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The Soviet-American Conflict: A Strange Phenomenon

ISSUE:  Autumn 1984

From its beginnings in the late 1940’s America’s Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union has rested on images of danger—what Walter Lippmann once described as “pictures in our heads.” Animated generally by feelings of hostility, U.S. officials have at times exaggerated the perils to this country’s security in events which implicated the Kremlin. It was this tendency in official perception that permitted the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a region of no historic American concern, to inaugurate a conflict over beliefs and intentions so intense that it soon threatened the whole international order with catastrophe. Marshall Shulman, director of Columbia University’s W. Averell Harriman Institute for Advanced Study of the Soviet Union, has likened the post-Afghan international climate to that produced by the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. Former Ambassador to Russia Malcolm Toon has called relations with the Soviets worse than at any time since World War II. Reports from Moscow reveal that the Russians view the present state of Soviet-American relations with equal anxiety. Perhaps the grimmest assessment comes from Soviet expert George F. Kennan. Writing in the Oct.3, 1983, issue of The New Yorker, Kennan observed that public discussion of Russian-American relations had created the impression that a military showdown remains the only means of settling differences worth considering. “Can anyone mistake, or doubt,” he asked, “the ominous meaning of such a state of affairs? The phenomena just described . . .are the familiar characteristics, the unfailing characteristics, of a march toward war—that, and nothing else.”

What measures the magnitude of the Soviet-American rivalry most visibly is the nuclear arms race. During the past quarter century, the United States has spent several trillion dollars for defense. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated that global military spending in 1982 alone reached no less than $700 billion, an acceleration over previous years caused largely by new levels in U.S. military expenditures. Nuclear weapons had acquired a momentum of their own, backed by the imperative that a nuclear power must exploit the scientific knowledge and technological capabilities at its command. Washington officials assumed, moreover, that the buildup of the American military establishment would contain Soviet expansionism and compel the Russians ultimately to accept some resolution of the Soviet-American conflict largely on Western terms.

Strangely American weapons, however numerous and destructive, have revealed no capacity to stabilize the Soviet-American relationship or to curtail those modes of Russian behavior that have sustained this nation’s fears and insecurity. Indeed, nuclear arsenals have proved to be quite irrelevant to the task of creating a stable international order. No one can predict with any accuracy what impact several thousand nuclear explosions would have on human society. Nuclear weapons might comprise a significant element in international life; yet governments must conduct their external relations with the realization that a nuclear war, even a limited one, would be so appalling in its consequences that no political or ideological objective could justify it. “Nuclear weapons,” Robert McNamara wrote in September 1983, “serve no military purpose whatsoever. They are totally useless—except to deter one’s opponent from using them.” Although instrumental in discouraging direct aggression against the status quo, America’s conventional power, like its nuclear armaments, has not been very effective in managing international affairs.


In large measure the current fascination with the arms race assumes that weapons comprise the chief danger to civilization. Yet negotiations for weapons reduction are as unrelated to the essential purpose of reducing the danger of armed conflict as is the continued building of the American military establishment itself. Novelists, scientists, and scholars who describe the horrors of nuclear war seldom bother to explain its coming, and with good reason. Weapons may be troublesome, even dangerous, but they are not central to the status of war and peace. Weapons do not cause war; they determine only its nature. Despite their extensive preparations for war, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., through 35 years of high tension and mutual recrimination, did not confront one another with force. Indeed, the two superpowers did not even approach such a decision, and the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 was no clear exception. Historically nations have engaged in war not over competition for military supremacy but over conflicting purposes that engaged their perceived interests and transcended the possibilities of negotiated settlements. Overwhelmingly the wars of modern Europe involved contests over territory—the lands along the Rhine and the Baltic, the principalities of Germany, northern Italy, and the Balkans, or the strategic entrances to the Mediterranean. National ambitions were sufficiently specific to render most wars predictable.

It is true that the tragic confrontation between Europe’s two alliance systems in the summer of 1914 raised questions of national prestige far more than specific economic or security interests. Even then a generation of American and European analysts had predicted accurately that war would come to Europe over the clash of Austrian and Russian ambitions in the Balkans. At Versailles in 1919 British Prime Minister David Lloyd George observed that Germany’s predictable determination to recover the Germanic territories of East-Central Europe would set off another war. In February 1925, Sir James Headlam-Morley, historical adviser to the British Foreign Office, warned his government that the Vistula, not the Rhine, was the real danger point in Europe. In a prophetic memorandum to the foreign minister, Sir Austen Chamberlain, he posed a critical question:

Has anyone attempted to realize what would happen if there were to be a new partition of Poland, or if the Czechoslovak state were to be so curtailed and dismembered that in fact it disappeared from the map of Europe? The whole of Europe would at once be in chaos. There would no longer be any principle, meaning, or sense in the territorial arrangements of the continent. Imagine, for instance, that under some improbable condition, Austria joined Germany; that Germany, using the discontented minority in Bohemia, demanded a new frontier far over the Mountains, including Carlsbad and Pilsen. . . . This would be catastrophic. . . .

Hitler’s quarrel with Europe after 1937 always focused on specific territories where German ambitions were historic and predictable. America’s burgeoning conflict with Japan in the western Pacific over the future of East Asia was no less specific. Every contest in Europe and Asia was over ends, not means.

Unlike the major international conflicts of the past, that between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. suggests no areas where the two powers are clearly and unmistakably in opposition. Through more than 30 years of Cold War, Washington officials have insisted that the Soviet-American rivalry flows from the nature of the Russian regime and its global ambitions. Yet never have they framed a rational explanation of the presumed determination of Soviet leaders to extend their power across the world. Nor have they explained away the responsibility which Soviet leaders carry for the welfare of the Russian masses whose lives would be shattered by a general war. Despite the global fears that sustain the Cold War, the Soviet danger has remained so imprecise that no one has managed to define it. Nowhere—not in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, or Latin America—have the Russians revealed any ambition or interest of sufficient importance to merit military aggression or a showdown with the United States. What brought war to the world between 1939 and 1941 was a series of thoroughly predictable assaults on the treaty structures of Europe and Asia. Unlike Hitler’s Germany, the Soviet Union has not threatened to launch a direct military assault against any region regarded vital to the security of the United States and its Western allies. Kennan reminded a Washington audience in November 1983 of the absence of specific dangers in the Soviet-American conflict. “There are no considerations of policy—no aspirations, no ambitions, no anxieties, no defensive impulses,” he said, “that could justify the continuation of this dreadful situation.”

After mid-century, much of the Soviet-American rivalry invaded the Third World, where subversion and revolution seemed to offer the Kremlin untold opportunities to extend its influence at the expense of the West. Yet nowhere outside Europe did Soviet behavior in support of revolution create dangers precise enough to invite even one threat of military retaliation. Revolutions, invariably indigenous and historic, permit little gain to those who support them. The very nationalistic impulses and objectives that unleashed the postwar upheavals across the Afro-Asian world erected formidable barriers against external influences, whether they emanated from the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. Washington’s counterrevolutionary efforts, designed to contain perceived Soviet expansionism, never engaged the U. S. S. R. directly simply because the success or failure of Third World revolutions never delineated any interests, either Russian or American, whose defense was worth the risk of a direct military confrontation. The Kremlin’s reluctance to expose its troops to death and destruction in regions beyond Russia’s periphery measured its limited interests in the Third World. The Soviet challenge to American will in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean had little relevance to Russia’s strategic capabilities; the Kremlin, in practice, limited its ambitions to what its comparatively modest exports of weapons and advisers could achieve. Such aid might sustain unwanted revolutionary activity and create perceptions of acute danger among Washington officials; in the absence of any Russian military presence it could hardly comprise a reason for war.

History reminds us that the causes of war can be trivial. The Great War of 1914 revealed a horrifying disparity between the causes of war and the war itself. That war bled a generation of Europeans white, destroyed three venerated European dynasties, produced a vindictive peace, and set the stage for another giant war. Nothing at stake in 1914 could justify a war with such endless and exorbitant consequences. Unfortunately, the issues that sustain the Soviet-American rivalry lend themselves to no better definition than did those which divided Europe in 1914. None of them have any significance comparable to the cost of the war that the United States is preparing to fight. Thus in many respects the world of the 1980’s is perilously similar to that of 1914, with the leading powers arming for a war that nobody wants and over issues that few consider critical. “We are trapped,” wrote Thomas Powers in the January 1984, issue of The Atlantic Monthly, “in a tightening spiral of fear and hostility. We don’t know why we have got into this situation, we don’t know how to get out of it, and we have not found the humility to admit we don’t know. In desperation, we simply try to manage our enmity from day to day.”


To understand the many peculiarities in the Soviet-American conflict, most of them quite unprecedented in modern times, requires an examination of the conflict at its source. What dangers, first perceived in the late 1940’s, compelled the U.S. to spend trillions of dollars for defense without apparently acquiring any real sense of security? The remarkably successful Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan stabilized the periphery of Soviet power from Western Europe to Iran and established the foundations of Europe’s astonishing recovery. Still the world of 1948 did not conform to this nation’s postwar vision at all. The United States had not achieved peace on Western terms. Whether contained or not, the U.S.S.R. continued to loom as a mighty barrier to the fulfillment of the American century—a world organized at last in accordance with Western liberal-democratic ideals. Not only did the Soviet Union defy American principles of self-determination in Eastern Europe, but also it proclaimed an ideology that challenged totally the American quest for a single world community of trade, investment, and political cooperation. When Soviet ideologue Andrei Zhdanov, in the summer of 1947, divided the world into two competing ideological camps, some American officials no longer viewed the struggle with the U.S.S.R. as one of keeping the Russians out of Western Europe and the eastern Mediterranean; that struggle had now become a global confrontation between communism and freedom, one unlimited in scope and magnitude.

Essentially this broader, less precise, definition of the Soviet danger attributed the Kremlin’s expansionary power less to Russian armies than to Russia’s control of international communism and its devotion to the Marxist-Leninist advocacy of world revolution. Thus the immediate threat to Eurasia did not lie in Russia’s military capabilities but in the chaotic economic and political conditions that prevailed through much of Europe and Asia. The political and social turmoil in India, China, Indochina, and the Dutch East Indies, the economic paralysis of Germany and Japan, the Communist movements in France and Italy, and the collapse of most traditional sources of international stability seemed to present the Kremlin unprecedented opportunities for ideological exploitation. The doubtful viability of liberal ideas and capitalist institutions in a revolutionary world suggested that much of Eurasia and its resources might still escape the West and fall into the clutches of the Kremlin. President Harry S. Truman furthered the tendency to view the Soviet challenge as primarily one of ideology when he failed to distinguish between the generally abstentionist policy of the U.S.S.R. and the Communist-led assault on the Greek government. Washington’s central Cold War assumption attributed to Russia the unprecedented capacity to expand without direct armed aggression and to advance its power and influence in regions far beyond the reach of Russian armies. Thereafter it mattered little whether Soviet forces or even Soviet officials were present at all.

By 1948 U. S. officials could detect no visible limit to Soviet power and ambition. The National Security Council’s study, NSC 7, dated March 30, 1948, emphasized the Soviet challenge’s global dimensions. Declared NSC 7:

The ultimate objective of Soviet-directed world communism is the domination of the world. To this end, Soviet-directed world communism employs against its victims in opportunistic coordination the complementary instruments of Soviet aggressive pressure from without and militant revolutionary subversion from within. . . . The Soviet Union is the source of power from which international communism chiefly derives its capability to threaten the existence of free nations. The United States is the only source of power capable of mobilizing successful opposition to the communist goal of world conquest.

With its control of international communism, the U. S. S. R. had engaged the U.S. in a struggle for power “in which our national security is at stake and from which we cannot withdraw short of national suicide.” The Soviet world, ran the document’s catalog of Russia’s recent gains, “extends from the Elbe River and the Adriatic Sea on the west to Manchuria on the east, and embraces one-fifth of the land surface of the world.” The supposition of NSC 7—and subsequent national security documents culminating in NSC 68 of April 1950—that the U.S.S.R. could gain control of vast areas of the globe without resort to direct armed aggression accounts for the burgeoning dichotomy between the gigantic fears of Russian expansionism, shared by countless Americans, for which no defense seems adequate, and the absence of any discernable Soviet military threat, reminiscent of Hitler’s Germany, outside the Russian periphery.

That dichotomy became more pronounced with the passage of time. President Dwight D. Eisenhower accepted the basic assumptions of NSC 68 when he warned the nation early in 1953 that it stood in greater peril than at any time in its history. Again the danger lay in the proposition that all Communist-led governments of the world were under the direct control of the Kremlin. On January 27, six days after he assumed his new office, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles informed a national radio and television audience: “Already our proclaimed enemies control one-third of all the people of the world. . . . At the end of the Second World War, only a little over seven years ago, [the Soviets] only controlled about 200 million people. Today, they control 800 million people and they’re hard at work to get control of other parts of the world.” Even as the Eisenhower administration mounted a defense based on massive retaliation and thousands of nuclear warheads, the fears continued to mount. In June 1957, Walter S. Robertson, assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern Affairs, could tell the nation: “Starting from zero in our generation, the international Communists now hold in a grip of ruthless power 16 nations, 900 million people—a circumstance recently described by the Secretary of State as “the most frightening fact history records.”“

What lay behind the global fears of Russian expansionism during the Eisenhower years was the assumption that the U.S.S.R., by perfecting its international party organization and saturating the world with its appealing propaganda, had attained a totally unprecedented ability to conduct indirect aggression against the non-Soviet world. To check this strangulation of the West, the U.S. had no choice but to meet the Communist danger wherever it existed and prepare to roll it back. To accept the apparent Russian gains in Eastern Europe and Asia would merely broaden the base of Soviet authority and assure its further expansion. Secretary Dulles established the requirements of U.S. policy in Europe when he reminded the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April 1953 that Western security demanded clear assurances to the captive peoples of Eastern Europe that the U.S. did not accept their captivity as a permanent fact of history. “If they thought otherwise and became hopeless,” he said, “we would unwittingly have become partners to the forging of a hostile power so vast that it could encompass our destruction.” Elsewhere—wherever alleged Soviet control of Communist regimes appeared especially dangerous—the administration embarked on programs designed to eliminate the threats to global security. Toward China no less than toward Eastern Europe Dulles pursued the popular and promising crusade of liberation based essentially on the doctrine of nonrecognition. In Indochina the Eisenhower administration assumed after 1954 that the Saigon regime, with ample American support and encouragement, would eliminate the Communist threat of Ho Chi Minh. Clearly there was no room in a secure, stable international order for a Kremlin-dominated monolith with the unalterable will to dominate much of the world. For both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations the choices posed by Soviet expansionism appeared to be narrow indeed.


Actually neither administration believed the Soviet-American conflict beyond the capacity of the U.S. to resolve on Western terms. Both Democratic and Republican leaders assumed that the U.S.S.R. could not, in the long run, survive the pressures exerted by the successful containment of Soviet expansionism. Kennan made this comfortable prediction in his noted “X” article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” which appeared in the July 1947, issue of Foreign Affairs. After delineating the unprecedented dangers which the United States faced in Soviet power and paranoia, Kennan added his own rejoinder:

It is curious to note that the ideological power of Soviet authority is strongest today in areas beyond the frontiers of Russia, beyond the reach of its police power. . . . [W]ho can say with assurance that the strong light still cast by the Kremlin on the dissatisfied peoples of the Western world is not the powerful afterglow of a constellation which is in actuality on the wane? This cannot be proved. And it cannot be disproved. But the possibility remains . . .that Soviet power, like the capitalist world of its conception, bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.

Thereafter the assumptions of underlying Soviet weakness continued to determine the outlook—and ultimately the behavior—of American officials. So vulnerable appeared the Soviet satellite empire to overextension and fragmentation that even the goal of liberating that region seemed well within the reach of a countering strategy. Secretary of State Dean Acheson and other Truman officials believed that Western power had eliminated the need for negotiation with the U.S.S.R. Confronted with inflexible will over West Berlin, the Soviets had retreated. Following the show of Western unity at the Paris Foreign Ministers Conference in May 1949, Acheson announced that the West had gained the initiative in Europe and could thereafter anticipate Russia’s eventual capitulation. “[T]hese conferences from now on,” Acheson informed the press on June 23, “seem to me to be like the steam gauge on a boiler. . . . They indicate the pressure which has been built up. They indicate the various gains and losses in positions which have taken place between the meetings, and I think that the recording of this conference is that the position of the West has grown greatly in strength, and that the position of the Soviet Union in regard to the struggle for the soul of Europe has changed from the offensive to the defensive.” Settlements, when they came, would simply record the corroding effect of Western power on the ambitions and designs of the Kremlin.

However grave the danger described by NSC 68, that document, like its predecessors, assumed that the U.S., with “calculated and gradual coercion,” could unleash the forces of destruction within the Soviet empire. Even in war the country had no reason to curtail its overall objective of eliminating the Russian problem. Rather than pursue unconditional surrender in peacetime, however, the United States would seek Soviet acceptance of “the specific and limited conditions requisite to an international environment in which free institutions can flourish, and in which the Russian people will have a new chance of working out their own destiny.” In this purpose of trimming Soviet ambitions to the needs of Soviet citizens, the U.S. could anticipate support even within the U.S.S.R. “If we can make the Russian people our allies in this enterprise,” NSC 68 predicted, “we will obviously have made our task easier and victory more certain.” In the process of inducing change the U.S. would avoid, as far as possible, any direct challenge to Soviet prestige and “keep open the possibility for the U.S.S.R. to retreat before pressure with a minimum loss of face. . . .”

Dulles, like Acheson, assumed that the U. S. S. R. could not survive the pressures exerted by Western containment. Upon taking office in January 1953, Dulles proclaimed American purpose toward the Soviet bloc as that of creating “in other peoples such a love of freedom that they can never really be absorbed by the despotism, the totalitarian dictatorships, of the Communist world.” Upon Stalin’s death Dulles responded to Georgy Malenkov’s appeal for peaceful coexistence in the summer of 1953 not by encouraging the president to seek a more cordial, promising relationship with the U.S.S.R. but rather with assertions that the occasion had come for breaking Soviet control of Eastern Europe completely. He informed the Cabinet on July 10: “This is the kind of time when we ought to be doubling our bets, not reducing them—as all the Western parliaments want to do. This is the time to crowd the enemy—and maybe finish him, once and for all.” At the same time Dulles assured the nation: “[T]he Communist structure is over-extended, over-rigid and ill-founded.” As oppressed populations demonstrated their spirit of independence, the secretary continued, the Kremlin “would come to recognize the futility of trying to hold captive so many peoples who, by their faith and their patriotism, can never really be consolidated into a Soviet Communist world.”

Dulles’ strategy of massive retaliation, he informed the nation in January 1954, would permit time and the human desire for freedom to work their destruction on the Communist enemy. “If we persist in the course I outline,” he promised, “we shall confront dictatorship with a task that is, in the long run, beyond its strength. . . . If the dictators persist in their present course, then it is they who will be limited to superficial successes, while their foundations crumble under the treads of their iron boots. . . .” The secretary interpreted the Soviet agreement on the neutralization of Austria in 1955 as evidence of Soviet weakness. Indeed, Dulles’ assumption that all acceptable Russian behavior reflected political necessity permitted him to maintain his posture of unrelenting hostility toward the Soviets as well as his predictions of an eventual Soviet collapse.

No less reassuring were the Eisenhower administration’s claims of impending success for its anti-Communist policies in China and Indochina. For State Department officials, nonrecognition alone carried the assurance of China’s liberation. As Dulles himself declared in June 1957: “We can confidently assume that international communism’s rule of strict conformity is, in China as elsewhere, a passing and not a perpetual phase. We owe it to ourselves, our allies, and the Chinese people to do all we can to contribute to that passing.” Repeatedly, administration spokesmen assured the American people of Ho Chi Minh’s coming demise in Indochina. In May 1957, President Eisenhower greeted South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem at the Washington airport. There he lauded the Vietnamese leader publicly for bringing to his task of organizing his country “the greatest of courage, the greatest of statesmanship. . . .” When Diem departed Washington on May 11, the two presidents issued a joint communique which “looked forward to an end of the unhappy division of the Vietnamese people and confirmed the determination of the two Governments to work together to seek suitable means to bring about the peaceful unification of Viet-Nam in freedom.” Such statements—and countless others like them—suggested that successful containment would in time undermine the Communist positions in Eastern Europe, China, and Indochina, enabling the West to dispose of the Russian challenge on its own terms.


That dichotomy of the Truman-Eisenhower years, between the assumptions of unprecedented danger and the promise of easy success, continues to govern the American approach to the Russian challenge in the 1980’s. President Ronald Reagan entered the White House in January 1981 committed to the reassertion of the country’s global leadership in response to the post-Afghan perceptions of an expanding Soviet threat. The new president defined the Russian danger at a White House news conference in late January 1981:

From the time of the Russian revolution until the present, Soviet leaders have reiterated their determination that their goal must be the promotion of world revolution and a one world socialist or communist state. . . . They have openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause; meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime; to lie; to cheat in order to obtain that. . . .

Reagan’s views of the Soviet. enemy contained no ambiguities which might demand further study or reflection. The Soviet Union, he charged, “underlies all the unrest that is going on . . .in the world.” Alexander M. Haig, Jr., the new secretary of state, shared the president’s somber view of the Soviet danger. At his confirmation hearings in early January 1981, he reminded members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “the years immediately ahead will be unusually dangerous. Evidence of that danger is everywhere.” The nation had no choice but to marshal its resources to shape the future. “Unchecked,” he warned, “the growth of Soviet military power must eventually paralyze Western policy altogether.” Again many in Washington attributed the unfortunate state of Soviet-American relations to the nature of the Soviet system and therefore unavoidable.

Under the assumption that Soviet expansionism was the single source of unwanted turmoil everywhere, Reagan was prepared to meet the challenge of Soviet-backed radicalism wherever it might appear. He decided early to convert tiny El Salvador into a major arena of Soviet-American confrontation. Reagan’s team knew long before inauguration day that Cuba and other Soviet bloc nations had shipped arms to Salvadorian guerrillas through Nicaragua. By launching a counter-offensive in El Salvador the administration could not only reassert American responsibility for hemispheric defense but also do so under conditions that would eliminate the danger of a direct American involvement. Haig met the challenge of El Salvador by quickly elevating that country to a symbol of world crisis. To Haig, Cuba and Nicaragua, as well as the Salvadorian rebels, were tools of the Soviet Union; he expected the Kremlin to control its clients or take responsibility for their behavior. Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in mid-March 1981, the secretary declared that El Salvador was one entry on “a priority target list—a hit list, if you will, for the ultimate takeover of Central America.” Unless the United States stopped the spread of Soviet-sponsored terrorism, he warned, “we will find it within our own borders tomorrow. . . . When you get to the bottom of the question, it is the Soviet Union which bears responsibility today for the proliferation and hemorrhaging of international terrorism as we have come to know it.” Nicaragua had already fallen under Soviet domination; El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were destined to follow.

As the strife in Central America continued into 1983 with no resolution of the alleged Soviet challenge in sight, the Reagan administration continued to remind Americans of the consequences of Russian success in building a bridgehead in the center of the hemisphere, “Our credibility,” the president warned, “would collapse, our alliances would crumble, and the safety of our homeland would be in jeopardy.” That spring Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger declared that the administration was determined to confront the Soviets in any part of the world it considered important. Failure to stop the insurgency in Central America, he said, would compel the U.S. to withdraw its forces from Europe, Japan, and Korea, leaving the entire Eastern Hemisphere to Soviet purposes. Time brought no respite. In mid-April 1984, President Reagan accused Nicaragua of joining the Soviet Union and Cuba in trying “to install communism by force throughout this hemisphere., .. We cannot turn our backs on this crisis at our doorstep.” Later that month the president warned a group of Hispanic Americans at the White House: “If Central America is lost, then our borders will be threatened. . . . A faraway totalitarian power is committing enormous resources to change the strategic balance of the world by turning Central America into a string of anti-American, Soviet-styled dictatorships.” That Russia was committing “enormous resources” to either the government of Nicaragua or the rebels of El Salvador was doubtful. War in Central America could involve the U. S. ; it would not involve the U.S.S.R.

Even as the Reagan administration detected a Soviet danger wherever instability reigned, it shared the earlier assumption that economic weakness assured Russia’s demise as a global threat. Time seemed to demonstrate that the Soviet Union could not afford both guns and butter; thus the Kremlin’s decision to produce guns in profusion limited the growth of the civilian economy. Russia’s economic progress, if substantial, had simply failed to match the far more impressive gains of the Western nations and Japan. Much of Russia’s nonmilitary industry was decades behind that of the other industrialized countries. Russia’s economic deficiencies were reflected in the bleak life style of the average Soviet consumer. Only in the military, where the Soviets spent some $200 billion a year, did the Soviet system work with some efficiency. Without its arsenal of nuclear weapons Russia would scarcely have the appearance of a superpower at all.

Russia had gained little in territory and international standing from its vast postwar military effort. It had no allies of importance; it could hardly trust its Eastern European satellites. Outside the Soviet sphere even small countries continued to stand up to the U.S.S.R. with surprising boldness. The concept of Finlandization assumed that the Russians could acquire dangerous influence over bordering states through the sheer magnitude of their military power, forcing those states to defer to Soviet wishes in a variety of ways. Actually Finlandization turned out to be an empty myth. The Soviets had almost no influence on the politics of Western Europe and Japan. They failed to establish the credibility of their power simply because neighboring countries doubted that the U.S.S.R. had sufficient interest in exerting such influence to threaten the use of force. So meager were the Soviet gains from the vast investment in military power that Kremlin leaders at times felt defrauded by their lack of success in achieving the prestige and influence that they believed would flow from their great power and wartime victories. Kremlin watchers saw danger not in the successes of Soviet expansionism but in its failure.

Russia’s internal weaknesses sustained the Truman-Eisenhower predictions that, in the long run, Russia could not survive the combined political, economic, and military pressures of the Western World. William Clark, formerly Reagan’s national security adviser, once termed the Soviet regime merely an evil episode in human history. Some Americans long regarded the notion of Russia’s superpower status a myth sustained by Soviet propaganda. How could a country be a superpower, they wondered, if it could not feed and satisfy the basic needs of its own people? It was not strange that some American officials, journalists, and academicians argued that the United States could shape Russia’s international behavior most assuredly by accelerating the demise of the Soviet system. As one American naval officer phrased it, “We must pursue policies which aggravate its condition until it bleeds to death from within.”

President Reagan and his advisers shared such convictions. The higher levels of American preparedness, the president promised, would produce long-desired changes in Soviet policy. The “astonishing” failure of the Russian economy, he said, presaged “the march of freedom and democracy which [would] leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history.” Haig would employ the issue of nuclear arms control, which touched Soviet interests directly, to modify the Kremlin’s ambitions in the Third World and terminate its support for wars of national liberation. To speed the Russian collapse, the Reagan team would supplement the buildup of American power with a program to deny Russia the benefits of Western trade, credits, and technology. Convinced that the U.S. possessed the power to undermine the Soviet economy, White House adviser Richard Pipes of Harvard University, in opposing economic cooperation with the U.S.S.R., asserted that Washington should compel the Soviet Union “to bear the consequences of its own priorities. We should not make it easier for the [ruling apparatus] to have its cake and eat it; to maintain an inefficient system . . . and build up an aggressive military force and expand globally.” More impatient Americans advocated a massive showdown to demonstrate Russian weakness and failure so dramatically that even the Kremlin leaders would have no choice but to acknowledge it. Such a crisis would compel the needed changes in Russia’s outlook, ambition, and behavior, and at last resolve the Cold War on Western terms. That course of action, if successful, would indeed offer the most appealing solution for the Russian problem—its total elimination without war.

Such attitudes were not lost on Soviet leaders. “The Russians I spoke to,” Thomas Powers reported after a trip to Moscow, “feel pushed and crowded.” Russians argued that the Soviet Union had “proven it is a power in the world; why can’t America accept this, and deal with it as an equal?” One Kremlin official reacted to the president’s anti-Soviet rhetoric: “He offends our national pride. How can we deal with a man who calls us outlaws, criminals, and the source of evil in the world?” Soviet spokesmen complained that the U.S. had never accepted Russia’s status as a great power with legitimate global interests of its own, never accorded the Soviet view of the world any genuine or consistent attention, never recognized Russia’s strategic parity with the U.S. or acted on the proposition that the two powers would live together or die together on this planet. Russians pointed to the endless ring of military bases surrounding the U.S.S.R. from Japan to Norway. What troubled the Russians above all was the widespread American assumption that in time the U.S. could eliminate the U.S.S.R. from world politics without war. Critics wondered how there could be genuine, long-term coexistence without some acceptance of Soviet legitimacy. Yet that acceptance, complained former Senator J. William Fulbright in October 1983, the U.S. refused to grant. “We seem unable,” he said, “to understand their history and culture. We have this tremendous lack of knowledge about them, and why they’re so sensitive about their borders, so difficult to deal with. We refuse to accept the idea that we can’t dominate them.” Kenneth Dam, Reagan’s deputy secretary of state, admitted that Washington, despite 35 years of Cold War, still knew and understood far too little about the Soviet Union.


In the long run, the U. S. faces the simple choice of eliminating the Soviet problem or coming to terms with it. The first alternative must lead to war because the West has no capacity to effect change in the Soviet system peacefully. If the U.S., despite successive and costly efforts, could not influence domestic conditions effectively in Vietnam, Iran, Lebanon, or El Salvador, it cannot do so in the Soviet Union. External economic pressure, however extreme, would demolish neither the Russian economy nor the Soviet political structure. The Moscow Politburo could experience an absolute economic decline over a period of years without collapsing. Whatever the cost of an arms race, Soviet leaders have the power to redeploy their country’s economic resources, restrict civilian consumption, enforce internal discipline, and create the necessary external dangers to mount whatever arms program they might favor. Throughout history the Russian people have demonstrated an amazing capacity for patience and endurance.

This country possesses no coercive options to compel changes in Kremlin behavior. Economic sanctions extreme enough to produce some discomfiture in Russian society would meet strenuous opposition in both the United States and Western Europe among influential elements who would reject any infringements on their economic well-being, whether the issue be grain sales or the construction of the Russian-based natural-gas pipeline. Both the U.S. and its European allies face too many economic problems of their own, including massive deficits, to carry the burden of sanctions aimed at the U.S.S.R. The U.S. no longer possesses the industrial and technological predominance that once permitted it to promote and manage the affairs of the non-Soviet world with astonishing success. Three decades of obsessive concern with the Soviet Union distorted the American economy and caused the country to lose much of its industrial lead—the true foundation of its economic greatness—to others. What challenges American primacy in world affairs is less the power of the U.S.S.R. than the capacity of Western Europe and Japan to outstrip the U.S. in major areas of industrial efficiency.

This country’s military establishment—the greatest in human history—is no more effective than its economy in coercing other nations. Largely unusable in the pursuit of day-to-day national objectives, American armaments could not remove the Russians from Afghanistan, the Cubans from Angola, or the Syrians from Lebanon. The price of attempting to do so would challenge the country’s rationality. American power has failed to prevent a myriad of Soviet actions, many condemned as dangerous and unacceptable, which fell below the threshold of a credible counterstrategy. Even great powers dare not squander their energies and prestige or act militarily where the requirements of success are questionable. Ronald Steele has warned: “We can dissipate our power by expending it on unattainable ends, demean it by using it unjustly, and trivialize it by applying it capriciously.”

If the U. S. cannot eliminate the Soviet system or determine the objectives that Russian leaders pursue, it must seek some accommodation. The improvement in Soviet-American relations, and with it the continued avoidance of war, demands above all on the recognition of Russia’s existence as a great power and the need to come to terms with. it. When Washington took the Soviet Union seriously, Nikita Khrushchev once admonished the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the two countries would get along. Perennial images of the Kremlin’s global ambitions, mixed with images of Russian weakness and decay, have rendered negotiations either too dangerous or too inconsequential. To view Russia as an “evil empire” and to combine disapproval of specific Soviet behavior that touches no vital Western interest with public condemnation serves no recognizable national purpose. The hurling of international insults may please some Americans; it does not impress Europeans or Asians, perhaps not even a majority of this nation’s citizens. It serves no greater national interest to transform animosity into closed communications bordering on nonrecognition. The nature of the Soviet power structure is irrelevant to the requirement of dealing openly and frankly with the Kremlin. “Like Mount Everest,” wrote Meg Greenfield in September 1983, “the Russians are there. And, like Mount Everest, their features are not exactly a mystery. We need to stop gasping and sighing and exclaiming and nearly dying of shock every time something truly disagreeable happens. We have to grow up and confront them—as they are.”

Negotiations between strong, determined powers are never easy. Accumulated fears and animosities render the task even more difficult. Yet, to avoid disaster, Soviet and American leaders must arrange some form of modus vivendi in the most literal sense. This might comprise explicit and verifiable treaties and agreements; it might entail written or unwritten understandings that define the limits of acceptable international behavior. We can only hope that in time the great powers can move beyond mere cohabitation of the planet toward more promising forms of cooperation, enabling the world to extend the possibilities of what has been one of the golden ages of history. The notion that the U.S. cannot and need not pursue such understandings reduces American foreign policy to the necessity of preparing the nation to fight the inevitable war under optimum conditions. Facing the narrow choice between accommodation and catastrophe, the government of the U.S. must travel the path to successful coexistence—not for a decade or even a century but for as long as human extinction is the possible price of war.


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