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109 5 Cold War Strategies The Cold War is a period of history marked by competition between two great powers. Behind it was the Soviet Union expressly pursuing an expansionist policy through the spread of Marxist-Leninist ideology and its internal political need to project an external threat. U.S. national security strategy in the years 1947 through 1989 is identified with a single term— containment—although there were obvious shifts in emphasis across administrations and even within administrations.1 According to John Lewis Gaddis, the preeminent scholar on Cold War strategy, one of the most notable shifts in the national security strategy of containment was in the perception of available means. Those presidents who believed their means were limited tended toward asymmetric responses to Soviet encroachments, that is, to select the place, time, magnitude, and methods of competition rather than responding tit for tat. Presidents who believed the American economy could produce the necessary means on demand tended toward symmetric responses, countering Soviet adventurism wherever and whenever it occurred. Correlated with the symmetry of response was the acceptance of Keynesian economics, suggesting that increased government spending could produce an expansion in the economy. The belief that government could manage economic expansion without long-term budget deficits, higher taxes, or inflation allowed those presidents so inclined to consider all interests vital, all threats dangerous, and all measures available.2 Keynesian solutions might apply to a short war but not to an economy on a permanent war footing. Misapplying Keynesian solutions over the long term led to permanent deficit spending and accumulating national debt. 110 National Security Strategies The several administrations’ interpretations of containment differed in a variety of ways. Some relied heavily on the military instrument; others favored diplomatic and economic instruments and holding military force in reserve for use when vital interests were at risk. Administrations varied in their ability to differentiate between vital and peripheral interests. Some administrations implemented strategy by centralized decision making, and others favored a decentralized approach. Administrations also varied in their ability to recognize and seize strategic opportunities. Eight different interpretations of containment are apparent. They include two from the Truman administration, Eisenhower’s New Look, Kennedy’s and Johnson’s Flexible Response, détente under Nixon, Carter’s two versions of détente, and Reagan’s full-court press. Strategic Underpinnings Before sequencing through the presidential administrations, particular emphasis and detail are devoted to the two bedrock views provided by George Kennan and Paul Nitze, both from Truman’s State Department. They might be called defensive containment and offensive containment, or rollback. Kennan’s Containment Strategy under Truman George Kennan provided the original formulation of containment in February 1946. He wrote from his position as chargé d’affaires ad interim in Moscow3 and continued as the director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff.4 Kennan’s assessment of Russia was that it was incapable of tolerating diversity and would attempt to impose its image on the world— hegemony or universal monarchy—and in so doing would expend huge amounts of energy. Such a policy, Kennan believed, could not be sustained indefinitely and ultimately would be debilitating. Accepting diversity within the existing world order, on the other hand, is more economical than hegemony. Maintaining balance of power among the contending parties should constitute U.S. policy, Kennan thought. Rather than pursuing its own hegemony, Kennan relied on America’s prominent role among the great powers to balance against the Soviet Union and its allies. Kennan looked to Russian history and culture for insight Cold War Strategies 111 rather than to Communism. He thought Communism to be a mere “fig leaf” and refused to be distracted by it. Five countries possessed the actual or potential military-industrial capability to qualify as world powers in the middle 1940s: the United States, Russia, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan. Assembling a coalition against Russia and pursuing a balance of power would be more economical than pursuing hegemony, and balance could be sustained indefinitely. Furthermore, Kennan believed that Russia had no immediate intention of war with the West. For the foreseeable future, the United States could out-produce the rest of the world, control the seas, and strike deep within the Soviet homeland with the atomic bomb if necessary. Kennan was willing to reduce military force structure and rely more heavily on economic and political instruments. Balance of power was ultimately a psychological phenomenon. By July 1947, Kennan refined his strategy to add a strongpoint defense along...


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