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Journal of Cold War Studies 3.2 (2001) 103-105

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Book Review

Undermining the Kremlin:
America's Strategy to Subvert the Soviet Bloc, 1947-1956

Gregory Mitrovich, Undermining the Kremlin: America's Strategy to Subvert the Soviet Bloc, 1947-1956. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000. 256 pages. $32.50.

After more than 50 years scholars are still debating fundamental questions about the origins and early stages of the Cold War. Lately these debates have tended to feature new evidence from archives in the former Soviet bloc. Gregory Mitrovich, by contrast, has relied exclusively on archives in the United States, but he has found plenty of material to support his innovative theory about U.S. objectives "at the creation."

Mitrovich's thesis is that U.S. policy makers initially did not anticipate a prolonged period of containing the Soviet Union. They were worried about the global consequences of a drawn-out struggle with the USSR and therefore decided as early as 1947 on a strategy to "destroy" Soviet power altogether. In Mitrovich's view, George Kennan was the driving force behind this aggressive line, and he found widespread support in the Truman administration, including the president himself. The grand plan, as it evolved, envisioned the elimination of Communist control not only in Eastern Europe but in the Soviet Union itself. Psychological warfare became the weapon of choice because of its successful application in World War II and because it mitigated the risk of a war with Moscow.

American thinking and planning were based on the notion of the balance of power, which Washington assumed was in its favor until the Soviet Union tested a nuclear bomb in August 1949, sooner than expected. The shock of this new reality prompted Harry Truman to order a reassessment of national security strategy. But Mitrovich argues that the resulting directive, NSC 68, did not fundamentally change U.S. policy, although it did dramatically expand the level of funding devoted to covert subversion of the Soviet bloc. Ironically, according to Mitrovich, the Soviet test of the fission-boosted "Joe-4" bomb in August 1953 triggered the opposite impulse in the Eisenhower administration. Mitrovich argues that this much more powerful bomb spurred a general fear that global destruction was now at stake. Despite continued harsh rhetoric, the Eisenhower administration quietly decided by 1955 to call a halt to its clandestine war and to follow a less belligerent policy.

Until this change of course, aggressive covert actions targeted at the Soviet bloc were an integral part of U.S. policy--far more so than other scholars have appreciated, according to Mitrovich. Under the rubric of NSC 20/2, which Truman approved in June 1948, American planners had a variety of "instruments" at their disposal, such as planting disinformation and supporting armed resistance groups. However, the main strategy for the region, Mitrovich writes, was "to exploit the 'paranoid nature' of the Soviet power structure in an effort to incite conflict within the ruling circles" (p. 9). [End Page 103]

Mitrovich gives some examples of these "spoiling operations." "Operation Overload and Delay" was a scheme designed to clog the hyper-centralized Soviet decision-making apparatus by encouraging U.S. officials and businessmen to present Soviet apparatchiks with a continuous flow of "complex and unpredictable" situations. The assumption was that lower-level Soviet bureaucrats would be unwilling to resolve these matters on their own, and that eventually they would pass so many problems up the line that higher authorities would have difficulty focusing on truly important issues. Another plan, "Operation Engross," was aimed at encouraging defections, particularly from the military and security establishments, to erode leadership confidence in these institutions and in the population as a whole. According to the Truman administration's blueprint, once the power structures had been sufficiently debilitated and their ability to crack down on dissent effectively impaired, the next step would be to incite revolts within the bloc nations. Despite publicly disparaging Truman's allegedly soft approach, the Eisenhower administration soon abandoned the concept of rollback that it had...