremlin’s drive for world domination.” NSC-68 called explicitly for a “policy of calculated and gradual coercion.” The aim was to force a “retraction” of Soviet power—to get the Soviets to “recede” by creating “situations of strength.” This was why NSC-68 called for such a massive buildup of U.S. military power. It was not enough to merely balance Soviet power; the drafters of NSC-68 wanted to create such an enormous preponderance of power that the Soviets could be pushed back without a single shot having to be fired. 2

This policy, however, was never really put into effect. To be sure, very important rearmament decisions were made in late 1950, but in practice the U.S. government never tried to do more than defend the status quo. This was not because key American leaders from the start rejected the basic NSC-68 philosophy; the document, in fact, reflected the fundamental thinking of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, the real maker of American policy during the late Truman period. Acheson, an “uncompromising hawk” as General Omar Bradley, the Joint Chiefs of Staff...

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pp. 33-40
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