6

What One Cold War Can Teach Us About Another

George Kennan got paid to take the long view, but in May 1947, he had only the shortest window in which to do it. A year earlier, the U.S. diplomat had made a name for himself by authoring his famous “Long Telegram” from America’s embassy in Moscow. In that document, Kennan had described the Soviet Union as an implacable foe in the emerging Cold War, while also arguing that the balance of strengths and weaknesses would favor America in the end. By May 1947, however, Kennan was in a new role as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff (PPS)—its small, elite unit dedicated to big-picture strategy—and time was a luxury neither he nor the free world had.

Europe was in the grips of an existential crisis. The continent was still devastated, economically and politically, from World War II. A harsh, record-breaking winter had compounded the misery. The continent that had once ruled the world was now on the precipice of starvation, chaos, revolution. It had been reduced, in Winston Churchill’s phrasing, to “a rubble heap, a charnel house, a breeding ground of pestilence and hate.”1 If America didn’t quickly restore hope and prosperity, then well-organized Communist parties might seize power or win it at the ballot box. Once they had power, they could deliver the continent into Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s hands. “The patient is sinking while the doctors deliberate,” Secretary of State George C. Marshall—Kennan’s boss—had concluded. Decisive action was needed “without delay.”2

Marshall gave Kennan, Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and other State Department officials two weeks to solve the problem. What emerged, after three weeks rather than two, was perhaps the most famous foreign policy initiative in American history: The Marshall Plan. “The best answer we can give today,” explained Kennan in a memo outlining the program, “is perhaps more useful than a more thoroughly considered study one or two months hence.”3 Formally known as the European Recovery Program, the Marshall Plan was meant to combat the desperation that was softening up the continent for Communist takeovers, and then to jump-start the economic recovery required for lasting stability and strength. Marshall announced the nascent idea in a speech at Harvard in June; U.S. and European officials scrambled, over the summer and fall, to turn a vague ambition into the four-year, $13 billion aid package that brought a dying region back to life. The policy that ultimately did as much as any other to win the Cold War for America was hastily thrown together to meet a challenge that would not wait.

The problem America faces vis-à-vis China today is scary, but not unprecedented. During an earlier twilight struggle, America’s best strategic thinkers realized that time was on the free world’s side—that a pathologically repressive, economically irrational Soviet system would struggle to keep up forever. For the first few years, however, it wasn’t clear that this would matter, because Moscow had near-term windows of opportunity in which it might overturn a tenuous global balance of power.

Winning the Cold War required crossing a danger zone in which America might easily have lost that contest instead. No less, it required exploiting the urgency created by crisis to make bold moves that would strengthen the Western world for decades to come. “Fools learn by experience,” Bismarck said, “wise men learn by others’ experience.” 4 Revisiting the early Cold War provides lessons that can help America fashion a new danger-zone strategy today.

THE COLD WAR DANGER ZONE

Historical analogies are never exact, and the U.S.-China contest is not a carbon copy of the early Cold War. The China of the 2020s is not the Soviet Union of the 1940s, even if Xi is taking on distinctly Stalinist tendencies. Nor was the Soviet Union on the precipice of severe stagnation, as China is today.5 In the aftermath of World War II, Moscow was looking forward to a much-needed economic recovery; the Red Army was the military juggernaut that had defeated Hitler and marched halfway across Europe. “Russia will emerge from the present conflict as by far the strongest nation in Europe and Asia—strong enough, if the United States should stand aside, to dominate Europe and at the same time to establish her hegemony over Asia,” wrote U.S. intelligence analysts in 1945.6

Yet the late 1940s also presented dynamics that resonate today. Even at the dawn of the Cold War, America’s shrewdest observers realized that the façade of Soviet power was more impressive than the foundation. The combination of Communist ideology, autocratic insecurity, and traditional Russian expansionism meant that there could be no lasting accommodation between the Kremlin and the capitalist world, Kennan argued: Moscow deemed it essential “that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.” Compared to the Western world, however, the Soviets were “still by far the weaker force.”7

Moscow, Kennan believed, would find it hard to dominate captive peoples in Eastern Europe perpetually. The vicious totalitarian absurdities of its politics and the inherent limitations of its command economy would severely handicap the Soviet Union in any long race. Decline was inevitable, Kennan argued in 1947: Soviet power “bears within it the seeds of its own decay” and “the sprouting of those seeds is well advanced.” The United States—a vibrant democracy that accounted for nearly half of world production—could undertake “with reasonable confidence” a “policy of firm containment,” blocking Soviet advances until that decay destroyed the system from within.8

There was less cause for confidence in the near term, because the Soviets had not one but two windows of opportunity. The first was economic and political. The world was in chaos in the late 1940s. Economic devastation and human misery were the rule rather than the exception: “More people face starvation and even actual death for want of food today than in any war year and perhaps more than in all the war years combined,” President Harry Truman reported in 1946.9 The war had created power vacuums and sparked political radicalism from Western Europe to Southeast Asia; Communist parties loyal to Moscow were swelling with new adherents to the faith. “The way of life we have known,” Marshall would remark, “is literally in balance.”10 If the Soviet Union or its proxies could exploit this chaos to grab political control of key countries, Stalin might dominate much of Eurasia without firing a shot.

The second window was of a military nature. The United States had cut a fighting force of some 12 million men in 1945 to one of well under 2 million by 1947. Its overall military potential was still vastly greater than that of the Soviet Union, but its existing military power had melted away. And while Washington had an insurance policy in the atomic bomb, it didn’t have nearly enough of those weapons to stop a Soviet offensive into Western Europe, the Middle East, or any other hot spot along the East-West divide. Once the Soviets built their own atomic bomb in 1949, America had lost this trump card—and Pentagon planners worried that it might well lose a global war.11 Even short of that horrifying scenario, an imbalance of military power might let Moscow expand its influence through bullying and intimidation: “The shadow of Soviet armed strength,” Kennan acknowledged, could “have a paralyzing effect” on the free world.12

The Truman years were, consequently, a period of unrelenting insecurity. There were multiple war scares: During a showdown over Turkey in 1946, after Communist forces seized power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and after Stalin blockaded the western sectors of a divided Berlin later that year. A Soviet proxy, North Korea, did start a major conflict by trying to conquer South Korea in 1950. “It looks like World War III is here,” Truman wrote.13 There were also profound, disconcerting shifts in the military balance, particularly after the United States lost its atomic monopoly and had to face its glaring conventional inferiority. Most of all, there was a pervasive sense that America must run a gauntlet of imminent threats just to reach a longer Cold War in which its economic and political advantages might be decisive. “In general . . . time is on our side,” wrote the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1951. But “the critical period” would be “the next two or three years.”14

The United States would make it through this critical period. The Truman administration pursued landmark policies that helped America avoid defeat in the near term while positioning it for victory in the long term—even as it also suffered severe setbacks and made glaring mistakes. The Truman Doctrine of aid to Greece and Turkey in 1947 shored up endangered outposts at the gateway to two continents while making clear that America would resist Communist expansion. The Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO changed Europe from a source of alarming weakness to a pillar of Western strength. The revival of Japan and West Germany turned recent enemies into some of America’s best allies; the Berlin airlift kept another great European city from slipping entirely behind the Iron Curtain. The U.S. intervention in Korea prevented a collapse of the world’s psychological balance of power, while the subsequent buildup of American military strength reinforced the physical balance at a crucial time. Other initiatives, some famous and some now forgotten, allowed America to survive the early Cold War and thrive in the protracted struggle that followed.

“When history says that my term of office saw the beginning of the cold war,” Truman could brag as he retired in 1953, “it will also say that in those 8 years we have set the course that we can win it.”15 Indeed, the early Cold War is perhaps the best historical example of a successful danger-zone strategy. The specific policies America followed back then can’t simply be replicated now. But America’s experience does reveal four strategic insights about what crossing a danger zone requires.

FIRST THINGS FIRST

First, prioritize ruthlessly. Thinking clearly about where to bet big and where to conserve resources is always important; it can be a matter of life and death when the level of threat is high and the margin for error is low. The key is to prevent near-term breakthroughs that can dramatically shift the longer-term balance of power—and to make early investments that create lasting legacies of strength. The United States mostly obeyed this rule during the early Cold War, although doing so was harder than it seemed.

The basic problem, then as now, was that America was under pressure almost everywhere. In 1946–1947, the Truman administration faced crises along an arc of instability running from the Atlantic coast of Europe all the way to the Pacific. Communist advances seemed possible, even likely, in France and Italy, Greece and Turkey, Iran and Indonesia, China and Korea, and other locales. The question was how Washington would respond.

Truman gave one answer in March 1947, when he went before Congress to request roughly $400 million in emergency aid for Greece and Turkey, the former menaced by a Communist insurgency and the latter facing Soviet territorial demands and military coercion. “At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life,” Truman declared. The United States must “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”16

The stark phrasing was deliberate. “This was America’s answer to the surge of expansion of Communist tyranny,” Truman later wrote. “It had to be clear and free of hesitation or double talk.”17 The United States must rally domestic support for containment by vividly explaining what was at stake in the Cold War; it must signal that America would stand with countries resisting totalitarian aggression. But the implication of Truman’s message was that America would respond equally to Communist probes everywhere, and the president soon realized this was impossible. “Our resources are not unlimited,” he admitted. A refusal to economize anywhere would lead to weakness everywhere.18

Truman’s team spent much of 1947 hashing out which theaters of the competition were truly vital—where immediate setbacks might give Moscow a lasting advantage, and where wins today might give the West an enduring edge. The vital sites were Japan and, especially, Western Europe. If these two centers of industrial might fell under Soviet control, the entire global balance might tip in Stalin’s favor. If they could be revived and tied to the non-Communist world, the Kremlin would be at a grave, possibly insurmountable, deficit. “That means peace in the world, if we can get recovery in Europe,” Truman commented: The region was the center of gravity in the Cold War.19

Western Europe and Japan were crucial in another respect: They were the areas that most highlighted the asymmetry of U.S. and Soviet aims. For Moscow to gain the upper hand, it would have to control countries where most people preferred to remain free of Communist domination. For the United States to preserve its position, it had only to deny the Soviets that control. Washington could work with “local forces of resistance” to maintain their independence, as Kennan put it, whereas the Soviets had to work against them to snuff it out.20 This dynamic created a tremendous force-multiplier for America—an ability to capitalize on the exertions of free, friendly nations—that the Soviets never enjoyed.

The late 1940s saw a brutal sorting of commitments. The United States poured historic amounts of aid—equal to 5 percent of U.S. gross national product in 1948—into Western Europe and Japan.21 Washington thereby began the process of turning Tokyo into an anti-Communist bastion in the Pacific. Meanwhile, American officials made clear that they were willing to go to nearly any length—whether by unveiling the Marshall Plan or breaking with 150 years of diplomatic precedent by establishing a peacetime military alliance, NATO—to protect Western Europe. “If anything happens in Western Europe,” Acheson would comment after replacing Marshall as secretary of state, “the whole business goes to pieces.”22 There would be no uncertainty about the U.S. commitment: Any Soviet attack on Western Europe would mean all-out conflict with the United States.23

At the same time, Truman opted not to make an all-out effort to prevent Communist victories in places considered less important or promising. Case in point: Washington did little to prevent Mao’s Communists from defeating Chiang’s Nationalists, on the assumption that an underdeveloped, poverty-stricken China didn’t weigh heavily on the scales of global power. Truman also withdrew U.S. forces from South Korea, then an unstable, impoverished nation; Acheson publicly announced that the country was outside America’s defense perimeter in the Pacific. Not going all-out in peripheral areas was the cost of being effective at the core of the Cold War.24

It wasn’t always easy to distinguish between vital and secondary areas. America could not rebuild Europe without ensuring that Middle Eastern oil remained in friendly hands—or rebuild Japan without protecting its access to markets and resources in places such as Indochina.25 The fall of China to Mao’s forces in 1949 may not have been a strategic disaster for America, but it was a political disaster for Truman, who then became less willing to write off other exposed positions in Asia. That reluctance, in turn, led to a gradual expansion of U.S. commitments and led America down a long road to tragedy in Vietnam.

A more immediate problem was that announcing what the United States would not defend could entice enemies to advance there—and that nonvital interests could suddenly become vital when they were attacked. This is what happened in Korea. Acheson’s declaration that South Korea was on its own in January 1950 helped persuade an opportunistic Stalin to approve the North Korean invasion in June. To Stalin’s surprise, Truman then decided to enter the fray. He did so not because South Korea itself was vitally important (it wasn’t), but because a failure to thwart blatant aggression there might shatter the confidence Washington was seeking to build in more important areas. “You may be sure that all Europeans to say nothing of the Asiatics are watching to see what the United States will do,” one State Department official wrote: The United States could hardly build a stable geopolitical balance if Stalin’s minions simply destroyed the psychological balance.26

Truman’s decision to intervene was the right one: It saved South Korea from destruction and reassured anxious allies that the West was not entering another age of appeasement. “Thank God this will not be a repetition of the past,” the French foreign minister exclaimed.27 Unfortunately, it also consigned the United States to fighting a bloody, draining conflict in a strategic backwater—a conflict that would escalate dramatically when the United States tried and failed to reunite the entire peninsula in late 1950.

For the most part, though, the administration kept its eye on the ball. Truman and Acheson used the sense of emergency fostered by an out-of-the-way war to fortify America’s position in more crucial theaters: At the height of the fighting in Korea, the United States dispatched four additional divisions of troops to Western Europe and concluded a peace treaty and security pact with Japan. That country, Acheson explained, was “the heart of the whole Far Eastern situation.”28 As Korea showed, a superpower can never concentrate on just one problem: Sometimes an enemy does something so shocking and brazen that it demands action in an unexpected place. But getting through a danger zone requires prioritizing areas where the near-term consequences of weakness could be catastrophic—and the long-term benefits of strength can be transformative.

ROUGH AND READY

Second, combine strategic purpose with tactical agility. A period of high tensions is no time to be wandering without aim, but neither is it a time to be rigid and dogmatic. When caught in the danger zone, a country needs clear, well-articulated objectives, as well as a rough-and-ready approach to achieving them. It should make the most of good-enough solutions—and friends—that are available today, rather than waiting for ideal ones that may not come along until too late.

Kennan knew this well. The PPS director was at the center of a massive strategic planning effort in the late 1940s. Kennan’s PPS was charged with sorting out priorities and defining long-range goals. The Joint Chiefs of Staff conducted detailed studies to determine which areas were most important to American security. From all this emerged a clear, elegant strategic concept: America would hold the Soviet Union in check until its internal weakness brought it down, and it would do so primarily by building positions of Western strength along the Kremlin’s Eurasian flanks. America’s goal, stated Marshall, was “the restoration of balance of power in both Europe and Asia,” and “all actions” would be viewed in this light.29

Yet Kennan also realized that dexterity would be required to stay on top of a dynamic rivalry. Just weeks after taking charge at the PPS, he had already concluded that it was impossible to come up with perfect answers to an avalanche of problems. “The only way we could ever hope to solve them would be if we could persuade the world to stand still for six months while we sit down and think it over,” he said. “But life does not stand still, and the resulting confusion is terrific.”30

What did this mean for U.S. policy? For one thing, speed was at a premium: American officials fast-tracked big initiatives. The Truman Doctrine involved a historic decision to aid Greece and Turkey and commit the United States to shoring up an endangered world. Which made it all the more noteworthy that Truman’s aides drew up the initial outlines of the plan in a few days, and then worked out the details over three hectic weeks, after British officials dropped a Friday afternoon bombshell by informing the State Department that a bankrupt London was leaving Athens and Ankara to their fate. The administration instantly grasped, as one British diplomat wrote, that “no time must be lost in plucking the torch of world leadership from our chilling hands.”31

American officials also had to get creative with the tools at hand. In early 1948, Italy’s future hung in the balance: A Communist electoral victory was a real possibility. In response, the CIA, the State Department, and other agencies mounted an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink campaign to keep Italians from voting their country into totalitarianism. Washington delivered bags of cash to favored politicians. The State Department orchestrated a letter-writing campaign by Italian-Americans to their families in the old country. The United States used newsreels, stamps, and prayer cards as vehicles for anti-Communist propaganda. American officials even arranged a strategically timed shipment of British coal to help head off economic and political disaster. “Every action of the U.S. will have a direct bearing on the outcome,” the U.S. ambassador wrote—so Washington must make the most of whatever weapons it had available.32

The same went for assembling the free-world coalition. Truman may have labeled the Cold War a contest between democracy and totalitarianism, but he never let the perfect be the enemy of the good in rounding up an anti-Soviet posse. In the late 1940s, America quickly pivoted from punitive military occupations of Japan and Germany—the countries that had just terrorized the world—to programs that rebuilt them as Cold War allies. In 1945, U.S. bombers had pulverized Berlin; in 1948, they kept its citizens alive through the allied airlift. Truman even used good Communists to check bad ones: After Stalin had a venomous falling out with Yugoslavia in 1948, Washington enlisted that Communist country as a tacit ally.

Not least, getting through the danger zone required sacrificing tradition for the sake of innovation. The best example of this was a departure so radical that it was opposed even by Kennan—the creation of NATO. That alliance was a strategic watershed: It signaled, as unambiguously as America’s constitutional processes allowed, that the United States was fully committed to the freedom of Western Europe.33 NATO was not, however, part of any grand American plan.

As late as early 1948, the Truman administration had no intention of creating an “entangling” peacetime alliance. NATO was a European idea pressed upon U.S. officials. It was also a frantic response to fast-breaking crises—namely the Czech coup in February 1948 and the Berlin blockade in June—that terrified the Europeans and convinced the Truman administration that nothing short of a formal defense treaty could buck them up against Soviet pressure. The Soviets were becoming more aggressive; the chances of war were rising. Only through unprecedented steps could America hold the line. The Europeans were “ ‘completely out of their skin, and sitting on their nerves,’ and hope must be recreated in them very soon,” Marshall said.34

Re-creating that hope required overcoming one of the most venerable aspects of America’s strategic heritage—the idea, as an isolationist senator had once put it, that “we want America for Americans and Europe for Europeans, and that is a good American doctrine.”35 It would also require working feverishly, in the years that followed, to change NATO from an alliance that existed mostly on paper to a military coalition that could put up a serious fight against Soviet aggression. The United States generally knew what it wanted in the late 1940s—a stable, secure Western Europe—but had to be flexible in figuring out how to get it.

American officials weren’t just making things up as they went along. Yet the most important initiatives, such as NATO, were often improvised solutions to imminent problems. The United States used the tools it had to prevent an unstable situation from collapsing entirely. It relied on new and sometimes motley crews that came together in unusual circumstances. It moved with urgency and adaptability in meeting pressing threats. If the Truman years are now remembered as a golden age of policy innovation, it was because Washington thought deliberately—and acted quickly.

RISKY BUSINESS

Third, a little offense is the best defense. Danger-zone strategies involve taking the fight to the enemy by probing its weaknesses or throwing it off-balance. They require bold measures to close off potentially fatal vulnerabilities. But every step must be measured, because heedless provocation can be deadly. The key is to take calculated risks—and avoid reckless ones that convince a rival it has no better option than to go for broke.

This calculated risk-taking infused U.S. policy, because the only way to protect the free world was to make moves that antagonized powerful enemies.36 Launching the Marshall Plan meant kicking obstructionist, fifth-column Communist ministers out of Western European governments, and thereby incurring the wrath—in the form of strikes, riots, and violence—of the radical Left. Undertaking the Berlin airlift, after Stalin cut off ground and rail access to that isolated city, meant gambling that the Soviets would not shoot down American planes or take advantage of the West’s military weakness. The Truman administration decided, correctly, that these risks were worth running, because weakness could prove more provocative than strength, and because U.S. intelligence analysts doubted that Moscow would start World War III until it had recovered from World War II.37 But the experience underscored an inherent dilemma of danger-zone strategy: There is no entirely safe course of action.

This was why the United States did something even more forward-leaning: It tried, albeit modestly, to undermine the Soviet bloc. In the early days of the Cold War, American officials believed that harried efforts to shore up Western positions had to be paired with selective efforts to weaken Soviet positions. U.S. policy, explained Kennan, involved “holding our own world together” and “increasing the disruptive strains in the Soviet world.”38

To that end, the United States initially offered Marshall Plan aid to Eastern Europe as well as Western Europe—the calculation being that a hyper-suspicious Moscow would force the satellite states to decline and thereby destroy its own moral authority in the bloc. Washington subsequently beamed radio broadcasts into Eastern Europe to play up the crimes and failings of the Soviet-backed regimes. It waged economic warfare, denying Moscow critical goods that might feed its war machine. The U.S. and UK intelligence services even dropped paramilitary operatives behind the Iron Curtain in hopes of stirring up violent resistance. The last initiative was eventually ditched because it produced too much provocation at too little benefit. But traversing the danger zone meant finding ways of putting the enemy on the defensive.39

American risk-taking became most pronounced, ironically, after a gamble that went awry. During the late 1940s, Truman had kept military expenditures far below what his military chiefs deemed prudent. But Moscow’s success in developing the A-bomb in 1949 shifted that calculus. The United States, a highly classified report known as NSC-68 concluded in April 1950, might face a “year of maximum danger” as soon as 1954. When North Korean forces, with Stalin’s blessing, invaded South Korea two months later, Truman concluded that the Communists would “now use armed invasion and war” to subjugate their enemies.40

U.S. forces blunted, at heavy cost, North Korea’s drive down the peninsula. In September, General Douglas MacArthur turned the tide with a brilliant amphibious landing behind North Korean lines. Truman then allowed MacArthur to race north toward the Yalu River, hoping that he could reunify all of Korea without provoking Chinese or Soviet intervention. The wager did not pay: In late 1950, Mao’s forces jumped overextended American units near the Chinese border, inflicting one of the worst military defeats in U.S. history and casting the shadow of a new global war. If such a conflict erupted, warned General Omar Bradley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “we might be in danger of losing.” 41 It was now clear, as NSC-68 had argued, that America must urgently close the window of vulnerability that had opened wide.

From 1950 onward, the United States would settle for a ferocious draw in Korea while undertaking a massive military buildup and a worldwide diplomatic offensive. Pentagon spending nearly quadrupled, the American atomic arsenal roughly tripled, and the size of U.S. conventional forces more than doubled.42 Washington sealed military alliances with Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines. It sent more troops and planes to Europe and assigned General Dwight Eisenhower to whip the alliance into a real fighting force. Truman and Acheson even brought West Germany—the country that had invaded and savaged the Soviet Union a decade before—into NATO and began preparing to rebuild its military. All of these measures would anger the Soviet Union. But as Acheson put it, “the only thing that was more dangerous than undertaking this program was not undertaking it.” 43

Indeed, it is hard to overstate the impact that Korea had on American strategy. Things that were not possible before, whether dramatic growth in U.S. military spending or the rearmament of former aggressors, became possible amid global crisis. Previous political and diplomatic constraints on American policy fell away. “Korea saved us,” Acheson later remarked: The United States capitalized on the sense of shock and urgency created by autocratic aggression to make investments that ultimately strengthened its position nearly around the globe.44

Yet American risk-taking was not limitless. It could be counterproductive to threaten or corner the Soviet Union too fully—to make it feel that it had no choice but to use force. Stalin might opt for war, U.S. analysts had written in 1948, “when the Soviet Government is convinced that measures short of war will fail to secure its objectives.” 45 This made a careful balancing act essential: The United States had to make the free world more resilient, while avoiding moves that might encourage a now-or-never mentality in Moscow. The experience of 1941—when the American oil embargo convinced Japan to wage war immediately, before the United States was ready—was not one Truman wished to repeat.

This prospect acted as a brake on U.S. policy in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The United States never tried to roll back the Soviet bloc in Europe militarily: The likelihood of starting a major war was just too great. When it came to rearming the free world, American planners envisioned a carefully constrained West German military that could only operate within NATO, rather than a fully rearmed, autonomous West Germany that could pose “a grave threat to the security of the USSR.” 46 Most important, while Truman occasionally mused in private about issuing ultimatums to the Soviets, in public his administration shut down every argument that it should deal with a hostile, aggressive Soviet Union by bringing matters to a head.

When Winston Churchill argued that the United States should threaten the Soviet Union with nuclear destruction if it didn’t evacuate Eastern Europe in 1948, and when Douglas MacArthur called on Truman to dramatically escalate the war against China in 1951, the response was the same. “The whole purpose of what we are doing is to prevent world war III,” Truman explained.47 The aim of a danger-zone strategy was to strengthen the American position by taking necessary risks—not to bring on the apocalypse by taking foolish ones.

Nor, for the same reason, did Washington fully close the door to diplomacy. Truman believed that there was little hope of reaching a comprehensive settlement with the Soviets. But diplomacy could still play a role in American strategy. It could assure Soviet leaders that the United States did not want war even as it built up the free world. It could de-escalate crises once Washington had showed it could not be bullied. In 1951, for instance, after U.S. and allied forces had stopped the Chinese onslaught, talks between American and Soviet diplomats began the long, painful process of ending the Korean War.48 If the United States could “create strength instead of weakness,” Acheson remarked, then one day the Soviets would “recognize facts.” 49 Until then, even episodic diplomacy could buy time for American strategy to work.

GETTING TO THE LONG GAME

This relates to the fourth and final lesson. Danger-zone strategy is about getting to the long game—and ensuring you can win it. A smart danger-zone strategy won’t necessarily allow you to defeat a tough competitor quickly. But it can build a bridge to a more manageable stage of the rivalry, while creating advantages that pay off in the end.

At the end of Truman’s presidency, this was starting to happen. Only a half-decade prior, the Soviets had a plausible path to victory in the Cold War. As two French officials described that scenario, a demoralized capitalist world would fall into a “profound depression,” which would cause Washington to turn inward. European economies would “disintegrate” and “economic, social and political chaos” would follow. This “catastrophe” would allow the Soviets “to take over the Western European countries with their well-organized Communist Parties.”50 America would wake up one day to a hostile Eurasia. This nightmare seemed real enough in 1947. Within years, however, America and its allies were blocking Moscow’s axis of advance and establishing patterns of strength that would one day deliver Western triumph.

By the early 1950s, Western Europe was recovering economically and regaining its self-confidence. NATO was emerging as a powerful bloc of democracies. On the other side of Eurasia, Japan was beginning its remarkable run of postwar prosperity. And while the post-1950 military buildup never gave Washington outright military dominance, it did create what Eisenhower called a “real deterrent to aggression” by ensuring that the Soviets would have to pay an apocalyptic price to wage war against the West.51 The free world, an assessment by the National Security Council concluded, now had “such strength” as to prevent decisive Soviet advances—and perhaps, over time, to “cause that system gradually to weaken and decay.”52

Nothing was guaranteed. The Korean War and Truman’s military buildup had raised defense spending to an eye-popping 14 percent of GDP, a rate the incoming Eisenhower administration thought might bankrupt the country.53 Some of the most hair-raising Cold War crises would come in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Nikita Khrushchev sought—again—to force the West out of Berlin and stationed nuclear missiles in Cuba. As the Cold War spread into the Third World, there would be quiet struggles, gruesome proxy wars, and high-stakes crises. The Cold War never ceased being a dangerous, demanding competition. For decades, it would test American power, strategy, and resolve.

There were even times when the outcome seemed very much in doubt. In the 1970s, American alliances were under strain, and the free-world economy was reeling from oil shocks and other disruptions. Moscow had run off a series of victories in the Third World, while Washington had suffered embarrassing defeats in locations from Vietnam and Angola to Iran and Nicaragua. Soviet military power had continued to grow: Some American strategists worried about a new “window of vulnerability” in which Moscow might batter and bully its enemies. Predictions of American decline were ubiquitous. Even those officials, such as Ronald Reagan, who were most confident in America’s long-term prospects never took it for granted that the United States would win the Cold War.

But whatever the challenges of this period, America’s danger-zone strategy had succeeded in one fundamental respect: Never again would the balance of power be as precarious as it was in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, had lambasted Truman’s policies during the 1952 campaign, but in private, he acknowledged that America’s alliance system had “staked out the vital areas of the world” and tied them to Washington.54 Periodic crises notwithstanding, the free world had now laid the basis for sustained economic dynamism well beyond anything the Communist world could offer: By the 1980s, per capita income in the West was nine times greater than in the Soviet bloc.55 The balance of power remained fluid; the Soviet Union could still menace the free world. But Moscow’s odds of decisively winning the contest were mostly decreasing over time.

Two other important things happened as the United States crossed the danger zone. One was that America could downshift: It could move from an extremely high-cost strategy geared toward meeting a point of maximum peril to a somewhat lower-cost strategy geared toward meeting a less acute but ongoing challenge. By the end of the 1950s, American defense spending had fallen to around 9 percent of gross national product. On average, it continued to fall over the rest of the Cold War.56

The other development was that it became possible to occasionally decrease U.S.-Soviet tensions. Stalin’s death in March 1953 brought the period of greatest Soviet hostility to the West to an end. By the mid-1950s, the superpowers had started negotiations to control the arms race. During the 1960s and after, Moscow and Washington would agree to limit nuclear testing, cap their nuclear arsenals, and reduce the chances of confrontation in a few hot spots. They would even cooperate to eradicate smallpox and limit the spread of nuclear weapons. Tensions still rose and fell; during the late Cold War, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists placed the hands of its famous “doomsday clock” at just two minutes to midnight. But in retrospect, the Cold War was becoming a “long peace.”57

It would stay peaceful even as the Soviet Union finally hit the terminal decline Kennan had predicted. By the 1980s, the Soviet growth model was exhausted. Communist ideology was discredited; the regime had become a corrupt gerontocracy whose legitimacy was draining away. Under Reagan, a U.S. geopolitical assault—the counteroffensive following the setbacks of the 1970s—was pressuring exposed Soviet positions in the Third World, increasing the regime’s moral and diplomatic isolation, and shifting the balance of military power and geopolitical momentum decisively in the West’s favor. Wrote one U.S. intelligence official, “History is no longer on Moscow’s side—if it ever was—and Soviet leaders sense they lack the wit, the energy, the resources, and above all the time, to win it back.”58 Yet if the resulting fears made Soviet leaders anxious and prickly, they ultimately accepted that decline, choosing, under Mikhail Gorbachev, to negotiate the terms of geopolitical surrender to the West rather than lashing out against it.

This was in part because American leaders, especially Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, took pains to avoid humiliating a superpower in distress, even as they happily pocketed its concessions. A Soviet Union that changed its behavior, slashed its military arsenal, and tore down the Iron Curtain, Reagan and Bush reassured Gorbachev, would not be attacked: It would be welcomed back into the world community.59 Yet this achievement also happened because the “situations of strength” that Truman, Acheson, and their successors had built meant that the Soviets had no feasible options for improving their position through war.

Germany could dream, in 1914, of a short, victorious conflict that would set its enemies back a generation. Its leaders could hope, however unrealistically, that Britain might stay out of a continental war. The Soviets, by contrast, confronted a ring of free-world alliances that were backed by decades of U.S. military investments and countless public affirmations that Washington would fight to defend its friends. These pledges were all the more credible thanks to the U.S. buildup of the Reagan era, which made it impossible for Soviet leaders to imagine that conflict would result in anything but catastrophic defeat.60 The United States avoided a hot end to the Cold War because it reduced the desperation a declining Soviet Union felt, while also destroying any hope that a gamble for resurrection might succeed.

Prioritize ruthlessly; thwart near-term breakthroughs that can have devastating long-term effects. Be strategically deliberate and tactically agile; don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. Firm up the defense by playing some offense; take prudent risks but not unduly provocative ones. Think of danger-zone strategy as something that helps you win in the future by avoiding disaster in the here and now.

These insights from an earlier era are again becoming very relevant. The United States can’t simply go back to the Cold War playbook for every policy: Run away from anyone who tries to tell you that the answer to a bellicose China is a “new Marshall Plan” or an “Asian NATO.” But America will need a strategy that reflects the larger lessons of one Cold War if it hopes to make it through another today.

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