Today, the United States finds itself facing two near-peer competitors in Russia and China. Both are asserting their power and exhibiting expansionist tendencies. Both understand the logic of the Cold War period, the U.S. strategy of containment, and the U.S. concept of deterrence, but neither is likely to precisely replay the moves that led to the United States’ emergence as the lone global superpower. Indeed, both are determined to use the lessons of the Cold War, and our own misinterpretation of them, to their advantage.
Expansionism ultimately rests on military power as its foundation. Russia has rebuilt its military, fitting it into a concept of hybrid warfare that includes cyber attacks, intimidation, interference in elections, spreading false information and malicious rumors, corrupting politicians, and fledgling institutions of government to regain its control of the “near abroad.” At the same time, it has created an expeditionary military capability, prominently on display in Syria. Russia has also deployed, and is still developing, an upgraded nuclear force consisting of refurbished long-range strike assets, as well as a new class of low-yield and more useful tactical nuclear weapons. This new class of battlefield nuclear weapons has enabled a new Russian military doctrine called “escalating to deescalate”—that is, to use these nuclear weapons to terminate a conflict by challenging NATO or the United States to either give in or escalate to strategic nuclear destruction in response to battlefield setbacks. This doctrine suggests that nuclear weapons are more likely to be used in a future conflict.
China is also greatly enhancing its military capabilities, investing in new long-range strategic nuclear forces, agile anti-ship nuclear capable long-range ballistic missiles, stealth aircraft, modern air defense, counter-satellite capabilities, cyber weapons, and a blue water navy to be built around a force of aircraft carriers. Under Xi Jinping’s China Dream, China has built a serious of armed atolls to extend its reach into the South China Sea, and is asserting its influence through economic suasion and intimidation among its neighbors in Asia. Chinese writings have been clear in aiming to disrupt American alliances in the Pacific and push American forces back east of the “first and second island chains,” essentially isolating America’s allies in the Western Pacific.
The United States is well aware of these challenges, and has issued both a 2017 National Security Strategy and a 2017 National Defense Strategy in response. The latter was followed by a bipartisan commission to examine the National Defense Strategy. All of these documents call for a reliance on nuclear weapons and invoke the concept of nuclear deterrence in pursuit of what is essentially an effort to rebuild “containment” in a wholly different era.
It is from this perspective that a renewed examination of the Cold War’s lessons of deterrence—partially learned, half forgotten, and too often misunderstood—is required. And what we will find is that nuclear deterrence, as an academic concept, is inadequate to guide U.S. strategy.
What Was Nuclear Deterrence?
The theory of nuclear deterrence began with the academic writings of famed strategist Bernard Brodie, along with others, including Herman Kahn and Thomas Schelling, who further refined the concept. Deterrence rested on the belief that nuclear war would be so destructive that no adversary could hope to win. So long as U.S. nuclear forces were able to withstand an adversary’s surprise first strike and respond with overwhelming destructive power, and the potential adversary believed that the U.S. had the will to use these forces, then logically there should be no major war. Deterrence was an exercise in rationality. It seemed a happy paradox of the twentieth century that nuclear weapons were essential in executing a strategy of “containment” without ever actually being used for the purposes of warfare.
For the military, nuclear weapons at first seemed an extension of the strategic bombing of World War II, especially as applied against cities such as Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo, as the aim was essentially to destroy industrial infrastructure and capability, and to break down the will of the population to resist. Under President Eisenhower, “massive retaliation” was a formal policy threatening an aggressor state with overwhelming destruction. A Strategic Air Command was created, built around a force of B-47, B-52 and B-58 bombers, along with air-to-air refueling assets. The Navy developed its own nuclear strike capabilities on aircraft carriers; the Army developed the 280mm “atomic” cannon to fire nuclear artillery shells, and reorganized its forces into “Pentomic” divisions.
As the Soviet Union built its own nuclear capabilities, there was continual exchange between academics, the policymakers, and practitioners. Deterrence theory was refined. City-busting raised strong moral issues, and the United States began to experiment with targeting policy; could it be “counterforce,” rather than “counter-value?” This targeting approach, of course, required not only high degrees of accuracy, but also exquisite knowledge of Soviet forces and locations. There was also “extended deterrence” to protect allies, as well as “crisis deterrence” or “crisis stability” to denote whether, as tensions escalated, the U.S. deterrent was still sufficiently survivable in the event of a first strike, and to avoid the destabilizing “launch on warning” policy. To assure this kind of a stable and survivable deterrent, the United States adopted a “nuclear triad” of land-based air missiles, strategic bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The Soviets also used a triad, but placed great reliance on road-mobile missiles to assure survivability. The United States, on the other hand, considered but ultimately rejected rail and road mobile land-based ICBMs. Both sides nominally gave up their efforts to create anti-missile forces under the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, so they were, at least in practice, reliant on what became known as “mutual assured destruction.” Some theorists in the United States went further, to push for the concept of “minimum deterrence.”
In the end, the United States never went to war with the Soviet Union, both the Soviets and the Chinese were largely contained, and both sides had nuclear weapons. Yet, the impact of nuclear deterrence was far more complex than these three measures of success.
Cold War Lessons Learned
Containment was a messy and expensive strategy, and U.S. success in the Cold War came as much by accident as by design. The Cold War was a time of continuing competition, crises, and conflict. Nuclear deterrence was but one factor that contributed to the eventual outcome.
The ideological competition began immediately after the end of World War II, with the Soviet Union championing its victory as a mark of the success of Marxism-Leninism and subsequently promoting pro-Soviet coups and government takeovers in Eastern Europe, as well as efforts to capture new nationalist movements in the developing world. The United States fought back with its zeal for decolonization, the Marshall Plan, and a variety of other measures like the Fulbright scholarship program to contrast the success of democratic capitalism with Marxism-Leninism. U.S. allies had their own perspectives, with West Germany pushing for deeper engagement with the East (Ostpolitik), and France advocating a more independent defense policy (tous azimuts) while still remaining part of NATO’s political structure. U.S. nuclear weapons presented a key target for Soviet propaganda and disinformation in this long campaign, creating frictions within NATO, as well as political vulnerabilities in most NATO member countries. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, strategic arms treaties, and a theater nuclear treaty, in addition to the eventual Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, were all part of the American effort to keep the moral high ground in the continuing ideological competition between East and West.
In 1949, despite U.S. military assistance, China fell to the Mao Tse Tung’s Communist Party in a sweeping final military campaign. By 1960, the French government had lost its colonial war against Communist nationalists in both Indochina and Algeria. The United Kingdom succeeded in putting down a Communist-led insurgency in Malaya, while the United States fought to a draw against Communist North Korea and China, and suffered a tragic defeat in South Vietnam against the Soviet and Chinese-supported North. Wars by proxy were waged in a dozen countries across Asia and Africa, including bitter fighting by the Soviets against the U.S.-supported Afghan Mujahideen. Nuclear weapons were not actually employed in any of these conflicts, but they did help limit direct U.S.-Soviet conflict, which both sides understood might escalate into a nuclear war.
There were several crises between the Soviet Union and the United States which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, but which stopped short of conflict; these included disputes over access to Berlin in 1961, Soviet efforts to deploy nuclear missiles to Cuba in 1962, and Soviet fears of a U.S. first strike, which arose from a new president’s strong rhetoric and a NATO nuclear exercise. There were other crises between the Soviet Union and the West, such as in Suez and Hungary in 1956, and with the Soviet military occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In each, nuclear weapons played a catalyzing role in escalating fears and bounding possible outcomes. From these crises emerged a greater understanding of each actor’s vital interests, and demonstrated how far from the homeland a nation’s nuclear deterrence could be extended.
The Cold War was also marked by an arms race, which undercut U.S. nuclear superiority at first and, by the late 1960s, threatened stability. Nuclear weapons became more powerful, growing from kilotons to megatons-equivalent of TNT. Intercontinental ballistic missiles bypassed air defenses, reinforcing the idea that no one could win a nuclear war. When ballistic missile defenses threatened the “assured destruction” upon which deterrence depended, a treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union capped this line of competition. Later, as the Soviet Union’s programs for actually winning a nuclear war became more widely understood, U.S. President Ronald Reagan questioned reliance on mutual destruction, and therefore sought actual defenses against nuclear threats through his “Star Wars” program. This decades-long nuclear arms race was both expensive and politically challenging for the United States; in response to worldwide criticism, the United States joined with the Soviet Union in the 1962 Test Ban Treaty, and, in 1983, unilaterally denounced Soviet efforts to build third-generation nuclear weapons such as the so-called neutron bomb, which would have made smaller nuclear weapons much more usable on a battlefield.
The Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a function of both relative economic failure and moral resolve. Looking back, the Soviet Union’s collapse seems inevitable, but a hodge-podge of Soviet strategies, policies, and problems were crucial contributors. Among these factors were an aging, often ill Soviet leadership, haunted by memories of World War II (Kosygin, Brezhnev, Andropov); the extraordinary level of Soviet defense expenditures (up to 25% of GDP); over twenty years of bitter competition with Mao Tse Tung’s Communist China; the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s clumsy efforts to open the party and promote institutional reform (perestroika). The U.S. policy of containment, and the nuclear deterrent which backed it, were a necessary but insufficient factor in explaining the ultimate outcome.
Wesley K. Clark is a businessman, educator, writer, and commentator. General Clark serves as chairman and CEO of Wesley K. Clark & Associates, a strategic consulting firm; chairman and founder of Enverra, Inc. a licensed investment bank; chairman of Energy Security Partners, LLC; as well as numerous corporate boards including BNK Petroleum and Leagold Mining. In the not-for-profit space, he is a Senior Fellow at UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations, director of the Atlantic Council, and Founding Chair of City Year Little Rock/North Little Rock. Clark retired as a four-star general after thirty-eight years in the United States Army, having served as Commander of U.S. Southern Command and then as Commander of U.S. European Command/Supreme Allied Commander, Europe in his last assignments. He graduated first in his class at West Point and completed degrees in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. His awards include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and honorary knighthoods from the British and Dutch governments.